Helton was 46-24 in his seven-plus seasons at USC and 6-2 in his last eight games, including a 5-1 mark during a 2020 season shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. USC entered the Pac-12 Championship Game undefeated last season but fell to Oregon.
Cornerbacks coach Donte Williams will serve as the Trojans’ interim head coach.
“This afternoon, I informed Clay Helton of my decision to make a change in the leadership of our football program,” said USC athletic director Mike Bohn in a statement. “Clay is one of the finest human beings I have ever met in this industry, and he has been a tremendous role model and mentor to our young men. We appreciate his many years of service to our university and wish him nothing but the very best. Consistent with our values as an institution, he deserves the utmost respect from the Trojan Family during this transition.”
Helton had been at USC since 2010 as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. He twice served as an interim head coach, leading the Trojans to a 5-4 record at the end of the 2015 season after replacing the ousted Steve Sarkisian. Helton was hired full-time ahead of the 2016 season and immediately led USC to a 21-6 record in his first two full campaigns with a pair of New Year’s Six bowl appearances.
However, USC cratered to 5-7 in 2018, missing a bowl game and finishing under .500 for the first time in nearly two decades. An 8-5 season in 2019 showed improvement but led to continued unrest. With changes in athletic leadership affecting the program’s decision-making, USC retained Helton in 2020, and the Trojans largely showed promise. However, Saturday’s loss to Stanford was clearly the final straw.
“I want to be exceptionally clear: our university and its leadership are committed to winning national championships and restoring USC football to glory,” explained Bohn. “This decision represents our next step toward that goal in what has been a thoughtful and strategic process to build a comprehensive football organization equivalent to the premier programs in the modern landscape. I accept the enormous responsibility I have to our current and former players and the entire Trojan Family to live up to our incredible heritage.”
Helton’s firing is just the latest domino to fall in an era of instability at USC. Before the 2013 season, USC had never fired a coach in the middle of a season. Since then, Lane Kiffin, Sarkisian and Helton were all fired within the first six weeks of their respective final seasons as USC tried to claw its way back to national relevance.
Later Monday, Helton issued a statement expressing his gratitude to many who allowed him to coach the Trojans.
USC still narrowly ranks in the top 10 of 247Sports’ Talent Composite, largely on the back of a top-five class in 2018 and landing the consensus No. 2 overall prospect, Korey Foreman, in the Class of 2021. Along the margins, results have been far less consistent. USC turned to the transfer portal to fill out an embarrassing 2020 class that ranked No. 64 in the nation, per 247Sports. The 2019 class ranked No. 20, and the 2022 class sits at No. 29 between Tennessee and Baylor.
The recruiting problems have translated into only a handful of truly elite NFL prospects developing at USC. In the three drafts since quarterback Sam Darnold departed, USC had just four players drafted in the first three rounds. For comparison, Pete Carroll’s USC teams had five first-round picks alone from 2003-05.
Helton was the second-longest tenured Pac-12 coach. Only Stanford’s David Shaw had been in his current role longer.
Cover 3 Podcast analyst Bud Elliott breaks down the firing of Clay Helton below.