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IMHO Sunday: Elimination irony starts Helton decision clock ticking

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

IMHO: After CFP No. 6 Utah smashed Colorado, 45-15, on Saturday night to capture the Pac-12 South Division title and eliminate the CFP No. 22 USC Trojans’ dreams of a rematch in the conference title game against North Division champs Oregon, the great irony for the Men of Troy is that they beat every team in the Pac-12 South Division – including the highly-ranked Utes – yet couldn’t even win its own division. Mindboggling to say the least.

IMHO – Part 2: However, more important than the elimination from the Pac-12 South Division crown, the Clay Helton (cover photo above) employment coaching clock is now officially ticking. Does he go or does he stay? Lots of opinions, lots of intriguing unnamed sources, and an equal number of rumored scenarios, but somebody knows, and it’s USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn and USC President Carol Folt. By their upcoming decision in regard to their beleaguered head football coach, Bohn and Folt may be cementing their own athletic legacy that will last their tenure at Troy and beyond. Ask former AD Lynn Swann about going from a legendary USC football hero to a fallen cardinal and gold angel.

IMHO: Part 3: So, Clay Helton’s team finished 5-0 in the Pac-12 South Division, but 7-2 overall in conference. Those two conference losses? Have you already forgotten the embarrassing 56-24 defeat to ranked Oregon in the Coliseum on Nov. 2 and the 28-14 loss at mediocre Washington on Sept. 28? Both losses came at the hands of Pac-12 North Division teams. The good news is that the Trojans don’t play in the North Division. The better news, or maybe not so much so, depending on your position on the topic of Clay Helton’s employment, is we should all know within the next 48 long hours or less if Gentleman Clay is around for a fifth cardinal and gold season.

IMHO – Part 4: Some say the decision on Clay Helton’s future was based on the outcome of Saturday’s Utah/Colorado game, which we now know Utah won in a romp. One possible clue about Helton’s future may be coming from the recruiting world. Helton is telling recruits that he expects to be back next season, but then again, what would you expect him to say given the situation. Gentleman Clay did the same thing after last season, and he was correct about is job status. Has Mike Bohn already told the embattled coach that he is, indeed, returning to help kick-start the recruiting push?

IMHO – Part 5: Didn’t Mike Bohn say in his initial press conference he wanted Clay Helton’s team to finish strong? Well, in terms of numbers, they did finish perceptually strong by winning five of their last six games. Of course, those five wins came against Pac-12 teams that finished the regular season with a combined record of 27-33. Is Bohn willing to risk his long-term USC athletic administrator’s tenure – and you can include Dr. Folt as well – on Helton? Even more importantly, does the new athletic director and the new president want to infuriate beyond repair both the major boosters/donors and the massive USC fan base so early into their tenures? Is it worth it? If it were me, I wouldn’t risk it all on one coach who doesn’t even have the backing of the aforementioned variables and may be gone during next season anyway if he survives this post-season.  

New USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn’s (photo above) entire legacy could be cemented on how he handles the Clay Helton coaching scenario.

IMHO – Part 6: There’s little doubt that Trojans’ athletic director Mike Bone and Dr. Carol Folt think they have a tough decision to make. I don’t think they do. Yes, Clay Helton is a man of integrity, but he is clearly not a national championship coach or given any inclination that he will be in the future. I said before the season that the Trojans finishing 8-4 was the worst worst case scenario when having to make a Helton decision at the conclusion of this season. Ask yourself this question: Do you expect the Helton to eventually be a yearly 10-win or better coach in the coming seasons? I don’t. And it certainly won’t be that way in the future the way recruiting is going, which should be an alarm to all.

IMHO – Part 7: An 8-4 Trojans finish to the regular gives the perception that the program is on its way back. Back to what? The fundamental question that Bohn and Folt need to constantly ask themselves is simply this: In the big picture, is Clay Helton the right coach and leader to take the Trojans to a national championship? Gentleman Clay may be a national champion person, but he is paid millions of dollars to be a national championship college football coach. Is the return as good as the investment?    

IMHO – Part 8: To return to USC football greatness, the Trojans have to beat the elite teams of college football and not the rum-dums. Consider evidence that Helton’s program has a 4-8 record against top-10 teams and is 1-4 against Notre Dame. Beating an Arizona and a Colorado is one thing, but beating Ohio State, Alabama and Notre Dame – once a USC calling card – is quite another. This is a major talking point for Dr. Folt and Mike Bohn when deciding on Clay Helton’s future. When Bohn and Folt finally make their decision, they will also be letting everybody know what kind of commitment the University is making to its storied football program.

New USC President Carol Folt (photo above) and her new athletic director Mike Bohn must decide if they’re truly committed to having a national championship level football program and carrying on the tradition of great football teams. .

IMHO – Part 9: Sure, Clay Helton could possibly convince Mike Bohn that if he is retained, he will change his defensive coordinator and special teams coach. However, the one thing that would still remain is Helton himself. Not to sound insensitive about it, but it all starts at the top with the head coach. Up to this point, has Helton proven he can provide the leadership and direction to win a national championship or is that simply a rhetorical question? I would say the latter.

IMHO – Part 10: I don’t believe a Helton change in defensive coordinator or special teams solely is the answer to Troy’s returning to the elite of college football. It would help, but that isn’t the cure. Nope, the only logical change would be at the top, but perhaps Folt and Bohn think differently, and if they chose to keep Helton, they are making a statement about their vision for the future.

If Clay Helton returns for 2020, will special teams coach John Baxter (photo above) still be part of the staff? Baxter’s special teams have come under great scrutiny this past season for a plethora of miscues and penalties.

Bottom line: There is so much riding on the Clay Helton decision by Mike Bohn and Carol Folt, you have to wonder how much of it is keeping them both up late at night. A little insight for you,Mike and Carol, this is what they’re paying you the big bucks for and welcome to Los Angeles. As you can tell, this isn’t Cincinnati, and this isn’t Chapel Hill.      

From the press box…

One of the greats: If he can stay healthy, sophomore safetyTalanoa Hufangacould go down as of the great safeties in USC history…if he can stay healthy.

If he can stay healthy, sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga (photo above – No. 15) has a chance to be one of USC’s greatest safeties.

The end game: When senior Michael Pittman Jr. decided to return for a final season with the Trojans, he had some goals in mind. I think it’s safe to say – outside of a Pac-12 title – his senior season couldn’t have gone much better. The fact that he is now one of three semi-finalists for the Biletnikoff Award is indicative of the kind of season he has had. FYI, the other candidates for the award include LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb. The 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner will be presented live on December 12 at the College Football Hall of Fame on The Home Depot College Football Awards Show (4:00 – 7:00 pm PST on ESPN).

The end game – Part 2: One important decision that Michael Pittman will make shortly is whether he will participate in whatever bowl the Trojans participate. Remember, a number of high-profile players last season elected not to play in a bowl game that wasn’t connected to CFP.  

Will USC start receiver Michael Pittman (photo above) play in the bowl game that USC is assigned. The list of players choosing not to participate – unless it’s a CFP game – is nearing a conerning level.

The smart move:
Speaking of coming back for a senior season, it would behoove starting offensive left tackle Austin Jackson – though some say he could be a first round draft pick – to come back for one more USC season and the same could be said of wide receiver Tyler Vaughns, IMHO.   

Going bowling:
The consensus is that the Trojans will be going to either the Alamo or Holiday Bowl. If Utah does advance into the CFP, the odds of the Trojans going to San Antonio increase dramatically. It figures that Oregon would then be in the Rose Bowl. If you had your choice, would you rather see the Trojans play in the Alamo against Baylor/Kansas St. or play in the Holiday Bowl and potentially play Michigan? I say bring on the Wolverines and Mr. Harbaugh, and we’ll see ya in San Diego on Dec 27.

From his perspective, one of the positive areas of change, according to Clay Helton, was the off-season move of going with a version of the Air Raid offense. However, the defense and special teams have been in question and are a constant debate. If Helton returns, would he dare say good-bye to DC Clancy Pendergast and special teams coach John Baxter? If Helton did make those two coaching replacements, it would be the hardest moves of his tenure since both are like a security blanket for the head coach.

If Clay Helton returns as the Trojans’ head coach, will offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (photo above) also be here in 2020, as well, or will he pursue a college head coaching position?

The smart move: The Pac-12 football title game is coming to Las Vegas and its new NFL stadium in 2020. As of now – regardless of game location – the game is played on Friday night. Obviously, if the Trojans are in it in 2020, there would be a huge turnout for the new stadium and the lure of Las Vegas. However, for maximum effect, the title game should be moved to Saturday.

The Pac-12 Football championship will be played in the new Las Vegas/Raiders Stadium (photo above) in 2020.

The post-game show…

The banquet: The Trojans held their annual football banquet last Sunday night following Saturday’s USC’s victory over UCLA. The banquet actually was moved up on the calendar to accommodate those families that traveled from a far distance to watch Saturday’s the rivalry game. Might it have also been a convenient change had the Trojans lost to the Bruins and a decision on Clay Helton’s future was 24 hours away?   

MVP, MVP: At last Sunday’s USC football banquet, senior wide receiver Michael PittmanJr.was named the team’s MVP. Think about it, other than Michael, who would have been in the conversation as team MVP other than maybe true freshmanKedon Slovis,who threw Pittman his passes?

An OL surprise: The Trojans offensive line has been under scrutiny the entire season, but it was mildly surprisingly to see that sophomore offensive guard Alijah Vera-Tucker was named at the banquet the Most Valuable Lineman for the 2019 season. Alijah really did have a good year and has made himself into a very viable candidate for future post-season honors. 

Starting offensive left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker (photo above) was named the O-line MVP at the team banquet.

The Saint: One key area of any sports teams is the leadership of the coaching staff and the players. Trojans outstanding sophomore wide-receiver Amon-Ra St. Brownwas awarded the Trojan Way Leadership Award at the team banquet. St. Brown has been a leader and respected young player on this season’s team. The kid is mature beyond his years.

The under publicized: One of the USC banquet awards that I always looks forward to seeing is the award given to the most valuable player(s) for the Scout team, those group of football players that help prepare the Trojans offense and defense up the upcoming opponent by running that opposition’s offense and defense plays and formation.  

The forgotten warriors: Congratulations to tight ends Sean Mahoney and Scott Voigtand inside linebackers Matt Bayle and Grant Jones for being named MVPs of the Scout team. You may not have heard of these four, but you do now and for the record, Mahoney is from Los Altos Hills, Calif. (Archbishop Mitty HS), Voight from Darien, Connecticut (Darien HS), Bayle from San Marino, Calif. (St. Francis HS)  and Jones from Danville, Calif. (Concord De La Salle).

Walk-on tight end Sean Mahoney (photo above) was named one of the MVPs of the USC Scout Team.

The Call-in Show

Caller No. 1: Okay Big Fella, what’s the call, does Helton stay or does he go? I’d say, Caller No. 1, that’s it’s 60/40 that he is fired. I think it was more like 70/30 he’d be fired three weeks ago. Now, I must admit that I am not quite as sure due to some of the recent comments made by Mike Bohn after the victory over UCLA.   

Caller No. 2: If Clay Helton is fired and Urban Meyer turns out to be a pipe dream, do you think that the Trojans might look at Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell?
Given the fact that Trojans’ AD Mike Bohn hired Fickell at UC and it was a big success, I think you’d have to be naive to think that Fickell wouldn’t be in the conversation. So, yes, I think he could be a secondary option although his team lost to Memphis on Saturday.

Former Ohio State defensive coordinator and current University of Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell (photo above) could be a candidate for the USC head football coaching position if Clay Helton doesn’t return in 2020.

Caller No. 3: I know it’s late in the game, but do you think that Clay Helton could have done something more to keep his job? Yeah, win more games and beat some Top 10 teams.. He’s had four seasons to show what he could produce. I think that’s a pretty big sample size. If you’re going to have an exceptional program that the Trojans want, it’s in that third season where you should start to really shine. However, in Helton’s case, his two best seasons were the first couple with Sam Darnold. Post Darnold, the last two USC seasons have combined for a record of 13-11. Does that fire you up?

Caller No. 4: Because of the whole Clay Helton situation dating back to when Lynn Swann decided not to fire Helton after one bad season, did you find this season to be sort of anti-climactic?
Honestly, Caller No. 4, this whole Helton situation from spring ball to the end of the season has been a distraction with a few exceptions like the big win over Utah and the losses at Notre Dame and at home against Oregon. It seemed to me that Helton’s future overshadowed almost everything that happened on the field, which translated to public opinion and constant debate, which has gotten stale, old, and numbing.  

Caller No. 5:
Katz, can you describe the one major trait that John McKay, John Robinson 1, and Pete Carroll had in common? I think the No. 1 trait they all had in common – and they had a number of things in common – was that they had a philosophy for both sides of the ball and rarely deviated from it. I would say that Robinson did change his philosophy during his second tour of duty with the Trojans – going from a power running team to a passing team, which was due to recruiting and his coaching staff that was not nearly as great as his first time around. And pardon me for also adding that all three coaches had one other important trait, and that was they didn’t just talk physical football but actually practiced it.

Two of the best traits of legendary USC coach John McKay (photo above) was that he had a core belief for both sides of the ball and he demanded a physical football team, which practiced that way during the week.

The last word: Here’s hoping that Mike Bohn and Carol Folt make the right choice whether to keep or fire Clay Helton. It’s time to move on one way or the other. And on that note, I guess it’s time to do a little holiday shopping.

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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