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IMHO Sunday: Doe$ the Helton investment justify the return?

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.

The investment and return: Clay Helton just had to know it was coming. He had to know that sooner or later his most recent tax returns (salary) would not only be released and become public, but they would be heavily scrutinized and would ignite the type of inquiry he would surely wish would either go away or just plain disappear. Who wouldn’t?


The investment and the return – Part 2: The Los Angeles Times has reported that Clay Helton had the highest reported salary among Pac-12 coaches in 2019-20, so when USC invests millions of dollars into Gentleman Clay to maintain its storied football program at the highest level, the core questions always return: Is the investment in Helton worthy of the product the coach produces, or simply put: Is USC getting the elite results that it’s paying for? After all, even Helton admits that “coaching is a production business.”

The investment and the return – Part 3: When speaking that coaching is a production business and for the record, Clay Helton has won just one Pac-12 title (2017) heading into his sixth full season (seventh season if you include his interim days), has an overall Trojans’ 45-23 head coaching record (18-13 the last three seasons), and a 2-3 post-season bowl record. And again, the question persists: Is Clay Helton worth the millions and millions of dollars annually invested in him as the USC head football coach?

After the latest release of tax returns, many are questioning if Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above) is giving the type of championship production based on his multi-million dollar contract.

The investment and return – Part 4: Filed by USC and obtained by The Los Angeles Times, federal tax documentation reveals that Clay Helton earned $4.813 million from USC and its related organizations from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020, “an increase of more than $244,325 over the previous fiscal year, when a contract extension, courtesy of previous athletic director Lynn Swann, boosted his salary by more than 40%.” According to The Times, “the extension bumped Helton’s pay from $3.2 million in 2017 to more than $4.5 million in 2018.” Man, if it’s all accurate, that’s a lot of Coliseum fish tacos and kettle corn.

The investment and return – Part 5: IMHO, don’t blame the coach for making as much dough as he possibly can and being amongst the leaders or the leader in the Pac-12 coaches bank account competition. Let’s be clear, Clay Helton didn’t hire himself; that controversial honor goes to former disgraced USC athletic director Patrick Capper Haden, who at the time rejected the highly popular and boisterous interim head coach Ed Orgeron, now at LSU, in favor of Pete Carroll’s former USC assistant coach and former University of Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian.

Fans are reminded that it was former USC athletic director Pat Haden (photo above), who selected former Pete Carroll USC assistant coach and former University of Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian over former USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron, now at LSU, to be Troy’s head coach.

The investment and return – Part 6: And if you’re going to hold Haden responsible for hiring Helton, you also have to shine the spotlight on Haden’s replacement, equally disgraced former athletic director Lynn Swann, who before eventually resigning (fired?) his position in 2019, did the aforementioned Helton contract extension. Blaming Helton for the decisions of the two previously dysfunctional and/or inept athletic directors would be like holding Gentleman Clay accountable for the direct cancellation of the Alabama and Notre Dame games last season due to COVID, which I am sure Helton didn’t lose any sleep over.

Clay Helton’s controversial contract extension through 2023 was provided by former Trojans athletic director Lynn Swann (photo above).

The investment and return – Part 7: Of course, there seems to always be a silver lining for Clay Helton, a man whose good fortune never seems to run out. In 2020, his team won the Pac-12 South Division, although it took two miracle comeback wins over Arizona State and Arizona, respectively, to be even in a position to win the division. Even for the upcoming regular 2021 season, Lady Luck has shined down on Helton’s Trojans for they don’t have to play defending Pac-12 champion Oregon or always physical Washington, which is about as fortunate as you can get in the Pac-12.

The investment and return – Part 8: Continuing on Helton’s silver lining of 2020, give the coach and his staff credit for rebounding from a horrendous recruiting class of 2020 to a Top 10 recruiting class of 2021. And the silver lining actually continued throughout the mini season because of the pandemic. There was no Coliseum home attendance in 2020 to monitor and react visually and vocally to Helton’s every move, especially in the Pac-12 title game loss to Oregon.

It’s expected that the Coliseum (photo above) will be ready for Trojans fans in 2021, many of whom will be voicing their opinions throughout the home games. (Photo above by John McGillen/USC Athletics)

The investment and return Part 9: In summation, is the investment in Clay Helton getting the required return in wins, championships, and positive public relations? The general Trojans fan base, many of whom reportedly have displayed their displeasure by not renewing their season tickets, has already put its thumbs down, but what USC president Dr. Carol Folt and her AD Mike Bohn think is the real intrigue. By the end of the 2021 season, we’ll all find out which direction their thumbs point. Again, after all, as Gentleman Clay repeatedly says, “Coaching is a production business.”

From the press box…

Coaching rankings: CBS sports has come out with its annual college football coaching rankings, which included the last COVID truncated 2020 season. In its recently released ranking of the top 65 college coaches, Clay Helton was nationally ranked No. 48, which by rankings also translates into the 7th best coach in the Pac-12. FYI, Helton was ranked ahead of Arizona (Jedd Fisch – No. 64), Washington State (Nick Rolovich – No. 58), Oregon State (Jonathan Smith – No. 56), Colorado (Karl Dorrell – No. 54), and Washington (Jimmy Lake – No. 51).

According to a new CBS Sports poll, Trojans head football coach Clay Helton (photo above) is ranked the 48th best head coach out of a possible 65 head coaches and is the 7th best head coach in the Pac-12.

Coaching rankings – Part 2: Of Clay Helton’s No. 48 ranking, CBS wrote, “Helton’s stock is fascinating to chart when it comes to our rankings. USC went 5-1 last season, reached the Pac-12 title game … and he falls seven spots in the rankings (from the previous year’s rankings). If you look at his overall record at USC (45-23 with a conference title), there’s no way he should be ranked this low, but that’s not how it’s viewed. Helton’s performance is compared to what a coach’s record at USC should be. He hasn’t done enough in the minds of our voters. 2020 rank: 41 (-7.).”

Coaching rankings – Part 3: For the record, the coaches ahead of Clay Helton in the CBS national coaching rankings were as follows: UCLA (Chip Kelly – No. 39), Cal (Justin Wilcox – No. 38), Stanford (David Shaw – No. 24), ASU (Herm Edwards – No. 21), Oregon (Mario Cristobal – No. 16), and Utah (Kyle Whittingham – No. 14).

In the CBS Sports college football coaching rankings, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham (photo above) was natonally ranked the No. 14 best overall college head football coach and No. 1 in the Pac-12.

Coaching rankings – Part 4: As per above, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham was ranked the top head coach in the Pac-12 and No. 14 in the country. Regarding Whittingham’s ranking placement, CBS writes, “The names of his players change, and even the conference in which they play changed that one time, but Whittingham’s results at Utah have been remarkably consistent. He’s won three Pac-12 South titles in the last six years, and the Utes were considered playoff contenders for a large portion of the 2019 season. There isn’t a program in the Pac-12 South that’s done a better job taking advantage of USC’s lack of success than Whittingham’s. 2020 rank: 11 (-3).

Coaching rankings – Part 5: If you support the CBS coaches ranking poll, it should be noted that Pac-12 No. 7 Clay Helton has a 4-2 winning record against Pac-12 No. 1 Kyle Whittingham. 

Despite the controversy and being ranked the 7th best coach in the Pac-12 by CBS Sports, Clay Helton (photo above) has a 4-2 winning record over Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, who was voted as the No. 1 coach in the Pac-12 by CBS Sports.

The Drive: Last week, your humble scribe had the pleasure of being on the radio with one of the SEC’s top radio sports programs, The Drive, on ESPN in Jackson, Mississippi, with popular host, Jake Wimberly, who said that college football needs all its elite blueblood programs like Alabama, Notre Dame, and “USC” to be running on all cylinders because they help make college football and its tradition great. No argument here.  

The Drive – Part 2:
Of course, Jake Wimberly’s number one question was what’s the current status of Clay Helton and what is the state of the USC program heading into the 2021 season. No question, those will be the questions before, during, and after the 2021 season.

The Drive – Part 3:
Wimberly predicted that the Trojans could go 11-1 and could be part of the College Football Playoffs.

Jake Wimberly of The Drive, an ESPN affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi, believes that the Trojans photo above) could go 11-1 and be part of the College Football Playoffs (CFP).


The Drive – Part 4:
Wimberly also inquired about the status of UCLA coach Chip Kelly and wondered if this would be a make-or-break season for the Bruins’ coach.

The Drive – Part 5:
To listen to the ESPN radio interview in its entirety, click below and then click on the arrow. https://jakewimberly.podbean.com/e/greg-katz-of-we-are-sc-joins-us-to-talk-usc-football/

The post-game show…

For the record: Last Monday, the Pac-12 university presidents approved immediate eligibility for undergraduates transferring within the conference. In other words, a hard-hitting linebacker for Oregon who faced the Men of Troy in 2020 could be starting for the Trojans in 2021. Warning, this is just an example and not a rumor of what’s to come.   

Cock-a-doodle-doo: Thus far, there’s no indication that the Trojans will be playing in a 9 a.m. kickoff in 2021. However, when Ohio State travels to play Oregon in Eugene on Sept. 11 in the second week of the season, the Buckeyes and the Ducks will be kicking off at 9 a.m. PT in Eugene, part of Fox’s Big Noon college football coverage.  Leaving out the COVID attendance restrictions question, will whacko Autzen Stadium be filled with blurry-eyed Ducks fans that early?

Autzen Stadium (photo above) will be the site of the Ohio State at Oregon football game that will kick off at 9 a.m. PT on Sept 11. Will the Trojans end up having a 9 a.m. kickoff either home or away in 2021?


Cock-a-doodle-doo – Part 2:
In his introductory presser, didn’t new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff say he was going to review kickoff times and scheduling? Perhaps King George didn’t have a say in the Ohio St./Oregon game since he is officially going to take control of the conference on July 1. Is the 9 a.m. kickoff at Oregon Larry Scott’s final sendoff gift to the conference, a conference that he so mismanaged.

Incoming Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff (photo above), who won’t begin his duties until July 1, said that one area he will take a look at are kickoff times for conference teams. Recently, Fox Sports announced that the Ohio State at Oregon game will kick off at 9 a.m. PT., which was made under current Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott.

The educated man: Former USC running back Stephen Carr will be playing for the Indiana Hoosiers next fall, but Stephen should be lauded and applauded for getting his USC degree before his departure to the Midwest. We wish him the best.

Former Trojans running back Stephen Carr (photo above) is expected to play for the Indiana Hoosiers in the fall, but he didn’t leave for the Midwest without a degree from USC.


Counting draft numbers:
If you think that the Trojans’ overall numbers were low for the 2021 NFL draft, it could be worse. Lowly Washington State hasn’t manufactured more than two picks in a lone NFL Draft in more than a decade.

To the point: Notre Dame has made vaccinations mandatory for students returning in the fall, which would include athletes. According to a spokesperson, Notre Dame is already 90% vaccinated. As for USC, the vaccine requirement for all on-campus students “will not take effect until the COVID vaccines receive ‘full approval’ from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, expected by late summer, before the start of the fall semester.” It should also be noted that USC is expected to allow for exemptions based on medical or religious grounds. 

Trojans’ arch-rival Notre Dame (photo above) has told students they must be vaccinated for COVID before attending the fall semester. USC is awaiting official world from the FDA before issuing a similar mandate for the fall.

The call-in show…

Caller No. 1: Mr. Katz, do you believe that Clay Helton is the highest paid football coach in the Pac-12?

Caller No. 1, if he isn’t, he is certainly deep in the conversation. First, being a private school, Stanford doesn’t divulge what it pays head coach David Shaw, although it’s believed to be quite substantial and near the top. According to information obtained by The Los Angeles Times, Helton earned $4.813 million from USC and its related organizations from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020. According to USA Today, during the same pay cycle, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham made $5 million, which would put him ahead of Helton and possibly Shaw. Behind Helton is ASU head coach Herm Edwards at $3,500,000 during the same cycle. Either way, Helton is at or right near the top of the Pac-12 football coaching salary structure.

Caller No. 2: GK, do you think that the College Football Playoffs will announce expansion in June and will include an automatic bid for the Pac-12 champion into the CFP post-season?

Caller No. 2, I certainly hope so, although if it’s instituted for the 2022 season, that would also be acceptable to me. You can’t have a national post-season playoff if all the Power 5 Conferences aren’t involved. It shouldn’t be this hard to figure it all out. Just expand and let’s move on. If there is expansion for 2021, no doubt it will inject much much-needed excitement for a “playoff” system that was beginning to become dull and too regionalized.    

Pac-12 fans are hoping that the College Football Playoffs (photo above of CFP winning trophy) will expand this upcoming season or in 2022 to automatically include the Pac-12 Conference champion.

Caller No. 3: G-Kat, do you think that Clay Helton is aware of his fragile coaching situation?   

Caller No. 3, I do. I think up until this season, thanks to the Lynn Swann extension of his contract until 2023, Helton probably felt he was safe, and that viewpoint was reenforced by USC athletic director Mike Bohn, who takes orders from USC president Dr. Carol Folt. However, Helton isn’t stupid. He understands that if the Trojans don’t win the Pac-12 title in 2021, that makes it one conference title in six seasons and no CFP post-season appearances. And you know what? Mike Bohn knows it, and I am sure it would become a talking point with Dr. Carol Folt after the season.   

Caller No. 4: Katzer, how do you think the Trojans will fare in recruiting running backs for the class of 2022?

Caller No. 4, you might want to ask OC Graham Harrell since he is the Trojans offensive coordinator and gameday play caller. Each week, during the 2021 season, Harrell will be showcasing his offense to recruits either in person or watching on the tube. Those running back recruits will see if the Trojans are dedicated to having or even capable of having a respectable running game. When you place last in Pac-12 rushing in 2020 and 10th in Pac-12 rushing in 2019, persuading running backs to play for the former “Tailback U.” can be quite a recruiting challenge.  

Much of USC’s rushing success or lack of it may rest in the direction that Trojans’ offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (photo above) wishes to take his passing offense.

Caller No. 5: Greg, I’ve read about and seen your condo from your pictures that you’ve run in your column. Any new additions lately to “your museum”?

Caller No. 5, so good of you to ask. I recently bought two Dodger Stadium yellow field box seats that I now have facing my 75-inch HD television. To add a little character to the seats, I have placed a stuffed Dodger Dog toy and a teddy bear in each seat, respectively. The Dodger Dog’s name is Frank Furter and the Bear is “Koufax.” A little silly I must admit, but it’s a fun hobby addition. BTW, I also have two old Coliseum seats in my entry way inhabited by two of those cardboard face cutouts (myself and my companion) used last season at Dodger Stadium as replacement fans.   

Two new editions to my living room are two former Dodger Stadium field box seats , which have two of my favorite friends, Koufax and Frank Furter (photo above L-R) ready to watch a game.

The last word: If you counted up the entire number of USC shirts, athletic or general logos, how many would you have currently in your possession?

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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