SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Clay Helton chuckled slightly.
USC's coach had just been informed that all-time great Trojans running back Reggie Bush had basically put him on the clock. In a notes column that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Bush said he and former teammate Matt Leinart would actively recruit Urban Meyer to be USC's next coach.
"We'll definitely be recruiting him," Bush told the Times. "What makes you think we won't be recruiters? Nothing is off the table."
Meyer's (eventual?) availability might as well be a referendum on Pac-12 football in general. What school in the much-criticized league would have the willingness and means to hire Meyer, who just retired in December 2018?
We're talking a top two or three coach in the country who, given the current market, would be commanding something like $8 million per year to resurrect Trojan football.
The list may start and end with USC.
"I believe I'm done, but I've also learned to just live in the moment," Meyer told the Times in response to Bush's comment. "I love what I'm doing, and I hope I do this for a long time."
That isn't exactly, "No, I'm staying retired forever." Since beginning his retirement, Meyer has taught a class and become an assistant athletic director at Ohio State. Oh, he's also taken work as a Fox analyst, which will put him in the same studio with Bush and Leinart on Saturdays this fall.
That brings us back to Helton, USC and the plight of the Pac-12. There is a certain desperation for all three to get everything turned around. Fast.
The Pac-12 remains on an epic slide -- 15 years without a national championship and only two College Football Playoff berths in the five years the format has existed.
Nothing will change in the league without the hiring of elite coaches to win games. There may or may not be enough of them in the Pac-12 with Chris Petersen (Washington), Chip Kelly (UCLA) and Mike Leach (Washington State).
We do know USC football is attempting to come back from only its 13th losing season in the last 85 years. That USC actually has a coach and Meyer is retired obviously adds to the intrigue of Bush's comments.
"No, I haven't seen it," Helton said evenly after being informed of Bush's subversive comments. "Thank you."
It seemed fitting that the story of day at the Fiesta Summit spring meetings was actually six days old. It was sad and uncomfortable having to ask a kind and decent man like Helton about a USC tempest that isn't about to end.
Bush later walked back his comments, telling CBS Sports they were meant in a "joking manner."
"Me recruiting Urban Meyer?" Bush said. "I'm still trying to learn college football."
"We're all good. … [Bush's comments were] taken out of context," Leinart told CBS Sports. "I like Clay. I really like him. There's a lot of pressure on him. I think he's doing the best he can. We'll see what happens. I support him."
So how did the item get conflated into more bad news for USC and, by extension, the Pac-12? The mere availability of Meyer helped.
The former Ohio State coach remains the hottest free agent on the market despite his recent retirement. His availability in the Pac-12 may further define the league's perception.
"Football is good when USC is good," Helton said. "When we win Rose Bowls and Pac-12 titles and national championships, that's good not only for the league but college football."
Times columnist Arash Markazi, tweeted Tuesday that Bush is "isn't actively recruiting Urban Meyer to USC now."
The quote from @ReggieBush making the rounds today was from my column in the @latimes last week (second note). He’ll be working with Urban Meyer and Matt Leinart this season at Fox Sports in L.A. on Saturdays. He isn’t actively recruiting Urban to USC now. https://t.co/zV0u9W6Z7f— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) April 30, 2019
That's comforting for Helton, who has already faced a release-the-hounds onslaught from USC critics. But check back tomorrow.
In an age when your football worth is decided by the CFP, the Trojans have been outsiders. Helton is 32-17 after five seasons. But to legions of USC fans, he doesn't fit whatever mold that goes with being the Trojans coach.
He isn't as demonstrative as Pete Carroll, not as Hollywood as Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. On one level, so what? On the other, the only savior out there who seems to provide USC hope for a return to the top is Meyer.
USC athletic director Lynn Swann seemed to misread his constituents in a November 2018 statement retaining Helton. In doing so, Swann pointed out "deficiencies" in the program that included "culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff."
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?
All this happens at a time when Bush continues to be permanently disassociated from the USC campus for his role in the major violations of a decade ago. Sources told CBS Sports that, in discussions with the NCAA, Bush may be allowed on campus this season if he is working in an official capacity with Fox.
Marzaki told CBS Sports that Bush's statement came up during the course of a recent conversation. Markazi was at lunch with Leinart, Bush, Meyer and Brady Quinn. All four are Fox analysts this season.
"The quote is the quote," Markazi explained. "This idea that [those guys are] actively recruiting him right now it's not the case. The question was, 'If they struggle again, would you recruit Urban Meyer?'"
Meyer was actually in the vicinity when Bush made his comments, according to Markazi. Bush's comments, then, open up dream possibilities beyond USC.
What would college football look like with Meyer back in the game? Would he even get a shot there considering his suspension last fall in the wake of the Zach Smith scandal? Smith, the former Ohio State assistant, was accused by former wife of abuse. Meyer was suspended for three games by Ohio State for his handling of those domestic abuse allegations.
Now pair that with a recent settlement by USC. More than 200 persons alleged a former campus gynecologist had engaged in sexual abuse over a period of 30 years. In October, USC settled with the plaintiffs for $215 million.
If you have to be reminded, that complicates matters at a place where the job isn't even open.
"We've just focused on what we can control and that's us," Helton said. "After winning a Rose Bowl and winning the Pac-12 title and you lose the last four losses by seven points or less. If you have success, you pass the accolades off to other people. If you don't have success, you own it."
Helton, of course, doesn't deserve much of this. In speaking to CBS Sports this week, he relished the time he has been at USC, beginning in 2010 as Kiffin's quarterbacks coach. The son of former coach Kim Helton worked his way up to offensive coordinator and was there to bail out the program when Sarkisian was abruptly fired in 2015.
Even Pete Carroll didn't lead the Trojans to back-to-back Rose Bowl and Pac-12 titles in his first two seasons.
"They have to win the division," Bush told the Times. "This is a put-up-or-shut-up season for them, especially for Clay Helton. I'm looking to see drastic improvements. People have to be held accountable and players have to be held accountable. They have to create an environment there where players really understand the tradition of winning that came before them."
Bush actually decried the lack of patience by players (in transferring) and athletic directors (in firing coaches). He professed his undying love for the "brotherhood" with his former USC teammates. Together, they became the first college football dynasty of the 21st century.
But because of those NCAA sanctions, Bush eventually returned his 2005 Heisman Trophy, which is not on display at USC's legendary Heritage Hall. In Heisman records, there is simply no winner listed for that year. His records have been expunged from USC history.
The BCS vacated USC's 2004 national championship.
These are tough times in a different way at USC.
The program -- and the school -- has endured a rash of embarrassments. After hiring the out-of-work Kliff Kingsbury, Helton saw his new offensive coordinator snatched away by the Arizona Cardinals as their new head coach after 34 days.
"I thought we'd get him for a couple of years," Helton said.
That move prompted this tweet.
Swann was initially criticized for Kingsbury's relatively low buyout -- $150,000. Not that an NFL team could not have paid USC whatever the buyout would have been to hire Kingsbury away for that position. But what were the odds that any fired college coach would get an NFL head coaching job?
Helton rebounded by hiring another former Texas Tech quarterback, Graham Harrell from North Texas, whom he calls "ridiculously talented."
Helton says USC football has to get "simpler." He told defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to slice his playbook in half. The transition to Harrell has meant a huge difference in play calls.
"We went from 'I Right Z Short A 42 Y Tie Shallow XN' to 'Mesh,'" in terminology for the same play, Helton said.
USC football certainly has to get better. It lost five of its last six games by a total of 31 points.
The sweeping academic admissions scandal also touched USC football. According to reports, the FBI alleged that a former associate athletic director had positioned two football players to get on the USC football roster as a walk-on kicker and walk-on long snapper. That was the only time in the multi-school investigation that football was mentioned in the scandal that mainly involved Olympic sports such as rowing.
In the middle of the scandal, Swann had to explain his presence at an East Coast autograph session. Swann later defended his actions.
College administration insiders have questioned the hiring Swann in 2016. His post-football career has been built largely on celebrity. The return of the NFL hall of famer and Trojan great continued a USC tradition of hiring former players to take over the increasingly complicated AD role.
Helton said the relationship with the man who will eventually decide his fate is "great."
"He's always been supportive of me," Helton said of Swann. "He's always around. He's obviously got 20 other sports to handle."
But none more important than football, no matter who is the coach.