LOS ANGELES — The University of Southern California fired football head coach Clay Helton on Monday, two games into his seventh season in charge.
Athletic director Mike Bohn made the move two days after an embarrassing 42-28 home loss to Stanford that dropped the Trojans (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) out of the AP Top 25.
Donte Williams, the Trojans' cornerbacks coach and associate head coach, is taking over as head coach. Williams, a Los Angeles-area native and the first Black head coach in USC football history, joined the program in 2020 and has played a major role in the Trojans' significant recruiting advancements over the past two cycles.
USC visits Washington State this weekend for its road opener.
Helton went 46-24 during his improbable tenure in charge of a longtime West Coast college football powerhouse with 11 national championships. The career assistant coach twice took over as USC's interim head coach before permanently getting his first head coaching job late in the 2015 season.
“Clay is one of the finest human beings I have met in this industry, and he has been a tremendous role model and mentor to our young men,” Bohn said in a statement. “We appreciate his many years of service to our university and wish him nothing but the very best.”
While Helton brought stability to a tumultuous football culture and ran a clean program that inspired loyalty and love from his players, he never won over a significant portion of the Trojans' vast fan base, even during his early successes. His folksy demeanor didn't inspire confidence in fans used to Pete Carroll's intensity, while Helton's genteel Southern twang and mannerisms always seemed out of place in California.
The Trojans won the Rose Bowl after the 2016 season and the Pac-12 title in 2017 while Sam Darnold was their quarterback, but Helton's teams otherwise struggled to live up to the sky-high expectations around the USC program.
Helton was 19-14 since the 2017 season, and he repeatedly avoided vocal calls for his dismissal from fans and boosters during that stretch. Bohn replaced Lynn Swann as USC's athletic director in November 2019, and the school's aspirations for national title contention ramped up again with major infrastructure additions to all areas of the football program.
“The added resources carried significantly increased expectations for our team’s performance," Bohn said. “It is already evident that, despite the enhancements, those expectations would not be met without a change in leadership.”
Bohn's decision means one of the most visible and most powerful jobs in college football is open just three weeks into the new season, and the AD said he is launching his search immediately.
USC fans have been calling for the Trojans to chase three-time national championship coach Urban Meyer, who is only one game into his tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Bohn hired successful Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell when they were both with the Bearcats, while many USC fans admire and covet Iowa State's Matt Campbell.
Bohn has been on the job for less than two years, but he already has a strong track record on hiring for major jobs that will please Trojans football fans: Four months ago, he persuaded Lindsay Gottlieb to leave the NBA to take charge of the Trojans' underachieving program even though the successful, decorated former Cal coach wasn't initially seeking another job.
Helton's firing finally brings an end to one of the most unlikely head coaching tenures at a premier football program in recent NCAA history.
Helton had been at USC since 2010, when Lane Kiffin hired the former college quarterback as his QBs coach. Helton became the Trojans’ offensive coordinator under both Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian before assuming the head job when Sarkisian was suspended and ultimately fired for alcohol-related misbehavior.
Helton also served as the Trojans’ interim head coach for a victory in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl when interim coach Ed Orgeron resigned after the full-time job went to Sarkisian instead of Orgeron.
Swann gave a lucrative extension to Helton in 2018 over the objections of many fans. Helton was under contract until 2023.
Helton's continued employment put a perpetual cloud over the USC program in recent years, with rivals using his tenuous status against the Trojans in recruiting. The coach navigated this treacherous terrain with a smile and consistent optimism, never failing to express his gratitude and appreciation for his position in the sport.
“I love USC, because you know what the standard is? Championships,” Helton said earlier this summer. “You can be at USC and win every game but one, and if it’s the last one, it’s looked at as a bad season. That’s being at a special place. You can have an undefeated regular season and win the Pac-12 championship, and everybody is sad. That’s a special place to be.”
In Saturday's game, speedy Stanford tailback Nathaniel Peat broke a tackle, turned the corner and sprinted 87 yards down his sideline to give the Cardinal a whole lot more than their first seven points in an impressive upset of the No. 14 Trojans.
“I just saw green grass, and I had to put the wheels on,” Peat said with a grin.
“Guys saw Nate take off, and there were great blocks down the field,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “It just gave us a lift, and then we got a stop, and we said, ‘Hey, you know, we can play with these guys. And not only can we play with them, we can dominate.’”
The Cardinal did just that in a victory that dramatically altered the early season trajectories of two longtime Pac-12 rivals.
Tanner McKee passed for two touchdowns and rushed for another score in his first collegiate start as Stanford (1-1, 1-0 Pac-12) rebounded from a rough 24-7 loss to Kansas State last week in which the Cardinal didn't even score until the final minutes.
Peat racked up a career-high 115 yards, and Kyu Blu Kelly returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown in Shaw's 63rd conference victory at Stanford, moving him past Pete Carroll for ninth-most in Pac-12 history.
“It shows who we are as a team,” Peat said. “We have a lot of playmakers and a lot of potential. Last week, we really didn't show who we were.”
McKee went 16 of 23 for 234 yards, and he hit Elijah Higgins and Brycen Tremayne for TDs as Stanford rolled to a 29-point lead in the fourth quarter of its ninth victory over USC in the California rivals' last 14 meetings.
“We saw glimpses of what our offense and our team can be,” said McKee, a Southern California native with about 30 friends and family in the Coliseum stands.
Peat's early sprint down the Cardinal sideline was the fifth-longest TD run in Stanford history, but USC evened it early in the second quarter with a 15-play, 95-yard TD drive. McKee put the Cardinal back ahead with a 3-yard TD pass to Higgins on fourth down only after Stanford decided to go for it after USC lined up in the neutral zone on a successful field goal.
Stanford went up 21-10 right before halftime on Tremayne's TD reception, set up by a 49-yard catch by Austin Jones. The Cardinal got 174 of their 248 yards in the first half on only three plays, and USC got light boos from its home crowd heading to the locker room, followed by heavy boos for Helton during his scoreboard interview before the second-half kickoff.
Kelly picked off Slovis' pass when it deflected off London's hands, and the cornerback eluded Slovis near the goal line to score his first career touchdown. The rout was on when McKee scored on a 1-yard keeper late in the third quarter.
The Cardinal probably aren't as bad as they looked last week against K-State, and they might not be as good as they appeared while racking up all these big plays against reeling USC. Either way, McKee has solved Shaw's quarterback problem after just two games.
Stanford travels to Nashville to face Vanderbilt on Saturday.