USC’s announcement Monday that Clay Helton was hired as the school's full-time football coach was met with joy, skepticism, and everything in between. Pac-12 reporters Chantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell had some thoughts.
Chantel Jennings: Hiring in-house is a tricky thing. It skips over that first period of guys “buying into a program” and a coach “learning the ropes,” but it can also look pretty uninspiring. For USC, athletic director Pat Haden’s hiring of Helton achieves both of these ideals.
The players clearly love him. And he understands the program and how it all works. But did anyone else hear the news and think, “Wait, really?” with a bit of a groan?
Maybe Helton truly is the “best” for this job, but can we all believe that Haden did his due diligence in ensuring that fact? He certainly didn't the last time around.
Haden has had his fair share of missteps at USC. This hire needs to be perfect, because if it’s not, it’s certainly going to be Haden who’s out next, right?
And can he truly be sure that Helton is the best that USC could’ve gotten? Wouldn’t waiting another month or so have been a better option, when teams have closed up seasons and others have time to interview? It’s not as though Helton was bolting out the door by any means. Time wasn’t working against the Trojans here.
ESPN.com writer Mark Saxon wrote this when Haden was deciding between taking the interim title of Ed Orgeron’s position or letting him go.
“Moments like this don't come along very often for major sports brands like USC football, and decisions shouldn't be made based on the emotion of a good month. It's not that keeping Orgeron would be a bad move. … But Haden would be selling his program short if he failed to look under every rock for the most innovative football mind available with the leadership skills to inspire young student-athletes.”
I agreed with what Saxon wrote then and I agree with it now. It’s selling the program short to not look under every rock and I have a really hard time believing that he did that during the past month or so.
Maybe this hire will be fantastic. Maybe it won’t. But I disagree with the hire based on the timeline alone.
If it’s great, then it’s great. If it’s not, it’s because Haden jumped the gun on this one.
Kevin Gemmell: I’m neither elated nor flabbergasted with the hire. And it’s not because I think Helton is or isn’t the right guy for the job. It’s because I don’t know. His sample size as a head coach is minimal and it’s been conducted under less-then-sterile conditions.
I do know this, though. He did what none of his predecessors have done, interim or otherwise, and that’s beat Jim Mora. Decisions of this magnitude shouldn’t be determined strictly by one’s success over UCLA. If that were the case, Todd Graham, David Shaw and Mike Leach would have all been candidates. But beating your rival when you’re trying to win a job definitely spruces up the resume.
Like you, Chantel, it’s the timing that doesn’t sit right with me. And it’s not just a matter of due diligence. You covered that quite well. It’s making a commitment to the future when too much in the present remains unsettled. In my mind, Helton still has -- and I swear this is a totally unintentional reference -- unfinished business.
What happens if USC absolutely gets smoked by Stanford and then loses to a mid-level B1G team in the Holiday Bowl? If the past seven games were Helton’s audition, are the next two his honeymoon? He’s obviously passionate about the job and wanted it. That’s great. I’m sure a lot of other folks did, too. A lot of the seniors wanted him. That’s great. They’ll be gone next year.
And speaking of the future, we’re not sure how much time Haden has left. Regardless of his waning popularity, his health hasn’t been great and he’s already had to resign from the College Football Playoff selection committee. How long before he leaves USC (either with a shove or of his own accord) and a new athletic director wants to bring in his own coach? Will USC be in this position again in 2017?
Of course, the flip side is this: What if he beats Stanford and wins the Rose Bowl? Will the skeptics turn?
It’s unfair at this point to say Helton’s hire is a success or failure because there are still too many unknowns. But as far as public perception is concerned, his audition isn’t over.