A consistent failure to win games, at any program, will inevitably put a coach on the hot seat. Just ask Jim Mora, who was recently fired as the UCLA football coach for not elevating the Bruins to elite status in his six seasons in Westwood.
While losing is the common denominator, different programs have a different tolerance levels and qualifications for being placed in the hot seat.
Take a stroll through USC Twitter during a Trojan football game, and you’d be convinced that head coach Clay Helton — a man who has his 10-2 team playing in the Pac-12 Championship on Friday — is one game away from getting the boot from Athletic Director Lynn Swann.
Since the start of the 2016 season, Helton’s first year at the helm, USC is 20-5 overall. At the conclusion of his first full year as coach, Helton brought USC its first Rose Bowl trophy since 2009. Helton has never lost a game as head coach at the Coliseum (13-0 at home), and he will take his Trojans to Santa Clara this Friday to battle No. 14 Stanford for the Pac-12 Championship. USC has a chance to clinch its first conference crown since 2008.
Helton’s consistency for the Trojans has been undeniable. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer that those associated with the program are not so much pleased with consistency as they are with domination and playing for national championships.
As USC’s grueling regular season went on, the Trojans slid out of College Football Playoff contention (they opened the season at No. 4 in the AP poll). But it must be noted that the Trojans were called to battle through an injury-plagued season that saw them play 12 consecutive games without a bye week — their first regular season without a bye week since 1995. To navigate through a gantlet of a regular season and escape with a 10-2 record and a Pac-12 South title is something to praise this team and coaching staff about.
And so, it can be quite confusing at times to pinpoint what it is about Helton that makes him so disposable to fans and followers of the program. He has led USC to consecutive double-digit win seasons for the first time since 2007 and 2008 and has his team just one win away from a prominent New Year’s Six bowl.
Those around the program often spout that Helton “just can’t win the big game.” This is strange, considering the fact that Helton’s first two seasons have seen him compile several impressive victories.
Last season’s Rose Bowl berth wouldn’t have happened if Helton’s Trojans didn’t upset a tough No. 4 Washington team on the road. Many will claim heroics from then-redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold bailed Helton out, but something has to be said about battling back in the Rose Bowl to win a thriller against No. 5 Penn State.
And even this season, USC put together arguably the most complete performance of the Helton era in a 42-24 Week 2 victory over Stanford at home.
Despite the 20-5 overall record, Rose Bowl victory, top recruiting class and now a berth in the Pac-12 Championship, many are still clouded when they begin to assess the Helton regime at USC.
But this Friday’s conference championship against the Cardinal may be Helton’s most crucial test yet. It certainly shouldn’t be a hot seat game, but it will be a barometer game for many USC fans — one where they will find out if Helton is the coach to bring the Trojans back among the undisputed elites of college football.
Should Helton lead USC to victory and its first conference trophy since the Pete Carroll days, it’ll do a good deal of help in silencing the Helton haters. But if the Trojans come back to Los Angeles empty-handed, the “Fire Helton!”, “He’s not the right guy” and “Darnold saved Helton” rants will surely be cranked up a notch.
Helton will not have history on his side come Friday night at Levi’s Stadium: No Pac-12 South champion has ever won the Pac-12 Championship Game (the game has been played six times).
UCLA’s high-profile hiring of Chip Kelly this past week could also be added gasoline to the “fire Helton” bandwagon. When Helton was announced as USC’s full-time head coach in 2015, there were unpleasant rumblings as the land of Troy seemed to be hoping for a flashier candidate than Helton, who had been an assistant coach for the previous six seasons. If Helton doesn’t quite fit what USC fans want going forward, then all it takes is a look across town to Westwood to begin petitioning for the Trojans to make a flashy hire of their own.
It’s easy to get lost in the hype and buildup of conference championship week. But now, more than ever, is an appropriate time for USC fans to take a breath and assess their condition holistically.
Helton has been a benchmark of stability for USC so far in his tenure, both on and off the field. It’s ironic that the same fans who were clamoring for program stability when Lane Kiffin was fired on the tarmac and Steve Sarkisian was drunkenly ranting at Salute to Troy are the same fans calling for the head of an even-keel leader like Helton.
The last USC coach to deliver back-to-back 10-win campaigns was Carroll, back in the 2007 and 2008 seasons. And while it is Trojan heresy to mention anyone in the same breath as Carroll, it must be noted that he went 17-8 over his first 25 contests as USC coach. Helton is 20-5 through his first 25.
So what’s my message to the still-existent Helton doubters? Be patient.
Angel Viscarra is a junior studying broadcast and digital journalism. His column, “Viscarra’s Vice,” ran Tuesdays.