So now we know.
The question was always whether USC was truly committed to championship football. Sure, they all say the right things. Haden did. Swann did. Folt and Bohn recently did.
The question is whether they really meant it.
Now we know. USC does not care about championship football. And they don’t care about you, former players, students, and fans. Because if you care about championship football, you do not — you cannot — bring Clay Helton back for another year.
In fact, if you even care about mediocre football and not having torches and pitchforks all over your lawn, you cannot bring back Clay Helton.
Yet here we are. Clay Helton isn’t great at winning football games but he is unbelievably good (or lucky) at winning with athletics department administrators. He captured a job he wasn’t qualified for and has continued to hold onto it despite widespread opposition and no real record of accomplishment. This is a guy who would have survived Stalin’s purges. He would have lived through Vesuvius’s eruption. Nothing can make him go away. There’s simply not room enough in this town for both Clay Helton and most of the fan base, and Clay has won. The town is his.
I can’t wait to see the public relations staff sell the 2020 season:
Clay Helton Returns!
Plenty of Good Seats Available!
We will undoubtedly have staff changes. This is where Clay Helton gets rid of coaches that he actually thinks were doing a good job — in many cases coaches who Clay Helton has recently said are the best in their fields — because of pressure from administrators for public-relations reasons. And, let’s face it, if you have to throw a few assistants under the bus to hold onto your own high-paying position, you do it. Clay did it last year; he’ll do it this year. A few gullible people will buy into it and believe that the staff changes are the answer. Very few. Fewer than last year.
And this is because anybody with a lick of common sense knows that you can’t have a well-run organization with an inept leader. Retaining a coach who cannot assemble a staff without pressure from administrators, who cannot build a winning culture, who cannot run challenging practices, who cannot see and fix obvious problems with his program, who cannot even fix the very problems that he himself has identified as major issues that he takes personal responsibility for fixing — there’s a new penalty-reducing sheriff in town, and his name is Clay Helton! — is not a coach worth keeping.
Yes, he will win some games — eight or even nine next year, I suspect, with the returning talent and the weakness of the conference. But Helton’s teams will continue to underachieve; they will continue losing to teams they shouldn’t and show little or no ability to beat teams of equal talent, and as the talent base erodes further his ability to compete will erode with it. Clay Helton simply can’t win without a big talent advantage, and that big talent advantage will be gone soon if this year’s recruiting class is any indication.
For years we’ve been watching the long-term erosion of the program’s culture, a movement away from the toughness, hard work, and commitment to excellence that USC football has long been about. This is obvious to anybody who isn’t willfully blind. The big question was whether new leadership would step in and reverse the trend before the deteriorating culture takes down the entire ship.
The answer is no. And for those of us who love USC football, that hurts.
Clay Helton wasn’t the architect of this demise. Truth is, Clay Helton isn’t the architect of anything. Being an architect takes vision. Clay Helton is just a second-rate football coach who doesn’t have the intellect or preparation to succeed in this job, and he therefore substitutes unfounded optimism, lame excuses, and delusional happy talk for his missing qualities. That’s who he is, that’s who he’ll always be, and as frustrating as it is, it really isn’t his fault. So enough. I’m tired of watching Clay Helton. I’m tired of listening to Clay Helton. And I’m tired of writing about Clay Helton. I’ve said all I have to say about Clay Helton and his aw-shucks-at-least-we’re-still-in-the-running-for-the-south leadership. I’ll either find a way to write about USC football without discussing He Who Shall Be Named No Longer, or I’ll have to stop writing about USC football.
My real anger is directed towards his bosses. I know, USC has a whole series of high-profile problems. The school has employed and sometimes sheltered a whole series of criminals, clowns, and incompetents for a long time, and you can’t open a newspaper without seeing the results. Should USC clean up those other problems? Of course. Are those other issues more important than football? Of course. But can the BOT and university president focus on those other problems and also fire a lousy football coach and hire a good one? Of course. Good football and fixing USC’s broken culture are not mutually exclusive. Carol Folt and others can focus on the non-football issues — she doesn’t need to be intimately involved in running an athletic department — and Mike Bohn can deliver quality coaches and quality teams — he’s not equipped to deal with criminal doctors and business school deans anyway. So don’t give me the excuse that USC has too many other problems to fire Clay Helton. You can fix USC’s problems and fix USC’s football program. USC’s administrators have simply chosen not to.
Let’s be clear. This decision isn’t about Mike Bohn believing that Clay Helton can deliver championships to USC. Nobody can believe that at this point. I’m not sure even Clay Helton does. This is about USC’s administration hearing from the fan base that football matters to us, telling us what we want to hear — that the university is committed to championship football — knowing that the current head football coach has completely lost the confidence and support of the vast majority of the fan base and high school recruits, and then knowingly and intentionally choosing mediocrity and Clay Helton anyway. It’s a betrayal, a betrayal of the former coaches and players who built this program, of the current players who aren’t getting the direction they need, of the students, and of the fan base.
And Mike Bohn’s public statements about how great it is that we’re keeping Clay Helton are insulting. Mr. Bohn, if you feel compelled to betray the rich legacy with which you’ve been entrusted, it appears there’s nothing that any of us can do about that. But you could at least avoid spouting manure all over us in the process. Close down your twitter. Avoid any press releases. And you may want to tone down the requests money, attendance, and support for a bit. Because right now I don’t think many of us are interested in what you want.
We will all have to decide individually how to respond to USC’s decision to pull the plug on its football legacy. As for me, I have to spend some time thinking about how I can continue to write this column without making a choice between (1) scouring the wreckage of USC football for alleged silver linings that I don’t really believe or (2) being the angry, get-off-my-lawn guy every single week. And I don’t know if I can do it. For those of you who don’t completely jump ship, I’ll see you next time.