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Musings from Arledge: Good to great, Coaching carousel, and 2019

It’s the dawn of a new year. Does that mean it’s time for Musings to make some New Year’s resolutions? No. Musings doesn’t do New Year’s resolutions. Those imply an intent to improve, and no such intent exists in this column. Unlike some people, we’re not looking to go from good to great. Here, what you’ve been getting is what you’ll likely keep getting.   

USC is trying to go from good to great according to Clay Helton. But I do have a question: what is he talking about? USC wasn’t good in 2019. Notre Dame is trying to go from good to great. So is Oregon. USC is not. Five losses isn’t good.  Losing to BYU isn’t good. Taking USC’s biggest bowl beat down in the last 70 years to the sixth-best team in the Big 10 isn’t good. USC went from terrible in 2018 to a little better than average in 2019. Are Clay Helton’s expectations really so low that 8-5 is “good”? It’s impossible to become great with a leader who doesn’t even recognize what good is.  

Don’t look now, but the coaching carousel is a’turning. Now for some breathless anticipation. The Cowboys, Giants, Browns and others are looking for coaches, and offensive-minded college coaches are all the rage.  Matt Rhule’s name is being thrown about. So is Urban Meyer’s. I just hope USC’s offseason good-to-great program won’t be compromised by the inevitable rumors about NFL franchises wanting to get on the Clay Helton integrity train. Is this the year Clay Helton finally makes that jump? Will he leave us for the big show like Pete did? And if he does, will his departure unravel all of that recruiting momentum? Nervous times, Trojan fans.  Let’s cross our fingers. 

I don’t want to let pass without comment the second installment of a relatively new, end-of-year Trojan Family tradition: the annual Clay Helton-returns-announcement. We have now had two installments from two different athletic directors. Which was better?  

In something of an upset, I prefer Mike Bohn’s message to Lynn Swann’s.  Don’t get me wrong: Swann’s original Clay-is-back message was special both because of the shock value — Really?! After 5-7?! Didn’t he see the airplane banner? — and because Swann helpfully listed all of the reasons why it was insane to bring Helton back while also bringing Helton back, almost as if Swann was concerned that somebody may get his letter after missing all of the games and would need help to get caught up with the outraged masses. Swann’s letter was like a best-man speech where the best man spends 15 minutes describing the groom as a liar, cheat, and criminal and then closes with, “But I’m sure you’ll both be very happy.  Congrats!”  

Mike Bohn went a completely different direction. He couldn’t be bothered to actually discuss football things and simply told us how happy he was to bring Helton back because of his integrity — integrity, of course, being a very fine quality in a human being but never (in all of human history, I think) the sole qualification for a highly paid professional. “Okay, Mr. Jones, you need to choose your brain surgeon. Dr. Smith is the chair of the department at Johns Hopkins and has done 1,500 of these operations successfully. Dr. Bruce went to an unaccredited medical school in Tijuana and has never held a scalpel. Who do you want?” “Well just answer me this: which one has more integrity?”  

Some were disappointed with Bohn’s version of the Clay returns message because of its lack of detail. He offered a tweet, not a letter.  I’m willing to cut him some slack on this. I suspect he hadn’t even finished typing his tweet when the backlash of furious responses began. Remember in the old westerns when somebody would put his hat on a stick and hold it up to see whether the posse was paying attention, and the hat would immediately be hit by 37 bullets? Yeah, that’s every Mike Bohn tweet these days. All Bohn tweets now end in more carnage than a Quentin Tarantino movie. His twitter account is an Itchy and Scratchy episode. You can’t expect him to write a detailed statement about anything. He doesn’t even get to finish his first sentence. As soon as he touches the first key, he has to call for a medic. 

Still, I could nitpick. I could point out that my mother is also a very honest person, shares Clay Helton’s aversion to blocking, tackling, and other forms of wanton violence, and could probably have been hired for 1% of Clay’s current salary. I think she’s the true integrity choice if you insist on going that route. But according to Mike Bohn, he never looked at any other candidates, so she remains an undiscovered gem in the coaching community. A loss for all of us, I suspect.

But I shouldn’t nitpick. Because what really set Mike Bohn’s version of the Clay-is-staying message apart is its delicious irony: a message that says the most important thing is integrity while simultaneously saying (1) we’re keeping Clay Helton because (2) our goal is to win championships.  Holy smokes! A public statement that proclaims the centrality of integrity while also not telling the truth. You can’t write this stuff, people.  

Okay, I guess you can; Mike Bohn did. Still, that’s a special effort.

I don’t know how Mike Bohn tops that next year. He has already gone the integrity route. Maybe next year he’ll justify keeping Clay by pointing to Clay’s new personal best on Words With Friends or how Clay showed remarkable resiliency spending three weeks on the Keto diet and cheating only twice or, in the words of Fletch, he may note that he’s a fine square dancer.  Or — my hope — I think Bohn and Folt rent that infamous airplane and fly a banner around LA that says simply, “More Clay.” That would be tough to top.

Meanwhile, I’m excited about a couple of things coming up. First, the Top Gun sequel comes out in a few months and if, like me, you were a 13-year-old boy when the original came out, you already know that Top Gun was the greatest film and maybe the greatest work of art of all time. And now, after more than three decades, they’re bringing back Maverick and Iceman? I can’t describe my joy at this prospect. Yes, it will probably be terrible, and no, I don’t care. I feel the need, the need for speed.

Second, we get to see what “strategic enhancements” Mike Bohn has planned for the football program. Like a master salesman, he’s been letting the suspense build. My guess: black socks and larger, better-insulated water bottles. But send in your predictions. The winning entry gets an autographed copy of your favorite Musings article and every seat in Section 17 for the opener against New Mexico.

In related news, search parties are still trying to find Mike Bohn’s four silent commitments, who have been missing for some weeks now. Authorities promise they will never give up the search no matter how perilous or futile. If this was a Where’s Waldo book, I’d look for the page that shows Oregon or the SEC. I think you have a better chance of finding them there.

2019 will forever be known as the year we met Kedon Slovis. I love Kedon Slovis like my own son, though I’m 90% sure he’s not. It will also be known as the year that USC’s offensive coaching staff and offensive line repeatedly conspired to kill Kedon Slovis — so far unsuccessfully; the kid is wily, as Dr. Evil might say. If I could give Kedon a Christmas gift, I’d give him a running game and a screen package. But I’m told the NCAA will dock us 50 scholarships if I give him anything, so he is on his own.

Of course, those scholarship-loss penalties are becoming less meaningful at USC as time goes on….

2019 has also given us the re-birth of Trojan Legend Ed Orgeron. I won’t wade into the what-ifs on this one, but I will admit that I’m happy for Coach O and his giant retinue of USC legends that now hang out on the LSU sideline.  

The first time I met Coach O I asked him about the rumors that he would be leaving SC. He said, “I ain’t going nowhere.” At least I think that’s what he said; it was kind of hard to understand. Within a couple of weeks, he was at Ole Miss. I don’t want to throw myself under the bus, and there is no way to know for sure, but it is possible that the lack of integrity in O´s response may have cost him the USC job.   

Just in case, I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to find a way to get Clay Helton to lie to me….

2019 was also the year that Oregon took control as the Pac 12’s dominant program. That’s happened before, of course, but this time feels different.  When Chip Kelly had his short run of dominance, USC was still the conference’s dominant recruiting power and likely to win the vast majority of head-to-head recruiting matchups with the Ducks. Now that’s no longer the case — USC is now winning head-to-head recruiting matchups with San Jose State — and I fear for the long-term consequences of this new state of affairs.  USC has always been a recruiting power on the west coast, and since the beginning of Pete Carroll’s reign it has been unrivaled. It turns out that keeping a coach two full years past his sell-by date can actually undo decades of work by previous regimes. Integrity: the door’s open but the ride ain’t free.

So the table is now set. Clay Helton v. Nick Saban II. I haven’t been this excited about a head-to-head matchup since Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze danced for the last open spot at Chippendale’s. I expect this game will give us an outcome just as close.

Carthago delenda est.

Chris Arledge

Chris Arledge is a graduate of USC’s Gould School of Law and is the co-founder and managing partner of an intellectual property law firm. Chris’s forgettable football career started at Elsinore High School, where his Tigers defeated Kyle Wachholtz’s Norco squad for the league title (Bring on Brad Otton’s team, too!), and ended at William Jewell College, where Chris was a team captain and an all-conference defensive back.

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