Clay Helton isn't just replacing a coach, but an entire USC era

ByIvan Maisel ESPN logo
Saturday, September 3, 2016

LOS ANGELES -- Clay Helton, whose first season as head coach of No. 20 USC begins against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium (8 p.m. ET, ABC), is replacing more than just a coach. He is replacing an era.

When Pat Haden, the former Trojans athletic director, took "interim" off of Helton's title last November, USC formally stopped trying to extend Pete Carroll's nine-year tenure of glitz and glamour.

"USC is not Hollywood," Helton said.

Wait just a minute, Coach. Or should we say "Cut!"?

John Wayne played for USC, for heaven's sake. Frank Gifford and O.J. Simpson glided through the Trojans line and into TV careers. During Carroll's wildly successful tenure -- two national championships, three Heisman Trophy winners, seven conference championships and 28 All-Americans -- USC became Reggie Bush and Kim Kardashian. Matt Leinart and Lindsay Lohan. Snoop Dogg and Will Ferrell on the sideline.

That's exactly who the new head coach of USC isn't. Carroll, the bling coach, is gone. His successors, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, melted in front of TMZ's lights. They proved ill-equipped to handle the pressures of trying to win with their hands tied by NCAA probation. The devastating penalties took away 30 scholarships over three seasons and resulted in USC being stripped of two Pac-12 titles and Bush's Heisman.

The probation is over, too, and there is a sense of a fresh start at USC. Sark's replacement, Helton, hunts alligators. He's courtly and self-deprecating, two traits that every Southern parent demands. His mantra is "faith, family and football," and those items are not just in alphabetical order. And the only Kim hanging around the Trojans these days is Helton's father. Kim Helton was the head coach of the Houston Cougars for seven seasons and spent 12 as an NFL assistant.

To repeat, USC is not Hollywood, at least in the mind of its new head coach.

"When you think of the names Marcus Allen and Ronnie Lott, Marv Goux, a legendary [assistant] coach here, you just think of toughness and physicality," Clay Helton said. "Those are the things that have won championship after championship here."

The image of Carroll's teams was of a regular lunchpail crew, if you buy your lunchpails at Prada.

It is customary in college football to hire a new coach who is the opposite of the old, failed predecessor. A disciplinarian follows a players' coach. A defensive guru takes over from a guy who kept all the talent on offense.

So, ditch the limo; cue the Ford F-150. Let's all pretend that USC has left La La Land (meaning Tinseltown, not the new Emma Stone-Ryan Gosling romantic comedy).

Take the new discipline inside the Trojans locker room. Before Helton took over, if a player skipped a class, he got two hours of physical drills. Now, if a player skips a class, his whole position group gets the extra work.

"You had guys who would book it in their weekly schedule, their two-hour punishment," quarterback Max Browne said. "They may miss class, and on Friday afternoon, I might die for those two hours, but I'll be able to sleep through a class for the rest of the way. It's one thing if you miss a class, you get punished yourself and only yourself. But when your teammates are also getting punished? That's a whole other element."

Take the feeling of family. Clay hired his brother, Tyson, to coordinate the Trojans' passing game. You can cry nepotism, at least until you see that for the last two seasons, he ran the Western Kentucky offense in which Brandon Doughty threw for 9,885 yards and 97 touchdowns.

Tyson Helton brought offensive line coach Neil Callaway with him. Callaway was on the Auburn staff when Clay Helton signed there as a quarterback in 1990. Callaway spent four seasons as Kim Helton's offensive coordinator at Houston. Kim Helton spent five seasons as Callaway's offensive coordinator at UAB.

Callaway started for Bear Bryant on the Alabama team that beat USC in 1977. He spent more than two decades as an assistant at Auburn, Georgia and Alabama before he went to UAB. Callaway has a voice that's part syrup, part metal grinder. Actually, he just grinds up players.

"He brings us Southern hospitality, Southern gentlemanship and very much a Southern toughness," Clay Helton said. "I just knew that experience, that knowledge, that toughness and physicality was something that I really wanted for our culture."

Helton warned his offensive line.

"I said, 'Guys, just understand,'" Helton said. "'You're going to think this guy is literally the devil. But after a month you're going to love him, because you're gonna know he's going to make you better as a player.'"

After three sessions of spring practice, offensive tackle Zach Banner cornered Helton in the locker room and said, "Coach, know this. We're taking Coach Callaway out to dinner and you're never going to see him again because we're going to kill him."

"We got a good bunch of guys," Callaway said of his players. "I don't mean they're all angels. I ain't saying that. But all the kids are into ball. It's important to them."

There ain't been a whole lot of Trojans assistant coaches saying "ain't" lately.

Take the way that Helton and his staff are coaching. The players understand why they're so tough.

"He loves us, you know what I'm saying?" Toa Lobendahn said of Helton. "A big thing in life for me is giving out love. I feel he's a big proponent of that. The way he treats us and respects us and even coaches us, that's the way we want it to be.

"The only time I've ever seen him get [upset] is if we've done something outside of football -- if we've left our dining area dirty and [the custodial staff] had to clean up for us and he had to hear about it, or we left our players' lounge dirty."

"He's probably the most genuine guy I've ever met, not even just [in] football but outside of it," Browne said of Helton.

All of which shows how Helton is wrong. USC is still Hollywood, but under Helton, it's rated G. Frank Capra would have loved him.

Helton was practically born in a college football stadium. Kim was a graduate assistant at Florida in 1972, the year Clay was born.

"Heck, the first year of my life we're living in the Swamp," Helton said. "We're living in the dorms right at the stadium. I grew up in the profession."

As a quarterback at Auburn and then for his dad at Houston, Helton proved he would be a better coach than player. As soon as he graduated, Duke head coach Fred Goldsmith, an old colleague of Kim, made Clay a graduate assistant. A year later, at age 23, Helton became the Blue Devils' running backs coach. He went into the family business. The construction business lost a hardhat.

"I think my mom is still mad at me," Helton said. "I was nine hours short of a mechanical engineering degree. I had enough hours to get an interdisciplinary math and science degree."

Helton spent 10 seasons as an offensive assistant coach at Memphis, rising to the job of offensive coordinator. He coached All-America running back DeAngelo Williams. And in his last season, 2009, as the Tigers plummeted to a 2-10 record that cost head coach Tommy West and his staff their jobs, Helton made an impression.

When Memphis lost to Tennessee and first-year head coach Lane Kiffin, 56-28, the Tigers rushed for 210 yards and threw for 193. After the season, Monte Kiffin, the Vols' defensive coordinator and Lane's dad, called Helton.

"He said, 'Clay, y'all did the best job against us. Do you mind taking me through what you saw? We're going to play Virginia Tech [in the Chick-fil-A Bowl]. I feel like they're going to do some of the things that you did. What did you see?' So we ended up talking for a couple of hours," Helton said.

Helton left Memphis and landed at Arkansas State. Weeks later -- so soon after the move that Helton was still sleeping on the floor of his new Jonesboro office -- Monte Kiffin called again. Lane had gone to USC and he needed a quarterback coach. Helton agreed to interview after signing day.

"Not thinking that I have a chance in hell," he said, laughing. "Got through signing day, came out here, and something just clicked. ... Probably some guys said no, and you're the one left standing. Something clicked. Like I told everybody, I felt like I won the lottery coming out here."

Helton weathered the storms of coaching under Kiffin and Sarkisian. When interim head coach Ed Orgeron refused to coach the Trojans in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl, Helton took over. And when USC fired Sarkisian after five games last season, Helton took over again. The Trojans went 5-2 over the rest of the regular season, and the day after they beat crosstown rival UCLA to clinch the Pac-12 South championship, Helton lost his interim status.

If you want to see people who think they won the lottery, watch the video of the team's reaction when Haden told the USC players their new coach would be their current coach. It looks like every World Series celebration you've ever seen, minus the champagne.

With all of Helton's new responsibilities, Browne said his head coach hasn't changed one bit. The feeling around the team, though, changed a lot.

"Less on edge, I guess," Browne said. "Just to be going out and playing a game, playing football, I think it was nice to just kind of move on from all that. It just seemed more free, and I don't want to say that because it makes it sound like it was unstructured. It wasn't unstructured. But it seemed like guys were just going out there and having fun."

If there is to be a Clay Helton era at USC, the lights, camera and action begin Saturday night. USC football is still Hollywood. There's just a new guy in charge of the studio.

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