Sources: Clay Helton to return at USC for the 2020 season

Pete Thamel

Embattled USC coach Clay Helton will return for the 2020 season, a source told Yahoo Sports. Athletic director Mike Bohn met with the USC team early Wednesday afternoon to inform them of the decision.

According to a memo obtained by Yahoo Sports, Bohn explained the rationale behind his decision for Helton to “continue to be our head coach.” The letter stated: “Heading into 2020, Coach Helton and I will work together to take a hard look at all aspects of the football enterprise and will make the tough decisions necessary to compete at a championship level.”

Bohn’s letter hinted that additional support for the football program will be added. The letter states that Bohn’s goal is “to ensure all coaches have the support and resources they need to make USC the most attractive school in the country.”

The letter hints at potential staff changes for Helton. Yahoo Sports reported two weeks ago that any scenario involving Helton staying would likely mean significant staff changes, which include defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and special teams coach John Baxter. There’s no timetable on potential changes, but the letter states that “tough decisions necessary to compete at a championship level” are coming.

Helton released a statement later Wednesday, saying in part: “I appreciate the support from President [Carol] Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn. It is abundantly clear that we now have the support, resources and tools to build a championship team.

“We know the expectations of our fans are high, as they should be. Those are the same expectations I have for myself and that our staff and team have as well.”

Southern California head coach Clay Helton looks on during a game against Notre Dame on Oct. 12, 2019. (AP)
Southern California head coach Clay Helton looks on during a game against Notre Dame on Oct. 12, 2019. (AP)

Helton salvaged his job after going 8-4 this year. USC recovered from a 3-3 start and showed enough promise with freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis establishing himself as one of the best young players in college football.

The slow start and departure of athletic director Lynn Swann made a change appear inevitable in October. USC’s 56-24 blowout loss to Oregon at home in early November only added to the speculation.

But Bohn, who was hired in early November, made the surprise decision to keep Helton. Bohn faced potentially spending more than $20 million in buyouts for Helton and his coaching staff. That was an uncomfortable amount of money considering he hasn’t had enough time to diagnose the issues in the program.

Any return of Helton was inevitably going to come with staff changes, as a majority of the fan base had spent the season speculating on his replacement or pining for a head coach like Urban Meyer or James Franklin. There’s no timetable on the changes, but the wording of the letter makes them appear inevitable.

It helped Helton tremendously that he’s been a paragon of class through a chaotic time in both the athletic department and university. New president Carol Folt has had to navigate scandals on the academic side of campus, and the athletic department has been reeling from the fallout of being directly involved in two separate federal investigations. Those included USC athletics playing a central role in the Operation Varsity Blues admission scandal and a former men’s basketball assistant coach, Tony Bland, pleading guilty to a felony charge of conspiracy to commit bribery.

“His commitment to our student-athletes and to leading with integrity is vital to restoring our championship program,” Bohn said in the letter.

The same challenges remain with Helton’s return at USC. He’s 40-21 overall as a head coach and has gone 13-11 the past two seasons. He did win the Pac-12 in 2017 and the Rose Bowl in 2016, going 21-6 over those two seasons. But the issues in the program that have emerged in his tenure remain, including USC finishing No. 110 nationally in penalties per game.

The announcement gives USC a chance to boost its lagging recruiting class, as the Trojans have just a three-star average in the latest rankings.

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