Why was Clay Helton fired? USC looks to regain football glory, fans say 'right move'

Athletics director Mike Bohn announces firing, associate head coach Donte Williams named interim coach while the team searches for a replacement


                            Why was Clay Helton fired? USC looks to regain football glory, fans say 'right move'
Clay Helton speaks to the media after a game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 23, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Clay Helton is no longer the head coach of USC Trojans, the university announced on September 13. The firing of Helton ends an over a decade-long association with the university, after a humiliating 42-28 home loss to Stanford. The 2021/22 season was Helton's seventh with the Trojans, but just two games in, he'll now have to find a new home. While the university searches for a replacement, associate head coach and defensive pass game coordinator Donte Williams was named interim coach.

Helton's high-profile firing is just one of many this year, as football teams struggle to search for success. At the NFL, the Jacksonville Jaguars fired Doug Marrone following his 15th consecutive loss in January. That came just a day after the New York Jets fired Adam Gase, after just two years in charge. Back in November 2020, Jim Caldwell was booted from the Detroit Lions after the team's fourth double-digit loss in five weeks. 

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Like the Jets, Lions, and Jaguars, it seems the Trojans too were having a hard time. Since 2017 his record stands at 19-14, well below the sky-high expectations the university, and fans had from the Trojans. "Those expectations could not be met without a change in leadership," the university's athletics director Mike Bohn said.

Clay Helton leads his team onto the field before the NCAAF game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on November 09, 2019, in Tempe, Arizona. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Why was Clay Helton fired?

Despite his below-average record, Helton has been with the Trojans as head coach since 2015. While the team never looked like serious competitors, he managed to stay on at the start of the new season, before being fired just two games in. So what changed? According to Bohn, it was the weight of expectations brought on by "added resources". When Bohn took over in 2019, the university channelled additional funding and resources for its football program. "The added resources carried significantly increased expectations," Bohn said in his statement.



 

 

Those resources included mental and physical health resources, academic support, adding more support staff, retooling recruiting, and branding. At the time, Bohn was also faced with the choice of firing Helton, but he chose not to. He was faced with that choice again in early 2021, but chose to keep Helton on saying, "If you look at the progress we made and the adjustments we collectively worked on, I can’t think of one area where we didn’t improve."

However, it now appears Bohn's patience has worn thin, after the Trojan's humiliating loss to Stanford. In 2016, Helton managed to lead the team to a Rose Bowl victory. But since, trophies have been hard to come by for the Trojans. "Our university and its leadership are committed to winning national championships," Bohn noted, and said, "this decision represents our next step towards that goal." The team will "patiently pursue" the search for its next coach, and Bohn is "optimistic" that USC will be able to recruit an ideal replacement. Who that may be, he did not hint. 

Clay Helton watches play from the sidelines during the first half against the Arizona Wildcats at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on October 19, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Harry How/Getty Images)

'Should have done this in 2019'

The reactions to Helton's firing was mixed. While some people were happy to see the back of Helton, others were a bit more disappointed. "USC has finally fired Clay Helton. They should have done it in 2019 after Carol Folt was hired as the new president and Mike Bohn was hired as the new AD. It's embarrassing that it took this long and they made the move two games into this season but at least it's over. Finally," one person tweeted. Another said, "Clay Helton's USC career is absolutely hilarious. He just kept on hanging around until eventually they accidentally made him head coach. Then they didn't want to admit it was an accident so they just kept him around for 7 seasons."



 



 

 

"Just now realizing Clay Helton's first game as USC's permanent HC was a blowout loss to Stanford (2015 Pac-12 title game) and his last game was a blowout loss to Stanford. Truly, nothing ever changed," noted journalist Stewart Mandel. Another person commented, "It was time to move on. Clay Helton is by all reports a very good man. He was just not exactly the man USC needs at this time. This was the right move. Now every viable coach in America knows that USC is in the market for its next head coach."



 



 

 

New head coach Williams will start his tenure with a challenging away game against Washington State on September 18, followed by a home game against Oregon State on September 26. Bohn has made it clear the search for Helton's replacement will take time, which means Williams will have a good chance to throw his hat in the ring. What the post-Helton era will bring, will surely be interesting to see. 

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