The end of Clay Helton’s tenure in charge

Now-former head coach Clay Helton runs onto the field with his players by his side.
Former head coach Clay Helton is was fired by Athletic Director Mike Bohn after a 1-1 start to the 2021 season. (Ling Luo | Daily Trojan file photo)

Clay Helton’s reign as head coach of USC is over just two games into his seventh season. Helton’s time in charge will be remembered for a long-awaited Rose Bowl win, USC’s first losing season since 2000 and overall largely inconsistent play. 

Season 1: 

8-6 overall record

After three seasons as USC’s offensive coordinator, Helton took over five games into the 2015 season when the University fired former head coach Steve Sarkisian. Even though Helton ended up losing two games in the regular season to Notre Dame and Oregon, he took down No. 3 Utah. He took the Trojans to the Pac-12 championship and Holiday Bowl but ended up losing both, leaving the Trojans unranked at the end of the season.

Season 2: 

10-3 overall record

After a shaky first season as head coach, Helton vastly improved his second season in charge. First, he named Max Browne as the starting quarterback to kick off the 2016 season. However, after the Trojans posted a 1-2 record in their first three games including a season-opening 52-6 loss to Alabama, Helton decided to give the starting job to freshman Sam Darnold. 

This change turned the Trojans’ season around as they won nine of their remaining 10 games, with the only loss coming in Darnold’s first game against Utah. Helton and USC defeated two top-five teams in his second season as head coach, beating No. 4 Washington and No. 5 Penn State in the Rose Bowl. At the end of the season, USC was ranked No. 3 in the AP Poll. 

Season 3: 

11-3 overall record

Coming off the spectacular 2016 season, USC looked to compete at the highest level once again with potential national championship hopes. Helton and the Trojans maintained a relatively strong regular season again in 2017, only losing to No. 16 Washington State and No. 13 Notre Dame. USC faced Stanford again in the Pac-12 championship, but this time Helton and company pulled out a win to take the team to the Cotton Bowl. Unfortunately, the Trojans easily fell to No. 5 Ohio State, 24-7. USC finished at No. 12 in the AP Poll.

Season 4: 

5-7 overall record

After an exciting 2017 season, the Trojans were left with big shoes to fill after losing Darnold and running back Ronald Jones II to the NFL. Helton named freshman JT Daniels as USC’s starting quarterback. 

The Trojans started the 2018 season off with a 43-21 win against UNLV but struggled the rest of the season, losing to all the Pac-12 teams in California, as well as No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 9 Texas. Helton and USC’s 5-7 overall record marked its first losing season since 2000 and the Trojans finished the season unranked. 

Season 5:

8-5 overall record

Despite a disappointing 2018 season, Helton returned in 2019 with a revamped coaching staff looking to make some adjustments. Daniels returned as starting quarterback with freshman Kedon Slovis as backup. However, after Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game against Fresno State, Helton put Slovis into the game where he led the Trojans to a 31-23 win. Slovis started the next game, leading USC to a 45-20 victory over No. 23 Stanford. The Trojans finished 7-2 in conference play and made it to the Holiday Bowl where they lost to No. 16 Iowa 49-24. USC finished the season ranked No. 22. 

Season 6: 

5-1 overall record

USC and Helton faced an easier and shortened schedule in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Helton kept Slovis as the leading signal caller. Fans were not in attendance and the season started much later than usual, with the first game played Nov. 7. The Trojans managed to get a close 28-27 win against Arizona State to open Helton’s only undefeated regular season as USC head coach. 

Helton and USC added wins against Arizona, Utah, Washington State and UCLA to bring the Trojans to the Pac-12 championship. USC ultimately lost in disappointing fashion to Oregon by a score of 24-31. 

Season 7: 

1-1 overall record

Helton put up an impressive 30-7 win against San José State to start off his final season. However, in the following game at home, the Trojans unexpectedly lost to Stanford, 42-28. The Monday following the game, Athletic Director Mike Bohn fired Helton. 

Helton’s Trojans won the Pac-12 in 2017, his only conference championship as head coach. His overall record at USC was 46-24.