18 min Read

IMHO Sunday: Swann song for Helton?

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

IMHO: All right, Lynn Swann (photo above), you’re the USC athletic director and you get to make the last, definitive offensive call of the 2018 season after the No. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (12-0) escaped your unranked but determined USC Trojans (5-7), 24-17, on Saturday night in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Afterward, a significant display of booing showered down upon Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton – who answered back by putting up his right hand in the air and displaying the two-fingered “Fight On” salute – and didn’t cease until the beleaguered coach disappeared up the historic Coliseum players’ tunnel. You and apparently only you must decide whether Clay Helton stays or whether Clay Helton goes. Some insiders say you’ve already made up your mind that Gentleman Clay will return in 2019 no matter how extreme the outrage and how irrefutable the seasonal evidence to dismiss. Then, there’s the latest rumor that you’re ready to send out an email to season ticket holders on Sunday to explain the return of Helton for next season or his dismissal, but you know how rumors sometimes go and nothing is set in stone.

IMHO – Part 2: Swannie, you already know the majority of USC’s angry fandom want change ASAP, and you probably saw that airplane sign, right or wrong, hovering above the Coliseum pleading for you to make a change. The only thing worse than that sign would be no sign, which would be a sign of apathy and that translates into big booster withdrawal of donations. Like it or not, these Trojan fans that donated for the plane and the sign to be flown at least care about the direction of the program. In terms of national perception, the national college football landscape will be scratching their collective heads if Gentleman Clay isn’t politely bid sayonara, but the Trojans did play hard for their coach against the Irish but made their usual second half mistakes. Only 59,821 fans were in attendance on Saturday night, and many were Irish fans, so you can also imagine the attendance protest at next season’s 2019 opener against Fresno State, maybe 50,000 in a controversial renovated stadium that will hold around 77,000 – if you include the massive amount of Fresno fans traveling down from “The Valley”). Is it really worth it?

IMHO – Part 3: As you know, Swannie, thanks to the Irish victory over the Trojans on Saturday night in front of a nationally televised audience, the Men of Troy are now officially eliminated from any post-season bowl game and this dreadful season has mercifully come to a close. Thanks to ABC last evening, you can just imagine the real time national perception of USC football now or as the late coaching great Bill Walsh loved to call the Trojans – “Yesterday U.” There’s mounting evidence that if Clay Helton returns next season, it’s unlikely the state of USC football will do a radically about-face   to significantly sway the current culture. Consider: After three years of the Helton era, the offensive and defensive lines still get manhandled by collegiate titans as Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and even reemerging Texas, especially in the second half. And then there was also this season’s shocking dominance by the likes of UCLA, ASU, and Cal, offensively and/or defensively. Three years is more than enough time to have toughened up the trenches, wouldn’t you agree? Would four, five, or six more seasons be any different? Most agree that you and everybody else want stability in a program. Swannie, you were fortunate that you played for John McKay and Chuck Noll, exceptions to the rule when it comes to stability. You were blessed to have never played for anybody less than Hall of Fame coaches, true legends of the game.

IMHO – Part 4: Swannie, you were intimately involved when Clay Helton demoted play caller Tee Martin weeks ago and installed himself; yet, those offense’s second half power outages never changed and were on display again on Saturday night against the Irish. Defensively, there’s no question now that the Trojans’ defense is also wanting. Because of the offense’s issues this season, less attention was initially paid to the Trojans’ defensive shortcomings, as Notre Dame showed in the second half on Saturday. Everybody was told after last spring ball this season’s defense was going to be exceptional. When losing teams, like rival UCLA, upset the Trojans with a dominating running game, this defense isn’t exceptional. Fans shouldn’t have expected the Wild Bunch or the Steel Curtain this season, but what the Bruins’ offense did to your beloved Trojans was, well, criminal.

IMHO – Part 5: It seems like common knowledge, Swannie, that if people want to justify a talking point, they’ll find it. In the case of Clay Helton, the talking point for his return in 2019 is just look across the Coliseum sidelines on Saturday night and see Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and how he fell on hard times three years ago but resurrected his program this season to cement advancing to this season’s CFP semi-final game. Sure, three seasons ago (2016) Notre Dame was coming off a dismal 4-8 season and the heat was on in South Bend. However, unlike Clay Helton, don’t forget that Kelly had the Irish in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. Kelly also has a track record, and he has 10 or more wins the last 3 of 4 seasons. And remember, Kelly didn’t waste time with coaching loyalty when he sensed a change was needed. The Irish coach has changed coordinators both in-season and out-of-season. Remember, last season Helton had an NFL backfield (QB Sam Darnold and RB Ronald Jones) and still couldn’t get into the CFP. So, to try and compare Helton and Kelly is doing Helton a disservice. If you had your choice as of today and knowing what you know, would you hire Brian Kelly or Clay Helton?

IMHO – Part 6: I am sure, Swannie, that you’ve heard Clay Helton’s mantra after last weekend’s loss to UCLA to repeatedly say that “better days are ahead.” After the Irish loss, Helton again said in his post-game media that he expected to be back, and that “Mr. Swann” would issue a statement regarding his future. It wasn’t said like a man expecting to be fired. Was Helton overconfident, Swannie? As you know, you’ll have to evaluate the current culture of the team, which has come under intense scrutiny. Players’ behavior both inside and outside the sidelines has become all too much an issue. Would bringing back Helton – loyal to his team to perhaps his own detriment – improve the perception that this is an undisciplined team and program? You don’t have to look at all the penalties this season, mind-numbing personal fouls, and poor clock management of timeouts, to know collectively this is not conducive to competing for a national championship or any other championship for that matter. You certainly can’t do it this way unless you have a Sam Darnold talent, and there’s no guarantee that will even get you into the CFP.

IMHO – Part 7: Swannie, unlike the poisonous culture of the Paul Hackett and the toxic Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian environments, Helton is different, a true gentleman. However, without a Sam Darnold, the evidence now suggests that Helton – minus being a great guy – is simply overmatched in running a storied program from top to bottom over a period of time. Players dancing on the on the field between the third and fourth quarters in the UCLA game was a stunner for perception, but then again not too many games ago a cell phone photo was taken of Trojan players posing on the field during a timeout and later posted. Seriously? It makes you wonder if the John McKay statue in front of the building named in his honor didn’t cover its eyes. Swannie, since you played for McKay, ask yourself, “What would Coach McKay have done if the players on your Trojans teams behaved in such a manner during games?” Sure, different era, but I don’t think the Silver Fox would have put up with these players’ shenanigans.

IMHO – Part 8: And then, Swannie, there are the many Clay Helton’s quotes that unfortunately have come back to bite the coach – like during October proclaiming November would be the month that will make Trojan fans stand up and cheer and remember. As of today, it’s stand up and jeer. At stake with that prediction was the coach’s credibility, which is now papier-mache’ at the moment. Lastly, more than a number of players have left the program for one reason or another. It’s becoming a disturbing trend, and one has to wonder when does this start to affect all phases of a football team and program, although it probably has. Player departures on a winning team are one thing, but it’s quite another on a losing team.

IMHO – Part 9: It’s now common knowledge, Swannie, that a large number of former players – many of whom are cardinal and gold legends at the highest level – are livid over the perceived lack of caring and respect by the current Trojan players after a loss – not to mention the lack of dominating physicality during games. Many of these legends are irate watching current players laugh after the ongoing losses and then head to the locker room as if they’ve just played in a meaningless recreation game. There’s a sense from some of these legends that the current players don’t have any concept of Trojan pride, respect, or perhaps understanding what it means to be a USC football player and its storied past. These living legends believe that the current players are living off the reputations of what previous players like yourself have accomplished. You hate to say all this because you like Clay Helton the man, but it is what it is. However, you simply don’t go from winning the 2017 Pac-12 title and then to the following season not even making a bowl game, finishing with a losing record, and by losing five of the last six games.

IMHO – Part 10: Swannie, we all know you are aware of it all, but you can counter the intense criticism of Helton by saying that under Helton the Trojans have won a Pac-12 title, won a thrilling Rose Bowl game, a Cotton Bowl appearance that Ohio State made forgettable, and an earlier impressive Coliseum home winning streak. However, you are paying Helton millions of dollars already to yearly produce at the highest level, and the head coach has said as much himself regarding production. Helton is paid the big bucks to make critical decisions not only in coaching and philosophy but hiring the best staff possible. There’s enough evidence regarding his staff that it has put scrutiny on his hiring judgement. The great Trojan head coaches have had great coaching staffs, and if anybody knows that, you do. You had the privilege of being coached by some of them during your time at the University.

Bottom Line: Lastly Swannie, you’re a former Trojans gridiron legend who is an NFL and USC Hall of Famer, but your final Helton edict may supersede how you’ll best be remembered just like another former Trojans’ football legend and athletic director, Pat Haden, who’s no is longer revered by the majority of the USC family as a football legend but a consummate athletic director fiasco. Well, No. 22, it’s decision time and as they say in the NFL draft, you’re on the clock.

The Trojans/ND quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “USC is about championships, it deserves championships,” Helton said, “and we did not do that. Just fact of the matter, this year we didn’t get the job done. It doesn’t mean that we can’t. I know and believe in the guys that are in that locker room that we’re going to get back and create a disciplined football team that executes at the highest level. We can compete with anybody in the country with the men that are in that locker room, as evidenced by tonight.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: “I think we’re all frustrated. 5-7 is not what USC is about. Losing close ballgames is not what we’re about, and it will be my task moving forward to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: Asked about the penalty issues, Helton said, “It’s my responsibility to make sure the penalties go down. We had eight again tonight for 71 yards in a lot of critical situations. You feel good about moving the ball 450 yards, but at the end of the day, it’s about scoring points.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 4: On the future of his program, Helton said, “I’m going to sit back and let it soak in a little bit,” Helton said. “Everybody I know will want immediate changes. Tomorrow starts the first day of recruiting, and I have an opportunity to sit down with Mr. Swann and discuss everything we need to get moving forward, and it’s a bunch.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 5: “We’ve got a big task ahead of us, and the changes will be made that need to be made from a culture standpoint, from a discipline standpoint, a personnel standpoint and a staff standpoint if needed. And that’s my job. We’ll put it all together and get moving.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 6: “I’m fully confident in the support I have not only from Mr. Swann but this administration. They have been terrific to me and our staff and our football team. I know I’ll get their continued support and we’ll do a better job not only for them but our Trojan family. So proud of the men that stepped into the arena tonight and fought as hard as they can fight. The best is yet to be, I truly believe that. I see guys who are truly talented individuals that will develop into a quality football team that will win championships.”

Ced says: On the difference between the Trojans and Notre Dame, Trojans RB Aca’Cedric Ware said, “They made less mistakes than we did. They capitalized on our mistakes make and we didn’t capitalize on the mistakes they made. They played a more disciplined game. They snuck out with a win. Hat off to those guys. The team that makes the less mistakes come out on top.”

Ced says – Part 2: Regarding his effort against the Irish, senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware said, “I left everything out there. I have no regrets. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to end. You know you have to ‘fight on’ forever.”

Tyler on JT: On the what freshman quarterback JT Daniels needs to do in the future, wide receiver Tyler Vaughns said, “It depends on him, His game has to elevate. He has a year under his belt and no more ‘I am a freshman or anything like that.’ I trust him, I really do. I am looking forward to him coming back and really doing his thing.

Tyler on the future: Asked about next year’s offense with all the talent coming back like JT Daniels and WR Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns said, “It really shows (tonight) what our offense can really do.”

On the future of the program: Trojans starting offensive guard Chris Brown said, “Coach (Helton) gave some nice words of encouragement (afterward). It was nice to hear him say that. I agree with him that if we keep on working, we look at everything and fix it, this will be a good team in the future. I believe every word of that.”

On the future of the program – Part 2: On seeing the airplane banners and hearing about the uncertainty of his head coach, Chris Brown said, “I kind of pisses me off and pisses everybody else off. It’s a lack of respect. The fans want us to play for them like and a lot of them are saying really negative stuff. It kind of hard to get that.”

Irish QB: After the game, Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (352 yds., 1 TD), a Californian, said, “USC, they played great. We knew they had a great defense, and to be able to finish the season off undefeated in a rivalry game, you can’t ask for anything better than that.”

Ajene talks: Talking afterward about how the Irish seemed to know when the Trojans were blitzing, S Ajene Harris said, “I am not sure what they were reading, but they made a few more plays than we did, and we came up short. It’s very frustrating to come up short, but we have to give credit those guys and they played a helleva ballgame.”

More Ajene: Asked what Clay Helton said in the locker room afterward, Ajene Harris said, “Afterward, he thanked all the seniors for their support and our leadership and told the younger guys they have to get ready for next year.

Irish respect: Notre Dame corner Julian Love said, “Nothing has been handed to us. USC was struggling this year, but they weren’t just going to hand it to us. We had to go out there and seize it.”

From the press box…

Tackling the issues: Senior inside linebacker Cameron Smith led the Trojans with 12 tackles.

The infirmary: RB Vavae Malepeai (MCL knee), CB Jonathan Lockett (hip). Josh Falo (knee), OT Chuma Edoga (knee), S Marvell Tell lll (DNP/shoulder)

Temperature: The Los Angeles kickoff temperature was mostly clear and 65 degrees.

Flag boys: Officials were from the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Turnstiles: Saturday night’s attendance was announced as 59,821, which is well short of capacity (78,467). In other words, there were 18,646 empty seats.

Promising future: Trojans’ true freshman running back Markese Stepp from Indianapolis, Indiana, got extensive playing time and his running (5 carries for 23 yards) remind those in the press box of former Trojans TB great LenDale White.

Tunnel leaders: There was no celebrity or Trojans’ football legend leading the Trojans out of the tunnel prior to kickoff.

Cover boy: Senior linebacker Cameron Smith was on the cover of the game program.

High honor: Prior to kickoff, the Trojans recognized twenty-four USC seniors and redshirt juniors appearing at their final home game in the Coliseum.

Jake: One of those departing Troy in his final Coliseum was Jake Olson, the Trojans’ celebrated blind snapper. Deservingly so, Jake got the loudest ovation of the pregame senior salute. Jake is also this season’s Walter Camp Football Foundation “Award of Perseverance” award winner.

The legend: Standing outside the Trojans locker room after the game was former Trojan All-America tackle and NFL Hall of Famer Ron Yary.

Scouting: NFL scouts in attendance included the Rams, Chargers, Cowboys, Colts, Bills, and Bears.

Bowling: Bowl representatives in attendance included the Sugar and Orange Bowls.

The post-game show numbers…

Downward trend: Against ND, the Trojans scored 17 points. Prior to the Irish game, the Trojans were averaging 26.01 points per game.

Downward trend: Against ND, the Trojans allowed 24 points. Prior to the Irish game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 27.27 points per game.

Upward trend: Against ND, the Trojans had 443 yards in total offense. Prior to the Irish game, the Trojans was averaging 377.1 yards in total offense per game.

Upward trend: Against ND, the Trojans defense allowed 473 total yards in offense. Prior to the Irish game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 379.9 total yards per game.

Downward trend: Against ND, the Trojans had 94 net yards rushing. Prior to the Irish game, the Trojans were averaging 137.1 rushing yards per game.

Downward trend: Against ND, the Trojans allowed 121 net rushing yards. Prior to the Irish game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 168.4 net yards rushing per game.

Major upward trend: Against ND, the Trojans had 349 yards passing yards. Prior to the Irish game, the Trojans were averaging 240.0 passing yards per game.

Major upward trend: Against ND, the Trojans allowed 352 passing yards. Prior to the Bears game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 211.55 passing yards per game

Flag waving: Against ND, the Trojans had eight penalties for 71 yards while the Irish had three penalties for 38 yards. Prior to the ND game, the Trojans were averaging 73.82 penalty yards per game while the opposition was averaging 55.0 penalty yards per game.

The last word: These may not be any words that describe how the Trojans fans are feeling following the conclusion of the 2018 season. One thing is for sure, USC fans are not stupid nor are they idiots. Many are former or current coaches, former and current players, longtime and short time fans. They get it. They understand what they see, and they’ve seen enough. Is the USC athletic department in agreement? We’ll soon find out.

Greg Katz
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.

More Articles By Greg