Since the moment he was officially announced as USC football’s 25th head coach in November 2015, Clay Helton has dealt with a seemingly endless flood of doubt, criticism and direct calls for his termination.
Sure, anyone who takes a major head coaching job in college or professional sports is disposed to scrutiny, but few have felt the burns from being under the magnifying glass of public opinion quite like Helton.
Time and time again, Helton has found some way to settle down a fanbase and city that demand nothing short of champions — leading the Trojans to a Pac-12 championship appearance as, basically, an interim coach in 2015.
Helton somehow galvanized a depressing 1-3 team into a squad that finished 10-3 with a Rose Bowl victory and held the No. 3 spot in the final AP poll of 2016; and nearly running the table in conference along with dramatic victories over Texas and Stanford en route to a Pac-12 championship and New Year’s Six bowl appearance.
Add in a spectacular recruiting record with classes that have remained ranked in the top 10 each of the past four years. And like him or not, Helton’s track record made him the best head coach in the Pac-12 heading into 2018.
Over the matter of a few months, the perception around Helton and beleaguered assistant offensive coordinator Tee Martin is that it is not a matter of if they will be fired, but when. While Helton’s decision Monday to move on from offensive line coach Neil Callaway and take play calling responsibilities away from Martin is a start, this may not be enough to an impatient USC faithful. They will need to see results or heads will continue to roll.
The massive 19-game home winning streak USC held that only trailed Alabama in length has now been broken. The team’s 4-4 record overall including a 2-2 mark in the Pac-12 South — a division in the running for the most disappointing (if not outright worst) collection of teams in college football — is well beneath the lofty expectations of a Trojan side that came into the season ranked 15th in the nation.
In the handful of games that USC has enjoyed something close to a large national audience (visiting Stanford on Fox primetime, visiting Texas on Fox primetime, hosting Arizona State on ABC) USC has lost in often-embarrassing fashion.
Above all, a new and surprisingly more worrisome issue has popped up for USC football: fans have stopped showing up.
Without taking credit away from the team for its 19-game win streak at home, it’s fair to say that USC fans have historically created a difficult environment for visiting teams.
One of the largest stadiums in college football — at least before renovations began — the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum can get as loud as any field in America. Watch highlights from games against teams like Texas and Stanford in 2017, if not from the glory days in the early 2000s and this becomes extremely obvious: Teams just don’t win in L.A.
This is true unless those fans decide not to show up to the games. For Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. kickoff against Arizona State, USC reported an attendance of 47,406, which may be good among Pac-12 teams this weekend, but the 60 percent capacity of the stadium represents the second lowest among Pac-12 teams.
With the exception of an abysmal 46 percent capacity in the Rose Bowl for the UCLA–Utah contest — a Friday night game that directly conflicted with the World Series — USC managed to produce the lowest home field advantage of any team in the conference.
While numbers have been in decline for the Trojans all season due to ongoing stadium renovations, the departure of Sam Darnold and a lack of quality visiting teams, Saturday’s display revealed a depressing truth: The fans no longer have the same faith and vigor in USC’s football program.
It is not the same excitement that surrounded the team in the early 2000s. It is not the same feeling of hope that Trojan fans had in the lead up and during the Rose Bowl in 2016. It doesn’t even match where the program was after devastating losses to Washington State and Notre Dame in 2017. As it stands now, much of USC’s fanbase has been turned off by the product they see on the field.
Subsequently, some major recruits have cooled on the idea of being a Trojan as well. Over the course of a few weeks, USC has lost commitments from St. John Bosco standouts Chris Steele and Kris Hutson. USC currently has the 27th-ranked recruiting class in the nation, behind schools such as Purdue, Virginia, North Carolina State and Arkansas.
Now, the question is what Athletic Director Lynn Swann will do to steer USC football back on the right path. The decisions he will have to make over the coming months will undoubtedly come to define his tenure as the head of USC Athletics.
For the most part, fans have already made up their minds. Until they see real change, likely to the coaching staff, they will gladly watch games from their homes and opt to spend time and money on the many other things L.A. has to offer.
What decision will Swann arrive at? The fate of the program hangs in the balance.
Jimmy Goodman is a junior majoring in communication. His column, “The Point After,” runs every other Tuesday.