LOS ANGELES (AP) — Clay Helton’s unlikely tenure as the head football coach at Southern California began bizarrely and lasted far longer than almost anybody expected.
The folksy Southerner won a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title early on, but he never won over most of the Trojans’ fans.
And after one more embarrassing defeat for a school only interested in championships, USC finally moved on.
Helton was fired on Monday, two games into his seventh season in charge. Athletic director Mike Bohn made the move two days after a 42-28 home loss to Stanford that sent the Trojans plummeting out of the AP Top 25.
Donte Williams, the Trojans’ cornerbacks coach and associate head coach, is taking over. Williams, a Los Angeles-area native and the first Black head coach in USC football history, joined the program in 2020 and has played a major role in the Trojans’ significant recruiting advancements over the past two cycles.
USC (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) visits Washington State this weekend for its road opener.
Helton went 46-24 during his improbable seven years in charge of a longtime West Coast college football powerhouse with 11 national championships. The career assistant coach twice took over as USC’s interim coach before permanently getting his first head coaching job late in the 2015 season.
“Clay is one of the finest human beings I have met in this industry, and he has been a tremendous role model and mentor to our young men,” Bohn said in a statement. “We appreciate his many years of service to our university and wish him nothing but the very best.”
While Helton brought stability to a tumultuous football culture and ran a clean program that inspired loyalty and love from his players, he never won over a significant portion of the Trojans’ vast fan base, even during his early success. His genteel manner didn’t inspire confidence in fans used to Pete Carroll’s intensity, while Helton’s Texas twang and aw-shucks demeanor often seemed out of place in Los Angeles.
Almost nobody doubted Helton genuinely loved USC and cared about his hundreds of players, but the Trojans simply didn’t win frequently enough to satisfy the expectations at a program synonymous with success.
“Really disappointed for that regime, because that affects a lot of people,” Carroll said in Seattle. “It’s not just one guy. His whole staff gets affected. … and the families that were counting on their kids playing for them, all of that. It’s a very difficult decision to make, and they’re making the decision for what they feel is the right reasons.”
The Trojans won the Rose Bowl after the 2016 season and the Pac-12 title in 2017 while Sam Darnold was their quarterback, but the rest of Helton’s tenure was disappointing — and for many fans, even USC’s three-loss seasons in 2016 and 2017 weren’t good enough.
Helton was 19-14 since the 2017 season, and he repeatedly avoided vocal calls for his dismissal from fans and boosters during that stretch. After Bohn replaced Lynn Swann as USC’s athletic director in November 2019, the school’s aspirations for national title contention ramped up again with major infrastructure additions to all areas of the football program.
“The added resources carried significantly increased expectations for our team’s performance,” Bohn said. “It is already evident that, despite the enhancements, those expectations would not be met without a change in leadership.”
USC appeared to be in position to make a strong run at the Pac-12 title this season with offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando returning to lead a roster stacked with talent — but then the Trojans were humiliated on national television by Stanford.
“I know I got beat by Stanford a couple of times, too,” Carroll said. “It’s hard. And like (former USC coach) John McKay always said, by far the toughest matchup we ever had was with Stanford, and it carries a lot of weight. So unfortunately, they had to make change. Clay is a good man, good ball coach, and he’ll bounce right back, but it’s a tough decision for the Trojan family on this day.”
USC committed 109 yards in penalties, fell behind by 29 points and got shredded defensively by the Cardinal, who scored only seven points in their season opener. Thousands of fans left the Coliseum early in the second half, and many of the remaining supporters chanted “Fire Helton!” in the fourth quarter.
“I know our fans will support our players,” Helton said immediately after the game. “Our fans love this university, and they love these players, and we’ll do our job. We’ll come back out and we’ll continue to get wins and add ’em up and see where we are at the end of the season. I know it’ll be a successful season at the end.”
Bohn’s decision means one of the most visible and most powerful jobs in college football is open just three weeks into the new season, and the AD said he is launching his search immediately.
USC fans have spent years calling for the Trojans to chase three-time national championship coach Urban Meyer, who is only one game into his tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Bohn hired successful Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell when they were both with the Bearcats, while many USC fans admire and covet Iowa State’s Matt Campbell. Chris Petersen, a California native who built excellent programs at Boise State and Washington before citing stress for his decision to leave the Huskies two years ago, is currently working for Fox Sports.
Bohn has been on the job for less than two years, but he already has a track record on hiring for major jobs that will inspire optimism for Trojans football fans: Four months ago, he persuaded Lindsay Gottlieb to leave the NBA to take charge of the Trojans’ underachieving program even though the successful, decorated former California coach wasn’t initially seeking another job.
Helton’s firing brings an end to one of the most surprising coaching tenures at a premier football program in recent NCAA history.
Helton had been at USC since 2010, when Lane Kiffin hired the former college quarterback as his QBs coach. Helton became the Trojans’ offensive coordinator under both Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian before assuming the head job when Sarkisian was suspended and ultimately fired for alcohol-related misbehavior.
Helton also served as the Trojans’ interim head coach for a victory in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl when interim coach Ed Orgeron resigned after the full-time job went to Sarkisian instead of Orgeron.
Swann gave a lucrative extension to Helton in 2018 over the objections of many fans. Helton was under contract until 2023.
Helton’s continued employment put a perpetual cloud over the USC program in recent years, with rivals using his tenuous status against the Trojans in recruiting. The coach navigated this treacherous terrain with a smile and consistent optimism, never failing to express his gratitude and appreciation for his position in the sport.
“I love USC, because you know what the standard is? Championships,” Helton said earlier this summer. “You can be at USC and win every game but one, and if it’s the last one, it’s looked at as a bad season. That’s being at a special place. You can have an undefeated regular season and win the Pac-12 championship, and everybody is sad. That’s a special place to be.”
AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.