Today, I was given the impossible task of writing something in a newspaper not relevant or related to the election. So I’m writing about the only thing almost as interesting and important as choosing our next president: choosing the head coach of USC football, of course.
I’ve been wrong plenty of times in my four years as a Daily Trojan columnist — picking USC to lose at Stanford in 2014, endorsing Max Browne as our best bet at quarterback this year and defending former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox on numerous occasions, just to name a few.
But I’ve never been more off in one of my assessments than I was at this exact point in the season last year.
It was the Wednesday before USC took on Washington. The Trojans were hosting the Huskies the following day, as part of the Pac-12 conferences Thursday night game schedule. It was the first time Washington head coach Chris Petersen and USC’s then-head coach Steven Sarkisian were set to duke it out from the sidelines after settling in on their new jobs.
Both had been considered for the USC job that had been vacant after the 2013 season — when former head coach Lane Kiffin was fired in the middle of the year and Ed Orgeron famously stormed off from the interim job after it was announced he was not in consideration for the full-time gig before the team’s bowl game. Then-athletic director Pat Haden ultimately tapped Sarkisian — who was Washington’s head coach at the time — and Petersen jumped from his mid-major conference job at Boise State to the opening with the Trojan’s northernmost Pac-12 rival about a week later.
I had a take on that decision before the game, and offered the following conclusion in hindsight:
“Should the Trojans have hired Petersen over Sarkisian? Probably not.”
Sure enough, Petersen’s unranked Washington team upset the No. 17 Trojans in the Coliseum 17-12, and Sarkisian was dismissed from his position later that week due to a substance abuse problem. Sarkisian no longer has a head coaching job, while Petersen has led the Huskies to an undefeated season and No. 4 ranking. If the season were to end today, Washington would hold the final spot in the College Football Playoff.
I’d be remiss not to mention a third major player in all these decisions: Clay Helton. When Orgeron quit the interim head coaching job before the Trojans’ bowl game in 2014, it was Helton who was given the keys to house-sit the Trojan estate for the month of December, before Sarkisian was given ownership for the start of the 2014 season.
Helton was able to take command and earn the respect of the Trojans, as their third head coach that season, and lead the team to a definitive 45-20 victory over ranked, then-11-1 Fresno State team.
In a slightly larger sample size, after Sarkisian’s tenure went up in flames in the middle of the 2015 season, Helton got another chance as USC’s interim head coach, and he put together a 5-2 streak. The Trojans fell 41-31 at then-No. 14 Notre Dame, when Helton was given less than a week to prepare the team. The Trojans also lost at then-No. 23 Oregon 48-28. But between those two losses, Helton put together a four-game winning streak in conference play, including a huge 42-24 win at home against then-No. 3 Utah. Then, in the the one truly must-win game for any lifelong Trojan fan, USC beat up on then-No. 22 UCLA, winning 40-21. They won back the Victory Bell for the Trojans for the first time in four years, and despite three loses in conference play, earned the Trojans a Pac-12 South division title and an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship.
Then cue the next move by Haden that is still being examined in 20-20 hindsight. Before even playing the Pac-12 championship game later that week, and way before the Trojans’ season would ultimately end after a then-to be determined bowl game, Haden promoted Helton from the interim head coach to the full-time program head. It was a 180-degree turn from his handling of a popular interim head coach in Orgeron.
What followed was about the worst possible start Helton or Haden could have imagined. The Trojans were blown out by Stanford for the second time that season in the Pac-12 title game, and then were defeated by Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl. The 2016 season was even more brutal, featuring a 52-6 beatdown against the defending national champion in Alabama, another definitive defeat to Stanford and a last minute loss to divisional rival Utah all in the span of four games.
But then Helton and the Trojans turned it around. Despite some mounting pressure and questioning of his credentials, the Trojans won five conference games in a row and jumped right back into the divisional title picture.
And that leaves us right where we are today. The Trojans have a chance for a big conference win, playing the one team in the conference sitting in a playoff spot. Though it’s not in the friendly confines of the Coliseum, it has to bring back memories of last year’s Utah game, which the Trojans won by three possessions.
The matchup begs a new set of big 20-20 hindsight questions: Should the Trojans have gone for Petersen when they first had the chance in 2014, or is Helton the right guy for the job long-term?
Of course, the hiring of Sarkisian went through less vetting than it needed, but it’s too hard to guess whether Petersen really would have been the best fit here. No one besides Petersen and Haden really know how much interest was on either side.
What we can say at this point is that if a guy like Petersen is the key to leading Washington to prominence, we have a pretty comparable man leading our program. Of course, Helton’s tenure as an interim head coach is no comparison to Petersen’s success at Boise State, which maybe would give him an edge over Helton on recruiting trails.
But both are likable, trustworthy men who players like to play for, and parents like to see their kids sign with. If the Trojans can prove that they really stack up with Washington this Saturday, it could be a great sign of what’s to come in the near future with Helton in charge.
Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs on Wednesday.