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IMHO Sunday: Mike Bohn – USC’s master football planner

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

The master planner: Last Monday night, USC athletic director Mike Bohn (pronounced bone), in all probability, was watching the CFP National Championship Game, as No. 1 Alabama, sporting the nation’s best balanced offense and a physical, disciplined defense, steamrolled to its 18th national championship with a resounding, 52-24, victory over Ohio State.

USC’s highly enthusiastic athlete director and football master planner can boast that his Men of Troy – along with Notre Dame and Michigan – rank right behind Bama with 11 national titles each. For the record, Yale, that perennial national football powerhouse, still holds the all-time record for national championships with 27 titles, the last coming in 1927.

The master planner – Part 2: “Coach Bohn”, as Clay Helton likes to refer to him, was probably also thinking at some point during the title game telecast how he’d love to see his Men of Troy play and win a national title game, or win or play in a CFP semi-final game, or for that matter just win a Pac-12 championship. Who can blame Bohn, who has the awesome responsibility of getting his legendary football program back among the elite after what seems like an outside-looking-in eternity?

A former backup quarterback for the Kansas Jayhawks back in 1982, Mike Bohn knows his blue-blood or should we say cardinal and gold-blood program has not been in a college football national title game since Pete Carroll’s Trojans lined up against Texas in the 2006 BCS Rose Bowl. So, judging by the past two seasons of USC football changes by way of personnel additions and subtractions, the perception is that “Coach” Bohn has taken a much stronger hands-on approach within the football program, and he is now considered by many as the behind-the-scenes master planner of the USC football organization.

The master planner – Part 3: As for the Trojans current national championship drought, Mike Bohn knows it, college football knows it, the media knows it, the USC fan base knows it, and current USC head football coach Clay Helton knows it. However, I am not so sure that USC president Dr. Carol Folt knows it, but she’s “only” been president of the university for the past couple of football seasons, and there’s no official word if she even watched Monday night’s title game. Many Trojans fans feel it would be nice if Dr. Folt could somehow, in some fashion, show her commitment to returning USC’s storied football program to the elite level through actions and not just words.     

While USC athletic director Mike Bohn has attempted within his allowed parameters to make upgrades to the Trojans football program, many USC fans still question whether USC president Dr. Carol Folt (photo above) is as committed as her AD to having a national championship level football program.

The master planner – Part 4: Through his words and/or actions or until proven otherwise, Mike Bohn remains – at least publicly – steadfast that his present USC head football coach, Clay Helton, can guide Troy’s once celebrated football program to one or all of those aforementioned championship objectives. Since the arrival of Dr. Carol Folt and her athletic director Mike Bohn, Gentleman Clay is 13-6, no conference championships, one bowl appearance, an embarrassing loss to Iowa in the 2019 Holiday Bowl, although the program did decline another bowl appearance this past season for a variety of understandable and not so understandable reasons. For the record, Helton is also 18-13 the past three seasons, and he has annually remained on or close to the top of the nation’s coaching hot seat.    

The master planner – Part 5: Since Mike Bohn’s November of 2019 arrival at USC, the athletic director has had to do a Ringling Brothers balancing high wire act by juggling the marching orders from his boss, Dr. Folt, and trying to support his besieged head football coach. It hasn’t always been easy, and it hasn’t always been smooth or particularly pretty. Rumors about what Folt allows Bohn to do with the storied USC football program are a dime a dozen. Since arriving as the former AD at the University of Cincinnati, Bohn knew full well that he was entering into a SoCal fan and media beehive when it came to Clay Helton. Upon his arrival, there was no guessing game as to what was happening in Los Angeles and no needed “honeymoon” period of time.

USC athletic director Mike Bohn (photo above) came to Los Angeles after serving in the same position at the University of Cincinnati.

The master planner – Part 6: The hope and expectations from USC fans was upon his arrival that Bohn would move quickly to replace Helton with former Ohio State coaching legend Urban Meyer, who has recently accepted the head coaching job with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. It was rumored at the time that Meyer was Bohn’s first choice, but the fly in the soup was Dr. Folt, who wanted no part of the Urban Meyer culture. In her introductory John McKay Center press conference to introduce Mike Bohn, Dr. Folt explained that she and her new AD were on the same page – championships and winning with integrity – and that her new athletic director would call all the shots when it came to athletic department personnel, which presumably included the USC head football coach. Apparently, there was some small print that “all the shots” did not include the Meyer option. It’s probably an understatement to say that Folt is relieved that Meyer has left for the pros.   

The master planner – Part 7: Since learning from Dr. Folt what he allegedly can and cannot do as it apparently pertains to Clay Helton, Bohn seems to have moved past the Helton factor and gone ahead to run the Trojans football program like an NFL general manager, a master planner of USC’s football program. According to reports, Bohn was instrumental in remaking the defensive coaching staff prior to the 2020 season and in 2019 had the say in hiring Trojans current offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, although that move has created controversy from the cardinal and gold masses after finishing last in Pac-12 rushing in 2020. As for the master planning, Bohn has taken the big bucks he has at his disposal and increased recruiting staffing and the social media/marketing division.

Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn (photo above in background with arms folded) watches defensive drills and is credited with reshaping the 2020 Trojans defensive coaching staff along with Clay Helton. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

On Saturday, Bohn continued his master planning by hiring the former Notre Dame assistant director of football strength and conditioning, Robert Stiner, as USC’s Director of Football Sports Performance. The key here is that Stiner is specifically assigned to football. No doubt, Bohn is sick and tired of seeing and hearing about the Trojans’ lack of physicality, especially along the offensive line. BTW, Stiner is the Trojans third strength and conditioning coach in the past four seasons.

Stiner, 35, who has spent the last three seasons with the Irish, is now reunited with Bohn. The two worked together at the University of Cincinnati during the 2017 season. Maybe Stiner can bring some of those burly 5 and 4-star Irish offensive linemen with him. All of which brings Bohn to his next master plan addition, hiring an offensive line coach who has some knowledge of the Air Raid offense. That process is currently underway.

Perhaps looking to upgrade the physicality of the Trojans offensive line, Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn continued his master plan by hiring Robert Stiner (photo above), former Notre Dame assistant director of football strength and conditioning, as USC’s Director of Football Sports Performance. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The master planner – Part 8:
Bohn appears to be surrounding or isolating Helton with an assistant coaching and support staff that he hopes will power the Trojans to a championship. Sounds good, but Bohn is no dummy. He knows the football program starts with head coach Clay Helton, who in five seasons has not yet proven he is a national championship level coach. Keeping Helton around may be as simple as the state of the Trojans athletic bank account. If the Trojans fire Clay Helton, it’s going to cost a lot of buyout money for a coach who reportedly makes around $5 million dollars a season and whose contract runs through the 2023 season.

With word out there that Dr. Folt has no desire to be indebted to USC’s renowned and rich athletic boosters for a buyout, Helton, who himself has said publicly that at USC coaches are judged by championships, must feel as though he has won the California lottery and is nearly untouchable. However, for USC fans, they continue to feel like a long-term USC football prisoner who annually has their parole turned down.  

The master planner – Part 9: Apparently shackled by Lynn Swann’s disastrous contract extension of Gentleman Clay and Dr. Carol Folt’s affinity for her head coach, Bohn’s master plan has turned to Helton’s coaching staff. In a 2019 move that has in hindsight become highly controversial, the AD gave his blessing to the hiring of current offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, the perceived passing guru of the Air Raid offense. Graham’s 2020 passing attack finished first in the Pac-12 yet last in rushing.

Bohn also reportedly wielded his power in reshaping the Trojans defensive coaching staff, which did result in improvements this past season, especially in intensity, hustle, and ferociousness. So, at this point in the Clay Helton coaching scenario, there is the growing belief that Bohn has taken over the USC football program and is partnering with Helton in the direction of the program. You can draw your own conclusion to the validity of that viewpoint.

Despite not having won a Pac-12 title the past three seasons, Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above) has received strong support from USC president Dr. Carol Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn. (Photo by Jordon Kelly)

The master planner – Part 10: Depending on the future of Clay Helton during or after the 2021 season, Mike Bohn could be caught in a financially problematic situation when he takes into account potential assistant coaching turnover. The new 2021 O-line coach figures to want some contract insurance of at least two-years, which really becomes problematic if Helton gets a pink slip and a new head coach needs to be hired. Bohn may find himself paying departing Helton assistants as well as recently hired Helton assistant coaches, all of which could hinder a new head coach’s ability to hire his own coaching staff. In other words, there is a lot of money on the line whether Helton is retained or dismissed.

The master planner – bottom line: If Mike Bohn is at the center of USC football as most believe, no matter all the changes – assistant coaches, support and recruiting staff, marketing, etc. – the Trojans’ athletic director knows, as does everybody else, that the only change left that hasn’t been made is the head coaching position, and that’s what he and Dr. Folt will be best remembered for in this decade and beyond. Like it or not, USC football is still the straw that stirs the University’s drink, the ultimate marquee in the City of Angels as well as nationally; it’s the calling card.

The only major change that Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn (photo above on right) hasn’t made for his football program is a head coaching change of direction..

Simply put, despite all the academic excellence and incoming freshmen high grade-point-averages, the No. 1 identity of USC is its storied football program. Let’s put it this way, without a nationally recognized football program, what is Notre Dame, Alabama, Ohio State, or Clemson? The answer is universities in nondescript areas of South Bend, Tuscaloosa, Columbus, or Clemson, respectively. And nobody knows that better than Mike Bohn, whose football program is annually competing for the sports dollar in the overall biggest sports market in the country – Los Angeles. It also has to be part of the master plan.   

From the press box…

The deadline: In case you were wondering what Trojan players like running backs Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr along with safety Isaiah Pola-Mao might thinking about heading to the NFL, the deadline for players to declare for the NFL Draft is this Monday, Jan. 18.

Back to basics: According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, Trojans running back coach Mike Jinks said that last season’s running attack was unacceptable, and that he wants to go back to a traditional lead running back and no longer running back by committee. Jinks said, “When (Vavae Malepeai) got those 19-20 some touches against UCLA, we’re a completely different football team when that happens. That’s ultimately what I want to happen. I don’t care which one of the guys it is. But we’ve got to have a guy.” Well, Trojans fans have heard that before, and most will need to see it to believe it.

Trojans running backs coach Mike Jinks (photo above) admits in the Times that the running game last season was unacceptable and wants a main running back, and that the Trojans have to decide whether the program wants to go to the Pac-12 championship or win the Pac-12 and advance to the national championship.

Back to basics – Part 2: Jinks added, “The bottom line is do we want to go to the Pac-12 championship? Or do we want to win the Pac-12 and go to the national championship. You’re not able to do that unless you can run the football. Period. That’s the bottom line.” Let’s hope, IMHO, that Trojans offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is on the same page as his running backs coach when it comes to running the football.

Back to basics – Part 3: In the LA Times story on the 2020 Trojans running attack, Mike Jinks said that sophomore back Kenan Christon’s weight was a reason he didn’t see the field as often this season after an impressive freshman season. Christon’s dad wasn’t thrilled with Jinks’ assessment of his son’s playing time and replied on twitter: “Jinks using Christon’s weight as an excuse for not getting on the field is BS!” Oy Veh!

According to running backs coach Mike Jinks in the Los Angeles Times, Trojans explosive running back Kenan Christon (photo above) didn’t see more playing time because he couldn’t keep his weight up. (Photo by Jose/MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics)

Go Big Red: Former Trojans running back Markese Stepp recently announced he will continue his collegiate career for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Huskers like to run the ball (60%), and right now don’t have a back with Markese’s talent or experience. The good news for Clay Helton is that Stepp didn’t end up at Notre Dame, a team the Trojans are scheduled to visit in 2021.

Go Big Red: Former Trojans running back Markese Stepp recently announced he will continue his collegiate career for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Huskers like to run the ball (60%), and right now don’t have a back with Markese’s talent or experience. The good news for Clay Helton is that Stepp didn’t end up at Notre Dame, a team the Trojans are scheduled to visit in 2021.(John McGillen via USC Athletics)

FWIW: In ESPN’s Way-too-Early 2021 Top 25 by Mark Schlabach, the Trojans are ranked No. 9 in the country. Schlabach wrote, “The Trojans squandered their chance at winning a Pac-12 title and playing in a New Year’s Six bowl by losing to Oregon 31-24 in the league championship game. USC won its first South Division title since 2017, but the loss to the Ducks soiled what might have been some good equity for embattled coach Clay Helton. He is only 18-13 over the past three seasons, so USC needs to continue to show progress in 2021.”

In ESPN’s 2021 too early Top 25, the Trojans are ranked No. 9 in the country, thanks to the return of All-Pac-12 quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above). (Photo by Jose / MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics)

FWIW – Part 2: Schlabach added, “The Trojans can start by improving their woefully inadequate running game, which ranked last in the league and 120th in the FBS, averaging 97.3 yards per game. Maybe that’s why Helton fired offensive line coach Tim Drevno and strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus. USC’s defense improved under new coordinator Todd Orlando; it ranked third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (26 points) and run defense (153.3 yards). The Trojans are scheduled to play at Notre Dame next season but will avoid Oregon and Washington in conference play.”

More 2021 national predictions: Looking ahead, here’s a sampling of three other 2021 preseason prognostications for the Trojans: The Sporting News No. 13; CBS Sports No. 14; The Athletic – not ranked.

The post-game show… 

A Morris tradition: Trojans junior offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker was named the 2020 Morris Trophy Pac-12’s Offensive Lineman of the Year as selected by a vote of Pac-12 defensive players.

A Morris tradition – Part 2: AlijahVera-Tucker is USC’s first Morris Trophy winner since offensive tackle Matt Kalil in 2011 and is Troy’s 17th overall Morris Trophy winner since the program began in 1980 (and Troy’s 13th offensive winner).

Trojans offensive tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker (photo above) was awarded the 2020 Morris Trophy as the Pac-12’s top offensive lineman.

The irony: The announcement of Alijah Vera-Tucker as the Morris Award winner for offensive linemen comes on the coattails of AVT’s 2020 offensive line coach, Tim Drevno, being fired. The previous season under Drevno saw offensive tackle Austin Jackson drafted in the mid-first round of the NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins. Despite the criticism heaped upon him, Drevno leaves Troy with a solid sense of individual player achievement.   

The final poll:
The Trojans finished No. 21 in the final 2020 AP poll. However, if you look towards 2021, the San Jose State Spartans, who the Trojans will open the 2021 season, finished No. 24 in the final AP poll.

He’s in: Congrats to former Trojans Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Carson Palmer, who has been named to the 2021 College Football Hall of Fame class. Carson is the 45th inductee with Trojan ties in the College Football Hall of Fame, which includes 34 players. Palmer will be inducted at a Dec. 7 dinner in New York City and then enshrined at the Hall in Atlanta. 

Former Trojans Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Carson Palmer (photo above) is the latest USC legend to enter the College Football Hall of Fame.

He’s in – Part 2: A USC Trojan has been elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 14 of the past 22 years. 

Quack: Former Oregon DC Andy Avalos has agreed to become the new head coach at Boise State and word is that Trojans OC Graham Harrell was under consideration. I don’t see how a championship program can give Harrell a serious look when they see the Trojans finished last in Pac-12 rushing and 120 in the FBS, averaging 97.3 yards per game. To his credit, Harrell’s Air Raid passing attack finished first in the final 2020 Pac-12 passing yardage, averaging 319.3 passing yards per game.

It has been reported that current Trojans offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (photo above) has been applying and interviewing for other job opportunities. The Trojans’ 2020 passing attack finished first in the Pac-12 but last in rushing, and that’s been a red flag for some of the interested programs.

The call-in show…

Caller No. 1: Greg, after watching the CFP National Championship Game, what did you learn?

Caller No. 1, I wouldn’t call it learned as much as reaffirmed that if the Trojans are going to play at a high national championship level in the future, they will need a very good to great head coach, top-notch assistants, high-level recruiting talent which begins in California, a physical offense based on domination and balance, and a fan base that trusts and supports the program. It takes everybody pulling from the same end of the rope.   

If the Trojans are going to play at the same level of an Alabama (photo above), they’re going to have to make significant upgrades in a number of areas.

Caller No. 2: G-Katz, were you just a little bit melancholy that Alabama’s All-America running back Najee Harris from California didn’t play for the Trojans?

Caller No. 2, not really. Harris probably would have headed for the NCAA Transfer Portal the way the Trojans currently all but ignore the running game. As long as the Trojans continue to run the Air Raid, their chances of ever getting a Najee Harris are very slim at best. Add to the type of offensive line the Trojans have been producing as a unit, well, it would be an understatement to say that USC’s Air Raid offense is not a running backs’ best friend. Probably even more breathtaking are the annual statements of being physical along the offensive line and each season saying more attention will be paid to a physical running attack. I know I keep hammering on this repeatedly, but in the final 2020 Pac-12 stats, the Trojans were first in passing and last in running, which about sums it up.  

Caller No. 3: Katzer, when you look at John McKay, John Robinson, and Pete Carroll, do you see anything in common?   

Caller No. 3, I most certainly do. None of them were former quarterbacks. McKay was a college running back, Robinson a receiver, and Carroll a safety. Let me be blunt, the last three USC head coaches are all former collegiate quarterbacks – Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, and Clay Helton. What do former quarterbacks/head coaches love to do? That’s right, they want to pass the football, just some more than others.   

Three of the most successful head coach in USC football history were John McKay, John Robinson, and Pete Carroll (photo above). None of the three were former college quarterbacks.

Caller No. 4: Gregmeister, are you concerned about the number of Trojans heading for the 2021 NFL draft.   

Caller No. 4, I am not concerned about it because thus far every player that says he is leaving for the NFL was expected. I have not seen a player leaving that should have returned to Troy for 2021. As for how it affects the Trojans 2021 roster, now that could be challenging. I am concerned when I see a running back like Markese Stepp heading for the Transfer Portal because, IMHO, it is a symptom of a bigger issue – like commitment to a running game and the run game philosophy. If he stays healthy, I expect Stepp to one day play on Sundays.  

Caller No. 5: Grego, did you ever collect baseball, football, or basketball cards?  

Caller No. 5, when I was in the early stages of elementary school, I had literally thousands of baseball cards, some dating back to when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn. I remember my PeeWee Reese, Carl Erskine, and Johnny Podres cards as well as my Stan Musial, Willie Mays, and Mickey Mantle cards. For football, I remember my first football cards with Andy Robustelli, Leo Nomellini and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. And basketball cards of Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Russell. And to think I traded them all for marbles! Marbles!! What a financial disaster!!!   

One of my biggest mistakes ever was trading all my baseball cards for bags and bags of marbles (photo above). No doubt, my baseball card collection will be worth thousands of dollars today.
One of my earliest baseball cards was Dodgers legendary shortstop Pee Wee Reese (photo above).

The last word: Ya still think that Clay Helton laments daily that his 2020 Trojans never had the opportunity to open the season against eventual national champion Alabama in Texas and finish with Notre Dame? Sure he does (giggle, giggle).

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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