21 min Read

IMHO Wednesday Special Edition: He’s baaaack, to Hel-ton with the record, fan base, and critics

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles on the return of Clay Helton for 2020.

Here we go again: USC confirmed in a Wednesday press release that Clay Helton (cover photo above) would be returning in 2020 as the head football coach of the Men of Troy. The bottom line: Depending, of course, on your point of view, USC athletic director Mike Bohn’s decision was (a) a major win for Helton, USC’s embattled head coach (b) a major loss for the frustrated and angry USC faithful (c) a major cop-out by athletic director Bohn and USC President Dr. Carol Folt (d) a series of vital unanswered questions (E) a complete farce (F) all of the mentioned. For me, I’ll take letter “F” and thank you very much.

Here we go again – Part 2: Taking a page out of former USC athletic director Lynn Swann’s playbook, newly arrived USC athletic director Mike Bohn may have already proved that he may be the most extroverted, enthusiastically hugging and handshaking, people-loving AD in the country, but he might also have proved that he may be the most deaf AD as well, deciding – as did his highly unpopular predecessor Lynn Swann – that Clay Helton was deserving of yet another chance to prove he is not a national championship caliber coach, despite the near unanimous USC fan base outcry for immediate change. Apparently, Bohn and Folt think Helton can take the Trojans to a national championship or at least get into the post-season CFP. If coaches Urban Meyer and/or Bob Stoops rejected the Trojans’ overtures to take over as head coach, certainly there must have been other qualified candidates, right? This whole Helton situation and the way it was handled defies all logic, wouldn’t you agree? Or maybe you don’t really care about USC football like you once did and feel the administration doesn’t care either?  

Here we go again – Part 3: To all those impassioned USC fans, boosters, supporters, and respected pundits that tirelessly and relentlessly tried to communicate with or wrote to Mike Bohn and Dr. Carol Folt, voicing their concerns and anxiety regarding Clay Helton, Wednesday’s decision to return Helton to the USC sidelines in 2020 was a bitter blow to their efforts, hopes, and dreams of finding a football coach they believed could take their beloved Trojans to a future national championship. Basically, Bohn and Folt said thank you for your input, please drive safely on your way home, and we’ll leave the light on for ya. By keeping Clay Helton, perhaps Bohn and Folt didn’t want the awesome responsibility and ownership of hiring the next USC football coach. Certainly, Lynn Swann didn’t want that on his resume and ended up leaving Troy in disgrace.       

Here we go again – Part 4: Dr. Carol Folt and Mike Bohn appear to be sincere and energetic newly-hired USC administrators, but whoa, somebody completely pulled the wool over their eyes or they did it to themselves. They took the easy way out. So why did they do it? Did somebody sell them a major bill of goods? Is it possible they just don’t get it or there was too much infighting about what direction to take? Or are they simply ill-informed what’s been happening during the entire Clay Helton era and haven’t been here long enough to truly understand what USC football means to so many? I am betting they either just don’t want to get it or couldn’t get a big-name coach that was worth the bucks.  And then there’s this terrifying thought: Maybe the Helton decision means the University is not nearly as committed as it once was to supporting a national powerhouse football team. Certainly, that perception is starting to come into question. Or just maybe, Bohn and Folt believe that if the Trojans have a great 2020 season and go to the CFP or Rose Bowl, this whole fiasco will fade away. Opening up 2020 against powerhouse Alabama in Texas isn’t exactly the most accommodating beginning.

The decision by USC President Carol Folt (photo above) and athletic director Mike Bohn to bring back embattled head coach Clay Helton in 2020 is sure to bring up questions regarding their commitment for future national championship runs in football. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Here we go again – Part 5: For a loyal-to-a-fault cardinal and gold fan base, the return of Clay Helton may be the last of the last straw, but maybe Bohn and Folt think that time heals all and the loyal Trojans fans need USC football more than it needs them. Both Bohn and Folt have a lot – I mean a lot – of explaining to do, and that might not be enough to satisfy the masses. Both administrators will find out soon enough by the response to 2020 season ticket renewals and new sales.  If you want to have some compassion for somebody in terms of fallout from the Helton decision, send your sympathy cards to the USC season ticket and marketing department who will have the awesome task of trying to revive an angry fan base.

Here we go again – Part 6: Given the same set of circumstances, if Clay Helton was the head coach at Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, or Oklahoma, do you think that he’d still be holding his position as of this week? I don’t, not by a longshot. The Helton return decision now legitimately calls into question how important does a national championship level football program mean to the University of Southern California? We know what it means to the aforementioned universities above.

Trojans fans are asking themselves if Clay Helton was the coach at a school like Ohio State (photo above) and given his last two seasons of turmoil, would he be given a third season to turn it around?

Here we go again – Part 7: I can honestly say, I really don’t know anyone who supported the return of Clay Helton as the Trojans’ head coach other than Mike Bohn and President Dr. Carol Folt, but I am sure there are some that I just haven’t met. Both Bohn and Folt proved without much shadow of a doubt, IMHO, that all their talk of winning national championships was about as hollow as Clay Helton’s yearly pronouncements that his teams were going to be balanced offensively, physical, and disciplined. Sure, Folt and Bohn want winning – winning big with integrity – but finishing a regular season at 8-4 may be winning by their definition but certainly not the way most USC season ticket holders define winning – try conference titles and national championships.

Here we go again – Part 8: Neither Mike Bohn nor Dr. Folt have ever been affiliated with a real national championship football program or team to the best of my knowledge. We can all agree that Helton’s teams don’t live up to what a physical and disciplined championship football program looks like. For me, I have experienced seven USC national championship teams in person and countless conference titles. I don’t mind crowing that I know what a USC national championship team looks like in coaching, talent, and even practice. What we have been witnessing the last 10 years is not national championship football, and yes, I understand the NCAA sanctions have a lot to do with that. All you need to do is watch what transpires on the field consistently to know how far the Men of Troy are from competing for a national title. IMHO, the last 10 years of athletic department decisions pertaining to football have done more damage than the NCAA sanctions. The internal decision-making has been horrendous to say the least.   

By bringing back Clay Helton in 2020, did USC athletic director Mike Bohn (photo above) do immediate harm to his current and future credibility? Bohn was 0-3 in hiring successful football coaches as the former athletic director at the University of Colorado although he did hire a good one, Luke Fickell, at his former place of employment, the University of Cincinnati.

Here we go again – Part 9: As painful as it sounds for long supporting USC fans, where USC football is today to both a disgrace and a lack of commitment – and you add a dash of incompetence. And don’t tell me college football has changed. Has it changed for Ohio State? Has it changed for Alabama? Has it changed for Oklahoma? You get the picture.

Here we go again – Part 10: If you’re angry over the return of Clay Helton, you should be. If you’re angry after watching this whole Lynn Swann déjà vu come full cycle, you probably need a group hug from your closest fellow USC football supporters, and together find a location to form a firepit circle, clasp hands, and start singing “We shall overcome.” I will say again that I have met both Dr. Folt and Mike Bohn and both seem to be very nice folks with good intentions, but this decision to retain Helton reeks on many levels. Please keep in mind, Clay Helton isn’t the villain here, he really isn’t. Afterall, he didn’t hire himself and he can’t fire himself. Those decisions were made by others or have you already forgotten Pat Haden and Lynn Swann and now Mike Bohn, and Dr. Carol Folt?    

Former USC athletic director Lynn Swann (photo above) enraged USC fans and the local media when he refused to fire Clay Helton after his 5-7 season and no bowl game in 2018. Helton rebounded from the 2018 season with an 8-4 record and a post-season bowl invitation in 2019. Apparently AD Bohn and USC President Folt liked what they saw in Clay Helton and his team’s late season performance.

Bottom line or questions: Then there are so many unanswered questions to this whole mess. Why did Mike Bohn wait so long to announce that Helton was coming back? Was it because he was rejected by his top choices? Did Bohn have a Plan B or Plan C? How much input did new USC President Carol Folt have in the decision making of a new coach or bringing back Clay Helton? Is USC still committed to having a national powerhouse football team or do they want to be Stanford or an Ivy League school? Is this all the result of hiring outsiders as the school’s president and athletic director who have never been involved in a legendary football school and perhaps don’t feel the same passion for football as did those that came before them? So many questions, but perhaps USC fans really don’t want to hear the answers because of what they may hear.

From the press box

The recruiting winners: The real winners in this week’s announcement by USC athletic director Mike Bohn and Dr. Carol Folt that Clay Helton is returning to coach the Trojans in 2020 are all of the Trojans’ recruiting adversaries, both in the Pac-12 and around the country who couldn’t have been more pleased hearing and watching the turmoil and reading the final press release that Helton would be returning. They all know it will be business as usual in coming into SoCal and pursuing recruits that once would have come to USC without much of a debate. Don’t be shocked if the John McKay Center is inundated with holiday and thank you cards form Ohio State, Notre Dame, LSU, Florida, Oregon, Oklahoma, Texas, and the list goes on. As my late mother would say, “What a revolting development.”

The Meyer factor: Unless you’ve been stranded on Gilligan’s Island, you know that former Ohio Stata coach legend Urban Meyer was potentially available to return to coaching if he so desired. Most USC fans I know were giddy and probably unrealistic with the thought that the legendary football coach might leave the comforts of the Fox TV studios and lead the Trojans out of the famous Coliseum tunnel. It seemed too good to be true and it was. But what about Bob Stoops, the former Oklahoma Sooners coach? Did he decide he wasn’t interested either? The good news for Mike Bohn and Dr. Carol Folt? By returning Clay Helton in 2020, it allowed them to avoid the Urban Meyer question of integrity and public backlash for not pursuing the former legendary Ohio State and Florida coach. Maybe Stoops decided against aggressively pursuing the USC job. There has to be more to these stories than meets the eye, correct?

Did Urban Meyer (above photo on right) turn down the Trojans offer to be the next USC head coach or did the USC administration reject the idea of him being the next USC coach?

Sign of the Times: It was well known that the Los Angeles Times columnists had their own takes regarding the Trojans’ coaching situation. While many Trojan fans really disliked lead columnist Bill Plaschke’s stand on USC not hiring Urban Meyer, Bill never said he believed that Clay Helton should continue as the Trojans’ head coach. In fact, after last season’s dismal 5-7 season, Plaschke wrote that Helton was not the right coach to take the Trojans back to their rightful place amongst the college football giants, and then he proceeded to really go after former USC athletic director Lynn Swann for his incompetence as an athletic director. In fact, the other two Times columnists, Arash Markazi – a former USC student – and Dylan Hernandez – a former UCLA student – both agreed in print following the Trojans’ win over UCLA that Helton had to go and should not be the USC coach in 2020.  

The talk shows: Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, the local sports talk shows have all believed for the most part that Clay Helton needed to be replaced, and that the program needed a new direction, which would allow renewed USC football enthusiasm to return with the hopes of returning one of the city’s most beloved sports teams back to national prominence and relevancy. In most Los Angeles media polls over the years, the interest in USC football traditionally hasn’t ranked that far behind the Lakers, Dodgers, and now the Rams. You don’t have to be Tommy Turnstile to know the decision by Mike Bohn and Dr. Folt will affect season ticket holders that were already on the fence after the 2018 disaster.

With the announcement that Clay Helton is returning as USC head coach in 2020, how much will Helton’s return affect Coliseum home attendance (photo above)?

The radio guy: In case you weren’t playing attention to the airwaves, no less than former Trojans running back and current media personality Petros Papadakis dramatically urged a change in the USC football coaching situation and when you take away Petros’ schtick and listen to his points of logic and why Clay Helton is not the answer, he is spot-on.

The websites: Whether you are an avid reader of WeAreSC or the other specialized websites that cover USC football, nobody knows USC football better than the websites – nobody. All the USC football website specialists are highly informed, and you can decide which sites best fit your comfort zone and wallet, but here’s what I can tell you: all the USC football websites were in agreement that the Clay Helton era had more than run its course, and if the Trojans were to return to the top of the college football mountain, a coaching change was dramatically needed.

The call-in show:

Wow, Katz, I can’t believe that Clay Helton is really returning for next season, but here’s my question: Will the return of the coach reverse the recruiting disaster we have been seeing? Caller No. 1, there will be some movement in recruiting, but I wouldn’t expect a major turnaround with the announcement that Helton is returning. I think many recruits still don’t see stability in the Helton announcement heading into next season, and they probably see that the Trojans’ coaching situation could be in the same turmoil a year from now. If you want to check the pulse of USC football recruiting, watch what happens with tight end Jack Yary, the son of Trojans’ legendary offensive tackle Ron Yary. Once considered an absolute lock to wear the colors of his father’s alma mater, young Jack decommitted to the Trojans and is now open to alternatives. I am not giving away any family secrets when I say that Jack is concerned how the Trojans use their tight end and the coaching situation. If Jack signs somewhere else, it will speak volumes about the current state of USC football recruiting under Clay Helton.   

Tight end Jack Yary (photo above) is the son of legendary USC Trojans offensive tackle Ron Yary. Jack was committed to the Trojans earlier in the year but recently decommitted because he was no longer sure he fit into the Trojans’ offense and the Clay Helton program.

GK, will the Trojans be better next season even with Clay Helton? Yes, I think the Trojans will be better next season because Kedon Slovis and others will be a year older, improved, and they could very well be picked to win the Pac-12, but will they win games against teams of equal or better talent (i.e. Alabama, Notre Dame, etc.)? Will Helton still have Graham Harrell as his offensive coordinator in 2020? It’s entirely possible that Harrell will be pursued by other universities with coaching openings.  And will Helton replace his own beleaguered defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and special teams coach John Baxter whose work has been called into question?

Coach Katz, do you think that both Dr. Folt and Mike Bohn lost any goodwill and political capital by announcing the return of Clay Helton? Absolutely, no question about it. Talk about immediate lack of credibility and prestige, both Folt and Bohn insisted in public their desire to have national championships in all USC sports. Well, that took a major hit with the Helton returning announcement, and their credibility may never recover as it pertains to USC football. To say the least, it was stunning to see Helton’s return. As they say, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Both USC President Carol Folt (photo above on far right) and athletic director MIke Bohn (photo above far left) say they want national championships in football. However, their decision to bring back Clay Helton to coach in 2020 left a massive USC fan base wondering about their commitment to football.

Dude, how will Helton’s return affect season ticket holders and booster donations? Will, dude, the interesting part is that on paper the Trojans should be pretty good in 2020. However, the Helton factor must be applied when looking at any future predictions. I would say there will be another large repudiation of season ticket renewal applications, and as far as boosters and supporters, those Coliseum suites could be in jeopardy depending on the contract language. I would also expect that a good number of the already pissed off boosters will be joined by others in placing a hold on donations.

Mr. Katz, with Helton returning, what happens if the Trojans get blown out or painfully lose in the upcoming bowl game. And, BTW, what bowl game(s) do you think our guys will play in?

The Trojans will most likely play in the Alamo or Holiday Bowl, and I see more Holiday than Alamo based on the Pac-12 pecking order. If Utah gets into the CFP, everybody moves up a notch. If both Utah and Oregon get into the Group of Six, it will be the Alamo Bowl. As far as what will be the reaction if the Trojans lose their bowl game under Helton? You can bet that the “I told you so” refrain on Helton will come back even louder and clearer and don’t expect a huge contingent of fans traveling to either site. If the Trojans lose their bowl game, I would suggest that Mike Bohn and Carol Folt might want to avoid listening to the Los Angeles sports talk radio scene and because it won’t be pretty. And with Alabama next season as the opener, let’s not go there.

The Trojans may be playing their post-season in the Holiday Bowl (photo above) in San Diego in late December, but how many disgruntled USC fans won’t attend in protest over the return of head coach Clay Helton in 2020?

The last word: So, the decision to allow Clay Helton to return for another season is now official, but in all honesty, the Helton return is probably as bad as it gets. It would have been like bringing back Paul Hackett one more season instead of hiring Pete Carroll. However, it’s time to move on. The good news? It’s a long time until the Trojans open the 2020 season with Alabama in Texas, and that’s probably a good thing right now.

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