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Swann and Helton: Telling It Straight

Now that after at least some of the dust has settled, I want to contribute my comments and perspective regarding Sunday’s announcements from both Athletic Director Lynn Swann and Head Coach Clay Helton. As usual, I’m going to tell it straight.

Swann Paragraph 1: “The 2018 USC football season was disappointing to me, to Coach Helton and his coaching staff, to our players and to our great fans. Nobody is happy with our record. Everyone deserves better.”

• Fact: Lynn Swann knows football and great programs; both collegiate (USC) and professional (Pittsburgh Steelers).
• Fact: Swann knows great head coaches; John McKay – USC and Chuck Knoll – Pittsburgh Steelers
• Fact: Swann knows what it takes to win championships – USC & Pittsburgh Steelers (Knoll and Rooney)
• Fact: Swann has access to many former players and coaches who have much of the same experience and knowledge base to advise him
• Therefore, there is no way in the world you can convince me that Lynn Swann has assessed the past three plus years with Clay Helton as our head coach and reasonably concluded that Helton is a championship caliber head coach as we begin to prepare for the 2019 campaign.
• What I can be convinced of is that Swann highly values consistency & stability. He in my view, too highly.
• My hope is we don’t consistently & stably produce 5-7 records utilizing the same leadership that brought us 2018.
• A “disappointing” season for USC football is 7-5 or even 8-4; This 2018 performance was an unmitigated disaster not seen in a generation. Let that sink in.

Swann Paragraph 2: “It is my firm belief that we have a good team returning next year and a solid foundation in place, and that Clay Helton is a good coach. Let me be clear to everyone, our players, our recruits and our fans. Clay Helton is our head coach and he will continue to be our head coach.”

• We have team with good talent returning next season. That’s very different than we have a good team returning. What is done with that talent is really the key question.
• No question that Clay Helton is a fine man. He has demonstrated that he can be a good assistant coach.
• He has not remotely demonstrated that he is a good Head coach or a good gameday coach.
• Frankly, what is clear is that to-date he has proven that he is a mediocre head coach, even rounding up.
• But the facts don’t back up the championship caliber credentials that Lynn believes Clay will deliver in 2019.
• Fact: Alabama (2016 – the famous growling tiger or Remember the Titans embarrassment at AT&T Stadium), Ohio State (2017), Notre Dame (2017) and UCLA (2018) were all epic losses and we got steam-rolled. All were under Clay’s leadership, preparation and gameday responsibility. Quite a resume killer.
• Clay decided not to start Sam Darnold who was ready, but this season decides to start JT Daniels who was not ready.
• Fact: Even in some wins there were the same signs and symptoms of deeper issues. For example, Colorado (2017) – we were four bad undisciplined plays away from a defeat in Boulder, Utah game (2017) we were one 2-point conversion stop away from a Coliseum loss. All of these were in Clay’s best season…last season.
• Off-field behavioral and legal issues plague this team as 25 players have left the program in the last two years.
• We have many “soft” injuries that players struggle to recover from. These are soft injuries that players may eventually return from indicate that there is no real fear that one might lose their position to a replacement “next up” player, but wait you say, we never let a player lose his position if he’s hurt.” Says who? Great coaches may lean in that direction, but great coaches play the best players…period. These are just some signs were there that as a head coach we have created a soft culture on this team. Who allowed that to happen? Who failed to even recognize the signs of a change in Trojan culture from unquestioned toughness to whatever this culture is?
• Fact: Signature win – Penn State Rose Bowl – epic 3rd quarter meltdown followed by epic 4th quarter comeback and a walk-off field goal. 52-49. Quite the defensive coaching gem, but good recovery…thank you Sam, Deontay, Hutchings, Rojo, Boermeister and others.
• Fact: Helton’s positiveness in the face of contrary facts is stunning and projects his denial of the facts. This denial is confirmed by the weekly consistent poor showing on the practice field and game day. Nothing seems to change and the throw-away line about “checking the film” and correct wore pretty thin.
• If he can’t acknowledge or see the underlying fundamental issues how is Coach Helton going to fix them?
• Clay hires weak assistant coaches. Who challenges him? Who really helps him.
• Helton’s statements coming out of 2018 fall camp were that USC is ready to compete for another Pac-12 and even a CFP NCAA National Championship. How then can he post a 5-7 record (which could have been even worse) and expect to have credibility? Borders on wishful thinking in the extreme and certainly exhibits poor assessment skills.

Swann Paragraph 3: “I am a strong advocate of consistency within a program, sticking by a leader, supporting them and helping them and their team improve.”

• I am an advocate of telling the truth straight up and clear. The culture of the USC football program doesn’t resemble the successful programs that have produced championships. Not in toughness, competitiveness, work ethic or football IQ. I could go on…

Swann Paragraph 4: “One season does not define a coach. Remember, Coach Helton inherited a program in turmoil. He won 10 games, including the Rose Bowl, in his first year in 2016. He won 11 games and the Pac-12 title in 2017. He runs a clean program, he graduates his players, he recruits well, he produces NFL players.”

Fact: It is the entire tenure and body of work of Helton that is in view. Most are not overly impressed. Notably, the Pac-12 coaches as evidenced by voting for David Shaw as coach of the Year last season though Helton beat him twice including a nail-biter in the Pac-12 Championship game. Why was that?

Swann Paragraph 5: “We see top programs across the country have down years and the fans want to change coaches. In fact, it happened a few years ago with yesterday’s opponent, but that administration remained committed to their head coach, who made some key changes, worked hard to fix things and got his team to improve markedly. That will happen here at USC.”

Fact: ND’s player cupboard had many talented players who were tough football players. They did not change culture they built upon their tradition and foundation of success. ND’s player development is there. Can the same be said for us? Not right now. And not just poor strength and conditioning, but competitiveness, toughness, discipline, commitment (as evidenced by the poor PRP practice participation during this past summer). I like Swann’s commitment but what is it based upon? I have no clue as the facts say otherwise. Time will tell, and we better not have to wait long to see Swann’s Plan A. Nobody is looking for Helton to get canned just for one-season. We are looking for change to move away from what clearly is not working and embrace that which we know does work. So to me this statement reflects either a bad diagnosis or is intentionally misleading statement. Both are bad, one is worse.

Swann Paragraph 6: “Coach Helton and I meet extensively each week to evaluate our program from top to bottom. We acknowledge and understand our deficiencies in areas that include culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff. We agree that changes need to be made, and they will. We will improve and get better, in all areas. Coach Helton has a plan in place to get USC back to the top.”

• Oh, come on, really?? I believe you meet weekly. So, this process produced exactly what this season? Callaway was let go late and supposedly Tee Martin was demoted. I may have born on Saturday just not this past Saturday. This is Swann’s “trust me” statement.
• Fact: Many (me included) don’t trust the athletic department or administration to do the right and needful thing. Do I need to list all the serious failings of this administration?? Don’t think so. And the Athletic department isn’t creating a lot of new friends either. Ask around. Swann may need some support in the future from those he currently chooses to ignore.

Swann Paragraph 7: “I have heard from many in the Trojan fan base. Some will be happy that Coach Helton remains our coach, others will not. I love our fans’ passion about USC football. They have high standards, as do we.”

Fact: More of the “Trojan fanbase” – we used to be referred to as the Trojan Family, btw which is a revealing transition of how Administration and views us. We are now a demographic Regardless the Trojan fanbase/family would have been encouraged if the head coaching change had been announced not the retention of same.
Fact: The Net Present value of fan discontent vs. stability of an unpopular product is staggeringly negative. Lynn might want to call the Marshall School of Business for a quick primer.

Swann Paragraph 8: “Fight On, Lynn Swann”

• I don’t believe that Lynn is truly convinced that Coach Helton is a National Championship caliber coach
• I do believe that Swann thinks stability and continuity combined with incremental change is the best answer for the football program. I disagree.
• USC is currently showing that it is currently unserious to fix an obviously broken program that is destroying a longtime legacy of toughness, excellence and championships.
• I don’t think this decision is wholly an athletic department decision focused solely on the football program. It can’t be based on our fact pattern here (and there is much more)
• I do believe there will be an opportunity to gain incremental improvement next season.

From the press box…

Helton: Clay Helton also issued a statement.

Helton Paragraph 1: “I am very appreciative of the support that Mr. Swann and the USC administration has given our team over the last three seasons, as well as the trust and belief they have in our future. Obviously, we are disappointed with this season’s overall record and not being able to compete for a championship in the postseason. We understand that championships are what is expected and deserved at USC.”

Helton Paragraph 2: “I have met with Mr. Swann and discussed changes and improvements that will be made moving forward. Our staff, our players and I will work tirelessly this offseason to produce a disciplined football team that executes at a championship level. I truly believe that with the continued development of the talent we have on this team, the best is yet to be. Our number one goal is to win championships and we will not be satisfied with anything less.”

• Why not mention some categories of improvement and elements of the improvement process started from the many weeks that Helton and Swann have been meeting together? As proud part of former Trojan Family and now the “Fanbase” proletariat maybe the bourgeoise USC leadership can throw us a bone or two. How about we fix our lazy, undisciplined practices? Add toughness, demand perfect execution and get assistant coaches on board who push and challenge Helton vs. go to family Thanksgiving dinner together. Too cozy for my taste in a competitive environment.
• This is a risky decision in the long-term and a safe decision short-term. And that is why I think the decision has been made in this fashion.
• Somebody is going to have to clean up this mess. Right now that somebody is Coach Helton like it or not.

Kevin Bruce

Kevin earned his MBA and BS in Business Administration/Finance & Econometrics from the University of Southern California, where he also played four years of varsity football, serving as co-captain and playing in three Rose Bowls. Kevin’s college honors included All-American (AP-Honorable Mention), All Pac-8 Conference - Linebacker (1st) and Academic All-American, two NCAA National Championships (football), NCAA Post Graduate Scholarship recipient and Trojan Diamond Award-outstanding graduating senior. He is a member of Football Writers Association of America and is a contributor to WeAreSC.com.

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