Uninspiring Hire of Clay Helton Says Plenty About USC Under Pat Haden

Bryan Fischer@BryanDFischerNational College Football Columnist November 30, 2015

Southern California athletic director Pat Haden speaks with the media during a press conference after an NCAA college football practice in Los Angeles Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015. He named the Trojans' offensive coordinator, Clay Helton, to take over for head coach Steve Sarkisian, whom Haden fired Monday. (AP Photo/Richard Hartog)
Richard Hartog/Associated Press

When Pat Haden returned to USC to be its athletic director, it was universally hailed as a stunningly respectable move for an athletic department that had been lax on making good decisions the past few years under former AD Mike Garrett.

The golden prodigy was returning to Troy, a former Trojans quarterback coming home ready to clean up a mess with the NCAA and return the program to the glory years of double-digit wins and Rose Bowl berths on the gridiron. Haden ticked every box when it came to his qualifications, bringing with him an unquestioned resume that would later be deemed so inspiring that he was tapped to be on the first-ever College Football Playoff selection committee.

Five years in, however, one of the most accomplished USC alumni to ever don the cardinal and gold has turned into an unquestioned flop in his role as athletic director. While Haden spent years in and around college athletics, his lack of prior athletic-director experience has shown up time and time again during his tenure in Los Angeles.

That was certainly the case Monday morning, when the school surprisingly announced it was removing the interim tag from Clay Helton's title and giving him the permanent gig as USC head coach.

Haden said in a release:

We have known Clay well for the past six years. He earned this opportunity. He has been positive and upbeat handling adversity. He was built to be a head coach. Football is his family business. He is a coach on the rise and he will be coaching a team on the rise. As our interim head coach, Clay brought back USC's style of physical football. I have been impressed with how hard and how inspired our team has played for him, as well as the support they have shown for him.

Clay was not hired because his team defeated UCLA Saturday. He was not hired because many current and former players voiced their support for him. And he was not hired because he is a Trojan. He is our choice because we believe he can win Pac-12 and national championships here. Clay Helton is the right man at the right time for the USC football program.

Helton is a good man who has stuck with the program through thick and thin ever since arriving six years ago to be Lane Kiffin's quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator (in title only, mind you). He's done well in his two stints as the interim coach and has gotten key support from the current players and administrators as well as a handful of boosters.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

It remains to be seen just how well his tenure at Troy will go, but at the very least, Helton is somebody who certainly gives the program something that has been lacking around the John McKay Center and Heritage Hall: an adult in charge. On the other hand, only Dabo Swinney at Clemson has truly worked out well as a case study in elevating the interim coach.

It could work. It could turn out to be just what USC needs.

But on November 30, at least, the move to tap Helton permanently is uninspiring at best. It all reeks of desperation on Haden's part after conducting a coaching search that was quieter than parents putting Christmas presents under the tree as Santa.

Haden added in his statement:

After weeks of searching the collegiate and pro ranks, interviewing candidates, and speaking with head coaches, athletic directors, NFL executives, and very knowledgeable football people, and after observing Clay in action the past seven weeks, it became abundantly clear that what we were searching for in a coach was right here in front of us. Choosing a coach is an inexact science. In Clay's case, there is exactness.

In many ways, all USC did was punt on 4th-and-short.

Helton did beat banged-up rival UCLA (something Ed Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian could not do) and a Utah team that was at the time ranked in the Top Five. But he also failed to beat any other team of note in that time span, and USC got drubbed by Oregon in Eugene and was downed by Notre Dame as well. While he handled the job well enough to likely get hired elsewhere this offseason, going 5-2 with the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 shouldn't put him at the top of the list to take over one of the three best jobs in college football.

For a blueblood program that has as easy a path to the national championship as any, that says plenty about the state of Troy under Haden's leadership as of late.

Many boosters and former players publicly and privately questioned whether Haden was the right man to make the hire this time around, and they will surely have been proved right by this move. Haden is the highest-paid athletic director in the country, and with the marquee football program he's A) hired a former USC assistant without proper vetting (Sarkisian) and B) removed an interim tag.

Nov 13, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans athletic director Pat Haden before the game against the California Golden Bears at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Toss in the bizarre display of coming down from the booth and arguing with an official during a game against Stanford, firing Lane Kiffin at the airport and botching moves left and right this season, and you can understand why Haden may not be in his current role for much longer.

Being an athletic director is a tough job, and only a handful of people can push all the right buttons with every move. It didn't help Haden, however, that the difference between being a good AD and a mediocre one was on full display for the country to see in a 24-hour period.

At Virginia Tech, Whit Babcock proved to be decisive in his move to land Justin Fuente to take over for Frank Beamer. With the latter's retirement handled in a very classy manner to close out the season, Babcock identified a top candidate, aggressively pursued him and then locked Fuente down Sunday so no other school could hire him at the last minute.

It was a great example of a home run hire. Heck, even Iowa State's Jamie Pollard, who has had his misses in the job recently, emerged with arguably a better-received head coach in Toledo's Matt Campbell than Haden did.

Instead, Haden followed a tactic to find his next head coach employed not by Texas, Georgia, Florida or others, but by Illinois. That, my friends, says plenty.

USC has all the tools in place to return to the top of the Pac-12 and make waves nationally again. Adoree' Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster are two of the most exciting players in the sport. Ronald Jones II looks like the next great tailback to wear the Trojans uniform. The facilities are in place at USC like no other time in the school's history, and the Southern California recruiting ground is as fertile as ever.

Helton may well get the Trojans back to the promised land. He can start this Saturday with a win over Stanford to get to the Rose Bowl.

But make no mistake—the hire of Helton says plenty about what the school wants to be under its current athletic director. USC didn't just fail to land a big name or find the right fit; it decided to underwhelm and conduct business as usual.

Instead of seizing the moment and ushering in a new era with a head coach who has the acumen, record and stature that the top-five job deserves, Pat Haden decided the status quo in Los Angeles was fine by him.

Not quite the return to glory many expected five years ago.

Bryan Fischer is a national college football columnist at Bleacher Report. You can follow him at @BryanDFischer.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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