Clay Helton will remain the head coach of USC’s football program for another season, athletic director Mike Bohn announced Wednesday.
“I am pleased to let you know Coach Helton will continue to be our head coach,” Bohn tweeted. “His commitment to our student-athletes and to leading with integrity is vital to restoring our championship program, which is the goal for all of our teams.”
In a subsequent tweet, Bohn said he and Helton will “take a hard look” at the program and make further decisions so that USC can become a championship contender.
The decision was highly anticipated after almost a week of contradictory information. Sports Illustrated’s Adam Maya released a report Sunday that Helton would be fired, which was refuted by prominent figures such as Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel and The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, whose sources claimed Helton would stay.
“It was unfortunate,” Bohn said of the false report. “Unfortunately, we are in a culture of erroneous reporting around intercollegiate athletics and sports in general … I think [the response to] it showed the poise of our head coach, and I believe it showed the maturity of our very young team that I was really impressed with.”
Helton has been on the hot seat since last season when the Trojans finished with a 5-7 record. Before the final game of 2018 against Notre Dame, a plane flew above the Coliseum trailed by a banner that read “Lynn Swann — please fire Clay Helton.”
Despite the program’s performance, Swann — the athletic director at the time — decided to retain Helton for another year. When Swann abruptly resigned in early September and Bohn took hold of the athletic department, many fans expected Helton’s fate to be sealed regardless of the team’s performance during the season.
Helton’s team improved markedly. After starting out 3-3, USC finished with an 8-4 record and a spot in a bowl game.
“His proven ability to develop players, to have players that are united, the ability to run a program with integrity, the ability to run a program that’s poised and the ability to really help this team through lots of adversity this year reflect a leader that shows great promise to me,” Bohn told the Daily Trojan Wednesday.
In his introductory press conference in early November, Bohn challenged Helton and his team to finish the season strong. After Wednesday’s announcement, Bohn said the fact that the Trojans won five of their final six regular season games “revealed a lot about what was going on in the locker room.”
“My hat’s off to the players and coach [Helton] for rallying this team and helping them be successful in doing that,” Bohn said. “I know they are going to work really hard to play in a nice bowl game and to compete against a very talented opponent and use that as yet another boost to the future of the program.”
Helton expressed his faith in the team’s ability to meet the fanbase’s championship expectations moving forward.
“We know the expectations of our fans are high, as they should be,” he said in a statement. “Those are the same expectations I have for myself and that our staff and team have as well.”
“Our future is bright,” Helton added. “We have a young team on the verge of doing something special. We have seen what this team can do, having the season we have had despite going through adversity and injuries. We are headed to a great bowl and we plan to finish the season strong. And we are putting the final touches on an outstanding recruiting class.”
Although President Carol Folt said Bohn took charge of the decision-making process, she said she appreciates Helton’s high standards for himself and the way he constantly takes accountability for the team’s mistakes.
“He never complains,” she told Daily Trojan. “He is not a person that tries to blame anybody else. He’s a very strong, centered person who takes his program and feels responsible for it. I admire that. And that means you take responsibility for the good or the bad, and I think that’s a real trait of leadership that’s important.”
Although Helton’s job remains intact, the rest of the Trojan coaching staff is in limbo. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is reportedly a top candidate for the open offensive coordinator job at Texas. Clancy Pendergast’s ability to lead the defense has also been questioned since the Trojans conceded 56 points to Oregon earlier this season.
Despite the backlash Bohn’s decision has received from the Trojan faithful, he said he is confident the fanbase will rally around next year’s Trojan squad no matter who is at the helm.
“I would expect that all of us retain our high expectations, all of us keep our competitive fire burning strong, and all of us work hard to ensure that student-athletes, first and foremost, are the most important aspect of our program,” Bohn said. “[And to keep them] to help us inspire the athletes that are currently on the team and help us inspire recruits down the road to join the Trojan family.”
Aidan Berg contributed to this report.