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Clay Helton's admiration for Nick Saban dates back to high school

During Clay Helton's final two years of high school, he spent a lot of time around the Houston Oilers coaching staff. Jerry Glanville was the team's head coach and Helton's father, Kim, coached the offensive line.

There was a lot to take in for Helton, then an aspiring quarterback, but, for whatever reason, one repeated interaction he had with his dad has stuck with him.

"I'm sitting there getting to be around my dad a bunch and just remembering Dad always saying, ‘Hey, that guy's going to be a terrific coach,'" Helton said, "and he already was, really."

Terrific, at this point, doesn't begin to cover just how good that guy has turned out to be.

"For our generation, he's the pinnacle," Clay Helton, 44, said. "He's a giant."

And on Saturday in Arlington, Texas, that guy, Alabama coach Nick Saban, will be on the opposite sideline as Helton begins his first full season as the coach at USC (5 p.m., ET, ABC/WatchESPN).

Glanville hired Saban to coach the Oilers' secondary prior to the 1988 season -- it was his first NFL job -- and in the two seasons he and Kim Helton spent on staff together, the team won 20 games. They both moved on after the 1989 season -- Saban became the head coach at Toledo; Helton the offensive line coach for the Los Angeles Raiders -- but their brief time together was enough to leave a positive, lasting impression for the Helton family.

"Nick was a good teammate and he was a very good neighbor," Kim Helton said. "He has a wonderful family and is an excellent football coach.

"Every time I see Nick Saban on the street, I'm going to hug him. Every time I see [Saban's wife] Terry, I'm going to hug her with a smile."

USC quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton, Clay's younger brother by almost five years to the day, remembers spending time at the Saban house when he was only about 11 years old.

"Mrs. Saban is such a great lady, such a hospitable person," he said. "I would ride to Oilers games with my mom and her. Just a great family. It will be great to see them."

In the two-plus decades since Saban and Helton coached together, their paths have continued to cross on occasion. The last time came near the end of Helton's last coaching job -- as the offensive coordinator at Alabama-Birmingham under current USC offensive line coach Neil Callaway from 2007-2011 -- when he and Callaway visited Tuscaloosa to meet with then-Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain.

"A lot of things that Jim did on offense were similar to what we were trying to do so I appreciated his approach to offensive play," Helton said. "And, like I said, I have a lot warm affection for Nick Saban and his family".

There won't be any sort of reunion this week, though, as Helton won't be making the trip to AT&T Stadium to watch his two sons coach in the most anticipated game of Kickoff Week.

"I will be in Birmingham, Alabama with a Trojan flag flying outside," he said, "and will hopefully have a lot of jealous Alabamians outside."

As daunting a challenge as it may appear -- Clay Helton, first-year coach, versus Nick Saban, possibly the greatest college football coach of all time -- Kim Helton doesn't look at it that way.

"Clay having to go against Nick isn't as bad as Clay having to go against Nick's team," he said. "Not knowing how many seniors are on Alabama's football team, but if there are 11 seniors on their team, seven of them are going to be in the National Football League.

"When I look at USC right now and everybody on the West Coast and the media, they use that word: talent, talent, talent. Alabama has proven talent, proven talent, proven talent."

Proven talent, he said, outweighs any perceived advantage when it comes to coaching -- and, like the proud father he is, he isn't ready admit that perception is reality.

"Clay is as good as an offensive coach as Nick is a defensive coach," he said. "And [Alabama offensive coordinator] Lane Kiffin is a really excellent offensive coach in his own right."

Helton, who is 68 years old and was the head coach at the University of Houston from 1993-99, spent about a week in Los Angeles during training camp and tentatively plans to attend about four USC games this season.

"Pleasure of being able to watch the boys coach and pleasure to be around some grandkids," he said. "I just try to stay out of the way and give advice when they ask.

"I have no doubt the Trojans will be ready to play against one of the toughest schedules in the country and I'm sure Alabama will be just as prepared."