In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.
It’s coming: Late last week, a sub-group of the College Football Playoff’s (CFP) management committee passed forward to its chain of command a 12-team playoff expansion proposal, which prompted a rather looming cardinal and gold question: Will Clay Helton be around if the proposal is implemented as early as 2023, a proposal which is also expected to all but guarantee a Pac-12 playoff berth(s)? And for some additional intrigue, the 2023 season coincidentally marks the conclusion of Gentleman Clay’s current coaching contract.
It’s coming – Part 2: If this was the approaching 2023 season with an expanded 12-team playoff system rather than the 2021 current CFP four-team format, Gentleman Clay would have had a cleaner and clearer path for perpetuating his faith, family, and football program. As one knows, timing and good fortune is everything and through his first five full seasons, Clay Helton has expertly dodged every conceivable pothole in preserving his job that pays him close to $5 million dollars per season: be it a last second Rose Bowl winning field goal in a wild 52-49 triumph over Penn State; devastating major and lower tier bowl losses to Ohio State and Iowa, respectively; a pandemic; a complete turnover of his entire assistant coaching staff from his original group; new offensive and defensive coordinators who brought in new systems; a highly controversial contract extension; and some curious and not-so-curious transfer departures.
It’s coming – Part 3: And let’s also not forget Clay Helton’s adept bonding with then first-year USC president, Dr. Carol Folt, who herself created a massive fan meltdown and befuddled the media when she and her then newly appointed athletic director Mike Bohn supported their beleaguered head football coach not long after their sequenced arrivals to the Trojans’ campus. No doubt, whether through design or just plain old good luck, Clay Helton has been a master escape artist or more specifically the Houdini of D-1 college football coaching survival.
It’s coming – Part 4: Although Clay Helton was the first USC head coach to have 10-win seasons in each of his first two full seasons and had more wins (21) in his first two seasons than any Trojans’ football coach, Gentleman Clay has won just one conference title (2017) in five tries and no CFP post-season appearances. So, the future implementation of a CFP 12-teams expansion may or may not be arriving too little and too late if Helton doesn’t win the Pac-12 and make it into the CFP “Final Four” this season.
With no near automatic CFP berth in 2021, one almost overlooks that Helton still has to win the Pac-12 South Division to make it to December’s Pac-12 title game in Las Vegas, which won’t be easy because Utah, ASU, and UCLA have all been getting stronger through solid to impressive transfer portal arrivals, which enhance their existing rosters.
It’s coming – Part 5: In the sub-group of the CFP management committee’s official recommendation regarding the 12-team format proposal, which, BTW, first still needs to be approved by college presidents (June 22) as well as some additional workable hurdles, the “working group members” said in a statement, “This is a very exciting moment for college football. We think we can capture what student-athletes and fans love about the game and extend it to more people in more places, while enhancing what’s great about the regular season.”
It’s coming – Part 6: For the record, those “working group members” include SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. Yes, missing is the Pac-12 commissioner, which is not a shock due to the fact that current Pac-12 leader Larry Scott officially departs the conference at the end of the month and newly appointed commissioner George Kliavkoff doesn’t assume office until July 1. Kliavkoff hinted strongly during his introductory presser earlier that change in the playoffs could be announced in June, and he was strongly supporting a CFP change to include the Pac-12.
It’s coming – Part 7: For those that have not seen the particulars of the proposal, here’s how the official press release reads: “The proposal calls for the bracket each year to include the six highest-ranked conference champions, plus the six highest-ranked other teams as determined by the College Football Playoff selection committee. No conference would qualify automatically, and there would be no limit on the number of participants from a conference.”
IMHO: Under the proposed new guidelines, it would take a series of incredible blunders that would place the Pac-12 Conference beneath two conferences outside the Power 5 for the Pac-12 not to qualify for the post-season. In other words, the Pac-12 is in. In terms of allowing multiple teams from one conference into the 12-team format, it’s a big deal for the Pac-12 but bigger deal for the SEC, who could send as many as seven teams into the CFP.
It’s coming – Part 8: “The four highest-ranked conference champions would be seeded one through four and each would receive a first-round bye, while teams seeded five through 12 would play each other in the first round on the home field of the higher-ranked team. (The team ranked #5 would host #12; team #6 would meet team #11; team #7 would play team #10; and team #8 would meet #9.) Under the proposal, the quarterfinals and semifinals would be played in bowl games. The championship game would continue to be at a neutral site, as under the current format.”
IMHO: It’s likely the Rose Bowl would be hosting a quarterfinal game on New Year’s Day. There is some quarters that would like to see the Rose Bowl, the Granddaddy of Them All, host the national championship game every season, which won’t happen.
It’s coming – Part 9: In other elements of the working group’s official released proposal statement, “First-round games would take place on campus sometime during the two-week period after conference championship games; quarterfinals would be played on January 1—or January 2 when New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday—and on an adjacent day; semifinals and championship game dates are to be determined; semifinals likely will not be played as a doubleheader.
“The playoff bracket would follow the rankings, with no modifications made to avoid rematches of teams that may have played during the regular-season or are from the same conference; the bracket would remain in effect throughout the playoff (i.e., no re-seeding); the working group’s charge did not include deciding which bowls might be a part of the CFP in the future; however, the group did recommend that if traditional bowls host games.
“Teams would be assigned to their traditional bowls for quarterfinal games with priority going to the higher-seeded team; all 11 games would be under the CFP umbrella, with the administrative specifications and the process for selecting the six bowls that would rotate as hosts of the quarterfinals and semifinals still to be determined.”
IMHO: Can you imagine the excitement on the Trojans campus if the Men of Troy hosted a first-round CFP game? Exposition Park would be a happening. Imagine if the Trojans next game was a quarterfinal game at the Rose Bowl. From there, the semi-finals would be played at a neutral site at a later date (the following week is my call) and the title game either a week or two weeks later. Interesting that the semi-finals would not be part of a doubleheader (Saturday and then Sunday?).
It’s coming – Part 10: All of which brings us back to Clay Helton and the Trojans. We should know by this September if and when the new 12-team format is adopted. If Helton can survive until the end of his contract in 2023, the question becomes whether USC president Dr. Carol Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn – assuming both are still in their same positions in two years –believe that Helton’s contract should be extended entering the new 12-team playoff era. If Helton flubs this season or the next and Folt and Bohn want to give a new coach a chance to get ready for the new playoff system, that scenario certainly isn’t out of the question.
It’s coming – summation: All of which also takes us back to the upcoming 2021 season. With the new 12-team playoff format still in the process stage, there is no exact date for an implementation. As it stands, Clay Helton can only concentrate on the current format and challenges he knows exists for this season. Although the 2021 season has yet to be played, it’s not a reach to say that this season begins Helton’s auditioning for the foreseeable 12-team CFP expansion.
From the press box…
Athlon: The 2021 Athlon College Football Magazine is now on the stands, and the Trojans are ranked No. 18 in the country, ahead of Pac-12 rival Washington (No. 22) and behind No. ASU (No. 15) and Oregon (No. 9). Of course, if you wondered who No. 1 in the land is, you will be stunned to learn it’s the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Athlon – Part 2: Regarding the Trojans, Athlon writes, “Another pressure-filled season is on tap for the defending Pac-12 South Division champions. USC coach Clay Helton has revamped his on and off-field staff over the last two years in hopes of getting this program back among the nation’s elite or at least win a conference title for the first time since 2017.”
Athlon – Part 3: Speaking to the USC offense, Athlon writes, “The path to another division title starts on offense with the return of quarterback Kedon Slovis. The junior was inconsistent at times last year but returns one of the nation’s top receiving corps – anchored by Drake London and Bru McCoy – and a capable backfield featuring Vavae Malepeai, Kenan Christon and Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram. However, the backfield needs to produce more after averaging a Pac-12-low 3.2 yards per carry. Some of that lackluster production is due to the play up front, which is a concern after once again after left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker departed to the NFL.”
Athlon – Part 4: Speaking to the USC defense, Athlon writes, “Statistically, the defense showed small improvement in coordinator Todd Orlando’s debut. After giving up 5.7 yards per play in ’19, USC lowered that total to 5.5. But USC finished seventh in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense, last in the conference in red zone defense and tied for last in the most pass plays allowed of 50-plus yards (three). A full offseason to work with Orlando provides optimism for improvement, especially if this unit plugs concerns up front on the interior and reloads in the secondary.”
Athlon – Part 5: Addressing the 2021 Trojans’ schedule, Athlon writes, “Missing Oregon and Washington in crossover play is a huge win for USC in ’21. However, the road date at Arizona State could decide the winner of the South.”
The post-game show…
Famous last words: By now, you’re all probably aware that former Trojans true freshman defensive tackle sensation Jay Toia has officially announced he will enroll at UCLA after having entered the NCAA Transfer Portal. Before the mudslinging begins, let’s remind ourselves what Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton had to say about Toia after the conclusion of spring practice:
“You’re talking about off the field the sweetest human being you will ever meet, but I don’t know who he becomes when it’s a competitive situation. He is a different person, and it has been really neat to see how talented he is but also what an unbelievable sense of urgency that guy has to be great and to help this team next year.”
Colorado transfer news: Colorado Buffaloes 2020 starting quarterback Sam Noyer has placed his name into the NCAA Transfer Portal and has since announced for Oregon State, whom the Trojans host on Sept. 25. FYI, Noyer is originally a native of Beaverton, Oregon.
Fill it up: Arizona State has announced that it will have full capacity for its home games in Sun Devil Stadium, which includes the Trojans on Nov. 6.
In memory: Jim Fassel, a backup quarterback on the Trojans’ Rose Bowl champion team in 1969 and was later named the 1997 NFL Coach of the Year with the New York Giants, passed last Monday in Las Vegas, Nev., of a heart attack. He was 71. Our thoughts go out to the Fassel family.
The legend of John Rudometkin: Normally, this space is devoted to USC football. However, there are exceptions, and one of those exceptions would be anything that brings up the name of legendary Trojans’ men’s basketball center John Rudometkin. Last week, we had the extreme pleasure and honor of doing a Zoom conference with two of “Rudo’s” sons, J.D. and Nathan, who are the driving force behind a fascinating developing documentary on their beloved father.
The legend of John Rudometkin – Part 2: The Rudometkin brothers have been interviewing a large number of the basketball community that played with or against “Reckless Rudo,” who always competed with his hair on fire along with his trademark style of relentless play, which gained him All-American status. I have said that Rudometkin was my hero growing up when my Uncle Eddie would take me to the old Sports Arena in the early 60s to watch Rudo and his teammates under head coach Forrest Twogood.
The legend of John Rudometkin – Part 3: The challenge of doing a documentary on Rudometkin is that it is a multi-faceted set of stories. There are the basketball accomplishments, and the intense deeper story that John’s NBA career was cut short after the discovery of deadly non-Hodgkin disease and a tumor surrounding his heart and lungs, which he overcame. And then there was the romantic relationship of John Rudometkin, the son of Russian immigrants, meeting his future wife, Carolyn, when she was 14 years-old and the daughter of Russian immigrants. John said at the time that Carolyn was the girl he was going to marry. You can see the incredible set of storylines.
The legend of John Rudometkin – Part 4: How all these stories will be interwoven into one fascinating documentary is the heartfelt challenge. However, when it’s all put together and finalized, it will be for the love of a game, the ultimate challenge of decades of cancer survival, and the romance of a fairytale relationship. As they say, real life is stranger than fiction. As the documentary’s production moves through its process, we’ll keep you posted.
The call-in show…
Caller No. 1: Greg, are you shocked that former USC true freshman defensive tackle Jay Toia announced last week that he will be attending UCLA in the fall?
Caller No. 1, I am about as shocked as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West. This is one of the least shocking announcements I can recall. To put things in order, Toia wasn’t going to leave the area so his parents couldn’t watch him play. The kid also had a previously good relationship with former USC coach Johnny Nansen, who is now the UCLA D-line coach. Obviously that relationship never went away. Look, if you say you’re getting good grades at USC, have a real shot at starting as a true freshman, and you still want out? Then go and be happy, but something went down, and the Toia family, head coach Clay Helton, and D-line coach Vic So’oto know the real story.
Caller No. 2: Katzer, now that it’s official that Jay Toia has defected to UCLA, how do you think that reflects on Clay Helton and D-line coach Vic So’oto?
Caller No. 2, I don’t think it reflects on Clay Helton so much because I think most folks have long formed an opinion on Helton’s head coaching leadership and acumen. However, with So’oto, it does put him in an awkward spotlight for the moment until more information is leaked out. It’s possible that So’oto and Toia were just a bad match, and neither is really the bad guy. However, as the dust settles, let’s see how the current members of the Trojans D-line players react, and let’s see if this doesn’t hamper recruiting. Don’t be shocked if some recruits ask current Trojan players what happened with Toia. As a former varsity coach of 27 years myself, I am not quite ready to place the burden on So’oto. Some players just reject the type of discipline that you are selling. It happens.
Caller No. 3: GK, do you think that the lack of a contract extension for men’s basketball coach Andy Enfield after going deep into the NCAA tournament has anything to do with Clay Helton’s current contract?
Caller No. 3, in short and I believe the correct answer is a resounding “Yes!” No question that if USC athletic director Mike Bohn was going to extend Enfield’s contract, he probably would have already done so. There is also no question that Bohn is well aware that coming up on his tenth season, and Enfield has never won a Pac-12 title, which would be more than enough evidence not to extend his contract. At least Clay Helton has won one Pac-12 title heading into his sixth season, but unlike Enfield, Helton has never entered into post-season CFP tournament play in five tries.
There is also no doubt in my mind that Bohn is not going to pull a Lynn Swann and extend Enfield if he thinks Mr. Andy is not the future of USC basketball, which I don’t believe he is. In fact, I would be willing to place a bet that both Bohn and Enfield know exactly what is going down, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Enfield is already exploring other landing spots. And, no, I don’t think that Helton is going to get a contract extension even if he wins the Pac-12. I think that Bohn knows the ultimate future of Clay Helton, and it becomes more complicated when you consider college football figures to expand to a probable 12-team format. Then maybe it doesn’t, and the writing is on the wall.
Caller No. 4: Mr. G., it seems that the USC athletic department is going through some real challenges as it pertains to its teams. With such a glorious past, why is this happening to our athletic department?
Caller No. 4, well, let’s first turn a negative into a positive. On Saturday, the Trojans won its third women’s national outdoor track and field title, finishing ahead of Texas A&M. So, let’s have three loud cheers and confetti for Director of Track and Field Caryl Smith Gilbert, who continues her large footprint imprint of national prominence upon track and field. It might shock you to recall that Gilbert was actually hired by former Trojans AD Pat Haden in 2013, and since then she has elevated both team and individual track and field performances for both the women and the men.
UPDATE: USC track coach Caryl Smith Gilbert has since resigned to become the new track coach at Georgia.
The truth is that so much of the athletic department focuses on the flagship sport, football, which helps pay the bills, that it overshadows the rest of the sports, but that’s no excuse for not having all sports contend for national honors. There are many factors why other sports like baseball have never seemed to recover from their once past glories. Of course, it didn’t help to have previous athletic directors, Pat Haden and Lynn Swann combined, who revealed their general lack of experience, passion, good judgement, leadership skills, and a general recreational attitude towards USC athletics.
The passion that Haden and Swann had as players at USC didn’t translate or continue into their adult life, especially in their senior citizen years. They just didn’t have the passion or competence to do their job on a consistent and professional basis. I do, however, believe that current AD Mike Bohn needs to be given some slack here and be accountable for his hires and not the overall ones of Haden and Swann. No question, the biggest decision of Bohn’s tenure will be the fate of the football program – specifically the future of Clay Helton and the potential of naming a new head coach.
Caller No. 5: Coach, do you believe in fate or “it was meant to be”?
Caller No. 5, I must admit, sometimes life deals you good and bad things, and it really makes you wonder and doesn’t make sense. For example, there are too many unexplained and incredible phenomena that led me back to my 1968 high school girlfriend, Sharon, after we both got divorced in our 50s. There are too many to list, but I could write a book about fate and the unexplained. Those friends of mine – as well as our late parents – couldn’t believe that it was like an unexplained force(s) that kept pushing us back together through one coincidence after another. It got to being ridiculous. It was like out of the Twilight Zone or some romantic Tom Hanks movie. So, that being said, I am now a lot more swayed there are some things that do happen for a reason and are as unexplainable as UFOs, and after listening to others that have had similar romantic experiences as mine, it makes me wonder more with an open mind about fate and destiny.
The last word: A belated happy 91st birthday to our favorite statue, Tommy Trojan. However, rather than say “Happy Birthday,” maybe we should just say the obvious: Fight On, Tommy!