Clay Helton is the opposite of “Hollywood.” He’s not flashy, he’s not a big name and doesn’t court headlines. Helton is just a coach. A college football lifer who has spent almost half of his 44 years in the profession. He’s not the guy most USC Trojans fans wanted after the abrupt firing of Steve Sarkisian last season. His hiring came without a hype train or any kind of massive expectations. And that might be why he’s exactly what the Trojans need right now.
Helton grew up in a football family, his father, Kim, was the head man at the University of Houston for seven seasons in the 90s and spent nearly 40 years coaching at different levels. Helton’s brother Tyson is now his quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator after spending the last two years as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Western Kentucky. While with the Hilltoppers, the younger Helton was the co-architect of a record-breaking offense. The family’s legacy has informed Clay Helton’s philosophic approach to the game and given him a wealth of connections. A collegiate quarterback at both Auburn and for his father at Houston, Helton has been a position coach for every offensive spot, and has an affinity for tough, hard-nosed football.
Born in Gainesville, Florida and reared in football-mad Texas, Helton is entering his seventh season at USC and his first as a full-time head coach anywhere. As an offensive assistant and coordinator, he had a front-row seat to watch the implosion of both the Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian eras. But just because he worked under Kiffin and Sarkisian, don’t think he’s anything like them. The biggest difference between Helton and his predecessors is that he’s not outwardly trying to imitate Pete Carroll.
Both Kiffin and Sarkisian tried to replicate what Carroll did at USC. The thing is, that wasn’t possible. For the first decade of this century Carroll used his outsized personality and rare football acumen to turn the Trojans into a nearly unstoppable force. No one will ever be able to copy what he did because it was a singular achievement that only a guy of Carroll’s parts could accomplish. Kiffin was too stubborn, set in his ways and uncomfortable in his own skin to be Pete Carroll. Sarkisian had Carroll’s upbeat, engaging and likable personality, but his personal demons never allowed him to get things going at USC.
Helton isn’t Pete Carroll and he certainly won’t try to be anyone but himself. That’s what makes him so different than his predecessors. Oddly enough, Helton’s philosophy lines up well with what made the Trojans of the 2000s successful. He wants to attack on defense — which is why he brought defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast back to USC — and run the ball on offense. He preaches fundamentals, discipline and attention to detail, as well as winning along both lines. While Carroll’s teams were known for flashy big plays, at their hearts they always relied on the running game, stout lines and disciplined, assignment-sound football. Carroll’s squads had a breezy swagger that came from the knowledge that if everyone did his job, no opponent could beat them. Helton is preaching the same narrative, just in more subdued tones. That swagger will return with results no matter the head coach’s personality.
Unlike Sarkisian and Kiffin, Helton won’t let his ego get in the way of doing what’s best for his team. Upon becoming head coach, he immediately relinquished play-calling duties, a job his two predecessors stubbornly held on to. Sarkisian did ultimately surrender his play sheet to Helton a few weeks before he was fired but it never felt like he truly gave up on being an offensive coordinator. USC’s new coach wants to win, and has stated the best way to do that is for him to coach the whole team, not just the offense. He wants to a be a true head coach and leader. Something that has been missing from the program since Carroll left.
“Faith, family, football.” Those three words have become the mantra for Helton’s team. He preaches it every day. He has also made this season’s focus “All About Ball,” a nod to the idea that it’s time to dispense with the constant drama that has surrounded the program since Carroll’s exit, and the flashy gimmicks others have attempted. While the ongoing investigation into an alleged sexual assault involving sophomore linebacker Osa Masina will certainly grab headlines, Helton appears to have the players who will be on the field focused and ready to take on what many believe is the nation’s most difficult schedule this fall.
Go to a USC practice and Helton’s voice is often the loudest you’ll hear (60-year-old offensive line coach Neil Callaway does occasionally win that battle). The head coach is constantly teaching and consistently engaged. After Kiffin’s distant, aloof, low-energy attitude and Sarkisian’s largely confused, manic efforts, Helton’s focus and preparedness are a welcome change for observers. It finally feels like there is an adult in charge of USC football again.
Helton has his critics and will until he produces results. He wound up salvaging what appeared to be a lost season in 2015, bringing home a Pac-12 South title while running another coach’s systems on both sides of the ball. The Trojans stumbled against Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game and lost to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl, but it’s hard to point fingers at a head coach who was just barely holding his team together. Then, despite several major staff changes late in the process, Helton still managed to secure an outstanding 20-player recruiting class that (according to Scout.com) had the highest average star ranking in the nation.
Here’s the thing, USC is scary talented across the board and finally has a full complement of scholarship players after shaking off years of brutally harsh NCAA sanctions. While this year’s team is facing a daunting schedule (starting with No. 1 Alabama on Saturday night), it is somehow still under-the-radar despite an embarrassment of top-tier talent. Most of that is because no one knows whether or not Helton can drive the Ferrari he’s been given. Will he run into a wall in second gear like Kiffin? Sail off a cliff with the pedal to the floor like Sarkisian? Or can he deftly maneuver it around the pothole-laden track that is USC football?
Is Helton the long-term answer USC has been searching for since the departure of Pete Carroll? Only time will tell. But it’s clear that his players and those close to him believe he’s the man for the job, even if many of USC’s fans don’t.
Whatever happens, you can be sure Helton will continue to be himself and do things his way.