Clay Helton has no time for your hate, not while USC's level-headed coach has football games to win
Helton is not a favorite among Trojans faithful, but if 2020 goes as planned, things can turn around
LOS ANGELES -- Clay Helton has suffered mightily. Satisfied?
Probably not if you're among the legions at USC who have spent their recent existence persecuting Helton for being the latest Trojans coach to not be Pete Carroll.
But there is something to be said for the man's character, coaching and pain threshold. Helton was literally sitting in a dentist's chair the morning of the National Signing Day earlier this month.
"I'm sorry I'm acting like this," Helton told CBS Sports. "I had a root canal today."
No apologies needed. Helton showed up for work anyway because there was a recruiting class to wrap up, media to address, and at the end of the day, one more interview to do.
That was following three hours of oral surgery after an infection had set in.
"I did it, and I'm sore as all get out," Helton explained. "They were going to [wait] a week and were going to pull it."
Instead, as soon as our discussion ended, the aching tooth was removed. Make that, it had to be removed. The man had gotten through signing day with ibuprofen as his only painkiller.
Try that for offseason conditioning.
Helton doesn't want your sympathy. Not after making it through the last two seasons with votes of confidence from two different athletic directors. Not after another media outlet had him fired the first week of December … until he wasn't.
Some fans remain so upset that USC hasn't progressed further in his five seasons as coach that they have made Helton a social media piñata.
That hurts in a different way than a visit to the dentist. Helton said he goes online only to communicate with his family and recruits. That's probably best for everyone.
"I tell [my family] to stay off [social media]," Helton said. "It doesn't mean anything. All that is, is passion. The fans' job is passion. … By reading that, I'm wasting time."
Love him or not, Helton's situation may eventually become untenable. Those critics are outspoken, and at times, unrelenting. When asked the state of the USC program, prominent booster Brian Kennedy told a small group of reporters last month that it was "dog shit."
Kennedy apologized the next night in New Orleans after his good friend Ed Orgeron -- a former USC assistant -- won the national championship with LSU.
"I was a little harsh," Kennedy said.
Helton didn't need to apologize for "acting like this" on that dreary dentist's day. His demeanor is one of the coach's enduring qualities. Meeting him, you wouldn't know if he'd just won the lottery or lost to Notre Dame.
It is only after recounting that false firing report that Helton's emotions surfaced just a bit.
"It was a hard day," he admitted.
Helton was in the home of wide receiver recruit Josh Jackson when the "news" hit.
"Coach, you know this is going on?" Jackson asked.
"I'm right there with you, buddy," Helton assured him.
Jackson later signed. The next recruiting job for Helton was his family and the Trojans themselves.
"I called my wife and kids, 'Don't believe what you hear,'" Helton said.
Then came a team meeting where Helton says, after telling the players he still had his job, the squad applauded.
"It was a cool moment," Helton recalled.
This humble Florida-born man with Southern sensibilities from a football family couldn't be blamed for lashing out at the media. He chose not to.
"Right now we're -- ready, aim, fire," Helton said. "It's a tough business that you all are in. It's, 'Who can get it out there [first]?' The guys who last in this business are the guys that are most reputable."
If he hasn't been taught that axiom, perhaps he has learned it. It applies to all walks of life. Clay's father, Kim, spent 36 years as a pro and college coach. Younger brother Tyson coaches Western Kentucky. Kim chips in as an offensive analyst.
In glitzy L.A., Clay Helton still has the gentlemanly charm. He calls an assistant's wife "Miss Brittney."
"I know the profession," he added. "This is my 26th year as a coach. My job is to win games, take care of kids. The media's job is to report and give opinion. And the fans' job is to bring passion. If I focus on anything else, there's no way to do this job and [get] emotional about something like that story."
New USC athletic director Mike Bohn retained Helton weeks after taking over last year following an 8-4 regular season. That bought Bohn some time to review the program, but he didn't mollify those legions who had visions of Urban Meyer as USC's new coach.
The why of it all is only speculative. New president Carol Folt may not have favored Meyer as a replacement. It may have been more than coincidence that Penn State's James Franklin got an extension when his name was mentioned as a candidate for the job.
There have been suggestions that Folt wants to clean up USC's campus scandals on multiple fronts before taking on football. The school is still embroiled in an academic admissions scandal that threatens the school's overall brand. The NCAA is investigating men's basketball.
Maybe it was simply the case that Helton's buyout --reported to be $20 million -- was too costly.
Whatever the case, Helton is still in charge of the Pac-12's flagship football program. This actually marks his 11th year at USC, two more seasons than Carroll lasted.
Helton has been a survivor, arriving as Lane Kiffin's quarterbacks coach in 2010 before also working for Orgeron (interim coach) and Steve Sarkisian.
Beginning his fifth full season at the helm, Helton is 40-22 leading USC, counting a couple of stints in an interim role (2013, 2015).
"I think Clay feels invigorated," Bohn said.
"You have these moments that you just feel," Helton said. "I remember being here in 2011. We had a good football team going in. We finished, like, fifth in the country. I remember the Rose Bowl year in 2016 finishing third. … Wow, we have something here. I feel that same way. I feel like we're a great kept secret."
[Editor's note: USC finished sixth in the AP Top 25 after a 10-2 season in 2011.]
USC, a secret?
"We're so much closer than people think," Helton said.
The Trojans have one of the country's better quarterback situations. The top three on the depth chart return. That includes J.T. Daniels, back from a knee injury. Rising sophomore Kedon Slovis might have saved the Trojans as a freshman after that Daniels injury. Slovis threw for 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns.
The USC defensive staff has been remade after the program's worst postseason loss since 1948 to Iowa in the Holiday Bowl. Respected defensive coordinator Todd Orlando came from Texas where the Longhorns' unit had similar problems to USC in 2019 -- youth and injuries. Orlando was available because he had been fired.
"If I went to get him two years ago, there's no way you're getting him," Helton said. "I know talent when I see it."
That was after USC made a play for former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, a California native. Instead, Aranda became a first-time coach at Baylor.
"We were all set to have him. We matched LSU's deal," a USC source said.
Helton also picked up a gem in hiring Sean Snyder from Kansas State as his new special teams coach. Cornerbacks coach Donte Williams was a huge get coming from Oregon where he had been named the Pac-12's No. 1 recruiter by 247Sports.
One of the better "gets" was retaining valued offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, whose name had popped up around the country for a variety of opportunities. Harrell signed a three-year extension in December 2019. Helton basically convinced Harrell that, if he was going elsewhere, his next job after USC should be as a head coach.
"You don't have to leave here for another offensive coordinator position," Helton told Harrell. "You can do everything from here."
Bohn said this week, "Clay's trying like a son of a gun. I think he has to get some validation for recruiting these coaches."
It's the critics' voices that are loudest at the moment. They have long been ready for something different. Less than 26 months removed from winning the Pac-12, the Trojans have split their last 26 games (13-13).
The 2020 recruiting class was ranked 53rd by 247Sports, worst in the online recruiting ranking era. One reason for that low ranking is USC losing only seven seniors. That meant Helton signed a small class of just 13 players that was heavy on offensive linemen.
No quarterback was signed. In fact, two of the best in Southern California -- Bryce Young and D.J. Uiagalelei -- went to Alabama and Clemson, respectively. Of course, that only added to fans' consternation.
"I knew it wasn't going to be a sexy class because I committed to big men," Helton said. "… It's not going to be sexy, but I don't really care.
"Perception is one thing. Winning ball games in another."
So much of the recruiting hay was in the barn that Helton spent significant portions of January scouting 2021 recruits. That's not the look of a guy on the hot seat.
The 2020 season opener against Alabama closes a circle of sorts. Helton began his first season as a head coach in 2016 against the same opponent. The matchup is sure to be another measure of progress.
In that 2016 opener, USC had spent the entire offseason readying itself for Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett. A couple of series into the game, Barnett was yanked and some freshman named Jalen Hurts took over. The Trojans lost, 52-6.
In the last four seasons since Helton took over USC in a full-time capacity, Alabama has won 52 games, been to three College Football Playoffs, won two SEC titles and one national championships. USC has a Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl win. It hasn't quite won two-thirds of its games (34-18). The Trojans are still looking for their first playoff appearance.
"I've already started watching Alabama film," Helton said.
CBS Sports HQ Newsletter
We bring sports news that matters to your inbox, to help you stay informed and get a winning edge.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox for the latest sports news.
There was an error processing your subscription.
It's time to go back through history and find the standout season for each of the Big 12 teams
Athletic directors are pessimistic that college sports can continue operating as normal after...
The cancellation of the NCAA Tournament and an uncertain college football future forced the...
The NCAA had originally set the dead period through April 15
Brown was a three-year starter for the Eagles and could fill a void for the Ducks
Additional practices, shortened schedules and everything in between are being considered
CBS Sports was with you all day covering National Signing Day as the Class of 2020 wrapped...
Complete analysis, highlights and coverage of the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship
Live scores, highlights and updates from the Miami (OH) vs. Louisiana football game