Clay Helton has been fired from his head coaching job at Southern California. The decision, announced Monday, came two days after USC lost 42-28 at home to Stanford. This has been a long time coming for Helton, who was in year four of him being on the hot seat (went 5-7 in 2018) and the 49-year old was in year six total of him being the team’s head coach. He’s been with USC since 2010, starting out as the quarterbacks coach.
Helton still had two season left on his contract with USC, and will be paid $10 million in buyout money. Per USA Today’s coaches salary grid, Helton was one of the best-paid coaches in the nation, and was the Pac-12’s most paid coach with $4.8M in 2019.
This job opening is already the second (2!) head coaching job across the FBS since the beginning of the 2021 football season. And it really is across the FBS in multiple ways. The first job to open is UConn, one of the worst football programs in the country and should competitively drop down a level after Randy Edsall announced that he’s quitting after this season. USC is the second, and USC should be on the competitively elite-end of the spectrum.
Whenever a job opens up, I naturally have this knee-jerking reaction to wonder two things as schools go about hiring new coaches. What’s important to that job? And which coaches (from the MAC, specifically) could be a fit there?
RECRUITING AT USC
In 2019, USC’s recruiting was reaching MAC East-levels bad, apparently.
USC added 11 new players as part of the early signing period. Of that group, only kicker Parker Lewis ranks in the top 25 at his position nationally. Only two others received higher than a three-star evaluation from ESPN, which puts the class on par with bottom-tier Power 5 programs and some also-rans in the Group of 5. This year, signing day social media briefly buzzed about whether USC’s class would rank ahead of … Bowling Green’s.-Kyle Bonagura & Adam Rittenberg, Dec. 2019 (ESPN)
USC’s historically been in a different area code than Bowling Green in recruiting, but that’s lost its luster over the years. That’s not to say USC doesn’t still bring in 5-star and 4-star athletes or send players to the NFL, but it’s losing ground at home to schools from the Pac-12, let alone the nation.
Whoever takes the job has got to be a proven recruiter, but also needs to be able to get non-bluechip players to be able to enter the program and develop into Pac-12 champs. As much as recruiting will be at the forefront, development’s going to be a key point in the vetting process.
BLUECHIP CALIFORNIA QBS (since 2010)
Recruiting at USC is important, but not as important as recruiting highly-talented quarterbacks. Elite QB play is important to USC, and losing some of the best in-state quarterbacks to other programs (then watching those programs thrive with the California-bred QBs) is something that needs to be fixed by the program’s next head coach.
Here’s every bluechip quarterback from California since 2010 with their player ranking in the state and where they all ended up committing to. Since 2010, USC has signed eight bluechip quarterbacks from the state. Only two have stuck around to graduate through the program.
- 2010 #13, Jesse Scroggins — USC (later: El Camino College, Arizona, Lindenwood)
- 2010 #14, Tyler Bray — Tennessee
- 2010 #26, Brett Nottingham — Stanford
- 2010 #34, Chase Rettig — Boston College
- 2010 #38, Bryan Bennett — Oregon
- 2010 #42, Sean Mannion — Oregon State
- 2010 #43, Nick Montan — Washington
- 2011 #9, Max Wittek — USC (later: Hawaii)
- 2011 #14, Cody Kessler — USC
- 2011 #29, Kyle Boehm — Cal
- 2012 #6, Zach Kline — Cal
- 2012 #25, Bart Houston — Wisconsin
- 2012 #27, Jake Rodrigues — Oregon
- 2012 #33, Travis Wilson — Utah
- 2013 #11, Troy Williams — Washington
- 2013 #18, Hayden Rettig — LSU
- 2013 #25, Jared Goff — Cal
- 2013 #36, Johnny Stanton — Nebraska
- 2014 #6, Keller Chryst — Stanford
- 2014 #14, Brad Kaaya — Miami-FL
- 2014 #24, K.J. Carta-Samuels — Washington
- 2014 #26, Morgan Mahalak — Oregon
- 2014 #32, Manny Wilkins — Arizona State
- 2015 #3, Josh Rosen — UCLA
- 2015 #6, Blake Barnett — Alabama
- 2015 #10, Brady White — Arizona State
- 2015 #13, Jake Browning — Washington
- 2015 #15, Ricky Town — USC (later: Pitt)
- 2015 #18, Travis Jonsen — Oregon
- 2015 #21, Sam Darnold, USC
- 2015 #34, Sherion Jones
- 2016 #7, K.J. Costello — Stanford
- 2016 #8, Malik Henry — Florida State
- 2016 #29, Patrick O’Brien — Nebraska (now at Washington)
- 2016 #43, Devon Modster — UCLA
- 2017 #13, Jack Sears — USC (now at Boise State)
- 2017 #22, Tristan Gebbia — Nebraska (now at Oregon State)
- 2017 #32, Braxton Burmeister — Oregon (now at Virginia Tech)
- 2017 #34, Chase Garbers — Cal
- 2018 #2, J.T. Daniels — USC (now at Georgia)
- 2018 #7, Tanner McKee — Stanford
- 2018 #9, Matt Corral — Ole Miss
- 2018 #21, Adrian Martinez — Nebraska
- 2018 #25, Jack Tuttle — Utah (now at Indiana)
- 2018 #33, Cameron Rising — Texas (now at Utah)
- 2018 #43, Brevin White — Princeton
- 2019 #3, Jayden Daniels — Arizona State
- 2019 #12, Ryan Hilinski — South Carolina (now at Northwestern)
- 2019 #30, Hank Bachmeier — Boise State
- 2020 #1, Bryce Young — Alabama
- 2020 #3, D.J. Uiagalelei — Clemson
- 2020 #4, C.J. Stroud — Ohio State
- 2020 #12, Ethan Garbers — Washington (now at UCLA)
- 2021 #5, Tyler Buchner — Notre Dame
- 2021 #6, Miller Moss — USC
- 2021 #21, Peter Costelli — Utah
- 2021 #32, Ari Patu — Stanford
- 2022 #10, Maalik Murphy — Texas commit
- 2022 #17, Katin Houser — Michigan State commit
- 2022 #21, Nate Johnson — Utah commit
USC would love to tell you that it has 11 national titles, but USC is also getting antsy that it’s been 11 for too long. USC would love to have all the success that had with back-to-back nattys in 2003 and 2004, and then you’d have to go back to 1978 to find the next most recent one. Being the best team in all of the West and swinging things back into greatness is nice and egotistical and all, but a lot of things will have to go right in this hire. For record, the success of this football program goes beyond hiring the right coach. But you’ve got to nail the coaching hire.
- USC 10-win seasons in 1980s: 1
- USC 10-win seasons in 1990s: 0
- USC 10-win seasons in 2000s: 7
- USC 10-win seasons in 2010s: 4
LET’S THROW OUT SOME NAMES
Just because I say somebody’s name here, that doesn’t mean I think that there’s a great chance (or a chance at all?) that so-and-so ends up at this school. Sometimes it’s just fun to imagine coaches wearing other logos. Everybody here is either a current or former MAC coach.
JIM MCELWAIN — Out of the current MAC coaches, McElwain would the least surprising name of the 12 if he’s considered for the gig. McElwain’s proven that he’s a fixer, a quarterback improver, a good football game manager, and has experience in Big Time College Football (TM). McElwain has three conference coach of the year trophies across three different conferences at three very different states. There’s a lot that he’d have to adapt to and capitalize on if he made the move to USC, but McElwain more than anybody else has shown that he can do that.
JASON CANDLE — Years ago, this would’ve been a more fun name to throw out there. But he’s not proved to win conference titles outside of Recruiting Champions at Toledo. He’s also proven that his game/clock management isn’t one to bank one.
SEAN LEWIS — Lewis is probably a better fit for some midwest schools, and he’s still at Kent State even though Illinois opened up over the offseason (ended up hiring Bret Bielema, but I think Lewis could still end up at Illinois during his career). There are some holes to his coaching game, but some of that could be cleaned up with more funds to play with. Would be a good recruiter, but I don’t know if his fast-tempo spread offense is the type of style USC wants to go for. Would be sweet if the boosters actually have interest in Lewis, though.
PJ FLECK — Fun name to float around at times like these, and I’ll bite if there’s any real traction here. Other than that, the former Western Michigan coach who really improved the recruiting ceiling at that school (and doing really well at Minnesota) would be really, uh, exciting (??) move for the LA area. Fleck’s both a proven recruiter and player developer, which is important for the USC job.
LUKE FICKELL — Akron was Fickell’s first coaching job, but has obviously made his mark as an assistant at Ohio State and current head coach for Cincinnati. It’s important to note that USC’s athletic director, Mike Bohn, was Cincinnati’s AD that made the Fickell hire. How much control will USC put in Bohn’s hands? Is it worth noting that Bohn used to play quarterback for Kansas?
CHARLES HUFF — The MAC connection here is that Huff was Western Michigan’s RB coach in 2013 under first-year head coach P.J. Fleck. Then he spent the next four years under James Franklin (who is going to be very considered for this job) at Penn State. He was the assistant head coach in 2018 at Mississippi State and 2019-2020 at Alabama, and is now the first-year head coach at Marshall. I think there’s a lot of exciting potential out of Huff’s future, but is it too soon to think that USC is a door he should walk through?
MIKE JINKS — No. But he’s here because he has both head coaching experience AND experience coaching at USC. But no.