Clay Helton, it turns out, was the right choice for USC

LOS ANGELES -- With several hundred people milling about on the track before the start of the Long Beach Grand Prix on April 9, USC coach Clay Helton had no problem blending in. He was there to serve in a supposed celebrity capacity as the race’s grand marshal, but he was more in awe of the millions of dollars in racing equipment in the pits than anyone was to see him up close.

His relative anonymity shouldn’t be surprising. But it provided a stark contrast to the previous two people who held the honor: boxer Oscar De La Hoya and actor Patrick Stewart. The Golden Boy or Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Helton is not. Nor will he ever pretend to be.

He does, however, want badly to win, and he knows becoming a more recognizable figure is good for business.

"He loves doing that kind of stuff," said USC quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton, Clay's younger brother. "As much as he can get out in the community and promote USC and the Trojans, he's happy to do it."

His growing public stature, of course, doesn't make him immune from some good-natured brotherly ribbing. When Clay told Tyson that as part of his day at the Grand Prix he would get to experience a high-speed ride in an Indy car, he wasn't expecting the response he got.

"I gave him a hard time because the weight limit is like 250 pounds [to ride in the car]," Tyson said with a laugh. "I said, 'Are you going to fit in that thing?' He wasn’t too happy with that comment."

It still can feel odd at times that Helton oversees what traditionally has been one of the flashiest, most high-profile programs in college football. His personality doesn’t fit what is expected of a coach in such a visible role. He is more friendly neighbor than win-at-all-cost tyrant.

But as USC closes its second spring under Helton, it’s clear the experiment is working.

“I think he’s done a good job of staying the course and believing in what his principles are as a head coach,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said.

One thing coaches and players consistently say when talking about Helton is this: He hasn’t changed.

Long before he blossomed into the Heisman Trophy favorite, quarterback Sam Darnold was recruited to USC by Helton, who then served as the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. Because Helton would be Darnold’s position coach, they spent a lot of time getting to know each other.

“He hasn’t really changed, honestly,” Darnold said. “It’s awesome to say that because when he was recruiting me, he was the QB coach, he didn’t B.S. me at all.”

Helton laid it out very clearly for Darnold that he was going to redshirt his first year on campus. With Cody Kessler coming back, that made sense, but there were no guarantees for when Darnold would see the field. That wasn’t the approach all schools used with Darnold, and he appreciated Helton’s honesty.

“With that mindset as the head coach, if he tells you something as a player, you’re going to take that to heart,” Darnold said before emphasizing it again. “I don’t think he has really changed at all.”

That’s not always the case for someone elevated into such a prominent position or who has faced as much scrutiny as Helton did in his first several months on the job.

When former athletic director Pat Haden made Helton the interim coach following Steve Sarkisian’s dismissal in 2015, it was widely assumed to be just that -- an interim assignment. The idea that Helton would be a serious candidate for the permanent job didn’t catch much momentum for several weeks. And when Haden did remove the interim tag, it garnered a lukewarm reception. This was USC, after all, a school that should be able to bring in a coach with a national-title pedigree.

A coach like, say, LSU’s Les Miles.

USC’s 1-3 start to the season made Helton an easy target of job security thermometers. Most of them were in agreement: Helton’s seat was heating up quickly.

And while this was going on, LSU was off to a similar start. The Tigers lost two of their first three games and Miles was fired (and replaced, coincidentally, by former USC interim coach Ed Orgeron), opening the door for the Miles-to-USC speculation to begin. Go ahead, Google “Les Miles USC."

At USC practice, though, it would have been impossible to sense anything was amiss. Helton, being the optimist he is, didn't veer off course and provided a calming influence for a group of players who already had experienced more than their fair share of turbulent times in their careers.

What happened next, of course, is well documented. Behind Darnold, USC won its final nine games of the season, including a 52-49 win against Penn State in the Rose Bowl, and finished the season at No. 3 in the AP poll. It was the Trojans’ best final ranking in the poll since Pete Carroll was coach (2008) and the highest finish ever for a three-loss team. Helton was one of nine finalists for the Bryant Coach of the Year Award.

Still, Miles-to-USC finally did happen. At the USC coaches clinic on April 1, six months after Miles was fired, he served as the keynote speaker. Helton introduced him as a coaching legend and promised that wherever Miles ends up next, he’ll win another championship.

They were kind words from a kind man.

They also were unintentionally amusing considering those Google search results.

USC likely will begin the 2017 season in the top five in nearly every prominent preseason poll. Darnold, understandably, will be the primary justification for this, but Helton's importance shouldn't be understated.