USC interim coach Clay Helton has formula to salvage season

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Clay Helton has seen this all before.

Two years ago, after stumbling out to a 3-2 record (including an embarrassing home loss to Washington State), USC’s head football coach was fired.

And on Monday, after stumbling out to a 3-2 record (including an embarrassing home loss to Washington), USC’s head football coach was fired.

Back in 2013, Lane Kiffin was the tarnished Trojan — unceremoniously removed from the team bus and terminated following a 62-41 road loss at Arizona State. This time around, it was Steve Sarkisian, who was placed on indefinite leave after arriving to work intoxicated on Sunday, then dismissed roughly 24 hours later.

The recent past, however, provides slivers of hope, even in the wake of crushing tumult. In 2013, interim head coach Ed Orgeron righted the ship and salvaged the season, leading the Trojans to a 6-2 record the rest of the way.

Helton, a carryover from that staff, believes the same formula can pay dividends again.

“I’m very fortunate that I was in that situation with Coach O and saw what he did and what we did as a staff,” said Helton, formerly USC’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, who was named interim head coach on Sunday.

“We all bonded together. That was the biggest thing. We focused on the kids. Everything was about the kids. At the end of the day, we’re educators as college football coaches. Our primary focus has to be on their well-being not only on the field, but off. We just had really genuine concern about them, that they felt. They played well because of it.”

And, theoretically, the Trojans could play well again. They certainly have the talent to do it, boasting many of the same weapons that dissected Notre Dame 49-14 in the Coliseum last November.

But will they buy into a new head coach, especially with the oldest of rivals waiting on deck?

The early indications are positive.

“I was very, very humbled when I was presented as the head coach,” Helton said. “To get the ovation that I got (from the players), it’s something that I’ll remember and take with me for the rest of my life.”

Added athletic director Pat Haden: “I’m an old guy. I’ve been around football a long time. I’ve been around a lot of football staffs. This is a very, very capable football staff, and it’s a great opportunity for them.”

Helton is no stranger to his temporary title, having guided USC to a 45-20 Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State in 2013 after Orgeron promptly resigned.

Many of his players, too, can use prior experience to weather a second storm.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, we’ve been in this situation before, where we’ve had a change,” Helton said. “Some of the older guys have been through this. It’s not their first time around. They know the success that we had the last time this went on, what we had to do.

“I commend our senior leaders and our leadership committee that I met with for really stepping forward and showing their character to lead our young kids and say, ‘Hey, this is how we do things. This is how we climb out of this hole.’”

The hole is both deep and imposing. It’ll require more than one player, or coach, or game, to lift an entire program out of the mud. But while the foundation has been shaken, an abundance of talent remains. Redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and linebacker Su’a Cravens are all proof of that.

Helton hopes, if they come together, the Trojans can spark a resurgence in South Bend.

“We know how special this rivalry is. It’s one of the premier rivalries in college football,” Helton said. “Our kids understand that and they’re doing a tremendous job.

“We’re going to give it our best effort. We’re going to go out and make our Trojan family proud.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Southern California interim head coach Clay Helton conducts an NCAA college football practice in Los Angeles Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015. The Trojans offensive coordinator, Helton is taking over for head coach Steve Sarkisian, who was fired Monday. (AP Photo/Richard Hartog)