Now it’s time for USC football to think big – Daily News

What took them so long?

That is, I’m sure, what a resounding majority of USC football supporters are saying today. Two games into what was expected to be a win-or-go-home season for Clay Helton, he was shown the door Monday afternoon. Athletic director Mike Bohn tried to say all the right things in his statement announcing Helton’s firing, but the second sentence may have been the tell.

“Clay is one of the finest human beings I have met in this industry, and he has been a tremendous role model and mentor to our young men,” Bohn wrote. And across the self-proclaimed Trojan Family, supporters nodded their heads and assured themselves that the late Leo Durocher was right.

“Nice guys finish last” may not be the exact quote allegedly uttered by the fiery and often irascible baseball manager. But it’s a reality more often than not, especially in football. Like it or not, to succeed in an intense and sometimes mean sport a coach must make his athletes, and sometimes assistant coaches as well, think that he’s at least capable of temporary insanity. He doesn’t always have to yell – it’s more effective when rarely used, actually – but he needs his players to understand that if they screw up there will be consequences.

Consequences have been few on the USC practice field the last few years if on-field performance and behavior have been any indication. Lack of discipline has been a frequent complaint of the USC faithful, exemplified by mental errors, unwise and untimely penalties – a targeting penalty by the kicker on the opening kickoff?? – and undue celebration for on-field successes that should be routine. If you get a first down, or you make a tackle, instead of doing a dance maybe you should simply walk back to the huddle with the idea of making that play again, and again, and again.

Youthful exuberance has its place, but so does a businesslike approach. After all, College Football Inc. is a business, one in which players are at last allowed a share of the financial rewards. But it’s hard to justify giving Name-Image-Likeness dollars to players in a program speeding toward irrelevance.

The scene at the Coliseum Saturday night was telling. As Stanford had its way with USC, the boos got louder. Eventually, toward the end of the Cardinal’s 42-28 beatdown of the Trojans, fans decided it wasn’t worth any more of their time and headed for the exits early.

It might have been different had this been the first time. It wasn’t, by a long shot. We recall an early November loss to Oregon – the Justin Herbert Ducks – in 2019, a few days before Bohn was introduced as the new athletic director. That night, the Ducks began to pull away in the third quarter and USC fans started heading home to the point that by game’s end, 80 percent of the fans still in the building were wearing Oregon colors.

When Bohn had his introductory press conference the following Thursday, many Trojan fans were dismayed he didn’t bring Urban Meyer with him to the podium then and there. I’m not sure that would have helped, but the point was that the fan base was fed up way before this. If Saturday’s boos and empty seats were the last straw, a lot was being overlooked in the meantime.

Helton got a free pass of sorts in 2020 because no fans were allowed in the Coliseum. What do you suppose the reaction would have been as Oregon piled up a two-touchdown lead in last December’s Pac-12 championship game and the Trojans kept tripping themselves up with mistakes and poor decisions? SC did show grit during that shortened season, but they put themselves in too many holes too many times.

Helton said it himself after that game, and whether it was sincere or smarmy is for you to decide: “You know, we’re judged on championships here. That’s the beauty of this place. That’s the expectation. That’s the standard. That’s what we fight for. That’s why our hearts are broken in that locker room, because that’s the only thing we will accept as a team, is a championship.”

If that is indeed the standard, let there be no more settling. Bohn noted in his statement Monday the increase in football resources and staff the last two seasons and the accompanying expectations, though he stopped short of mentioning the potential that NIL opportunities could create for one of college football’s glamour programs.

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