LOS ANGELES -- Half-hired and half-fired.
That’s how an assistant coach once described the career limbo of being on an interim staff. You labor in the hopes of being retained, knowing very few patchwork staffs have ever been kept. You work to honor your contract, and more important, to honor your players, especially those in their final seasons of eligibility.
It can be an awkward thing, really, being half-hired and half-fired.
Illinois’ interim staff, led by Bill Cubit, learned a week before the team’s opener that head coach Tim Beckman was being fired. And yet the Illini, at 5-5, are a win away from bowl eligibility. Many coaches and agents believe Cubit could and probably should be retained, especially as Illinois looks for a new athletic director and chancellor.
Those close to South Carolina say that its temporary staff, headed by Shawn Elliott, already has been given an indication that a new coach will be hired in early December. No new recruiting commitments are being accepted. And yet there are two games remaining for a 3-7 team, including one against a rival that just happens to be the No. 1 team in the country.
Then there’s USC's sun-soaked campus in Los Angeles, the sprawling metropolis where reality already can feel a bit virtual.
The running joke at USC, one made in a pained-but-accepting way, is that abnormality for the school’s football program has become normal. Those who work, learn and play here call it the “new normal.”
“Fortunately, or unfortunately, we’ve been in this situation before,” said Clay Helton, who has earned USC’s interim head coach title for the second time in the past two years.
A quick recap as to how we arrived here, with Helton doing a shuttle run between the offensive coordinator's and head coach’s offices:
Lane Kiffin was fired in September 2013, with defensive line coach Ed Orgeron taking over. The fiery, fun Orgeron excelled in the role, leading the Trojans to a 6-2 record and a bowl berth.
But that whole interim awkwardness then reared its head: When Steve Sarkisian was hired in early December, and Orgeron learned he was not getting the full-time job, Coach O bolted.
Helton took over, and USC defeated Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. With three head coaches in four months, the Trojans actually finished higher in the final AP and coaches polls (No. 19) than they started in the preseason (No. 24). Sarkisian attended the bowl practices and was particularly impressed by Helton and receivers coach Tee Martin, so he let them know before the game that they’d be retained.
That decision put Helton, who has been at USC since 2010, in position to again be named the interim head coach when Sarkisian's substance-abuse issues led to his dismissal in October.
Just the events since the summer would have been a storm of epic proportions at any other school, and yet USC and Helton were uniquely prepared for the bizarre circumstances of yet another midseason change.
In an interview in July, quarterback Cody Kessler talked at length about what a relief it would be to have a drama-free senior season. He laughed about that when approached in early November.
“I guess I should have known better,” Kessler said. “This adversity, it’s new to a lot of guys, but not to the older players and not to Coach Helton and some of our coaches. This is something we know we can manage and handle.”
The Trojans are 4-1 in Helton's second go-round, with the only loss a competitive game at No. 4 Notre Dame. A conference title and Rose Bowl berth are feasible for USC (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) entering its final two regular-season games, at Oregon and against rival UCLA.
Helton said that when he took over, he put an emphasis on the offensive and defensive lines.
“Those two groups win you a championship,” he said, adding that practice sessions have been changed to focus more on line play. “They’re carrying us, and we hope they continue to carry us.”
Beyond football, Helton has worked to build chemistry by organizing a formal team dinner on Tuesday nights.
“We say a prayer and eat together. We’re spending time together as a family,” said Martin, the team’s receivers coach. “There’s a feeling now that, ‘Hey, I’m playing for my brother, for the coaches.’ There’s ownership. There’s a deeper meaning as to why I’m playing.”
Kessler, for one, has seen enough to support Helton shedding the interim tag.
“It obviously isn’t my decision, but I think he’d do great things at USC,” said Kessler, a second-year captain and fifth-year player. “I can say that without any regret. He can be the head coach here and be a successful one at that.”
The 43-year-old Helton called this his favorite in 21 seasons as a college coach, going back to years as an assistant at Duke, Houston and most recently Memphis, where he spent 10 years.
“I guess when you’re faced with adversity, you really get to find out who you are, what type of person you’re going to be,” Helton said. “I don’t know how many wins we’ll wind up with, but I know this: There’s a lot of heart and integrity being put in by a bunch of grown men as a coaching staff and as a bunch of kids fighting their butts off. It’s really neat to see. You don’t know how it’ll end up, but you get a lot of enjoyment out of it as a coach.”
Does Helton have a realistic shot at being kept on full-time? Ask around the coaching community, and the answer is ... maybe.
The sense is that Helton is ready for the title, but there’s also the feeling that USC’s donors and administrators still will push for a bigger name than a 40-something in his first head job.
There is support for Helton within USC's athletic department. Those around the program ask this: If Helton already has proved to be successful, and he has been in L.A. for six years, what else is there?
They say maybe, just maybe, the next great USC coach already is coaching at USC. The outside hire route didn’t work; maybe the school should try an in-house candidate.
“There was no way Orgeron was getting that job as an interim, but now, after what happened [with Sarkisian], I think Helton might have a chance,” a Pac-12 coach said. “Stability means something, and they need some stability about as much as anything.”
How Helton ultimately is viewed by administrators largely could come down to the Trojans’ finish against the Ducks and Bruins, teams with identical 7-3 records and plenty of adversity of their own. Should Helton's future be judged by those two games, given the midseason takeover and mounting injuries that now include prodigious freshman linebacker Cameron Smith?
Perhaps not. But Helton seems to understand life as a half-hired and half-fired college football coach.
“You have to prove yourself. That’s just the reality in college football. If you prove yourself, there’s a conversation to be had,” Helton said. “Do I want to be the head football coach at USC? Of course I do. Who wouldn’t? You’d be lying if you said no.
“But my primary focus has to be on the day-to-day work we’re doing. That’s where your focus has to be. If you do that and you’re successful, then you can add up the wins at the end of the season and have a discussion.”