After all the rumors and the speculation and the erroneous report of his firing, here was a moment Clay Helton would soon count among the most special in his life.
Eleven days had passed since the end of USC’s season, and the Trojans coach had spent most of that time carrying on as best he could, without any word he’d be allowed to carry on much longer. It was a stressful time for the embattled coach and his staff, all of whom hit the recruiting trail, selling kids on their futures at USC, with no actual feel for their own. When a report of his firing was published by Sports Illustrated during a visit, Helton was forced to address his real-time status in a recruit’s living room.
He’d grown accustomed to the endless tumult over the last two seasons, as his Trojans finished a combined 13-11 and a frustrated fan base called for his ouster. All along, he’d told his team to ignore the noise, but as Helton stood in front of his team, two weeks ago, the noise had finally been silenced for him. The uncertainty was, for now, behind him.
USC’s new athletic director Mike Bohn met with Helton soon after the Thanksgiving weekend, assuring him of his place as coach. He told him he loved what he’d seen and how the team had finished strong. He offered up whatever resources it would require to “take this thing to the next step.”
On the day of the decision, Bohn told reporters that his support of Helton had “really never wavered.”
“He said to me, ‘Coach, you’re our coach,’ ” Helton recalled Tuesday, speaking to reporters for the first time since he officially was retained. “ ‘We love what you’re about, and we love what you stand for, and we want to be able to help you live up to the expectations of what this place is.’ ”
And now, with Helton nearby, Bohn passed along that same message to his players. The room, as Helton remembered, burst with a combination of elation and relief.
Many later said they never expected Helton to be fired. But their reaction to his return, as Helton described, was a moment on par with when he first heard, five years earlier, that he’d be USC’s coach.
“You gotta remember I’ve been here a decade,” Helton said. “I’ve sat in on every one of those couches, and this is our team. I’ve had the opportunity to recruit every one of these men that stepped on this grass. So it’s more personal to me. This is not a business to me. It’s not a business to them. It’s a relationship and a family. When you get to be a part of something that special, it is emotional. So it’s a memory that I won’t forget.”
But as he considers where to take USC from here, Helton will have to confront the business part of his job sooner rather than later.
Changes to his staff are still expected, but the coach chose not to acknowledge that possibility Tuesday, pushing back any decision on defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, special-teams coach John Baxter, or anyone else until USC meets Iowa in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27.
Baxter said Tuesday that he’d received no assurances he’d return as special-teams coach, but that the uncertainty “is what it is.” Pendergast was not available for comment.
“I’m gonna sit down, and I’m gonna look at our entire program, and any decision that need to be made, if any that need to be made, I’ll make them at a later date,” Helton explained. “But this right now is about winning a bowl game.”
When asked why he planned to wait, after twice previously making staff changes before bowl season, a frustrated Helton largely repeated his refrain about winning the Holiday Bowl.
Beyond that, neither Bohn nor Helton offered any clear explanation of what expectations will be moving forward for a coach who has so far required votes of confidence in consecutive seasons. The outside noise, while silenced momentarily, is sure to return next season, if Helton and his Trojans stumble at all out of the gate.
Asked how close he felt this team was to meeting expectations he and Bohn discussed, Helton said he believed this team was “on the brink.”
“It loses literally four starters, two on offense and two on defense,” Helton said. “And the rest of these kids are freshmen and sophomores. So it’s not only going to be a good team next year, it’s going to be a good team for a while.”
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A potential influx of resources, promised from Bohn, should help in that regard. His willingness to spend on the program was already tested over the past week, as Graham Harrell, the Trojans’ rising star offensive coordinator, mulled an offer for the same position at Texas, as well as head coaching positions at Nevada Las Vegas and Texas San Antonio.
USC responded by moving swiftly to keep Harrell, signing him to an extension that will pay him more than $1 million annually, more than nearly every other Pac-12 coordinator.
Still, Harrell confirmed Tuesday that he briefly considered leaving for Texas, which he said “will always be home at the end of the day.” But his wife, Brittney, had already made her newfound love of L.A. known.
“My wife thinks she lives in paradise,” he said, “and my son, he lives with Mickey Mouse and the beach, so what’s not to like?”
But as he mulled over his options, Harrell kept coming back to one thing. It was the same sentiment that led him from North Texas to USC, less than one year ago.
“This is just too good of a place,” he said. “At the end of the day, I want to win a national championship. Of all the opportunities I had to do that, this is the best opportunity.”