For more than a year, Clay Helton's job status has dominated the discussion around USC football. After new athletic director Mike Bohn decided to retain Helton earlier this month, that doesn't figure to change anytime soon.
Even though tonight's matchup against No. 16 Iowa in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl is compelling on paper, any excitement for the actual game is drowned out by Helton's uncertain long-term future.
Last week, Helton stood at a podium and addressed a recruiting class that graded unfathomably low -- outside of ESPN's top 50, behind schools such as Oregon State and Kansas -- reinforcing the perception that top high school players from one of the nation's densest talent pools no longer want to stay home and play for the Trojans.
USC added 11 new players as part of the early signing period. Of that group, only kicker Parker Lewis ranks in the top 25 at his position nationally. Only two others received higher than a three-star evaluation from ESPN, which puts the class on par with bottom-tier Power 5 programs and some also-rans in the Group of 5. This year, signing day social media briefly buzzed about whether USC's class would rank ahead of ... Bowling Green's.
"I'm not necessarily about perception," Helton said. "I'm about wins and how to produce the best football team. You have to worry maybe not about popular opinion and address what your needs are."
USC's lackluster class -- which didn't include any of the top 25 prospects in California -- became even more fodder for the unrest that has been brewing for a long time.
"Oregon is the new USC in recruiting on the West Coast," former Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart declared on Twitter. "Back in my day, no one dared to recruit So Cal. Now it's open season and Oregon is hunting!"
Oregon is the new Usc in recruiting on the West Coast... back in my day no one dared to recruit So Cal. Now it's open season and Oregon is hunting!— Matt Leinart (@MattLeinartQB) December 18, 2019
Pac-12 champion Oregon, which signed ESPN's No. 6 recruiting class last February, has a 2020 class ranked 15th nationally, headlined by linebacker Justin Flowe, ESPN's top-rated California prospect. In the 2018 class, USC signed nine of the state's top 25 recruits, including four of the top six. In 2017, eight of the top 20 signed with the Trojans.
Leinart, hardly the only Trojan great to voice his displeasure, was at the Los Angeles Coliseum in September when USC's past, present and potential future converged before the Trojans faced Pac-12 preseason favorite Utah.
The pregame buzz centered on a television set erected behind the west end zone, where a small but vocal group of fans waited. Two golf carts pulled up, and out stepped USC icon Reggie Bush, making his return to the Coliseum to broadcast for FS1 alongside Leinart, host Rob Stone, former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn and former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
Most of the fans came to celebrate Bush, but they didn't ignore Meyer, starting a "Hire Urban!" chant. Meyer stood just yards away as USC warmed up, and he spent the first part and last part of the game on the field. After USC's 30-23 win, Helton left the field and pointed toward the FS1 set and Meyer, who smiled and mouthed, "Good job."
Meyer didn't exactly do much to quiet the speculation. After the game, his Twitter account liked -- and later unliked -- a tweet regarding the outstanding performance of USC reserve quarterback Matt Fink against Utah with the line: "And Urban Meyer is thinking now I will have a quarterback to work with." This spring, Bush breathed life into the hope that Meyer would replace Helton, telling the Los Angeles Times that he and Leinart will "definitely be recruiting [Meyer]. What makes you think we won't be recruiters? Nothing is off the table."
Before USC's win against UCLA on Nov. 23, USC superfan Roy Nwaisser, aka "USC Psycho," saw Bohn walking in the direction of his well-known tailgate on campus and made a point to introduce himself to the new athletic director. Nwaisser, who has attended every USC football game, home and away, since 1992, wore a shirt that read "Hire Meyer." Nwaisser said Bohn was cordial in their brief interaction.
"I said something like, 'We're wishing you the best of luck and hope you do well,'" Nwaisser said. "I asked him if he would take a picture with me and he said, 'Not with that shirt on.'
"I forgot I had the shirt on, but then I thought, 'Yeah, that makes sense.'"
That didn't stop someone else from taking a picture of the two, which quickly made its way to social media.
When Bohn officially ended the Meyer dream and announced that Helton would be retained on Dec. 4, 11 days after the regular season ended, the news did not go over well.
"I am pleased to let you know Coach Helton will continue to be our head coach. His commitment to our student-athletes and to leading with integrity is vital to restoring our championship program, which is the goal for all of our teams," Bohn's announcement on Twitter read. "Heading into 2020, Coach Helton and I will work together to take a hard look at all aspects of the football enterprise and will make the tough decisions necessary to compete at a championship level."
If Bohn didn't understand what it means to get ratioed, he was about to find out.
An overwhelming majority of the 2,500-plus who replied directly to Bohn's initial tweet expressed some form of displeasure. Most of it was outrage. Unlike his predecessors, Lynn Swann and Pat Haden, who used official university communication to publicize coaching announcements -- including Swann in November 2018 announcing Helton would be back -- Bohn chose to go directly to where the news would be most widely criticized.
He didn't just get skewered online, either. One fan bought a funeral wreath and shipped it to Bohn with an enclosed card that read: "RIP USC." The next day, the wreath reportedly appeared at the McKay Center, which serves as the on-campus home of the football program. Another fan confirmed to ESPN that he mailed Bohn replica fecal matter, and several more made it clear they plan to either drop their season tickets or stop donating to the athletic department.
As a private school, USC is not subject to public records law, so details about how its relative lack of success could impact its finances are hard to uncover. That's not the case across town at UCLA, where the athletic department just learned a painful lesson in how quickly fan attendance can change. UCLA sold 25,136 season tickets in 2019, according to records obtained by ESPN, the fewest the Bruins have sold since moving into the Rose Bowl in 1981. They were down by 8,934 from 2018, Chip Kelly's first season as head coach, and down from 47,094 in 2014.
Next year, both schools will face added competition as the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers open the $5 billion SoFi Stadium just 7 miles away from USC. If the Trojans were rolling, the idea of fan exodus to the NFL wouldn't pose much of a concern, but the unique combination of the shiny new object and growing apathy could change the equation.
If USC had chosen to buy out Helton and his staff, it would have cost more than $20 million, sources told ESPN. But there are financial repercussions to keeping him, too. Using back-of-the-envelope math, it's easy to make the case that if USC sees a dip similar to what happened at UCLA, plus a comparable drop in single-game ticket sales and other sources of game-day revenue, the buyout becomes just about a wash.
In the six years of the College Football Playoff, USC has merely been a line on a résumé for other teams. Had the playoff arrived roughly two decades ago, USC might have buoyed the Pac-12 in a way Clemson and Oklahoma currently do for the ACC and Big 12, respectively. But USC's recent irrelevance at the highest level has repercussions beyond its own campus.
"USC is the best-known marquee brand the conference has nationally in the sport of football," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. "I think it is the case that when the bellwether programs, the biggest brands, biggest names, do well, there's a halo effect on the league overall.
"I think when USC is doing well, it generates more attention, eyeballs, more buzz about the league from a football perspective, and there's a perception that the league overall is just better. When they're not doing as well, I think the inverse is true."
So why did the Trojans keep Helton? It primarily boils down to two factors:
• The team improved this past season, despite a treacherous first-half schedule and a spate of key injuries, and shapes up to be better next fall. During Helton's four years as USC's permanent head coach, the Trojans are tied with Washington for the best record (26-10) in conference games.
• Bohn and USC president Carol Folt, both weeks into their new jobs, were cautious about making a change, especially after recent scandals had hit the university and its athletic department. Plus, they both like Helton personally and, like others, think he leads the program with class.
For many USC fans, those reasons don't outweigh their concerns about the team's lack of on-field discipline, its worsening recruiting and a firm belief that Helton simply isn't capable of taking USC back to the top of the sport.
The last part is interesting. Had Helton accomplished what he has since 2016 at any other Pac-12 school -- a Rose Bowl title, a Pac-12 championship, 21 wins in his first two seasons -- he would be widely celebrated. The 47-year-old still fights the perception of who he was when he got the USC job -- a career assistant whose most realistic head-coaching options seemed to be in the Group of 5 -- until Haden gave him the reins to one of the sport's premier programs. And his understated demeanor and thin résumé were at odds with a town that craves big stars and personalities.
The irony is who Helton is, and was, when he first became USC's coach -- a no-drama guy with no character issues -- helped him keep the job when many had written him off this fall.
"Collectively, we can do something pretty special," Bohn said Dec. 4. "This is a very talented team coming back. We lose four starters. Clay Helton was the coach that built [that], and he's deserving of the opportunity to keep that group together, and stability is important for USC right now."
Those last seven words -- "stability is important for USC right now" -- best illustrate why Helton will be leading USC in 2020. In the end, timing worked very much in his favor.
Folt wasn't hired to make USC football fans happy. She came in to scrub the university, and the athletic department, of the nationwide admissions scandal and the FBI's investigation into corruption and bribery in college basketball. Folt had previously served as chancellor at North Carolina, where she inherited one of the worst academic fraud scandals in higher education history and deftly guided the university through it.
Replacing Helton with the flashiest, crowd-pleasing coach ranked low on her priority list. Sources connected to USC's process said Folt had no desire to take on added risk, and pretty much any coach from the outside brought some. "Generally risk-averse," a source said in describing Folt's style.
Although many USC fans wanted Meyer, it became clear soon after Folt's inauguration on Sept. 20 that she had little desire to see Meyer coach the Trojans in 2020. Meyer brought national championships but also baggage from his time at both Florida and Ohio State, and while USC fans wanted the former, Folt had no interest in shouldering the latter.
Helton was the safe option. In this sense, Folt had leverage for keeping him.
Folt also likes Helton personally, sees him as someone who leads the program with integrity and doesn't embarrass the university. At the Dec. 4 news conference, Folt said the decision was ultimately Bohn's, but she also reminded everyone why she's there.
"I'd say to the fans, you've been loyal for so many years," Folt told the Los Angeles Times. "That has been something the university has always really valued and still values now. We want you to be loyal to a university you're proud of."
USC football fans attach pride to championships, but Folt's definition is broader, especially at this time in the university's history. "My expectation is excellence with integrity," she told the Times.
While Helton's ability to restore excellence is in doubt, his integrity is indisputable, and that proved enough to put Folt at ease.
But when USC opens the 2020 season against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, Helton will be back where he spent most of 2019: squarely on the hot seat.