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O/NSO: Dr. Folt’s 2021 football moment of truth is coming edition

The Obvious: Spring practice may be over, but scrutiny and skepticism isn’t over for the USC Trojans football community, most of whom continue to call into question – fairly or unfairly – whether USC president Dr. Carol Folt has the passion, understanding, and positive long-range goals for the university’s storied football program, especially as it pertains to winning at the highest level.

The Not So Obvious: You can draw your own conclusion whether Dr. Folt just enjoys USC football as a fun, Saturday extracurricular event or exudes a burning passion to see it succeed alongside the like of an Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and/or Notre Dame. Only Dr. Folt knows her true feelings and whether she honestly finds her football program a joy or an albatross around her neck. The 2021 USC football season may provide a transparent answer.


The Obvious: Recently, Dr. Folt showed class and enthusiasm by recognizing the recent NFL draft with a Twitter post congratulating Troy’s first-round pick, Alijah Vera-Tucker, the standout offensive left tackle selected by the New York Jets.

The Not So Obvious: Dr. Folt tweeted, “Congratulation @ALIJAHHVT! We’ll be cheering for your success with the Jets next season.” It was definitely a thoughtful gesture by the University of Southern California president to show her support, and it could also be interpreted that she is growing a passion for USC football. However, if you don’t buy into that possibility, you are probably in the majority.    

The Obvious: Even though the 2021 season is still a little more than four months away, conversation remains alive within the cardinal and gold fan base regarding the future of head football coach Clay Helton.

The Not So Obvious: Dr. Folt knows that once the upcoming season commences, you can run, but you can’t hide regarding Helton’s impending “one way or the other” future. The public perception is that Folt likes her professional relation with Gentleman Clay, who takes every possible opportunity to praise “Coach Folt” and show unconditional obedience while continuously schmoozing a strong perceptual relationship with his supreme leader.

USC president Dr. Carol Folt (photo above – second row standing near the middle) has given the perception she is all in when it comes to her football team, but she may have some tough decisions to make in 2021.

The Obvious: Working in concert with USC athletic director Mike Bohn, Dr. Folt will be uncomfortably confronted and obligated to determine either during next season or its conclusion, the future of both her head football coach and the direction of the Trojans football program.
The Not So Obvious: Dr. Folt knows that entering her third academic year at USC and Clay Helton approaching his sixth season with just one conference title during his tenure, the 2021 season will be the proverbial fork in the road for both coach and program. This will be the season when, barring some abnormality, all the football cards will be placed face up on the table, which translates into how important Folt thinks of her football program and the man currently running it.
The Obvious: Looking back at her original 2019 press conference in the John McKay Center to introduce new athletic director Mike Bohn, Dr. Folt and Bohn both made it a priority to emphasize the history and success of the legendary USC football program, and declared in unison that conference and national championships were their common goals. They also made it a point to inform that championships would be done with the inclusion of integrity.
The Not So Obvious: Thus far, the integrity is there, but the championships aren’t. Last week, the College Football Playoff (CFP) let it be known that it’s seriously exploring expanding the post-season playoffs from four teams to 12 teams and possibly even 16 teams. No doubt, Dr. Folt has some inkling of the movement for playoff expansion, which would mightily test her resolve to have a national championship football program in place or at least one that competes annually in the mix. Clay Helton repeatedly talks about his understanding that success at USC demands no less than championships. The ultimate question: Can Helton deliver? At the national level, the answer thus far is no. At the conference championship level just once (2017).  
Trojans’ athletic director Mike Bohn and USC president Dr. Carol Folt (photo above L-R) are probably facing a 2021 decision on Clay Helton’s future, while will also seal their legacies as USC administrators.

The Obvious: When Dr. Carol Folt was named president of USC, she quickly fired former athletic director Lynn Swann and then replaced the former Trojans’ football legend with former University of Cincinnati athletic director Mike Bohn.
The Not So Obvious: Folt’s firing of Swann turned out to be a false indicator that once she named Bohn athletic director, he would then be given permission to change the current head USC football coach. It remains murky whether Folt directly stopped Bohn from making a change, but that is the generally accepted conclusion. What we do know is that publicly Bohn supported Clay Helton, which drew a massive tsunami of criticism while also losing a ton of professional respect along the way. Where we are today, the reality is that Helton’s two-year honeymoon within the Folt-Bohn administration has probably run its course. The 2021 season should be the moment of truth for all concerned.    
The USC fans base (photo above) will be carefully watching both USC president Dr. Carol Folt and her athletic director Mike Bohn in 2021, as they evaluate the results of the 2021 football season.

The Obvious: Considering that Mike Bohn in the last two years has made every imaginable change in the football department except a change of the head coach, it’s fair to say that Bohn and Dr. Folt’s USC legacies will be tied to whatever decision they conclude during or after the upcoming season.
The Not So Obvious: If Clay Helton wins the Pac-12 in 2021, it says here that the coach stays, but anything short of that will create a probable maelstrom of cardinal and gold anger and consternation. At that point and with diminished returns, the question will become quite simple: Have we finally arrived at the conclusion that the current head coach has reached his ceiling of competence and a new direction is mandated to get back to that proverbial “next level” (aka conference and national championships)? Or as far as the USC fan base is concerned, a decision to “return to where we belong”, which translates into being among the other college football giants.
The Obvious: Whether Dr. Folt or Mike Bohn like it or not, the 2021 USC football season will also be a defining historical moment for the direction of the program’s future, as well.
The Not So Obvious: The O/NSO also believes that the 2021 program will be at the moment of truth as it pertains to the future direction of USC football. It really comes down to the athletic mission statement of what USC wants its football program to be or Dr. Folt wants it to be. And you can probably throw in the opinion of what the USC Board of Trustees wants it to be, as well. Do the power brokers want back their national level of USC football respect by showing a change of direction or are they more than willing to live off the football brand name and remain status quo under Helton?
If it’s the latter, both Folt and Bohn – with the blessing of the BOT – have the duty and moral obligation to tell its USC season ticket holders and the fan base that times have changed and the past is just that – the glorious past. If that’s how they truly feel, just tell it as it is: Priorities of the university’s football program dictate that we are in a new era of USC football, and football is collateral damage resulting from political change.   
It figures that the 2021 season will be pivotal for the future of Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton. (Photo above by Jordon Kelly)


The Obvious: And finally, if the 2021 Trojans are not successful, which must be defined at this point as not winning the Pac-12, Dr. Folt and Mike Bohn must be prepared for cardinal and gold fans to throw up their collective hands and arms and scream, “WTF !” At that point, Folt, Bohn, and the BOT will have an enormous a decision to make, one that Folt in particular probably wishes would just go away.   

The Not So Obvious: The problem is that these coaching and program decisions won’t go away, but USC season ticket holders and financial supporters (aka boosters) might – in droves – if they have lost hope. So, rest assure that the day of football coaching and program decision-making is coming, and Dr. Folt, Mike Bohn, Clay Helton, and the USC community know it.

Greg Katz
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.

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