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Musings from Arledge: Swann’s Answers, Helton’s Tasks, and Grad Rates

I’ll give him this: Lynn Swann has guts.

It takes guts to walk into the heart of USC country and publicly answer questions shortly after (1) retaining the most unpopular USC football coach since Paul Hackett (in the name of continuity) and (2) firing the Song Girls (despite 45 years of continuity) on the basis that there’s no room for them inside the Galen Center during basketball games. (Galen Center capacity: 10,258 seats. USC average basketball attendance: about 4,000.)

Like I said, guts. Being a football hero helps. Acrobatic catches in a Super Bowl a half century ago still resonate. But memories of those highlights grow hazier after you give Trojan public opinion two curb stompings in the space of about six weeks.

Trigger warning: for those expecting happy talk about USC football, you should click “back” on your browser right about now. I know that’s what you’ve come to expect from Musings, and I hate to turn this column into the online equivalent of Bob Dylan’s “Royal Albert Hall” performance.

But I have very little happy talk today, happy talk about USC football being in relatively short supply. You might try a Notre Dame message board instead; they’re positively giddy about USC football right now.

Also, if you’re a recruit, stop reading immediately. I and others here are sometimes accused of holding tremendous sway over your decisions. So you click “back” also. Wait, not yet. First let me just say this: everything is good with USC football. Commit immediately. Now click.

As for the rest of you, I have some good, old-fashioned Kremlinology today. During the Cold War, the USC government hired highly trained specialists, called Kremlinologists, to make sense of Soviet intentions by analyzing public statements from the likes of Yuri Andropov and Leonid Brezhnev. Sadly, there are no professional Heritage Hall-ogists that we can turn to in these confusing times, so I will continue to offer my modest services in that regard. And while I am not as highly trained as the Kremlinologists were, I do come cheaper.

Back to Mr. Swann’s Orange County appearance. Swann no doubt expected that some of his audience would raise questions about the football program. Thus, we should assume that he came prepared with some thoughts on the matter.

Thoughts and a song, apparently. According to the LA Times, he first tried channeling his Little Orphan Annie, singing “Tomorrow.” That’s a good strategy; distract the people with show tunes, the modern equivalent of Roman bread and circuses. And he’s right, the sun will come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun … and USC will still be 5-7. More sunshine only sheds more light on the problem, while we’re still looking for answers.

Mr. Swann offered some. He again talked about the importance of (non-white-sweater) continuity. But when questioned about the historical support for his position – specifically, comparing the Patriots under Bill Belichick, the Steelers under Chuck Noll, and the Trojans under John McKay to USC under Clay Helton, a comparison which might bring to mind the Sesame Street ditty “Which of these things are not like the other….” – Lynn Swann praised Clay Helton with this:

“It think he’s got the football sense and the IQ. He understands what he wants to get done and how he wants to get it done.”

Let’s break that down a little bit, shall we? He’s got the IQ? How does Swann know? Has he been administering Wonderlic exams to the USC coaches? Has he compared Helton’s score to those of Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban?

More importantly, why would he point to IQ as a critical qualification for a head football coach? We could throw a rock in the general direction of the engineering school and hit six people with IQ’s higher than majority of the coaches who have won national championships and Super Bowls. Did Bobby Bowden translate Homer’s Iliad into English from the original Greek in the offseason? Did Mike Ditka lecture about cold fusion at MIT after vanquishing the Patriots? IQ, Lynn? Geez. If it’s IQ you want, if that’s really the key to football success, I don’t know that I’d keep searching for assistant coaches at Western Kentucky. Maybe you should send a recruiter here, or here instead.

In addition to IQ, Mr. Swann believes that Helton “understands what he wants to get done and how he wants to get it done.” This sounds meaningful, I guess … but is it? I certainly hope Helton knows what he wants to do. It would be hard to generate much enthusiasm for the leader of a $100 million division of a major enterprise, one who is pulling down in excess of $3 million per year in salary, if the guy didn’t have any idea what he wants to do. Is that what separates Nick Saban from the other coaches in the SEC? Nick is the only one who understands what he wants to get done, while the other 11 really haven’t thought about it very much?

And when, exactly, did Clay Helton gain this understanding of what he wants to get done? Because it looks like some of his changes, namely replacing Tee Martin as offensive coordinator, replacing Neil Callaway as O line coach, and replacing Ronnie Bradford as secondary coach, are changes that he stumbled upon somewhere between 18 months and 36 months after I did. Does that give Lynn Swann pause?

But Swann also had a lengthier explanation, and this is the one that should worry Trojan fans; for here, Lynn Swann crosses the line from saying words that don’t mean a whole lot (The sun will come out tomorrow, IQ, et al.) to words that might mean too much, if Swann really takes them seriously. Here we go:

“As long as our program [1] stays compliant, [2] as long as our coaches are doing it to the best of their ability, [3] working hard, as long as we [4]recruit and [5] treat our players with respect and help them [6] grow and [7] graduate and [8] have a great college experience and [9] we have a good culture at USC, then I’m going to give them an opportunity to do the things they need to do.”*

* I’ve added the numbers so we can more easily track his stated requirements.

Let’s analyze this:

Many of these, specifically numbers [6] (helping players grow), [8] (players having great college experiences), and [9] (good culture), sound nice … and are so amorphous as to be meaningless. (Good performance metrics should be “easily measurable,” “directly correlated to business performance,” and “predictive of future business performance,” among other things.) Is Clay Helton doing these things better than Kyle Whittingham or Chris Petersen? How could anybody even know such a thing?

I also note that these metrics and two others – [1] (NCAA compliance) and [7] (graduation rates) – are things over which a head football coach has limited control. A head coach only controls a sliver of his players’ lives. Whether they have a good college experience, for example, is going to depend as much on their friends, professors, and the girls they want to date – not to mention the mysterious workings of fate – as anything Clay Helton does. He has a substantial impact on their college football experiences. And you know what makes for a great college football experience? Winning more than five games. Not giving up more than 300 yards rushing in a half-empty Rose Bowl to one of the worst UCLA teams of all time. Things like that.

Likewise, while I agree that coaches who violate major NCAA rules probably need to get fired, what does that have to do with anything? There’s a whole department to ensure NCAA compliance; that’s not Helton’s primary job responsibility, and the head coach is usually not the source of rules violations anyway. USC didn’t get in trouble because Pete Carroll was sending money to Reggie Bush’s parents. And Clay Helton isn’t auditing the financial records of players’ parents to ensure that a similar problem doesn’t rise again.

Graduation rates also tell us relatively little about a head coach. Universities don’t leave academic support to football coaches, many of whom were marginal students themselves and have other things to occupy them. Universities have departments of qualified people to handle the academic side of things. This is why the schools that graduate a lot of athletes graduate those athletes throughout their athletic programs and even when coaches change. (See, if you can stomach it.)

Most importantly, the primary responsibility for doing the school work rests on the players. I graduated from college. My football coach deserves no credit for that. I mean that; no credit whatsoever. I took care of the school work myself. (Also see below for some gratuitous Irish bashing to make up for that last link.)

Number [4], recruiting? That does sound like a solid metric for measuring a football coach’s performance, and it does seem possible to measure whether a coach landed a high percentage of the recruits he wanted. I’m just not sure this helps Swann’s argument, with USC coming off its lowest-ranked recruiting class in a long time, and elite prospects who would have been USC locks in other years making early commitments to programs like LSU?

Which brings us to my favorites, numbers [2] (coaches doing it to the best of their ability), [3] (coaches are working hard), and [5] (coaches treating the players with respect). Let’s summarize these into a single sentence: Is the coach trying hard, working hard, and being nice to people?

Is this a serious statement from a major college athletic director? Because it sounds like a participation-trophy mindset to me. Doing your best and working hard is what I expect from the little league players I sometimes coach. It’s not what I expect from a highly compensated professional running a program that generates $100 million in revenue. It’s certainly not what I expect from the lawyers I supervise. “Chuck, you completely screwed up two client matters and now we’re facing significant malpractice exposure. I have two questions for you: Were you working hard and doing your best?” “Yes, sir, I was.” “Okay, Chuck, that’s all I needed to hear. Let’s get back to work.”

I’m not even sure I understand what this means. Are there D-1 head football coaches who don’t work hard and don’t give an effort? What are they doing? Are they skipping out on their duties to play golf? Wait, that can’t possibly be what Lynn Swann means. And, therefore, I don’t know what he means.

Let me go on record with this: I think NCAA D-1 head coaches should try hard and do their best. I really do. I’m just not sure why that’s good enough.

Note what Lynn Swann doesn’t mention here: on-field success. Is the coach a nice guy who tries hard and doesn’t do anything to embarrass the school (other than on Saturdays)? According to Lynn Swann’s public statements, that is apparently good enough. If he really means that, if USC football coaches are going to be judged according to the same standards we apply to youth recreation league coaches, then maybe Swann should lower ticket prices, so what fans spend is more in line with the quality of the product they’re buying.   


You didn’t think I’d post a positive link about Notre Dame and not try to draw a little blood, did you? I’m not nearly mature enough for that.

I have a question for Notre Dame, Stanford, and the other major-college programs that graduate virtually all of their football players. Are we really to believe that the entire football recruiting class can compete academically with their peers at your university?

Every major football program at an elite university brings in football players that are, by all objective measures, far less prepared academically than the other incoming students. (Including Notre Dame. Including Stanford.) According to at least one source, the average ND football player scores about 1,000 on his SAT – about 400 points lower than the average incoming Notre Dame freshman.

Brian Kelly has admitted that his players would have no business attending Notre Dame if not for their athletic prowess.:

“I think we recognized that all of my football players are at risk. All of them, really. Honestly, I don’t know that any of our players would get into the school by themselves right now, with the academic standards the way they are. Maybe one or two of our players that are on scholarship.

So, making sure that with the rigors that we put them in — playing on the road, playing night games, getting home at 4 o’clock in the morning, all of the demands that we place on them relative to the academics, and going into an incredibly competitive academic classroom every day — we recognize this is a different group.”

In other words, these players are not as prepared or gifted as their peers in the classroom, and they have a huge additional burden placed upon them that makes it more difficult to be a dedicated student.

Yet 95% of these guys still graduate? Pardon me if I express some skepticism. Because ordinarily, if 95% of people can do something, it’s not a very challenging activity. Only 94% of adults can ride a bike! It’s easier for an extremely busy, academically unprepared student to graduate from Notre Dame than it is to ride a bike? And we’re supposed to cheer that statistic? Because it can only be true if these athletes are put into easy courses and given so much help from so many tutors, paper readers (paper writers?), and others that they are not really getting an education that is in any way similar to the ones most of us got. Yes, any child can graduate from high school if I do all of their homework for them and if we make special exceptions so they don’t have to take the hard classes or take tests the same way everybody else does. But that doesn’t mean the kid is getting a high school education. 

Look, if graduating players is really that important, then stop admitting players that can’t possibly cut it in your academic programs. And if you still admit guys who can’t compete in the classroom, and then you have a team of people carry them across the finish line, pardon me if I don’t cheer that loudly.  

I hope that someday a school like Arizona State will give out degrees to every single football player and claim a 100% graduation rate, just to watch the Domers’ heads explode.    

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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