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Musings from Arledge: Great Energy, Selling Signing Day, and Buying Snyder

You never want to be in a position where you having nothing left to sell.

Most of us are salesman of one type of another. I certainly am. I sell myself to clients. I sell my legal theories to judges. I sell my view of the facts to jurors.

Lawyers have a bad reputation for being dishonest. In many respects, I think that reputation is undeserved. No lawyer that I know what’s to sell something untrue. Even if you have no moral qualms about lying, it’s hard to sell a lie. The best lawyers find a true argument, even in a weak case, and try to sell that.

A college football coach is just as much a salesman as a lawyer or an advertising executive. He sells himself and his coaches to recruits and their parents. He sells his program to fans, alums, and the media. He sells his philosophy to his players.

That puts Clay Helton in a tough spot. I disagree with a lot of the personal criticisms directed at Clay. I think he’s a fundamentally good man, and probably an honest one. But he’s a salesman, and he no longer has an argument in favor of what he’s selling. And it’s uncomfortable to watch.

The comedian Bill Burr has a great bit about the poor jerk who had to sit in the limo with a very angry Hitler on the way back from the Olympic games after Jesse Owens shredded Hitler’s Aryan-superiority nonsense. I was thinking of that bit while imagining what poor staffer would have to sit in the car with Clay Helton and Mike Bohn after the annual signing day press conference.

Fortunately, somebody had the good sense to cancel it. Maybe Helton and Bohn weren’t convinced that the media had an hour’s worth of questions about one signee, as interesting as Jack Yary undoubtedly is. Or maybe Mike Bohn is still hiding from USC fans and media somewhere in the deepest, darkest jungles of the Amazon, dressed like Indiana Jones, searching for those missing silent commits, holed up in a shack somewhere he can’t see what people are saying on his twitter account.

But even without the traditional press conference, Clay Helton still had to comment, and that means he had to offer his spin, whatever it was, to explain this recruiting class and the state of the program. I’m not convinced Clay Helton is very good at spin, but in fairness, I’m not sure anybody would be in a good position to spin this situation. Let’s dive in.

“There’s a great energy that’s going around our place right now. It was a great Junior Day. I think this place sells itself.”

Whoa, Nellie! Two pretty remarkable statements packed into only three short sentences. As a professional communicator myself, I can’t help but marvel at such efficiency.

There’s a great energy around the program, Clay? People are reportedly sending feces to Heritage Hall. (Musings does not condone that.) Major donors are saying publicly that your football program is dog feces. (Musings whole-heartedly endorses that.) A long line of blue-chip recruits have left Southern California for power programs in the south and an upstart program in the Pacific Northwest. USC is an after-thought on signing day and an after-thought during the season. But Clay thinks there’s a great energy around the program? What would bad energy look like?

Thanks for taking me on this trip, Mr. Donner, there’s a great energy around this trip through the mountains.

There’s some great energy around this boat trip, Sheriff Brody.

There’s some good energy around Shawshank, Warden Norton.

Maybe he’s telling the truth. Maybe that negative energy is only outside the program. I doubt it. I suspect that inside the program there’s quite a bit of frustration, anger, and embarrassment, hopefully joined with a strong determination to fix what’s broken.

I hope so. Because I’m actually worried that he’s right. If he is, if inside the program people feel good about themselves, if they actually believe Clay’s good-to-great nonsense, then they’re in real trouble. Last year’s team was not good.

And staying the course will not take this team to great. It’s just not true.

Clay’s other statement in the quote above is even more of a gem. This place sells itself? Well, apparently not.

USC is certainly an easier product to sell than most, but traditional bottom feeders Baylor, Iowa State, Oregon State, and others are selling themselves just as well right now.

Maybe this is part of the problem. Maybe Clay Helton isn’t working nearly as hard as Dabo, Nick, Ed, and others to sell his program. Or maybe he is.

Maybe he’s giving it the old college try and blue-chip recruits have simply seen his program. That could put a dent in your recruiting momentum, I suppose. I sometimes think those late-night Pac 12 games are the best thing we have going for us right now. It keeps people from actually seeing USC’s games.

Either way, this kind of vapid comment is one you make when you just landed a top-three class and you want to give some false modesty to reporters to sound likeable. It’s not the kind of thing you should say when you just landed the worst recruiting class in USC history.

USC doesn’t sell itself. It’s your job to sell it, Clay. And it’s an easy product to sell. Every coach who has had your office has had at least moderate success selling USC, and the better salesmen sell it to tremendous effect.

You’ve been given given Coca Cola to sell, and you’re losing market share to RC Cola.

Clay also answered a question about whether there is still room for more additions: “We held right at 83 [scholarships]. We saw exactly last year if you remember, and it was in the month of May that we were able to acquire Bru McCoy, Chris Steele and our starting right tackle in Drew Richmond, who was a graduate transfer from Tennessee. So to be able to acquire that level of talent in the portal, I think it’s become another avenue for NCAA football teams to be able to say, ‘OK, where are we after spring?’ Sometime you get injuries and all of a sudden a position of depth becomes a position of need because of injuries, and the portal is almost like free agency for the NFL. … We’re doing the same with these last two scholarships.”

Wait, so USC held onto those last two scholarship intentionally, so they could sign some guys from the portal? What a relief! Because I had a bad dream that USC actually tried to fill those two spots and struck out in embarrassing fashion, with one player – a running back from Ohio – picking Kentucky (!) over USC on signing day, no doubt thinking that John Calipari could help get him to the next level, and another, a quarterback from Louisiana, picking Baylor (!) over USC, probably because he has always wanted to play for quarterback guru Dave Aranda.

Look, I know it’s hard to admit when you’re failing in spectacular fashion, and maybe I shouldn’t expect that level of honesty, even from Clay Helton. Like I said, he’s in a tough spot trying to sell things that virtually nobody is willing to buy. (“Hey! What about me!?” Yes, sorry, Carol, you’re right; you seem to be buying it.) Clay probably doesn’t want to admit that he tried giving a homeless guy $10 the other day and the guy gave it back and said thanks but no thanks; he’d rather hang out and wait to see whether Dabo comes by.

It’s tough to be honest when the truth is so ugly. And I can’t really blame him for resorting to spin. But if you can’t be completely honest, Clay, please stop insulting us with claptrap. We know spin. We all see it all the time from the political hacks who dominate the cable news networks this political season. If all you have to offer is spin, we need better spin from you. You need to try harder.

What you currently give us is just so painful to listen to. If this were Castaway, and Tom Hanks were talking this way to Wilson, I’m pretty sure Wilson would find some way to roll himself into the pounding surf to escape it.

Bottom line: if we’re stuck with a third-rate football coach because of his alleged integrity, can’t we at least expect that he’ll, you know, at least pretend to tell the truth?

I like the Sean Snyder hire. I don’t know if he’ll be good or not, but he’s not John Baxter, and that’s a fantastic start. Besides, he checks some of the right boxes: no ties to Clay Helton or Western Kentucky, lots of experience, and substantial time in a top-notch program.

Sean Snyder’s father, Bill, is possibly the best football coach in recent memory. What he did at Kansas State was remarkable, and I think more impressive than what Carroll did at USC, what Meyer did at Florida or Ohio State, or even what Saban did at Alabama. Those guys took over powerhouse programs and unlocked their potential. Bill Snyder took over a garbage program with no history, no recruiting territory, and no belief and turned it into a top-10 program that maintained a high level of play for many seasons.

Obviously just because he’s Bill Snyder’s son doesn’t mean that Sean Snyder is a great coach. But it does mean he’s spent a very long time watching and learning from one of the very best at this profession, somebody who taught discipline and toughness with the best of them, somebody who could find diamonds in the rough, somebody who could squeeze the absolute most out of his talent.

This seems like a very good hire.

There are a lot of very serious people involved with this XFL project: Oliver Luck, Bob Stoops, Hal Mumme, June Jones, and others. So I shouldn’t dismiss it completely. But it’s hard to get over the fact that this is a Vince McMahon-financed and Vince McMahon-led venture. McMahon is a brilliant showman and a very successful entrepreneur. But I do believe he’s known for running fake competitions, and his only other venture in real sports was a disaster full of foolish gimmicks and little substance.

That said, Vince, if the Los Angeles Wildcats struggle early, you can’t afford to have the team in the second-biggest media market in the country struggling. So I have a hot coaching tip you may want to look into: he’s the son of an O line coach with tons of integrity (and I know how badly you believe in integrity, Vince).

Back up the Brinks truck, Vince! Make it happen!

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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