Clay Helton is the leader USC needs, but not everyone’s happy

LOS ANGELES — USC found its man to lead the Trojans program forward and Pat Haden didn’t have to look very far to find him. 

The question lots of folks are wondering is, how far exactly did Haden even look?

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But regardless, Clay Helton, the interim head coach who had worked under Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian — two guys who were fired midseason — has won the job full-time. 

The 43-year-old Helton, who led USC to a bowl win two years ago in his first stint as the Trojans’ interim head coach — after Ed Orgeron led the team to a 6-2 run and was passed over for Sarkisian — has guided a young squad to a 5-2 mark, highlighted by a 40-21 win over archrival UCLA. The victory over the Bruins was something Orgeron, Sarkisian and Kiffin were unable to accomplish against UCLA coach Jim Mora. And the feeling here is that it was significant enough of a statement by the team that it revealed Helton as a viable option, although Haden, the embattled AD, said otherwise in a statement Monday morning announcing the hire.

“Clay was not hired because his team defeated UCLA Saturday,” Haden said. "He was not hired because many current and former players voiced their support for him. And he was not hired because he is a Trojan. He is our choice because we believe he can win Pac-12 and national championships here. Clay Helton is the right man at the right time for the USC football program.”

USC has given Helton a guaranteed five-year contract, Haden said.

Obviously, it remains to be seen if Helton will prove to be the answer for a program that has had a ridiculous amount of turbulence since Pete Carroll left for the NFL. One thing that I do buy from Haden’s comments is that the stable Helton is the right man at the right time. Yes, this is a guy who was hired by Kiffin as the Trojans QB coach after being the offensive coordinator of a 2-10 Memphis team back in 2009, but lots of excellent head coaches have been through some down years as assistants.

Still, it’s crazy to think of all the absurd turns USC had to take to afford Helton the opportunity to show his skills as someone who could guide a program like this: Kiffin getting canned earlier in a season so Orgeron could have enough time to make his own case and then feel snubbed so that he bolts before the bowl game so Helton can take over the bowl; AND then a year-and-a-half later Sarkisian’s life unravels to the point he gets fired so early, again, where another Trojan assistant coach (Helton) gets ample time to show he can deliver. 

Helton, son of long-time NFL and CFL O-line coach Kim Helton, is sharp enough to have learned what to do — and not to do — in leading this Ferrari of a program, full of its blue-chip talent. Yet, like Orgeron, Helton is also wired right to know that, at the core, in its DNA, USC wants to be about physical, old-school football. And the Trojans have been, outrushing each of their past six opponent they’ve faced by 71 yards per game since he took over and doing a much better job of taking care of the ball, producing a plus-9 in the turnover margin.

“Sometimes the right choice is not always the easy choice,” Helton said. “I totally understand that I’m not a flashy name. I don’t want to be. I never have been and I never will be.”

Helton later apologized for not being glitzy before adding, “I believe that blue-collar toughness is what wins championships.”

He also knows just how special of an opportunity he has: "This is the most unique place in the world," Helton said. "It is the pinnacle of college football."

Winning the news conference usually doesn’t turn out to mean too much. Dozens of coaches have charmed folks at their introductory pressers and flopped on the sidelines in the years after. Talking to coaches who have been around Helton, though, they’ll tell you this was no act or spin job. He came across as genuine, which is apt because that’s who he truly is. 

“He’s an adult, and he’s also a solid football guy,” said one coach who knows Helton well. “He won’t screw it up."

Given what USC football has been through in the past five years, that’s a decent starting point. These Trojans don’t need glitz. The program already has high-wattage star power. The Trojans need someone who can manage it and be focused and on his game every single day, day in and day out. As cliché as that may sound, it’s what folks around the program say they’ve lacked in the previous two youthful hires who were more charismatic but yet produced inconsistent and ultimately underwhelming results. USC players say that consistency and focus is what Helton provides, and in response the team is finally playing up to its talent level. And now it might even rally to win the Pac-12 title.

News of Helton’s hire left many snickering at USC, though. This program is a top-five coaching job fed by a superb recruiting base prone to Cardinal and Gold; it has grand tradition, deep pockets and impressive facilities. So was Helton really the best USC could get? This is where things get murky.

Lots of names were speculated for this vacancy. Super Bowl-winning coach John Harbaugh. Bill O’Brien. Former Oregon coach and current Eagles head man Chip Kelly’s name came up. In fact, there was a report claiming Kelly had met with USC officials Friday in Philly. Only Kelly pointed out that he was in New Hampshire on Friday and had never met, talked to or even emailed anyone about the USC job. I asked Haden if Kelly had interviewed for the USC job and the AD told me he had not. 

Haden told me he had interviewed “several” candidates for the job, but declined to say exactly how many. Maybe it was two. Maybe it was 10. 

Truth be told, whatever frustration there is among USC folks over the Helton hire has much more to do with Haden than it does with the man he just hired. 

“We’re all upset that it wasn’t a thorough search,” one former USC player told me Monday morning. "It’s (bleepin’) par for the course with (Haden). It’s ridiculous.”

Haden didn’t hire Kiffin, but he did hire Sarkisian and later said that he had in fact vetted the former Washington coach before hiring him at USC. After Helton finished taking questions, Haden left the room. It was odd to see an AD not stand at the podium to field questions about his new hire. Instead, reporters chased down Haden and cornered him in a hallway. 

Reportedly Haden is dealing with some health issues. Then again, if he’s not well enough to discuss what is going on with his program and the decisions that are being made, he probably shouldn’t be holding the job. 

But maybe Haden did get it right this time. I think Helton is a good option, although there are no guarantees. The same goes for John Harbaugh, who has never been a college head coach and wouldn’t have been a sure bet to lead this program to a national title either. Just because Jim Mora worked out across town doesn’t mean many of the other long-time NFL guys would too. Bill O’Brien did well in his two years at Penn State, but then he bailed back to the NFL. Mike Sherman went to the playoffs four times in six seasons as an NFL coach, but he had only one winning season in his four years at Texas A&M. Bill Callahan took over at Nebraska and didn’t even have a .500 record in the Big 12.

One thing is for sure, Helton inherits a program loaded with young talent. Most of the Trojans’ best players are freshmen and sophomores. Helton likely will have to shake up his coaching staff, particularly on defense. But those are issues for another day.

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FS1. He is also a New York Times best-selling author. His new book, “The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks,” came out in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB and Facebook.