LOS ANGELES, Calif. – This spring, Clay Helton threw out the first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers game. It’s the only remotely flashy thing Helton has done during two seasons as USC’s full-time head coach. And he walked out to the mound feeling intense pressure of his 14-year old son, Turner, telling him: “If this hits the dirt, I’m never going to talk to you again.”
Helton, a former high school pitcher, channeled his inner-Kershaw: “Thank God it was a strike,” he told Yahoo Sports with a laugh in his office this week. “That was a cool memory.”
Dinners at Tao? Spotted by TMZ at The Nice Guy? Not Clay Helton, the country’s lowest-profile high-profile coach. The Heltons live nearly 30 miles away from campus in Rancho Palos Verdes, as opposed to bustling Manhattan Beach where many of his coaching colleagues reside, because “it’s quieter.” He sleeps in the office every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and returns home on Thursday for “Date Night” with his wife, Angela. Nothing may sum up Helton better than cooking Carolina-style chicken wings – vinegar with some mustard and spice – every Thursday doubling as romance. “My favorite restaurant is my grill at home,” Helton said. “We don’t really go out.”
Helton is as Hollywood as Muscle Shoals, as slick as a pocket protector and infinitely more entranced by red zones than red carpets. USC elevating Helton to full-time coach from interim at the end of the 2015 season was the equivalent of asking a safety date to the prom. USC wanted reliability, stability and integrity. After the national championship glory and NCAA ignominy of Pete Carroll, the self-induced headaches of Lane Kiffin and the personal demons of Steve Sarkisian, USC had more dysfunction and turnover than the Trump White House. Enter Helton, who appears to have made USC great again.
Few people envisioned that after the Trojans started the 2016 season 1-3. “When you think of Clay, he doesn’t fit the Hollywood mode,” said Tommy West, who Helton worked for at Memphis. “His personality was exactly what they needed. At the time, Southern Cal needed a good dose of reality. That’s what Clay brings.”
Helton has won 10 games in a row, including a Rose Bowl thriller over Penn State in January that quieted the chirping from the 1-3 start. The next two weeks offer a fascinating referendum for Helton. No. 6 USC has home games against No. 14 Stanford and Texas, a prime chance to position USC to fulfill those preseason playoff prognostications.
It’s not an overstatement to say that this two-week stretch will shape USC’s season, the playoff chase and the trajectory of Helton’s career. Fair or not, USC is a program where Carroll set the expectations in such an elite stratosphere, and Helton needs to re-establish it there. If USC wins both games, Helton will have beaten Oregon, Washington (road), UCLA (road), Notre Dame, Penn State, Western Michigan, Stanford and Texas in eight consecutive games. That’s a tour de force of some of the top brands in college football, a run unmatched in these parts – and most parts – since the Leinart-Bush era. Helton skeptics would be harder to find than igloos in Venice Beach.
The next two games provide an opportunity USC has lacked since Carroll left – sustained success to justify the offseason proliferation of high rankings, magazine covers and playoff predictions. And it offers a chance for Helton to further solidify what’s been apparent since he took over at USC – a candidate that looked awkward on paper has been ideal in reality. “Flash doesn’t win football games,” Helton said. “Hype doesn’t win football games. Going out and executing and doing your job on a consistent basis is what wins.”
The thing that stands out most when sitting in Helton’s office is that nothing really stands out. He doesn’t have Carroll’s energy, Kiffin’s snark or Sarkisian’s charisma. In attempting to re-create the relentless success of Carroll, USC found the imitators to be long on sizzle and short on steak. Enter Helton, who on paper is as natural a fit at showy USC as a New Yorker coaching Auburn. Helton is the football version of a military brat, as his dad Kim Helton was an accomplished NFL assistant and college head coach. Clay was born in Gainesville, Florida, and hopscotched childhood homes according to his dad’s jobs at the University of Miami, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Houston Oilers. Helton ended up playing quarterback for his dad at the University of Houston. Clay Helton speaks in a soft Southern drawl, unfurls an easy laugh – especially at his own expense – and nearly always wears a baseball cap over his retreating hairline.
He listened to the advice from his father, an itinerant coach, to help make USC home: “Be yourself,” Helton said his dad told him. “You don’t have to be Coach Saban. You don’t have to be Coach Belichick. You don’t have to be Vince Lombardi. You got the job because you were Clay Helton. Always remember 18 to 21 year olds can smell falseness from a mile away.”
Just over three years ago, the prospect of Helton as the head coach at USC appeared miles away. After the 2013 season, he walked into the office of then-USC associate athletic director Mark Jackson looking for advice. The FCS James Madison job just opened, and he asked Jackson: “Should I cash in my USC chips?”
He held them, and two years later landed himself one of the most gilded jobs in college football after Sarkisian’s issues with alcohol led to his unceremonious early season exit. Helton became an interim coach for the second time at USC, and eventually got elevated to the head job. “A lot of these head coaches move around and have a sense of entitlement,” USC redshirt sophomore Jake Olson told Yahoo Sports. “They come into these programs and think that they belong there. You can tell to this day how he walks around this place. It’s not like it’s too big for him, but you can tell he appreciates everything about it.”
Olson told the story sitting with his guide dog, a yellow lab named Quebec, and roommate, Daniel Hennes, at the USC sports information office on Monday. Olson, who is blind, became the feel-good story of all college football on Saturday when he entered the game in the late stages against Western Michigan as a long snapper on an extra point. His teammates mobbed him, videos went viral and Olson had a moment with his dad on the sideline that made it a little dusty for anyone who saw it. “I feel very fortunate that we were able to create a really special memory for a really special person,” Helton said, “who’d really worked his butt off for two years for that opportunity.”
Olson cherished the moment most because Helton made him earn the opportunity. “He didn’t put me in there just because it was a great story,” Olson said. “It was because I’ve earned it. It’s something he wanted to make sure I worked for, and I appreciate that.”
The next two weeks won’t be easy for USC. Stanford has beaten them three straight games. (Helton points out with a chuckle that Stanford also went 10-3 last season, the same record as USC, and drew a lot less offseason attention). Texas coach Tom Herman’s track record is much better as an underdog than a favorite. A pair of wins would nudge USC and Helton into a different echelon. And it would uphold what’s becoming obvious: After two hires that hit the dirt, USC looks like it has thrown a curveball for a strike.
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