USC set multiple performance benchmarks for Clay Helton. He didn’t make it past No. 1

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The criteria for the most consequential decision of Mike Bohn’s career was established ahead of the football season, weeks before the disastrous defeat that accelerated the end of Clay Helton’s disappointing tenure as USC’s coach.

In the late summer it was understood between Bohn, USC president Carol Folt and Rick Caruso, chairman of USC’s board of trustees, that the athletic director would take stock of his embattled football coach at specific points during the 2021 season. At each pre-assigned benchmark, Bohn would evaluate the criteria they agreed upon, from the energy and culture of the team to its on-field performance and competitiveness to recruiting momentum and fan sentiment, among other variables. How would firing—or retaining—Helton impact each of those variables going forward?

Bohn ultimately needed just one evaluation. The first of four planned benchmarks, according to a person familiar with the decision to fire Helton, came last Saturday night.

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As USC fell in humiliating fashion, 42-28, to Stanford, every discernible flaw of the Helton era was laid bare in front of a half-empty Coliseum. There were sloppy mistakes and ill-timed penalties, a stagnant offense and a defense that lacked discipline. The stands were draining before the fourth quarter, with USC trailing by four scores. The sideline was lifeless, sending an ominous message to the university decision makers watching from on high.

That night, Helton spoke like a coach who assumed he had time. “We didn’t play our best tonight, but I know this, at the end of the season, see where we’re at,” he said. “See where we’re at.”

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USC coach Clay Helton runs onto the field at the Coliseum with his players before losing to Stanford on Saturday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

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But that time had run out on Helton after six full seasons, the last three of which were clouded by intense on-field scrutiny. Had he passed that first benchmark, Helton likely would’ve lasted until the bye week, on Oct. 16, which was slated as the next evaluation point.

Bohn said Tuesday that he didn’t want to make a major decision Saturday night, “in the heat of the emotions associated with a game,” but the next step was clear at the time to the program’s decision makers.

That seemingly sudden choice would call into question why Bohn bothered to keep Helton past the 2020 season and what has changed since USC’s athletic director told The Times in January that he “can’t think of one area we didn’t improve [in 2020]”.

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“I just don’t think we had that same sense of belief that with all the resources and the commitment that we put together that we could really aspire to those national championship aspirations that we talk about all the time,” Bohn said on Tuesday. “It just felt like the right time. There’s a sense of knowing when to play things a certain way and just having that gut feeling. I think that we have the right one.”

His calculus is this: With 10 games remaining, USC can still salvage its season.

But that first required navigating a potentially awkward transition. Bohn didn’t want to call a team meeting and cause alarm among players and staff. So he sat on the news through Sunday before he and his chief of staff, Brandon Sosna, met with Helton at 1:30 pm on Monday. They pulled Donte Williams aside just before a team meeting and informed him that he would be the interim coach in Helton’s place.

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Helton himself had first been hired after a stint as an interim, ascending to the role of permanent coach before the 2015 season was complete. However, a similar track is unlikely for Williams.

Williams said Tuesday he had “full faith” that USC would make the right decision in hiring its coach. According to a person close to the matter, however, it was made clear to Williams that USC would conduct a full national search whether the Trojans win the next 10 games under Williams’ watch or lose them. Regardless, a source told The Times, the expectation is that USC will work diligently to retain Williams even if, as expected, it goes outside the program for a permanent replacement.

Before they moved forward, however, Bohn thought it important to allow Helton a chance to say his own goodbye. So the coach broke the news to his team during its 2:10 team meeting. Star wideout Drake London called the moment “heart-wrenching.”

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“That meant a lot to a lot of players to have that kind of moment after we heard the news,” USC captain and punter Ben Griffiths said. “None of us were really ready for it.”

Meanwhile, at 2:11, Bohn posted a statement on social media that he was making a change.

In the wake of Bohn’s decision, the urgency within the department to get the next coaching hire right—and avoid the fate of so many other FBS bluebloods who have fallen further from relevance because of bad hires—is tremendously high. For Bohn, who previously hired football coaches to Power Five programs at Colorado and Cincinnati, the pressure has never been greater.

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“We’re doing everything we can to show our next head coach, wherever that head coach is, that we’re fully committed to winning a national championship,” Bohn said.

USC will conduct a deliberate search, with the expectation that it could drag into December, assuming any of the university’s top candidates are still coaching into the postseason.

What that ideal candidate looks like remains to be seen, but Bohn offered some insight Tuesday into the qualities he covets.

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“Leadership, high integrity, character, the ability to connect with young men,” Bohn said. “As you all know, our vision is to be the most student-athlete centered program in the country, so we want somebody that understands the connectability with young men that are a part of this program and the ability to recruit and bring high-quality, character people to USC and again to pursue championships.”

When asked whether the ideal coach will have previously led his own program, Bohn said, “there’s no replacement for head coaching experience.”

With Helton out just two games into the season and the search for his replacement only just beginning, there will be no shortage of time to craft a fuller portrait of what that ideal coach looks like.

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