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O/NSO: How many Helton wins will it take edition

The Obvious: Coming on the coattails of the Bru McCoy and Chris Steele recruiting announcements, which brought a much-needed injection of positive news and momentum to the USC football program, we’re also at that juncture of the football calendar where recruiting camps are ongoing and scholarships for potential future Trojans are being dispersed. However, despite the wave of recent good cardinal and gold tidings, there still remains a major elephant or should we say question in the room: How many 2019 wins must head coach Clay Helton achieve to maintain his position as USC’s present and future head football coach?  

The Not So Obvious: No doubt Helton would rather concentrate on his program’s current June recruiting camps and attention paid to his team’s summer workout program rather than wringing is hands and obsessing over the minimum number of wins next season he needs to retain his job. And who can blame the coach for concentrating on what he can control in the present? Yet, the drumbeat “wins” remains a constant topic, and it will manifest itself right up to and after the kickoff against Fresno State on Aug. 31 in the renovated Coliseum.

The Obvious: The O/NSO is on record in saying that Clay Helton’s future in 2019 is a win-win situation, and all the fear and trepidation of what’s going to happen is quite elementary, my dear Dr. Watson.

The Not So Obvious: Either Helton is going to retained or he is going to fired; it’s just that simple. Gentleman Clay’s prospects will be decided his team’s win production along with the decision-makers within the USC athletic administration and new USC president Carol Folt. As a friendly reminder, Folt did her undergraduate work at UC Santa Barbara during early the mid-70s and is no doubt aware of the dominance of John McKay’s USC national championship football teams of 1972 and 1974. During that 70s time period, you would have had to have been an ostrich with your head in the sand in Southern California – even at UC Santa Barbara – not to know the success and mystique of Trojans football under the legendary McKay. An involved sports fan, Carol knows enough about USC football to comprehend what it means to all Trojans fans and supporters.

Incoming USC president Carol Folt will eventually have to deal with the future of head football coach Clay Helton

The Obvious: What would be the best and worst-case record scenarios for those making the critical decision regarding Clay Helton’s coaching retention or dismissal?

The Not So Obvious: If Helton could go 11-1 or 10-2, as unlikely as it currently seems and get into the Pac-12 title game, it would hard to justify a change. However, if the Trojans finish 8-4 and head to bowl game of lesser prestige, would that be enough for retainment? It seems to the O/NSO that 8-4 and lower tier bowl game would bring serious conversation over pushing the coaching ejection button. The counter argument, of course, would be that Helton with an eight-win season showed enough progress in reversing the 2018 record of 5-7 to warrant another season. The bottom line: An 8-4 record is no man’s land and probably brings pigskins’ Grim Reaper.

Football’s Grim Reaper shows up anytime a football program struggles whether it’s USC or a Florida State.. Beginning with his own 8-4 season and not too many seasons after, legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden was paid a visit by the Grim Reaper, and this was for a coach that won numerous championships during his tenure.

The Obvious: Coliseum home football attendance also figures to play a role in Clay Helton’s fate.

The Not So Obvious: There’s nothing worse than showing the nation on national television a half empty Coliseum – not to mention the effect on the athletic department’s financial wallet.Coming off a reported slew of season-ticket cancellations, the athletic department is highly sensitive as it pertains to home attendance income. With the Coliseum capacity reduced to 77,500, if there are home attendance numbers that dip below 60,000 per game, Clay Helton’s coaching future figures to be also tied to financial considerations. Wins and money are business partners, and we’re not even addressing Coliseum suites contracts and athletic department donations.

Clay Helton’s future could also be tied to 2019 Coliseum home attendance, which affects an athletic department’s budget. If Helton’s Trojans don’t get off to a good start, increasingly empty seats could become the new norm, and that has a domino effect both in head coaching evaluations and generated revenue.

The Obvious: One of the biggest questions in the growing athletic department’s Shakespearean play is Lynn Swann’s future as athletic director, which could be tied to Clay Helton’s future.

The Not So Obvious: At some point – probably sooner than she wants – new USC president Carol Folt is going to have to make some big athletic department decisions. Would those decisions begin with Swann and/or Helton? If Swann is dismissed before the fate of Helton, who would be making the new head football coaching recommendation to Folt? An interim AD like maybe Steve Lopes, current senior associate athletic director? But what if Swann is still the AD if Helton’s team gets off to a death spiral after six games? Does Folt really want Swann making football coaching recommendations knowing in her mind that his days are numbered?

Lynn Swann’s future as Trojans’ athletic director could be determined before or during the football season.

The Obvious: One thing we do know about Carol Folt, she comes from the University of North Carolina where they take their athletics very seriously.

The Not So Obvious: Folt was the one that approved the final green light for the return of Mack Brown as the Tar Heels’ head football coach. She, of course, was getting her direction from UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham. Could Bubba be in Carol’s vision if a new USC athletic director’s position is open? Carol may believe that in order to move forward on football, she must first look at the overall future of the current athletic department, so would guy named Bubba be on the USC AD short list?  

If President Carol Folt decide to make an athletic director change, could current North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham appear on Folt’s short list of replacement candidates?

The Obvious: And finally, it’s not even debatable that there is a lot on the line for the future of Clay Helton and Lynn Swann come this 2019 season.  

The Not So Obvious: The big factor is what Carol Folt is thinking and how her relationship with Lynn Swann is cultivated and what she learns about football and the athletic department in general. You can bet she will do her “due diligence.” And that may be as intriguing as whatever record Clay Helton’s 2019 Trojans produce.

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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