The end to a disastrous 2018 Football season did not signify the end of the chaos surrounding USC Football. The Trojans closed out the season by losing three-in-a-row to historical rivals Cal, UCLA, and Notre Dame, and in the process missed out on bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011 (post-season ban).
Head Coach Clay Helton and Athletic Director Lynn Swann exited the Coliseum after USC’s final game against Notre Dame to loud boos and “Fire Helton” chants coming from the home faithful. It appeared that overwhelming pressure and criticism, coupled with a disastrous season had sealed Helton’s fate.
Surprisingly, and to the dismay of many, A.D. Lynn Swann elected to keep Clay Helton on for at least another season.
Criticism of Helton stems back a few years to the Trojans inability to win big games, and the lack of convincing wins to inferior opponents. Even though the Trojans garnered a winning season in 2016 (Rose Bowl Champions) and 2017, the success of those teams often looked like a result of Sam Darnold’s tremendous talent, and in spite of a mediocre coaching staff.
It Starts At The Top: Swann And Helton’s Disastrous 2018
Swann and Helton Turn to Kingsbury
After showcasing an in-explosive stalled offense that resulted in a 5-7 season, Swann and Helton hired Kliff Kingsbury as Offensive Coordinator with full control of play calling. The transition toward an “air-raid” offense managed to take some pressure off the current administration. Kingsbury had just been fired as Texas Tech’s Head Coach after a poor season (5-7), in which Kingsbury’s high-powered “air-raid” offense failed to match the points given up by his defense. The Kingsbury hiring seemed heaven-sent; Kingsbury’s offense at Texas Tech scored 37 points per game, at a power 5 conference with inferior talent to the ones USC signs on a yearly basis.
During Kingsbury’s time at Texas Tech, he gained the reputation of Quarterback whisperer after helping the development of QB’s Case Keenum, Patrick Mahomes, and Baker Mayfield. If fans and critics could not get Helton out, they gladly settled for the next best thing, the hiring of an offensive guru who specialized in the development of Quarterbacks.
Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure as offensive coordinator lasted almost as long as it takes someone to get from Santa Monica to Pasadena at 4 pm on a weekday, or so it would seem. As quickly as our savior came, he left, to the NFL after receiving a Head Coaching offer. Who can blame him? He had the choice between leading an NFL team or controlling offensive duties behind a chaotic administration for a University plagued with scandal.
Picking Up The Pieces
Kingsbury’s hiring coincided with an overhaul of several of Helton’s coaching assistants. As a result of a temporary depleted coaching staff, Kingsbury, before resigning, and for the short period of time he served as Offensive Coordinator, became a key component for USC’s push for recruits, making several home visits and becoming USC’s main attraction.
His resignation hit USC’s 2019 class hard, which ultimately led to a class ranked third in the PAC-12, and barely cracking top 20 nationally on most credible rankings. Swann and Helton’s passive approach in replacing Kingsbury perhaps did as much damage to USC’s poor recruiting class as Kingsbury’s sudden exit.
Kingsbury left for the NFL approximately a month before National Signing Day on January 8th, and USC did not replace him until January 29th, three weeks later and one week before signing day. For a full three weeks during the recruiting home stretch, the narrative on USC reverted to their dreadful season and their unstable administration.
“Air-Raid”: The Desire Of Lynn Swann And Clay Helton
After Kingsbury, Swann and Helton hired offensive coordinator Graham Harrell away from North Texas. On paper, Harrell provides similar enthusiasm to Kingsbury and came as a recommendation of Kingsbury.
Harrell, like Kingsbury, comes from the Mike Leach coaching tree, having played and coached under Leach at Texas Tech. Though the hiring became overshadowed by the chaos surrounding the Trojans, Harrell’s addition comes with the same philosophical change on offense that Kingsbury would have provided, but also more risks. USC’s desperate quest for a philosophical overhaul on offense led them to pursue the services of an inexperienced Offensive Coordinator. Harrell’s hiring is a risky high ceiling low floor move. USC is betting on him developing a successful air-raid offense at a major University, and against a level of competition, he has yet to face.
Ultimately, it may not matter if Harrell’s offense is successful, because at the end of the day Clay Helton is still the Head Coach, and Lynn Swann is still the A.D, and the chaos surrounding this administration may be too large for any offensive coordinator to fix. Oh, and did I mention that the University is transitioning to a new school President, who regardless of how the 2019 season goes may feel the need to clean house? It’s unlikely that we have seen the last of the changes to the USC Football program.