The Pride Of Clay Helton
By Daniel Tran
USC interim head coach Clay Helton sat down in the USC press room after the Trojans’ 27–21 win at California this past Saturday. He seemed to be all business after the road victory, but the satisfaction he felt was evident — especially when talked about his players.
Helton turned to Adoree’ Jackson who was sitting to his right and patting him on the chest to congratulate him on his game-changing pick-6.
This personalized gratitude was beginning to become the norm.
Helton walked into the media room after USC’s 42–24 triumph over No. 3-ranked Utah two weeks ago with a big smile on his face.
Before opening the floor to quarterback Cody Kessler and linebacker Cameron Smith, who were sitting next to him, he patted them both in the shoulders.
“I’m proud of both of these boys,” the 43-year-old coach said. “These two won a big game for us.”
Kessler returned Helton’s shoulder pat with one of his own. Smith, who had three interceptions for the night, smiles in appreciation.
These are strange scenes.
It isn’t strange because this was a coach proud of his team’s effort. It was strange because he seemed to genuinely mean it, and in turn they seemed to genuinely mean it, too.
Coaches will always be proud of their players after a big win. Even so, there is something authentic about Helton that is felt rather than heard. Maybe it is the heavy southern accent that is almost too perfect for a football coach from Sugar Land, Texas.
Maybe it is the enthusiasm he brings to practice. There he hands out words of encouragement as much as he hands out drill instructions.
All that matters is that the players have rallied behind him after taking over following the firing of head coach Steve Sarkisian being fired.
Not that it should be surprising — this is not his first time, after all.
Flashback to 2013, when then-head coach Lane Kiffin was fired at 3 a.m. at the airport after a 62–41 loss to Arizona State. Helton stayed on the staff as the offensive coordinator and helped USC finish the season 6–2 with Ed Orgeron as the interim head coach.
Helton took over as interim head coach when Orgeron resigned before the Las Vegas Bowl. Orgeron was then passed over for the head coaching job, which went to Steve Sarkisian.
“For all the adversity this team has had, to be able to go out and say, ‘Wow, we have the opportunity to get 10 wins,’ how exciting is that?” Helton said. “That’s something that we would be extremely proud of if we can make that happen.”
Helton has a knack for making things happen.
He led the Trojans to a victory over No. 21 Fresno State, 45–20, in Las Vegas. Kessler outdueled Derek Carr, passing for 344 yards and four touchdowns — a Las Vegas Bowl record.
USC played Notre Dame tough before losing by 10 a couple of weeks ago.
However, they were able to recover with an emphatic victory over Utah.
Such a small sample size does not determine the lasting power of a coach, but it does build trust. To step into a situation where a team has had three head coaches in three months and lead them to a win against an offense averaging 40.3 points a game is, by any metric, impressive.
Steve Sarkisian recruited well, bringing in the No. 1-rated recruiting class for 2015. But after two incidents involving alcohol, including one where he allegedly showed up to a team meeting intoxicated, he was put on indefinite leave and then, a couple of days later, fired.
Helton was then named the interim head coach. All of that unfolded in a matter of days before the traditional rivalry game with Notre Dame.
“In college football at this level, you have to prove yourself,” Helton said when he was introduced this year as the interim head coach. “My ultimate goal in life, yes, is to be a head football coach, yes sir.”
Attaining that goal is a lot easier when the players believe as well.
“We put our faith in him, and he put his faith us,” USC wide receiver Darreus Rogers said. “We would do anything in the world for Coach Helton.”
With a big win against the Cal on Saturday, Helton assuredly moves closer to attaining his ultimate goal. If there are people who do not believe that he has the support of the locker room, Kessler proved that notion wrong concisely two weeks ago, while patting his head coach on the shoulder.
“Thank God for this guy.”