In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.
The storied programs: If folks think that USC football head coach Clay Helton – seemingly on the hotseat of hotseats on an annual basis – isn’t getting a fair shake based on his record, it’s the same high expectations, or more specifically national championship expectations at places like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame. For a select number of longtime storied programs, it’s the pressure to win now and win big.
The storied programs – Part 2: The question arises as to when is a coach at any of these legendary football programs really vulnerable to losing their job? How much of a leash does a university give a coach to contend for a national championship let alone a conference title? How much pressure from all sides and for how long, in-the name-of-winning-it-all, before an athletic director and a university president feel compelled to make a change?
With the aforementioned in mind, let’s take a selective look at some of the college coaching names we’ve come to associate with storied programs: how they got there, who they replaced, and their current status.
The Maze and Blue: For all the money that storied Michigan has paid Jim Harbaugh for his last six seasons, which has produced a 49-22 overall record (34-16 in the Big Ten), the Wolverines have no national title appearances, nor have they won a single Big Ten championship. Heck, in five tries, Jimbo hasn’t even beaten arch-rival Ohio State, the ultimate sin.
And did we also mention that Michigan was winless at home during the 2020 COVID season, marking the first time in program history that Wolverines did not win any games at home? And let’s remember, for Harbaugh to originally return to Ann Arbor, Michigan had to fire Brady Hoke, who was 31-20 during his four-year tenure (2011 to 2014).
In early January, believe it or not, Michigan still signed Harbaugh to a four-year contract extension through the 2025 season at a lower based salary. No, Lynn Swann was not the UM athletic director. The coach will still make over $4 million dollars for next season, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Obviously, Michigan is bending over backwards in a very difficult situation regarding one of its favorite sons and former quarterbacks. What would Bo Schembechler, the late UM football coaching legend and athletic director, say?
Roll Tide: If you think that Alabama’s Nick Saban was the immediate successor to the immortal Bear Bryant, it only seems that way. In 2007, Saban replaced Mike Shula (26-23), who departed Tuscaloosa after just four seasons.
On background, you may have also forgotten that before Alabama, Saban was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins until after the 2006 NFL season, a season that brought the legendary coach his first losing season as a head coach at any level.
As a reminder, Saban, when still with the Dolphins at the time, repeatedly denied interest in the Alabama job, and then officially accepted it on Jan. 4, 2007.
For the record, Saban is Alabama’s 27th head football coach, and his Crimson Tide record is currently 165-23. With a Saban statue already on campus, he isn’t going anywhere – as long as he keeps churning out national championships and No. 1 rankings.
Thee Ohio State: Quickly, despite his huge success, how many of you can name the current Ohio State head coach? Give up? Okay, it’s Ryan Day, who replaced the retiring Urban Meyer after the 2018 season. Meyer was the Buckeyes head coach for seven seasons (2012-2018), then took a job as a FOX football analyst, and then returned to football as the first-year head coach of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars.
For the record, before Meyer, the Buckeyes were coached by Luke Fickell (now at the University of Cincinnati) on an interim basis following the resignation of Jim Tressel, who was called out amid NCAA violations.
Fast-forward to the present, and we see Ryan Day’s two-year Buckeyes coaching record an impressive 20-2. Day now becomes another name that has been dropped when there are NFL head coaching openings. And like Clay Helton, Day had no previous head coaching experience before taking control of Ohio State.
Boomer Sooner: Lincoln Riley, the head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners, is now a college football household coaching name. Riley replaced Oklahoma’s legendary Bob Stoops (190-48), who decided to retire in 2017 as the Sooners head man after 18 years at the helm.
A little trivia: Stoops is the only head coach during the BCS era to have won the Rose, Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar Bowls.
Lincoln Riley, who was hired by Stoops to be the offensive coordinator for the Sooners in 2015, has had great head coaching success in Norman (45-8 through four seasons), where he, too, has been mentioned for NFL jobs in recently.
There’s no telling how long Riley will remain the Sooners head huncho, but as long as he does, the Okies will remain a college football force.
Hold that Tiger: So, who did Clemson’s Dabo Swinney replace and when? Old Dabo, an Alabama grad, replaced Tommy Bowden after Bowden resigned after six games into the 2008 season. Swinney was named Clemson’s interim coach at the time of Bowden’s departure and after the season was named permanent head coach of the Tigers.
Reportedly the only job that lets Dabo out of his contract with Clemson is if Alabama, his alma mater, comes calling. If nothing changes, Dabo will begin his 14th season with Clemson in 2021.
It should be noted that Swinney was not a popular choice to be Clemson’s coach because he, as well, had no prior head coaching experience, having previously been the Tigers wide receivers coach.
Dabo Swinney’s coaching record at Clemson is 140-33, and it remains to be seen if and when Dabo departs the Tigers whether Clemson can maintain being an elite national power.
Here come the Irish: It’s been a roller coaster ride for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, who started strong, then had to reinvent his fading program (by ND standards), and then return to dominance, capped by making it into a 2020 CFP semi-final game against Alabama, who then crushed the Irish 31-14.
Despite the CFP loss, Kelly’s Irish still finished the 2020 season with a 10-2 record. That would be a minimum acceptable won-loss record for the nationwide ND following. On a side note, it’s not like Notre Dame hasn’t hired clunkers in the past, or have you forgotten the likes of Gerry Faust, Bob Davies, and Charlie Weis?
Okay, so who did Kelly, who was previously the head coach at the University of Cincinnati (2006-09) before coming to ND, replace to get the Irish job? Kelly replaced Charlie Weis, who had no previous head coaching stints and was fired after five South Bend seasons with a winning record of 35-27. It should be noted, however, that in his last three seasons at Notre Dame, Weis was 16-21.
If you’re wondering how long Kelly will remain at ND, he’ll begin his 11th season with the Irish in 2021, and his current Irish coaching record is 81-39. However, in his last four seasons, Kelly is 43-8 and has two CFP post-season appearances, so he is on solid South Bend soil.
About the Utes: Although he gets high marks for his program and coaching acumen, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, who has been the head coach in Salt Lake City since 2004, has never won a Pac-12 title in the school’s 10 seasons in the conference.
Whittingham became the Utes head football coach in 2004 after the departure of former head coach Urban Meyer, who was hired for the head coaching position by the Florida Gators.
Whittingham, who runs a true program and teaches tough, physical football with emphasis on a ground attack and a dominating defense, has been mentioned in previous seasons as a possible USC head football coaching candidate, but there are no indications that he would ever leave his beloved Utah. Whittingham’s coaching record at Utah is 134-66 and his tenure is on extremely safe ground.
The Shaw of Palo Alto: No question that Stanford’s head football coach David Shaw is considered one of the nation’s finest. After all, he has had the Cardinal as one of the top programs in the country at various points of his career, yet his teams haven’t won a Pac-12 title since 2015. In other words, it has also been five seasons – longer than Clay Helton – since the boys from Palo Alto have hoisted a Pac-12 championship banner.
Shaw, who once played wide receiver at Stanford and later became its offensive coordinator (2007-2010) for former head coach Jim Harbaugh, was promoted to the Cardinal head coaching position when Harbaugh was named the head coach for the San Francisco 49’ers in 2011.
Still, how come no heat on Mr. Shaw since his Cardinal haven’t won a Pac-12 title since 2015? Because he is a proven winner. For the record, Shaw’s Stanford head coaching record is 90-36, and he seems to check all the Palo Alto private school boxes as well as being an alumnus.
Shaw is widely respected in the coaching community and in the Bay Area. If he were to leave Stanford, it would be for an NFL job, and his name has been mentioned at various times in the professional world. For the present, Shaw’s program continues to compete at a high level, recruits well, so his departure is anything but impending.
On the record: For those who want a quick snapshot of the Trojans Clay Helton, the coach’s head coaching record is 45-23 (.662), which includes 12 victories over AP Top 25 teams, three of whom were in the Top 5, and four in the Top 10.
In strictly five full seasons (leaving aside his 2016 interim title), Gentleman Clay has captured one conference championship (2017), is 1-1 in Pac-12 Championship Games, and 1-2 in bowl games. Again, I am leaving out his interim status results in 2016.
Turnover rate: In case you might be wondering, there have been nine Pac-12 Conference head football coaching changes since 2017, the last time the Trojans won the Pac-12.
From the press box…
Week 1: The first week of spring ball is in the books, and you can make a very early assessment that quarterback Kedon Slovis is good to go, the freshmen quarterbacks played like talented but inexperienced frosh, it was not surprising that sophomore Courtland Ford opened at left tackle on the first unit, newcomers like wide receiver KD Nixon (Colorado grad) and Texas transfers Keonatay Ingram (running back) and Xavion Alfred (safety) showed promise.
In Saturday’s first day in pads, the excitement level was on high, and there was some heavy hitting in the famed Oklahoma/Trojans drill. Saturday, however, was missing number of expected starters including outside linebacker Drake Jackson and corner Chris Steele.
Week 1 – Part 2: Also not participating in Saturday’s first-day hitting festivities was returning defensive end Nick Figureroa, who is recovering from surgery on a torn labrum, according to Clay Helton.
Also of note on Saturday was a 20-yard TD jaunt by true freshman running back Brandon Campbell (5-11, 195/Houston, TX), and earlier a bruising tackle in the Oklahoma drill by another fellow true freshman linebacker, Julien Simon (6-2, 220/Tacoma, WA), who put the hurt on senior tailback Quincy Jountti.
Week 1 – Part 3: In the first week of spring ball, Clay Helton said the two freshmen quarterback studs, Jaxson Dart and Miller Moss, have shown sparks of brilliance and at times look like they are just out of high school.
It should also be noted that while Courtland Ford continues to start at offensive left tackle, while his massive backup, Casey Collier (6-9, 315) has shown considerable improvement. Of Collier, Helton had nothing but praise for the redshirt freshman, who he says is like looking at a “young deer” finding his legs. The head coach compared the progress of Collier to that of former Trojans tackle Zack Banner.
Juggling act: Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell wants his offensive linemen to be able to play all five line positions if possible, and one of the names he mentioned as capable of playing all five spots is returning redshirt freshman Jonah Monheim (6-5, 290).
It’s a Ford: The latest health update on talented redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kyle Ford is that he is in a “good place”, according to Clay Helton. Although Kyle won’t participate in any spring contact drills because of continued caution over his healing from knee ligaments surgery, he is beginning to work on his lateral movements. The coach said that when Ford returns to practice ready to go, he (Helton) will be a “little misty-eyed.”
Another wide receiver: The Trojans have added another wide receiver transfer to its 2021 roster, as former Memphis wide receiver Tahj Washington (5-11, 175) announced last week that he’ll be wearing cardinal and gold in 2021. Named to the Football Writers Association of America’s Freshman All-America team, in his redshirt freshman season in 2020, Washington caught 43 passes for 743 yards and six touchdowns for Memphis, and also had one TD on the ground.
Another wide receiver – Part 2: An area of special interest and special teams needs, Washington was also the top kickoff returner for Memphis with 12 returns for 242 yards. He started all but one game last season and had at least one catch in every contest, including seven receptions for 131 yards against UCF.
Credit: Clay Helton gave a lot of credit this week to new strength coach “Bobby” Stiner for having taken the 14 newcomers to the program and advancing their physical and mental development.
Credit – Part 2: Clay Helton was asked by WeAreSC’s Erik McKinney what Stiner brought from Notre Dame, and the coach responded by saying Stiner brought “a system of accountability, a system which brings physical and mental toughness. It makes the guys lean on each other.”
Helton said that everything that Stiner does incorporates competition and mental toughness. Trojans senior inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga said in the early going adjusting to Coach Stiner was basically a real challenge.
Explanation: A major reason for having the “Spring Showcase” on April 17 in the Coli and not later in spring camp is to get some film on the newcomers to the program and to be able to teach off the film to them.
The post-game show…
No update: It has still not officially been decided whether the Trojans Spring Showcase (AKA Spring Game), which will be held in the Coliseum on Saturday, April 17, will be open to the public. That call will be made by the Trojans in concert with the state and local health officials.
O-line decommitment: In case you missed it, Trojans recruiting class of 2022 offensive line verbal Dylan Lopez, a 3-star center from IMG Academy (Bradenton, Florida) and formerly of Moreno Valley (Calif.) Rancho Verde, tweeted out this past week that he had decommitted from the Trojans.
Normally, the Trojans recruit high school tackles and then find their proper position in college. Another factor in the decommitment could be related to the Trojans first-year O-line coach Clay McGuire, who will form his own evaluations of past and current recruits, which is probably a good thing.
Draft evaluation: Clay Helton believes that his former all-star offensive left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker will be a top 15 first-round selection in the upcoming NFL draft.
The senior citizen: Imagine being a wide-eyed 18-year-old freshman Trojan football player and your locker is next to 29-year-old punter Ben Griffiths.
The senior citizen – Part 2: Given the fact that punter Ben Griffiths is 29-year-old, in case you were wondering, the youngest coach on Clay Helton’s staff is tight ends coach Seth Doege, who is 32-years old. Next youngest is D-line coach Vic So’oto at 33-years-old.
Conflict of interest: The Trojans spring practice opener last Tuesday commenced at 3:25 pm PDT while the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament Elite 8 Game against No. 1 Gonzaga tipped off at 4:15 p.m. PDT on the same day.
Are you a bit surprised that that football didn’t somehow adjust the first spring football practice for a more non-conflicting practice time? Of course, after the way Gonzaga dominated the Trojans, the football program must have known something many USC fans didn’t.
The call-in show…
Caller No. 1: Mr. Katz, I know that we didn’t have to park our cars for football last season because no fans were allowed into games, but the 2021 season will bring back fans into the Coli. Your thoughts regarding paying for parking and transportation from a parking structure to the Coliseum. Sorry for the long-winded question.
Caller No. 1, parking for games at the Coliseum has always been an inconvenient necessity, and paying for parking can range in price depending where you park. There were times when the media had to park far away from the Coli and walk to the Grand Old Lady, which was a little scary after night games until USC decided to provide security carts to take the media back close to their parking structures.
I do think that USC does a reasonably good job in using buses to transport fans from off-site school parking structures to the Coliseum. In the early days, the buses would drop folks off right off by the entrance to Christmas Tree Lane on the peristyle end of the Coli, and the walk to the stadium was easy. However, the buses were later rerouted to drop folks off on the corner of Exposition and Figueroa, which became a much longer walk depending on your route.
Caller No. 2: Grego, when you go to spring ball or the first day of fall camp, who or what is the first thing you want to see?
Caller No. 2, I always want to see the newcomers, both freshmen and transfers. The eye test is very important to see a player’s non-verbal appearance in cardinal and gold. Some players look like they are ready for the challenge, and some give that deer in the headlights look. I want to see at ground level just how a player looks (height and weight) compared to what is listed on the official roster. Rule of thumb, don’t always believe what you read from the roster, especially when it comes to height.
Caller No. 3: Katz, who are your favorite USC football and basketball players?
Caller No. 3, for football it used to be O.J. Simpson until the obvious, so I’ll go with DB Ronnie Lott. And for basketball, I must admit I remember the excitement of watching center John Rudometkin in the old Sports Arena. If I had to come up with alternatives to Simpson and Rudometkin, I would probably say Lott for football and Paul Westphal for basketball.
Caller No. 4: G-KAT, I know that WeAreSC columnist and contributor Kevin Bruce played on the 1974 national championship team and was a captain on the 1975 team, John McKay’s last USC team that he coached. I know Mr. Bruce was all-conference in 1975, but did he ever get any other honors that you are aware like All-American mention?
Caller No. 4, great question. Kevin, a great football player for the Trojans and was even a better person, was actually an AP honorable mention All-American in 1975 and probably was deserving of a higher ranking. However, because the Trojans lost their last four games after learning that McKay was leaving for Tampa Bay of the NFL, it might have affected his All-America ranking. Championship teams tend to get higher ranked individuals.
FYI, below is a newspaper clipping of the 1975 AP All-America teams with names you probably recognize as some of college football’s all-time greatest players. The AP also lists its All-America honorable mention team, which includes our Kevin Bruce (Bruce – USC).
Caller No. 5: Coach, a pool or the beach?
Caller No. 5, I don’t know anybody who really knows me who would ever call me a water hound. I, however, do enjoy the beach after sunset but rarely go in the ocean except to get my feet wet. As for a pool, I like taking a dip on a warm evening, especially at Disney World’s Wilderness Lodge, and, yes, I love the jacuzzi there late at night.
The last word: A Happy Easter and belated Passover to you all. Peace.