USC will retain Clay Helton: In letter, Trojans explain commitment to coach despite 5-7 season

With top boosters swarming, attendance down and the team dipping below .500, it was expected that USC would announce Sunday a parting of ways with coach Clay Helton. Instead, athletic director Lynn Swann announced the Trojans' commitment to Helton moving forward in a lengthy letter.

After admitting that the 2018 season was indeed a disappointment and fans deserved better, athletic director Lynn Swann went on to explain his rationale for retaining Helton.

"It is my firm belief that we have a good team returning next year and a solid foundation in place, and that Clay Helton is a good coach. Let me be clear to everyone, our players, our recruits and our fans. Clay Helton is our head coach and he will continue to be our head coach," Swann wrote.

"I am a strong advocate of consistency within a program, sticking by a leader, supporting them and helping them and their team improve. One season does not define a coach. Remember, Coach Helton inherited a program in turmoil. He won 10 games, including the Rose Bowl, in his first year in 2016. He won 11 games and the Pac-12 title in 2017. He runs a clean program, he graduates his players, he recruits well, he produces NFL players.

"We see programs across the country have a few down years and the fans want to change coaches. In fact, it happened a few years ago with [Notre Dame], but that administration remained committed to their head coach, who made some key changes, worked hard to fix things and got his team to improve markedly. That will happen here at USC."

Swann said he and Helton have acknowledged "deficiencies in areas that include culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff," promising that changes will be made and that "Coach Helton has a plan in place to get USC back to the top."

The announcement comes as a complete 180 to the hot seat chatter that had been growing for Helton, who led USC to a 5-7 record in 2018, his third full season with the Trojans. The five-game drop off from last season's 10-2 regular-season mark coupled with waning interest in the team led many to believe USC would pull the plug on Helton despite there being five years and about $15 million left on his contract.

However, USC showed up to play arguably its best game of the year in a 24-17 loss to No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday evening. Though the Trojans were eventually marred by their usual self-inflicted wounds of penalties and turnovers, there was no denying they were winning several battles in the trenches and had the correct game plan in attacking the Fighting Irish's stout defense through the passing game.  

Additionally, the entire scope of Helton's tenure at USC isn't all bad. After taking over the team from ousted coach Steve Sarkasian in 2015, Helton went 5-4 as an interim coach. He was hired full-time in 2016 and became the only coach in program history to win 10 games in each of his first two seasons at the helm, taking his team to the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl, respectively. But as USC tanked in 2018, so did fan support. The announced attendance at the Notre Dame game was under 60,000 fans, the lowest since 1960, according to USC beat writer Joey Kaufman. In fact, no USC game this season reached that attendance mark.

Helton may be back in 2019, but Swann has made it clear that changes are needed. Helton will undoubtedly start next season on the hot seat from which he just managed to, briefly, remove himself. 

CBS Sports Writer

Ben Kercheval joined CBS Sports in 2016 and has been covering college football since 2010. Before CBS, Ben worked at Bleacher Report, UPROXX Sports and NBC Sports. As a long-suffering North Texas graduate,... Full Bio

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