Evanson: USC is lost, and Helton's firing is proof of it
What happened to competent leadership?
The University of Southern California fired its football coach, Clay Helton, Monday and in the process exposed itself as a headless snake more apt for the front seat of a Los Angeles sports bar than a beacon of the college football world.
While history says otherwise, those living in the here and now see not what the Trojans once were, but rather a metaphoric young partygoer swinging aimlessly at a piñata — again and again.
Since Pete Carroll left the sidelines at "Tailback U" more than a decade ago, USC has won a single Pac-12 Conference championship (2017), been ranked in the country's final top-10 just once (also 2017), and has made but two New Year's Day bowl appearances (2016 Rose Bowl, 2017 Cotton Bowl).
They've had four coaches — if you count Ed Orgeron's eight-game stint — in the past 11 seasons, three of whom who haven't made it much beyond September before being terminated for performance unbecoming.
Lane Kiffin was fired on the tarmac upon arrival from a road loss to Arizona State in 2013. His successor, Steve Sarkisian, was sacked due primarily to a drinking problem that ultimately made its way onto the field five games into his second season in L.A.. Now Helton's dismissal comes just two games into a season which the Trojans were thought to be conference champion and College Football Playoff contenders.
The coach — or coaches — may have been a problem, but the biggest problem may very well be the person who hired, and eventually fired, those coaches to begin with.
Everyone's prone to a mistake or two. After all, we're human. But knee-jerk reactions are for people on the couch watching from home, not for the ones being paid to thoughtfully think and act with the university's best interests in mind.
What changed in two weeks? Clay Helton didn't. He's the same mediocre coach who has accumulated an 18-13 record over the past three years. His loss this past Saturday to Stanford didn't come as a shock to me, so it certainly shouldn't have come as one to USC athletic director Mike Bohn, who since he took the job in 2019 saw the Helton-led Trojans lose handily to a mediocre Iowa team in the 2019 Holiday Bowl, fall to an underdog Oregon team on its home field in last year's Pac-12 Championship Game, and allow more than 30 points per game defensively — which ain't good.
Helton needed to go, but if his termination hung from such an incredibly thin thread, the time wasn't this past Monday, but rather following that disappointing loss at the hands of the Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship Game nearly a year ago.
Bohn said, following the announcement of Helton's dismissal, that over the past two off-seasons, the school had provided "every resource necessary to win," and that it had become evident that despite that commitment those expectations would not be met under current leadership. He went on to say that this decision is the next step towards the goal of "winning national championships and restoring USC football to glory."
That all sounds good, but it would've looked a lot better had it not been just nine days into a season already circling the drain.
USC should be winning games, and it's true, Helton wasn't the man to get them where they want and — in today's landscape — need to go. They have the tradition, the winning history, and in a burgeoning era of "name, image and likeness" propaganda, the cache to win at the game's highest level, but while the coach matters, so does the leadership at the top.
Bohn may turn out to be it, but at present, he's not solving their problem, he's a part of it — and like he with Helton, I figured that out in nine days.
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