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USC Football: 14 Coaching Candidates to Replace Clay Helton

Seven-Step Drop: Clay Helton's Future, Florida State's Opening Lead off the 2019 Coaching Hot Seat Guide

USC became the first Power 5 job opening in college football, as coach Clay Helton was fired on Monday. Helton’s dismissal comes after the Trojans lost in blowout fashion to Stanford, dropping a 42-28 game on late Saturday night. Assistant Donte Williams will serve as the program’s interim coach for the remainder of the 2021 season. Helton’s tenure at USC started in 2015 in an interim role, which he eventually parlayed into the full-time gig. The Trojans went 46-24 under Helton’s watch but never quite played up to their talent level and were just 19-14 since ’19.

Who could replace Helton at USC? Here are 14 names to watch in the coaching search:

14 Coaching Candidates to Replace Clay Helton at USC

Brent Brennan, Head Coach, San Jose State
Brennan is a native of California and has extensive ties to the state as an assistant and later head coach at San Jose State. The Spartans went 3-22 in Brennan’s first two years (2017-18) but are 13-9 since 2019. Also, the program’s improvement was evident with a Mountain West title in ’20. 

Matt Campbell, Head Coach, Iowa State
Iowa State’s program has reached historic heights under Campbell. The Cyclones are 36-29 overall under his watch and finished No. 9 in 2020 after a strong 9-3 record. After a 3-9 mark in his first year, Campbell has won at least seven games in each of Iowa State’s last four seasons. Additionally, he previously went 35-15 at Toledo from 2011-15. Campbell has never coached outside of the Midwest, but there’s little doubt he needs to be high on USC’s wish list.

Mario Cristobal, Head Coach, Oregon
Could USC look to a Pac-12 rival for its next coach? The Trojans may not be able to lure Cristobal to Los Angeles, but the program needs to at least inquire about his interest level. The Miami native previously went 27-47 at FIU from 2007-12 and is 27-10 at Oregon since the end of the ’17 season. The Ducks have won the Pac-12 title in back-to-back seasons. Cristobal is one of the nation’s top recruiters.

Tony Elliott, Offensive Coordinator, Clemson
Elliott is due for an opportunity to run his own program after thriving as Clemson’s play-caller since 2015. The California native played his college ball at Clemson and started his coaching career at South Carolina State in 2006. After two years there and three at Furman (2008-10), Elliott returned to Death Valley to coach running backs in 2011. After Chad Morris left the program in 2015, Elliott was promoted to play-caller and Clemson has consistently ranked among the nation’s top offenses under his watch. Elliott is also regarded as an excellent recruiter and is a native of California.

Luke Fickell, Head Coach, Cincinnati
Fickell will be coveted for every major opening in the coming years. He’s 37-14 at Cincinnati since 2017 and has led the Bearcats to 31 wins over the last three seasons. Fickell is an outstanding recruiter and is regarded as one of the top defensive minds in college football. Considering Fickell’s ties to the Midwest, it will be interesting to see if the former Ohio State player would consider a move to USC or wait for a job to open closer to the Big Ten.

P.J. Fleck, Head Coach, Minnesota
Fleck doesn’t have any ties to the Pac-12 or USC, but his ability to recruit and market a program could be intriguing. The Illinois native went into coaching after a brief career in the NFL and landed the top spot at Western Michigan in 2013. The Broncos went 1-11 in Fleck’s debut but finished 29-11 over the next three years. He left for Minnesota in ’17, and after a 5-7 debut, went 7-6 in ’18 and 11-2 in ’19. Overall, Fleck is 27-20 with the Golden Gophers.

James Franklin, Head Coach, Penn State
After an impressive three-year run at Vanderbilt with a 24-15 mark and three bowl trips from 2011-13, Franklin took the top spot at Penn State before the ’14 season. The Nittany Lions went 14-12 in Franklin’s first two years but won the Big Ten title in 2016 and posted two straight seasons of 11 victories. Overall, Franklin is 62-28 at Penn State and has the personality and background to lift USC’s profile on the recruiting trail and national stage.

Jeff Hafley, Head Coach, Boston College
Hafley is a rising star in the coaching ranks. He’s 8-5 since taking over the top spot at Boston College prior to the 2020 season but compiled an impressive resume as an assistant from stops at Ohio State, Rutgers and Pitt, along with stints in the NFL with the Browns, Buccaneers and 49ers.

Urban Meyer, Head Coach, Jacksonville Jaguars
Could USC convince Meyer to leave the NFL after one season? You never know…

Billy Napier, Head Coach, Louisiana
Napier’s name has popped up in the rumor mill for SEC openings the last two offseasons. While Napier isn’t in a hurry to leave Lafayette and can wait for the right opening, USC should inquire about his interest. The Tennessee native played his college ball at Furman and spent time as an assistant under Dabo Swinney at Clemson before landing at Colorado State (2012) and Alabama (2013-16). Napier was hired as Arizona State’s play-caller in 2017 and departed after one season to become the head coach at Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 29-12 with three Sun Belt West Division titles under his watch. The program’s 11-win season in 2019 marked the highest one-year victory total in school history.

Bill O’Brien, Offensive Coordinator, Alabama
O’Brien was dismissed as the head coach with the Houston Texans during the 2020 season but found a safe landing spot at Alabama as the program’s offensive coordinator. Prior to his last two stops, O’Brien worked as the head coach at Penn State and went 15-9 in two years. And with the Texans, O’Brien had a solid 52-48 mark and made four trips to the playoffs.

Chris Petersen, Former Washington Head Coach
This is an extreme longshot. It’s unlikely Petersen gets back into coaching. However, USC should at least inquire. He went 92-12 at Boise State from 2006-13 and finished 55-26 at Washington with a trip to the CFB Playoff from 2014-19.

Bob Stoops, Former Oklahoma Head Coach
Another extreme longshot, but USC has to at least ask Stoops if he’s interested. Stoops compiled one of the best tenures by a coach since 1995, going 190-48 from 1999-2016 with a national championship at Oklahoma.

Kyle Whittingham, Head Coach, Utah
Whittingham is a native of California, so there are some natural ties here. While Whittingham isn’t in any hurry to leave Utah, he’s the top coach in the Pac-12 and should be on the short list for the program. The former BYU linebacker is 135-67 since taking over in Salt Lake City. Also, Whittingham guided Utah through its transition from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 and has won at least nine games in five out of the last six full seasons of games for the Utes.

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