Southern California head coach Clay Helton walks on the sideline during an NCAA college football game against San Jose State Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Trojans Fire Head Coach Clay Helton Two Games into the 2021 Season

The University of Southern California has announced the firing of Head Coach Clay Helton, Athletic Director Mike Bohn announced Monday.

Bohn’s announcement comes in the wake of a 42-28 loss to Stanford on Saturday. Helton, 49, served as head coach of the Trojans since 2015 after the mid-season firing of now Texas coach Steve Sarkisian. Albeit, he was the interim head coach in 2015, with a promotion in 2016 as full time head coach. ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg discusses what went wrong for this decision to happen.

No Rose Without a Thorn

After Sarkisian’s firing in 2015, Helton led the Trojans to a 5-4 record for the remainder of the season. Yet, it was 2016 which solidified his place as the football coach of a once storied program. Likewise, in his first full year as head coach he led USC to a 10-3 record. Moreover, behind now Panthers QB Sam Darnold, the Trojans won an all-time Rose Bowl classic vs. Penn State, making their first appearance in “The Granddaddy of Them All” since 2009.

Nov 18, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Ronald Jones II (25) celebrates with quarterback Sam Darnold (14) after scoring a touchdown against the UCLA Bruins during the second half at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

2017 saw Helton’s team open as an early favorite to win the National Championship, opening as No. 4 in the AP Poll. While USC won the Pac-12 championship that season, it was key regular season losses to ranked opponents Notre Dame and Washington State which kept the Trojans away from playoff aspirations. Overall, they finished 11-3 on the season, with a romping in the Cotton Bowl Classic from the hands of Ohio State.

From there, it went downhill for Helton and co. In 2018, the Trojans went 5-7 following the departure of Darnold to the NFL Draft. Consequently, this marked the first time they were not bowl eligible since 2011. But, in 2019 they slightly improved to 8-5 behind the emergence of  freshman QB Kedon Slovis. However, during the shortened 2020 season due to the pandemic, USC went 5-1 but Slovis significantly regressed.

While fans called for Helton’s firing post 2018, the improvements made in 2019 and the nature of the pandemic kept his job safe. But, the coach constantly sat on the hot seat, with the school being linked to now Jaguars coach Urban Meyer.  After dropping a crucial in-conference loss Saturday, Bohn finally pulled the trigger on firing his coach. Overall, Helton was 46-24 in his time at USC. Although this firing may seem too soon for some fans, Rittenberg explains the urgency of this situation.

Start Of The Carousel

In the wake of Helton’s firing, Bohn announced Trojan’s associate head coach and cornerbacks coach Donte Williams will take over. Williams, 39, has served stints at Oregon, Nebraska and Arizona as a defensive backs coach. Surely, the interim coach will be given every chance to earn the job, just as his predecessor did six years ago. Especially, he will be given a chance as Helton’s buyout is in the $12 million range and was under contract until 2023, sources tell ESPN’s Chris Low. Still, Bohn says the university athletic association (UAA) will conduct a national search over the next several months. Rittenberg discusses potential candidates.

Chiefly, Penn State coach James Franklin name has consistently surfaced in speculation over the past few years. Despite being at a tier one destination in Happy Valley, many individuals around the industry believe the former Vanderbilt coach could come to Inglewood. Ironically, he served as coach against USC in 2016’s Rose Bowl classic. That season, the Nittany Lions won the Big 10 championship behind Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin, both of which Franklin recruited. Rittenberg discusses why the Franklin to USC hype could be real.

Another strong name early on is Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell. Significantly, Bohn previously served as the athletic director at Cincinnati, hiring Fickell back in 2016. The longtime Ohio State assistant led the Bearcats to a Peach Bowl appearance in 2020, serving as playoff contenders in 2021 as the No. 7 team in the AP Poll. Fickell’s success serves as part of the reason why Cincinnati has joined the Big 12. However, other names have been surfaced. Former Gator’s defensive coordinator Bob Stoops, former Washington coach Chris Petersen and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell have been speculated as potential candidates.

Penn State head coach James Franklin reacts to a blocked field goal during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

What’s Next?

The Trojan’s still have a full season ahead of them, with Williams being given every chance to earn the job. Yet, it won’t be easy. As of now, USC still has four ranked opponents on their schedule: Notre Dame, UCLA, Arizona State and BYU.

Saturday, the Trojan’s take on Washington State in the first game post firing Helton.

About Sam Petosa

Sam Petosa is a Journalism major pursuing a Specialization in Sports and Media at UF. The South Florida native produces daily shows for WRUF, including "Sport Scene with Steve Russell, and "The Tailgate." In addition, Sam provides weekly sports updates for WUFT News and radio Sportscenter's for WRUF radio. Sam has been a writer at ESPN Gainesville since January 2020.

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