Inside USC firing Clay Helton and the search for its next football coach

As far as USC firings have gone, Clay Helton’s was among the more civil and organized. No tarmac, no media leaks.

On Sunday after a disappointing loss to Stanford, USC athletic director Mike Bohn decided it was time for a change in leadership for the football program. After a day to get all the aspects of the announcement in order, Bohn met with Helton at 1:30 on Monday afternoon to inform him of the decision. The two then went to the regularly scheduled team meeting at 2:10 to inform the student-athletes and coaching staff, so they could hear it first from their coach and the A.D.

The only member of the program who got a heads up was associate head coach Donte Williams, who was told just before the team meeting that he would be the Trojans’ interim head coach.

Shortly after, the announcement went out: Helton and USC were parting ways. He was the third consecutive USC coach to be fired in the middle of the season. But his dismissal avoided the coldness of Lane Kiffin’s 2013 firing at the airport upon returning from a road loss, or the chaos of Steve Sarkisian reportedly finding out in 2015 he’d been fired not from the athletic department but from texts from friends following media reports.

“I think that meant a lot to a lot of players to have that kind of moment after we heard the news,” captain Ben Griffiths said Tuesday. “None of us were really ready for it. So yeah, I guess it’s a private moment that us as players should hold pretty close to our hearts and I’m just glad he got a moment to talk to us and say what he wanted to say.”

If all goes according to plan, that’s the manner in which USC will move forward with its search for Helton’s successor: Organized, methodical and under-the-radar.

Or at least as under-the-radar as a search for the next head coach of one of college football’s blue-blood programs can be.

As of Monday night, USC had not spoken to any candidates for the position, according to an athletic department source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But, the source added, there had already been some backchanneling as representatives for sitting Power 5 head coaches have reached out to express their clients’ interest in the USC position.

USC will not move in any particular hurry to find its head coach. The search is expected to extend into early December, when many top coaches will be leading their teams in conference championship games.

“We’ve already started with building our profile, building all the elements associated with a solid search,” Bohn said in a press conference following Tuesday’s practice. “I’m looking forward to that.”

The process will not be led by a search firm. In past football coach searches, Bohn and associate athletic director Brandon Sosna – who worked together at Cincinnati before coming to USC in 2019 – spearheaded the efforts themselves, using firms to help conduct tasks such as background checks. The USC process is expected to follow a similar pattern, the source said.

USC is trying to go into the search without any filters, not requiring an offensive guru or defensive-minded coach to be the next leader of the Trojans. The hope, the source said, is to eliminate those kinds of biases and instead find the best cultural fit for USC.

That fit will be vital for USC as it tries to return to the standards of its 11 national championships. The source said there is a sense of urgency and pressure on this coaching search with USC now 16 years and three head coaches removed from its last title.

Programs such as Nebraska and Tennessee have repeatedly missed on hires and had to go about the process every three years, only to find themselves slipping further and further from national relevance. The power brokers at USC want to be deliberate in this search and find the right coach to ensure that the program doesn’t fall into a similar fate.

“This is really going to be a critical opportunity for us to pull the USC family together and bring in a leader that we can all unite around that can be a great ambassador for us and be a great leader, a great recruiter and be somebody that helps make USC football something special,” Bohn said Tuesday.

Competing for that level of success was likely the only way that Helton could have saved his job. USC wanted to see the football team win the Pac-12 title and be in the College Football Playoff conversation for the school to retain him into 2022, the source said.

When it became clear after the Stanford loss that USC would not be in the mix for the four-team playoff, the source said, it was time for the Trojans to begin the search for their next coach.

“I just don’t think we had that same sense of belief that with all the resources and the commitment that we put together that we could really aspire to those national championship aspirations that we talk about all the time,” Bohn said Tuesday.

But USC feels like this is also the right time to search for a coach. Since his arrival nearly two years ago, Bohn has grown the size of the football program’s support staff in recruiting, nutrition, social media, strength and conditioning and other areas that were underdeveloped by previous athletic administrations.

These investments have already begun to help USC in recruiting, as evidenced by the jump in talent from the 2020 signing class to 2021. This progress – as well as the potential for an expanded playoff and the optimism around the new alliance between the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC – is expected to drive interest from a strong array of candidates for the head coaching job.

Whoever the next coach is, USC hopes that Williams will be a part of his staff, the source said. The athletic department expects that any coach would want to retain an assistant of Williams’ reputation as a recruiter. USC is open to retaining other assistants on the staff, the source said, though that will remain up to the incoming head coach.

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