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Clay Helton appeared very likely to be fired, but will stay at USC

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USC was already being connected to other coaches, but Helton will stick around.

California v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

USC’ Clay Helton was on an ultra-hot seat. The Trojans’ head coach finished 5-7 this year (and 31-17 over four years), and his team lost three in a row and five of six — the most recent to rivals UCLA and Notre Dame. Heading into Saturday’s loss, “the coaching industry consensus” was that he’d be fired, SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey and Richard Johnson reported.

USC AD Lynn Swann felt differently, however, releasing a statement to announce Helton’s return for 2019.

Helton, 46, has been in charge since just before the midpoint of the 2015 season, when he stepped in as interim coach after Steve Sarkisian’s firing.

He’d also spent one game as interim coach at the end of 2013, after previous interim Ed Orgeron quit when he didn’t get the permanent head job.

Helton did get the long-term gig, despite going just 5-4 down the stretch. That was surprising, because USC could’ve gotten just about anyone. Helton’s players loved him, but his resume didn’t scream “USC head coach!” at you:

  • Former QB at Auburn and Houston
  • GA and position coach at Duke, Houston, and Memphis
  • Offensive coordinator at Memphis and USC, including three when USC’s offense didn’t put up special numbers at all

It was a bold, somewhat confusing (but not automatically bad) hire in the first place. The school’s in some ways still grappling with it.

Helton’s firing would’ve made some sense. His team underachieved with a stacked roster, with the worst of it coming this year.

USC has the fourth-best roster in the country, according to recruiting rankings, which are usually predictive of who’s going to contend for national titles. USC’s one of just about a dozen teams that has the talent history says you need to win it all.

USC’s roster could make the Playoff in 2019, as wild as that sounds for a team that’s been as mediocre as the Trojans this year. But it needs to be coached right.

Other (usual) names came up for the Helton’s job, plus one active coach the Trojans would have had good reason to go after.

Former USC player and Southern California native Jack Del Rio’s name came up, as it normally does with this gig. Same with Jeff Fisher’s. Those both happen every few years.

Penn State’s James Franklin has come up, too. Godfrey and Johnson explain why:

We’re told this isn’t Franklin’s camp stoking the fire.

He fits the intangible needs people in the industry think USC needs: he’s media savvy and could stand out in the Pac-12 as an aggressive personality, had some Los Angeles recruiting experience for Washington State and Kansas State, and has already repaired a national brand that had far more significant damage.

It’s not that Franklin wouldn’t listen if it came to it (he would), but right now the conversation is more armchair AD’ing than actual engagement. And for what it’s worth, Franklin, a Pennsylvania native, labored over the decision to leave Vanderbilt for Happy Valley in 2013.

But lots of coaches would’ve been interested. It’s USC.

Helton’s first year started terribly, prompting questions about whether USC would have to quickly pull the plug. But he rebounded, for a while.

USC began the 2016 season, his first full year in charge, by going 1-3. In the first three of those games, the Trojans started former five-star quarterback Max Browne, whom they might have worried about losing to a transfer if they’d benched. Browne struggled, so did the rest of the team, and USC lost two of its first three. It also lost the fourth, but in that game, redshirt freshman Sam Darnold started over Browne and played well.

The rest of that year is history. The Trojans’ early losses precluded them from the Playoff, but they didn’t lose another game. They beat Franklin’s Penn State in the Rose Bowl behind a record-breaking Darnold effort, in one of the greatest editions ever of that historic game. They went into 2017 with Darnold back and massive, championship-type hype.

Then USC resumed underachieving and has yet to fix it.

Darnold turned in a turnover-prone 2017 before leaving for the NFL. USC didn’t have a bye week in its 12-game schedule and lost a Friday night game at Washington State, in late September. Then it lost at Notre Dame in October, and its Playoff hopes were over. The Trojans managed just seven points in a boring Cotton Bowl loss to Ohio State, and their season didn’t have remotely the same feeling of growth 2016’s did.

They weren’t supposed to be special in 2018, either. S&P+ projected an 8-4 record. The Trojans lost four games in their first eight, though, and never threatened for anything important. They were starting a true freshman QB, and a young one even by that standard, in five-star J.T. Daniels, who reclassified late from the 2019 class. While this wasn’t supposed to be the year, USC was supposed to be a good bit better than it turned out to be.

The Trojans, missing bowl season, have had lots go wrong:

Out of the gates, they lost to a non-elite Stanford, then lost big against Texas. They saw a 14-point lead against Utah disappear in Week 8. They were down early to Arizona State, and in a see-sawing game couldn’t pull it out. They lost with a great defensive effort against Cal, and to a bad UCLA team as well.

Great programs have high ceilings, yes, but they also have really high floors. USC is not Stanford or UCLA or Washington. But since Pete Carroll left in 2008, the Trojans have won fewer than nine regular season games more times than they haven’t.

Helton hasn’t given the appearance USC is making progress.

After a loss to Herm Edwards’ Arizona State in Week 9, Helton said he’d hold off any making any big changes until after the season. A day later, he fired his offensive line coach, a longtime friend. The line was one of many units loaded with former blue-chip recruits, and one of many that didn’t play like it at all. The Trojans had settled in at a level that should never be acceptable for the recruiting kings of an entire geographic region.

Helton’s USC teams have never been terrible. But they have only rarely been great, and even then, their earliest errors kept a low ceiling on what they could achieve.