Earlier today, the University of Southern California made the decision to award interim football coach Clay Helton with the full-time gig. Much like the previous search, Helton seemed to be the guy all along and this has rubbed some the wrong way. The reality, though, as hard as this may be to digest, is that this hire was never meant for them, it was meant for the kids and the university.
Rational analysis tells you that USC "had" to get this right as much as any university ever "had" to get a coaching hire correct. The Trojans have been piling up world-class recruiting classes, but the results on the field haven't quite been what administration or fans have come to expect. With Alabama on the horizon and National Signing Day around the corner, the Trojans weren't going to have a ton of time to wade into the deep waters that is 2015's coaching search. If USC had waited too long, this search could have had adverse effects.
The maelstrom at USC has helped to create a divided fan base. On the one hand, there are those who would tell you that Trojans should have hired Ed Orgeron, the last person to hold the interim title before Helton, all along a few years back and it would never have reached this point. These people tend to support Helton.
On the dominant hand, there are an abundance of USC fans that were hoping to see substantive change and Helton represents more of the same. There were no shortage of opinions about Helton leading into this situation and nearly all of them were directed to the athletic department. That doesn't even count the number of people who gave their opinions on Orgeron, and largely still do to this day.
Setting aside what the fans and boosters wanted, there is another aspect to all of this that seems to have largely been discounted during these past five years, and that's how much the players have been through. While it is absolutely fair to say that players shouldn't have the final say in who becomes their next coach, it's awfully hard to look at these USC upperclassmen without acknowledging that they have become experts in this area. If fans can justify their reactions to Helton's hire based on their wants and desires, why can't the players who have lived through the past five years of coaching?
In a sense, this really became a Kobayashi Maru of sorts for the USC administration. It was college football's version of an unwinnable test. They were going to upset someone no matter who they chose. The Les Miles and Mark Richt situations have helped shine a light on one of the sport's major problems -- winning seems to come at the expense of what everyone else wants and what may be good for the program as a whole.
Richt and Miles were beloved by their players, recruited extremely well, won a ton of games, and had the respect of the coaching peers. Even still, the priority on winning nearly cost both of them their job. Richt was fired at Georgia and a third-quarter meeting during the Texas A&M game on Saturday was the only thing that ended up saving Miles' job. In both cases, neither Georgia nor LSU's administration came out looking like the good guys.
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While none of this is to say that USC's primary focus should have been on perception, it's generally not good for the program if the common belief around the nation is that the school's administration will hang you out to dry on a moment's notice. While the common fan may not realize this, there was a lot of consternation over USC's decision to allow Steve Sarkisian on stage at “Salute to Troy.” It sent a message to some that the university was willing to put their coaches in a bad position if they thought it could help with booster donations and that message has the potential to grow into something much more harmful to the overall program goals and vision.
There can be no denying that Helton is not the sexy hire the nation has become accustomed to seeing at big-name schools, but there can also be no denying the job he has done since taking over the program. The biggest task for any new coach is to ask your players to buy in and Helton accomplished that on the very first day. Even if Helton had not been given the USC job, he had already proved several things that would have made him a surefire candidate to land a head coaching gig -- his players would run through a wall for him and he isn't above listening to the criticisms and making the appropriate changes. In other words, Helton was flexible and that's something that has been in short supply at USC.
On a personal level, Helton would not have been my first choice for USC's next head coach. For me, it's less about what Helton has accomplished and more about seeing a benefit to completely changing things up at USC, but therein lies the problem -- there has already been too much change at USC over the last five years. Pete Carroll ran a different system than Lane Kiffin. Kiffin ran a different system than Sarkisian and Helton runs a different system than Sarkisian or Orgeron. Add in another system and the school runs the potential of signaling to everyone else that they have no idea what they're doing, they're just trying things that they think will work.
Helton represents the opposite of that. It sends a message that USC knows what it wants, the school just hasn't found it yet. The decision makers are going to keep looking until they find it, but those who matter believe that Helton represents that ideal. By hiring the head coach that they believe to be a fit for the program, USC has emphasized a point that program fit matters more than a sexy name. In other words, they are willing to bet on one of their own when they've put in the work. This message runs counter to the idea that USC's administration would leave their coaches out to dry.
During the same period that Georgia and LSU's administrations threw their head coaches under the bus, USC opted to embrace theirs and give him the shot he had worked so hard to earn. If we're being honest, how could USC approach Les Miles and insist the Trojans’ job could offer him a more stable environment having shown zero faith in two previous interim coaches? Would that argument have really worked with someone as savvy as Miles? Let's play this out.
Wasn't the underlying point of the Miles debacle that LSU had done him wrong and not supported him after all he had done? Didn't we see the same outpouring of admiration for Miles on Twitter? Both Miles and Helton had former players and boosters giving their two cents on social media. Both guys had long and supportive posts written about them. What Miles has accomplished is immaterial to the fact that he would have a strong argument if he pointed out to USC that the school hadn't shown much support for its coaches either.
It's easy to say that USC should have done more in its search or waited longer to name its guy. While I personally wouldn't have objected to USC waiting until after the Pac-12 Championship Game, it makes more sense to make the announcement before. It's much harder to focus on a big game with an elephant that size hanging out in the room. If Helton was the guy, then it makes no sense for the Trojans to wait. Those who made the call did exactly what they should have done and have now given their players no excuses not to go out there and prove they're willing to run through fire for this man.
If it doesn't work out, we will end right back up here anyhow. Just like the last time, we will insist that there is no way athletic director Pat Haden survives another hire and that there is no way that he will get a say in the next guy. The truth was there all along, though, and it was slapping everyone in the face. USC is going to do what makes dollars and sense (pun intended) for the program.
A Pac-12 Championship Game appearance will bring the dollars, but standing behind your own guys and showing faith in them in an era where quality is tossed out with yesterday's bathwater makes completely and total sense.
Still think USC got it completely wrong?
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for Reign Of Troy, USC’s FanSided affiliate. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.