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The High Stakes Behind USC’s Coaching Search

The Trojans are once again looking for a new steward for a program that is supposed to be among college football’s elite. What will it take to get USC back on top of the sport?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For over a decade, USC has chased its past. Sure, there were some good years immediately following its epic national championship loss to Texas in 2006. But since 2010, as the Trojans have shuffled through coaches that have some kind of history with the program, they have won the Pac-12 just once.

USC is supposed to be a football powerhouse. Its program is in the heart of one of the most fertile talent pools in the nation, surrounded by glitz and glamour that’s supposed to attract big names who win games. But for the past decade, that’s not been the case; missteps and failures from each of the last several Trojans coaching staffs have prevented the program from moving beyond its past. Now, as the landscape of college football begins to change with another round of realignment—broadcasting rights are up for grabs and athletes can finally make use of their name, image, and likeness rights—USC football finds itself at arguably the most critical juncture in program history, one that will also impact the future of the Pac-12 conference. How it got here will be a cautionary tale across college football. The stakes are high, and there’s plenty of time before a decision is made. Getting it right will determine whether the Trojans can get back to looking the part of a program boasting 11 national championships and seven Heisman Trophy winners—or just remain as one of college football’s relics.

After six-plus seasons, Clay Helton is out. USC opened the 2021 campaign ranked 15th in the country. Following a blowout home loss to Stanford, athletic director Mike Bohn announced the decision to part with the head coach. The Trojans went 40-22 during Helton’s full-time tenure, and haven’t notched a 10-win season since 2017.

“As I committed to upon my arrival at USC, during the past two offseasons we provided every resource necessary for our football program to compete for championships,” Bohn said in a statement. “The added resources carried significantly increased expectations for our team’s performance, and it is already evident that, despite the enhancements, those expectations would not be met without a change in leadership.”

USC needed to make a change. Many fans will argue that the decision took too long. Regardless, the stage is set for one of college football’s most iconic programs to be reshaped into a legitimate power.

There are plenty of reasons as to why USC has fallen from championship contender to just another frisky Pac-12 team. Some issues started well before Helton took over, some were out of his control even when he did have power, and some may have even contributed to him maintaining his job for as long as he did. First, there was the athletics scandal that resulted in USC football being banned from postseason games for two years (2011 and 2012). Pete Carroll, who led USC to back-to-back national championships in 2003 and 2004, left the program to coach the Seattle Seahawks before the sanctions were handed down, and USC was forced to disassociate with Reggie Bush, who gave up his Heisman Trophy (which he still hasn’t gotten back, even as the NCAA has loosened NIL rules). Carroll’s departure kicked off a series of hires based on past experience at the school.

Lane Kiffin, who was a USC assistant under Carroll from 2001 to 2006, took over in 2010. He lasted just over three seasons before USC fired him and named Ed Orgeron the interim for eight games in 2013. Despite going 6-2, Orgeron was not retained; he joined Les Miles’s LSU staff as a defensive line coach before replacing him as head coach in 2016, and has since led the Tigers to a national championship to cap the 2019 season. Instead of Orgeron, USC hired Steve Sarkisian, who was a QBs coach (2001 to 2003, 2005 to 2006) and offensive coordinator (2007 to 2008) under Carroll. Sarkisian went 12-6 before he too was fired, and Helton, who joined Kiffin’s staff in 2010, took over.

In the meantime, USC’s men’s hoops program became embroiled in a bribery scandal in 2017, and the school was front and center in the 2019 “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal. Helton has a reputation as a good guy. So even as USC floundered, its football program maintained a clean image. That might have been worthwhile for a school that had been rocked by so much scandal, but it did not pay off on the field. The team went from a 10-3 mark and Rose Bowl victory during Helton’s first full season in 2016, to 5-7 and 8-5 between 2018 and 2019. Worse still: The ho-hum records affected recruiting.

The state of California has always been a fertile recruiting area (although the number of high schoolers playing football in the state is slowly declining). One would figure that high-profile, in-state programs such as USC would have an advantage in recruiting the top talent. That hasn’t always been the case. Of the top 25 recruits in the state, few are staying in California:

Once upon a time, it would have been hard to imagine in-state star talents such as Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux, Alabama’s Bryce Young, and Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei—among several others—choosing to play at schools other than USC. But their decisions also speak to Helton’s inability to develop pro talent; as The Athletic notes, of the 44 blue-chip recruits signed during Helton’s first three recruiting cycles, only four were drafted within the first three rounds.

Earlier this year, The Athletic’s Antonio Morales and Bruce Feldman polled 10 coaches across California’s high school and recruiting ecosystem and asked them what USC needed to do to solidify itself as a powerhouse again. A handful noted that uncertainty over Helton’s job security played a factor in recruits not wanting to commit to the program, but the other most noteworthy factor was the school’s inability to compete for the College Football Playoff. Since the College Football Playoff was formed in 2014, Washington and Oregon are the only Pac-12 teams to reach the tournament.

“I think they need to get in the playoff picture,” a coach said. “I don’t know if that’ll change this year, but they need to get to that national level, playing Ohio State, Alabama, and those other schools in a playoff system. That’ll change it.”

Only a handful of coaches have managed to sustain elite success in the playoff era, headlined by Alabama’s Nick Saban (six CFP appearances), Clemson’s Dabo Swinney (six), Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley (four), and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Ryan Day (combined four). As my Ringer colleague Rodger Sherman put it, some of these coaches are Culture Guys (Saban, Swinney) and some are Scheme Guys (Riley, Day). But all understood how to operate within a CEO-type role, hiring smart people around them without micromanaging. Additionally, all are commanding forces, which is something that Helton, despite his kindness, lacked. Perhaps that explains in part why Donte Williams, a DBs coach considered one of the country’s best recruiters, was tabbed as the Trojans’ interim HC. He led USC to a dominant 45-14 win at Washington State last weekend, with four-star freshman Jaxson Dart starring after quarterback Kedon Slovis’s in-game neck injury.

“Donte is an experienced and well-respected coach who is renowned for his ability to develop relationships with student-athletes,” Bohn said. “And I appreciate his willingness to take on this challenge.”

Bohn continued, stating that USC will “conduct a national search for our new head coach. We will actively and patiently pursue a coach who will deliver on the championship aspirations and expectations we all share for our football program.” The idea of not hiring a USC retread already represents a big step forward for the program. It also opens the door for a huge collection of names.

In the immediate days following Helton’s firing, several high-profile candidates were asked about their interest in the USC opening, including Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Penn State’s James Franklin, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, and even Meyer. None appear too interested in the job—but that’s par for the course when it comes to a college football coaching search.

Each of these coaches, all among the favorites to land the job, are proven program builders with track records of sustained success. USC needs a new coach who can tell a new story about its program without solely relying on the allure of yesteryear. Most kids committing in the 2022 cycle were only toddlers when Reggie Bush was the biggest star in college football and the Trojans had the makings of a dynasty. They’d more likely recognize him from his Wendy’s commercials before recalling his highlights.

The landscape of college sports is changing. Los Angeles should be a prime location for athletes to take advantage of their NIL rights—especially if they can join up with a winning USC program. The Trojans regaining status wouldn’t just be good for their program, but also for the Pac-12. The conference has the fewest CFP appearances (two) among the Power Five. Three weeks into the 2021 season, no. 3 Oregon is the only remaining undefeated team in the conference and no. 24 UCLA is the only other ranked team.

The Pac-12, which has trailed the SEC and Big Ten in generating revenue, needs USC to be good. College football, if it is truly a coast-to-coast sport, needs its dominating force on the West Coast. First-year commissioner George Kliavkoff is placing an emphasis on getting Pac-12 football relevant on a national scale again. While Oregon and Washington have had their moments, USC is still the school with the best resources for sustained, high-end success.

“I want to be 100 percent clear,” Kliavkoff said at this year’s Pac-12 media days. “Going forward the Pac-12 conference will make all of our football-related decisions with the combined goals of optimizing CFP invitations and winning national championships.”

The Pac-12, ACC, and Big Ten’s alliance—which should result in high-profile cross-conference matchups in the future—will provide good exposure and opportunity for the conference. These selling points could also boost the conference’s chances at reaching the Playoff in future seasons, even as the CFP board continues to kick expansion discussions down the road.

USC is not the only iconic football program afflicted by a lack of recent success. There aren’t enough Cuban links in the world to create a Turnover Chain big enough to presently reestablish Miami as a bona fide CFB contender. Texas has still never reached the playoff. Nebraska has one winning season in its last six. Florida State hasn’t been the same since Jimbo Fisher left. Michigan still can’t get over the hump. To Gen Z, the legacy of these programs is nothing more than history. The country’s Alabamas, Clemsons, and Ohio States are the powerhouses that lure high school athletes with dreams of college glory and NFL aspirations. But if USC chooses the right coach, perhaps it won’t be long before they’re able to do so too.