Plaschke: In the wake of the Saturday Night Massacre, USC needs to remove Clay Helton immediately

by 24USATVSept. 13, 2021, 1 a.m. 20
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A major announcement needs to be made by the USC athletic department, and it needs to be made immediately.

It should be made by USC administrators who will show how much they value their athletes, understand their brand and respect their tradition.

It should impart the message that, when it comes to leading a renowned football program representing a prestigious university, even a good man can be a bad fit, and even a builder of character must also be a producer of victories.

It should conclude with the news that while there is no good time to fire your head football coach, once you realize you are going to fire him anyway, that time is now.

USC needs to remove Clay Helton right here, right now, no more waiting, no more waffling, no more rationalizing, no more rhapsodizing. Enough is enough, just do it.

Remove him while there is still hope in a season that has 10 remaining games and lingering Rose Bowl dreams.

Remove him while all those underachieving stars can still improve and the top-10 recruiting class is still interested and the program’s future in this new NIL world has not yet cratered.

Remove him before the boos suffocate, the Coliseum empties, the donations go dry and the last bits of shine on this once-proud program completely disappear under a veneer of sloppiness, recklessness and just plain ill-prepared football.

Some version of this column has been written several times during the last several years of Helton’s tumultuous seven-year tenure, but the situation has never been more dire, the move has never been more pressing and this keyboard alarm has never been more serious.

If USC president Carol Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn don’t do it now, they will not only be giving up on this season, they will be surrendering the entire notion that Trojan football is special. They will lose the alumni. They will lose the campus. They will lose this city.

Yes, Helton has a decent 46-24 record. And yes, he is arguably the nicest man alive. But he hasn’t had a truly big win in five seasons since his 2016 season Rose Bowl triumph, and since then has suffered so many celebrated stumbles and pratfalls that he could have been fired after each of the previous three seasons.

The feeling here is that various USC administrators never wanted to pull the plug because they liked the control they had over Helton’s program and were wary of giving the keys to an elite coach who would run an independent and rules-breaking operation like Pete Carroll once did.

Whatever the case, Folt has been here two years and let Helton simmer, Bohn has been here two years and watched Helton melt and both have a responsibility that they can no longer shirk.

This time, finally, Clay Helton really, really needs to go.

The final straw was Saturday’s humiliating 42-28 home loss to a rebuilding Stanford team that was a 17-1/2-point underdog.

Only two games into the season, and already the Trojans were playing without discipline, without passion, without a clue.

They committed 111 yards worth of penalties. Their kicker Parker Lewis was ejected on the first play of the game for making a dangerous head-first tackle that was ruled targeting. They allowed an 87-yard touchdown run in the first quarter to a Stanford team that couldn’t score until the final minutes of last week’s blowout loss to Kansas State. They trailed by 11 at halftime, at which point Helton was booed off the field.

The former boy wonder quarterback Kedon Slovis continued to regress, throwing a pick-six in the third quarter, then the Trojans just quit. They trailed by 29 points early in the fourth quarter. They would have walked off the field to more boos, except most of the fans had long since departed, which is worse.

It was a night when USC football became the most awful adjective one could call a sports team in this town. Amid a Los Angeles market buzzing with championships and superstars, amid the Dodgers and Lakers and a surging UCLA athletic department under energetic new leadership, the Trojans became worse than just pitiful, they became irrelevant.

Afterward, Trojans’ cornerback Chris Steele gave one of the saddest quotes of the Helton era when he was asked about the booing.

“I feel like we’re one of the most hated teams in college football,” he told reporters, later adding, “We gotta embrace that stuff, come back every week and show people why we’re the villains.”

Think about that. He said this after a home game. Helton has placed his players in the unfair position of feeling like villains in their own house.

Then there was this damning quote from offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, who, when asked about the running game, basically said the Trojans didn’t want it bad enough.

“I think they wanted to make the tackle more than we wanted to make some blocks a couple times,” he said.

Think about that. In their first conference game, they’re already suffering from a lack of motivation? For an already-shaky coaching situation, that is what is known as a death knell.

Remove Clay Helton now, and you have a chance to fix that this fall. Install associate head coach Donte Williams or defensive coordinator Todd Orlando as the interim coach and you have a chance to run back the memorable 2013 regular season.

Remember when Lane Kiffin was fired on an airport tarmac with a 3-2 record? Remember how Ed Orgeron went 6-2 as the interim coach during a wild stretch that featured fans rushing the field and players attempting to carry Orgeron into the sunset?

Fun things can still happen. Good things can still happen. Important things can still happen.

But one thing must happen first.

And it must happen now.

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