Despite 2-0 Start, Writing’s Likely On the Wall for USC’s Clay Helton | McMurphy’s Law

“Hot Seat” Helton or “Red Hot” Helton? It depends on your viewpoint.

USC Head Coach Clay Helton’s hot seat status — which has been a major storyline even before the season — seemed to be cooling after the Trojans’ 2-0 start, which earned USC a spot in this week’s Associated Press rankings at No. 24.

That 2-0 record is even more impressive when you realize that the Trojans lost starting quarterback JT Daniels to a season-ending knee injury in the season opener.

But circumstances change quickly in La-La Land, with USC Athletic Director Lynn Swann resigning on Monday.

During the past few weeks, individuals on USC’s behalf had already started looking for Swann’s replacement, reaching out to “at least a half dozen” Power 5 athletic directors about the USC job, sources told Stadium.

However, none were interested.

After the news of Swann’s resignation broke, the school announced that they’d start a national search for their next AD, which is traditionally a horrible omen for a coach since the new hire often wants to bring in their “guy.”

But despite the uncertainty surrounding USC’s future AD, the Trojans’ upcoming schedule may ultimately decide Helton’s fate.

Southern California’s next four games are at BYU, Utah, at Washington and at Notre Dame. Heck, the Trojans might win them all, making USC 6-0, ranked in the top 10 and — who knows — maybe USC would give Helton a lifetime contract (that’s called sarcasm).

But, then again, USC could drop the next four games.

After all, this is college football, where anything and everything happens on a weekly basis. A more likely scenario is USC suffers one or two losses during the next four weeks and the hot seat-inspired noise returns.

The biggest problem for Helton is he entered the season as the clear-cut “favorite” on everyone’s Hot Seat rankings after going 5-7 last year, marking USC’s first losing season since 2000.

And once a coach is deemed to be “on the hot seat,” it’s impossible to shake that tag, said FAU Head Coach Lane Kiffin.

Before the season, I asked Kiffin, who was USC’s coach from 2010-13, how challenging the 2019 campaign could be for Helton.

“Once you’re on the ‘hot seat’ at a national program, everything is magnified,” Kiffin observed. “Once a fanbase turns, they’re always looking for the negative. When the team is doing good, winning games, the fans will say it’s because of the players. That’s not the case when they lose a game — it’s all on the coach.”

However, Kiffin said there is a notable difference in perception of a program when a coach has been successful and has the backing of the fanbase.

“In that situation, if a school loses a game, the fans will (justify it by) saying the players didn’t perform well enough. They will blame the players and not the coach. Just the opposite if a coach is on the hot seat.”

Even with freshman QB Kedon Slovis’ impressive first start as Daniels’ replacement, will Helton get a “free pass” since the Trojans’ top player is done for the year?

Not a chance.

At least, that’s the consensus of several FBS athletic directors I spoke with. They indicated that if the coach was already on the hot seat there are “certain expectations” to meet and despite Daniels’ unfortunate injury, it does not give the coach “a free pass” on the season when it comes to making a coaching change. 

“If momentum is really weak at the end of the year, can they get it back?” an AD asked.

Another AD said despite the injuries or the win-loss record, it — surprise! — could come down to how much pressure the president, board of trustees or athletic director received on keeping or removing the coach.

Helton is one of the classiest guys around, but I believe anything less than a Pac-12 title will give USC’s new AD the opening they need to pursue a new coach. And at this point in Helton’s tenure, USC’s apathetic fanbase could demand a change.

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