Why did it take four days for USC to retain Clay Helton with 'unwavering support'?

Clay Helton did not receive an official announcement that he was being retained as USC coach. No handshake, no phone call, no text. Turns out he didn't need one.

The press release Wednesday was for fans, critics and the media, many of whom who reacted with everything from mild surprise to utter shock that Helton was coming back.

The coach had known for a while, new USC athletic director Mike Bohn told CBS Sports.

How long? Bohn would only say, "We have been … pulling all these different pieces together" since the season ended 11 days ago against UCLA.

"He had a good idea [he was coming back]," Bohn said. "… He clearly understood our unwavering support of him."

That alone might be the biggest upset of USC's season. To some, Helton's departure was so obvious they were disappointed that a Sports Illustrated report stating the coach had already been fired was erroneous.

USC officials reacted angrily Sunday to the report, one calling it "ridiculous." That should have been the first hint that Helton was returning for his fifth full season.

Still, the retention of Helton qualifies as one of the most significant moments in recent USC history. This a school that has gone through athletic directors like they were Dixie Cups. There were scandals both within the athletic department and the university.

"Stability is something that is important for us at USC right now," Bohn said.

That means keeping the 47-year-old soft-spoken son of a coach who has been at USC longer than any football coach since Pete Carroll.

But it's accurate to say Helton's continued employment went against the wishes of a large swath of fans who were done with the Helton era. They had already let their voices be heard by virtue of their absence at the newly remodeled Coliseum. The message boards were both cruel and faceless.

It didn't matter that Helton rebounded from an array of injuries - including to a pair of quarterbacks -- to finish the second half of the season 5-1 with a placement in the bottom of the College Football Playoff Rankings.

To those critics, it was just time. Urban Meyer was out there. If not him, then Penn State's James Franklin. They were proven winners. To those critics, Helton had seemingly reached his ceiling at 39-21.

Bohn, who has been on the job less than a month, was asked about fans who were hoping USC would lose just to hasten Helton's departure.

"I think it would be fair for you to talk about that," Bohn said. "We all share the same expectations and passion. We embrace it. We're going to do everything we can to meet those expectations. We also need those fans and supporters, many of them who are excited about Clay and our bright future."

By keeping Helton, Bohn bought himself some time. He's insinuated from criticism a bit having only been on the job since Nov. 9. He can make the point that he needs time to evaluate the program. Now Bohn has a year to do it. Twelve months from now, Meyer and Franklin will probably still be in their same respective positions.

Stability is good if you've got the right guy. Bill McCartney at Colorado and Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech both started terribly at their schools. McCartney went on to win a national championship. Beamer is a Hall of Famer, the winningest coach in VT history.

Helton is neither of those guys. Not yet, at least. But he does have a better record, by far, through his first 61 games.

Some USC fans are sick of hearing that Helton has already won a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl. They point at how the program went downhill after Sam Darnold's departure. Or that only six teams had more penalty yards than the Trojans in 2019.

Recruiting looks depressing. USC is 67th nationally in the 247Sports Composite team rankings. Prior to 2019, the Trojans had finished in the top 10 over six consecutive seasons. The main issue: How does USC convince recruits that Helton is anything more than year-to-year? He is under contract through 2023.

Asked Helton's biggest fault, Bohn said, "We've got to improve the physicality in our line play."

The prospects for next season look bright. Freshman Kedon Slovis established himself after injuries decimated the roster. An overwhelming majority of the starters return, including 2019 starting QB JT Daniels, whose father told 247Sports that his son is "definitely staying" to compete.

This being the Pac-12, it is always wide open for the conference's flagship program.

The school had already let Helton dangle long enough. Helton was retained four days after the Trojans were officially eliminated from winning the Pac-12 South.

Bohn was asked what he knew Wednesday that he didn't know Sunday.

"That's a fair question," he said. "The answer is nothing new as far as what we're learning. As I told the team, we've been working hard insuring that we have alignment on the ability for us to invest more in this program. Looking at how we put those in play, we just needed some extra time to do that. There was no reason to rush."

Unless you're one of those Trojans fans who can't wait for a change. They're done. To them, it doesn't matter if Helton is the greatest guy in the world or has rallied the team.

Interested or not, Meyer's out there. So is a CFP berth. USC may have to watch Utah, of all teams, play for a national championship.

"To insinuate that everyone in our base doesn't share the same passion that we have to compete at the highest levels, that's why we're opening up the season next year against Alabama in Dallas. We want to play on those stages," Bohn said.

Wow, Alabama? Helton's back. The speculation about his job security will continue.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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