In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles on the two recently released statements by USC athletic director Lynn Swann and returning head coach Clay Helton.
IMHO: In a rather stunning and what some media are calling an “incredible” development, USC Trojans athletic director Lynn Swann announced on Sunday morning that head football coach Clay Helton would return for the 2019 season. To fully comprehend how Swann came to this conclusion after a season that left all Trojan fans in a state of misery, confusion, and – needless to say – anger, one needs to break down paragraph by paragraph what Swann and Clay Helton have issued to the USC family and the sports world.
Swann Paragraph 1: “The 2018 USC football season was disappointing to me, to Coach Helton and his coaching staff, to our players and to our great fans. Nobody is happy with our record. Everyone deserves better.”
IMHO: The key sentence here is not that the season was disappointing, but “everybody deserves better.” First, if you’re a diehard USC football fan, Swann’s announcement that Clay Helton is returning must be like somebody just carved out a huge chunk of your cardinal and gold heart not to mention your enthusiasm. As for “deserving better,” one would assume that includes those who spend money on rising season tickets costs deserve better. Fans that have experienced Coliseum renovation seat relocations and the aggravation of that experience deserve better. Those that can clearly see the problems in the program and pour in huge cash donations deserve better. Those that live and die with USC football and are up there in age and every new season isn’t a guarantee they’ll be around to see the next season deserve better. And for those football purists that really know the game and have been through the McKay, Robinson, and Carroll era, deserve better. Swann is correct, nobody is happy, but he doesn’t think a head coaching change is the answer.
In truth, USC football, like many other storied programs, is a business, and when the business has big losses in revenue, production, credibility, and morale, normally CEOs are replaced even if the previous year was considered successful. You’re only as good as your last profit margin. The 2018 season wasn’t just a bad year for the USC football business, it was a horrendous year and Lynn Swann knows it. Saying “nobody is happy with our record” is a major understatement. It goes deeper than that. Swann is betting that attending a USC game is such an event and social experience for fan, that they need it more than their anger directed towards it. Maybe he’s right in the short term. However, maybe he’s wrong in the long term. What happens if the Trojans get off to a bad start in 2019? It’s conceivable that under 50,000 fans per home game might be the new norm, and that translates into a lot of money lost. Remember, there’s no Notre Dame home game to pad attendance, although the 59,000 that attended Saturday night’s intersectional clash was nothing to brag about.
Swann Paragraph 2: “It is my firm belief that we have a good team returning next year and a solid foundation in place, and that Clay Helton is a good coach. Let me be clear to everyone, our players, our recruits and our fans. Clay Helton is our head coach and he will continue to be our head coach.”
IMHO: Well, most Trojans fans would like to believe that next year’s team will be good, but how good? However, it would be disingenuous to say that USC fans think that Helton is a good coach. Most would say scratch the “good” from the statement. Swann certainly knows what a good coach looks like; he played for John McKay and Chuck Noll, two of the titans in football history. Would Swann, the player, want to play for Helton? Not a slap at Helton, but a serious question. Does Swann see Clay Helton’s career rising to that of a McKay, Noll, or even a John Robinson? Honestly, if there were not two divisions in the Pac-12 in 2018, the Trojans would have ended eighth in the conference, tied with Arizona, a team the Trojans did beat this season. Should there have been such a dramatic drop in victories after winning the Pac-12 title in 2018? Most USC fans would like to have thought there was a solid foundation for the USC future…until watching a Sam Darnold-less team perform and – perhaps more importantly -its behavior on and off the field. As an aside, freshman QB JT Daniels was not the problem in 2018. Just ask Notre Dame. And, yes, Trojans fans fully understand that Helton is Swann’s coach. Apparently when Swann told Helton “we are going to get this thing done,” translation meaning a national championship, Swann was willing to put all his cardinal and gold eggs in his basket.
Of course, there are reasons why Swann supports Helton unconditionally. Swann gave Helton and some members of his staff monetary contract extensions after the 2019 season, so there is the financial investment even though the Trojans were crushed by Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. The extensions were probably announced on national recruiting day to help with recruiting stability. Now, do you honestly think that Swann – a man of great pride and accomplishments – wants to admit that the contract extensions might not have been a good idea in hindsight? Of course not. Although what we hear is that there was the money to buy Helton out, this may have been a simple case of Swann wanting to show he’s not going to be told what to do from outside and inside pressure. Since USC has no permanent president and the Board of Trustees is not an athletic entity, maybe Swann really is on his own and doesn’t succumb to pressures from big boosters and legendary former teammates and alumni. I think that is a fair assumption based on insider reports.
Swann Paragraph 3: “I am a strong advocate of consistency within a program, sticking by a leader, supporting them and helping them and their team improve.”
IMHO: Who doesn’t want consistency in the USC program? It just depends on how you view consistency. Would you call this year’s team consistent in both performance and offensive play calling? The evidence is that there was bad consistency in 2018. Is there evidence that will change in 2019? The same cast of characters will return, or will they? That’ll be the great intrigue heading into the off season. It says here that there will be position coach changes and maybe an offensive coordinator that will be allowed to call his own plays. It was interesting after the ND game to spot Swann and former NFL offensive guru Tom Moore outside the Trojans locker room. Moore was the mastermind behind much of Peyton Manning’s NFL career in Indianapolis. One respected former USC football star said that if Moore was hired as the OC and called the plays and Helton stayed as head coach, he would be all for it. This former star who played in the NFL said that Moore was to the NFL what Norm Chow was to college football.
Swann Paragraph 4: “One season does not define a coach. Remember, Coach Helton inherited a program in turmoil. He won 10 games, including the Rose Bowl, in his first year in 2016. He won 11 games and the Pac-12 title in 2017. He runs a clean program, he graduates his players, he recruits well, he produces NFL players.”
IMHO: No, one season does not define a coach but recruiting perception can. All that has gone on in 2018, how are the current and future USC recruits assessing the program? Yes, Helton did inherit a program in turmoil, but his current program is in a different type of turmoil, as both the record (5-7) and the discipline in the program clearly illustrates. Yes, Helton runs a clean program as far as we know, his players graduate, he has recruited well in the past, and he produces NFL players. However, coaches are not fired because their players graduate or run clean programs. Trojan coaches of the past have run clean programs with graduating athletes and have been canned for football record deficiencies. When you pay coaches millions of dollars to produce wins and not losses, that’s what it’s all about, and Swann knows it. As far as USC producing NFL players, they have always produced players no matter the coach. If you get a Pete Carroll as your head coach, that number rises dramatically.
Swann Paragraph 5: “We see top programs across the country have down years and the fans want to change coaches. In fact, it happened a few years ago with yesterday’s opponent, but that administration remained committed to their head coach, who made some key changes, worked hard to fix things and got his team to improve markedly. That will happen here at USC.”
IMHO: To compare Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Clay Helton at this point in time is a disservice to both coaches. It’s comparing apples and oranges. Helton has not won a national title before and has not played in a CFP semi-final game to my knowledge. Kelly will have his team again in the CFP when it’s all said and done.
Swann Paragraph 6: “Coach Helton and I meet extensively each week to evaluate our program from top to bottom. We acknowledge and understand our deficiencies in areas that include culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff. We agree that changes need to be made, and they will. We will improve and get better, in all areas. Coach Helton has a plan in place to get USC back to the top.”
IMHO: It’s good to know that Swann and Helton acknowledge the deficiencies of the program, which include, according to Swann’s statement, includes “culture, discipline, schemes, personnel, and staff.” Doesn’t that just about touch all the bases of a program? The bigger question is how and why did it get to this point where are all these issues are areas of concern and need for improvement? The players don’t run the program, make the rules, or enforce them. Not trying to sound disrespectful or crass but doesn’t the proverbial “fish rot from the head down” apply here. The Trojans problems start and stop at the top and Clay Helton, still a young coach both in age and experience, would probably take ownership of it. The modern USC football head coach should never be learning how to be a head coach on the job. Just ask Notre Dame or Ohio State. ND once hired a high school coach and that was an exploding cigar.
Swann Paragraph 7: “I have heard from many in the Trojan fan base. Some will be happy that Coach Helton remains our coach, others will not. I love our fans’ passion about USC football. They have high standards, as do we.”
IMHO: Well, it’s also good to know that Swannie loves the USC fan base and its passion. The real question is does he really know the USC fan base? It seems that at times Swann speaks like the politician that he once was in Pennsylvania in trying to defuse the heat. Fans do have a voice in telling an athletic administration how it feels. After all, they’re the ones making donations and buying the tickets. An unhappy fans base – and make no mistake about it, this Trojans fan base is not happy that Helton is returning – can show their anger by withholding donations, season ticket renewals, and by just plain not showing up to games. Who knows how many will take that avenue to show their anger?
Of course, the USC administration could take the viewpoint that losing revenue from the fans doesn’t add up to what it would cost to buy out Helton and his staff. However, just look at Saturday night’s lack of attendance for USC vs Notre Dame, no less, or that the Trojans averaged less than 60,000 per home game this season. There is a message being sent there. Fans are emotional, but a lot some of them are also logical. In fact, many in the Trojans fan base are quite knowledgeable about USC football and how the game is played – some are ex-players and coaches. You don’t have to have played or coached at USC or in the NFL to understand the problems of this football program and what needs to be done.
Swann Paragraph 8: “Fight On, Lynn Swann
IMHO: Lynn Swann is going with his conviction that Clay Helton is his man and they’re going to “get this thing done” apparently at all costs. If Helton succeeds, Trojan fans will be happy because winning is what makes the program great in certain aspects. The Trojans better win because UCLA’s Chip Kelly and the Bruins are only going to get better as will the rest of the Pac-12. Remember that next season the Trojans are expected to play Oregon and Washington, two teams they would have been underdogs to this season.
The bottom line: Lynn Swann has attached his legacy and reputation to the Clay Helton bandwagon. If Helton doesn’t succeed, he will be gone, and Swann may not be far behind when the new president takes command. If the new president understands athletics, we could be seeing a lot of changes in the Trojans athletic department.
From the press box…
Helton speaks: As a follow up to Lynn Swann’s announcement, Clay Helton also issued a statement that opens up questions.
Helton Paragraph 1: “I am very appreciative of the support that Mr. Swann and the USC administration has given our team over the last three seasons, as well as the trust and belief they have in our future. Obviously, we are disappointed with this season’s overall record and not being able to compete for a championship in the postseason. We understand that championships are what is expected and deserved at USC.”
IMHO: Well, I guess we all know now why Clay Helton was so surrealistically confident during his post-game press conference in which he sounded like a coach coming back and a bit animated and adamant in his response to returning. Good for him, Gentleman Clay gets to prove all the naysayers that he deserves the support of Lynn Swann. Make no mistake about, however, if the 2019 Trojans lose their opener against Fresno State or early games, his words will fall on deaf ears. If you thought this season was uncomfortable, all the elements are in place to supersize the situation. Then again, ask yourself, what would be a successful season in 2019? Well, you’d start with a Pac-12 title and nothing less. Now there’s something that you and Helton would agree.
Helton Paragraph 2: “I have met with Mr. Swann and discussed changes and improvements that will be made moving forward. Our staff, our players and I will work tirelessly this offseason to produce a disciplined football team that executes at a championship level. I truly believe that with the continued development of the talent we have on this team, the best is yet to be. Our number one goal is to win championships and we will not be satisfied with anything less.”
IMHO: Some good thoughts by the coach, but why must one work on the discipline? Isn’t that the foundation of any successful team? We’ve been around losing program that still had discipline and effort. Helton says the best is yet to come, but didn’t he say in October the best was yet to come in November? Words matter. At this point in time, you can believe that anything Swann tells Helton to do – short of calling the plays – will take place. Swann’s ability to be the real football general manager of the Trojans is now in play.
Helton Paragraph 3: “CLAY HELTON, USC Football Head Coach”
IMHO: So, there you have it, still the head coach and, boy, you talk about being under pressure from here on out both locally and nationally. Oy Veh! I still like Clay Helton the person, but we are now in treacherous cardinal and gold football waters, and I hope he can back up what he and Swann say. As of right now, both have a lot to prove, or one or both probably won’t be back after 2019.
The post-game show:
The count: How many Trojan fans will cancel their season tickets after the Helton announcement?
Donations: How much donation money will the athletic department lose as angry fans withhold money to show their displeasure in leadership?
Perception: How big – positive or negative – is the national and local perception of the USC football program after the Helton announcement?
The last word: No question, the upcoming 2019 USC recruiting season, spring practice, and the regular season are going to be like no other in recent memory. Swann is taking a huge risk in throwing complete support Helton’s way, and if Swann and Helton fail, how long would it take for the Trojans’ football program to recover? However, if Swann is correct in his evaluation of Helton, he might be seen as a greater administrator than he was as a football player.