Clay Helton, USC football welcome era free of drama, hype – USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — Just moments before the big finish, Zach Banner went off script. When the senior offensive lineman took the mic, no one was sure what he would do. Probably no one expected a song.
“Hands, touching hands …
“Reaching out, touching me, touching you …
A couple thousand fans joined in and sang along:
“SWEET CAROLINE! … Oh! Oh! Oh! … Good times never seemed so good …”
“I see you guys found the bar,” he said.
Everyone laughed. And a few moments later, when the annual “Salute to Troy” ended, it had been blessedly uneventful. Or as USC athletic director Lynn Swann had hoped a few hours earlier: “Benign.”
A year ago, Steve Sarkisian infamously dropped an f-bomb into the middle of the family event, part of a slurred speech that was cut short — much like his coaching career a couple of months later, when he was fired. On Friday night, the only fireworks came at the end, in the form of, well, fireworks.
The most emphatic moment in the new coach’s folksy remarks, delivered in a mild drawl, came when Clay Helton encouraged fans to travel to Arlington, Texas, for the Trojans’ opener with Alabama, and to “Be loud on third down!”
Helton was promoted to the Trojans’ top spot last December after his second stint as interim head coach. “Right place, right time,” he says.
And if he seems an odd fit for college football’s most glamorous program — the farthest thing from Hollywood, he’s a career assistant coach, a grinder from Texas who spent 10 years at Memphis before coming west with Lane Kiffin — maybe he’s just what the Trojans need.
In what has become a familiar part of his stump speech, Helton told the fans gathered Friday night he wakes up each day “with a smile on my face, because I feel like I’ve won the lottery.” He embraced expectations, calling a schedule that includes nonconference matchups with Alabama and Notre Dame “a blast.” And he made sure to thank everyone from USC president Max Nikias to the Trojans’ equipment staff and radio broadcasters (he also thanked “the good Lord above” for offensive coordinator Tee Martin).
Other than Banner’s impromptu sing-along, the Salute to Troy was drama-free. Benign bordering on bland. USC’s recent past considered, that’s not a bad thing. And it’s in keeping with the quiet tone set by Helton since he took over last October.
“He has it under control,” Banner said at Pac-12 media days. “Going into (fall) camp, we usually always had something we were talking about other than football. We don’t this year, do we? And it’s because of him.”
The son of a coach, Helton, 44, is remarkably low on swag, at least as compared to his immediate predecessors. At least so far, the program has been a reflection of his low-key approach, which has intentionally been stripped of flash.
“Championships are won with fundamentals and techniques,” says Helton — and surely every coach anywhere is nodding along.
But he continues, striking directly at the heart of what’s been perceived as part of USC’s DNA: “I hate the word ‘talent,’ ” Helton says. “I’ve heard ‘talent’ here for six years. I wanted to make spring practice and fall (camp) all about learning technique and fundamentals.
“Not a lot of flash. Not a lot of music. Not a lot of hype. But truly learning how to play the game we love. I’m hoping that gets us back to the Pac-12 championship and allows us to win.”
But is hype an essential ingredient at USC? Along with talent, the program at its recent best — and we’re talking a decade ago, when it was the best in college football — oozed swagger. Carroll didn’t just embrace the Trojans’ inevitable linkage with Tinseltown, he promoted the concept. Kiffin and Sarkisian, who had been assistants on Carroll’s staff, were obvious attempts to recapture that same aura, and era.
In one important sense USC went for continuity in promoting Helton. He’s in his seventh season with the program. He knew the players. They knew him, and liked him (go ahead, google the celebration when Helton was announced as the head coach).
Suddenly, the coach they call “Big Horse” — because he goes around the John McKay Center calling anyone and everyone by that term of endearment — was “Head Horse,” as quarterback Max Browne calls him. And Banner describes Helton as “caring, charismatic but also just very, very hard. Old school, get the job done. And then we’ll hug you after.”
While Helton’s ascent meant consistency and stability for a program that hadn’t had much of either, it is also a radical departure from the recent past. Helton’s motto of “faith, family, football” is a long way from “Win Forever.” But Helton says showmanship is unnecessary.
“I don’t have to add fuel to the fire,” he says. “It’s already gonna be there. Coming to SC, you’re gonna be in the national spotlight. … That’s just natural. That’s why you come to SC. I just need to help them win football games.”
He needs to help them win a lot of football games. The standard at USC is well established.
“The expectation is national championship,” Helton says. “That’s our goal every year. That’s what this place is about. The bar is set high here. You’d better understand the expectations, and frankly we welcome them.”
Banner also knows some are skeptical. The new coach effortlessly rattles off the superlative statistics: 11 national championships, six Heisman Trophy winners, 496 NFL Draft picks — he could keep going, but can he keep it going?
“Somebody was talking something about him not being here in two years,” he said at Pac-12 media days. “That’s up to us to decide. We have to win football games to keep him, but that’s up to us.”
Helton plans to do it with a physical style, which he says is as much USC’s brand as glitz and glamour. Thus the grinding emphasis on fundamentals, technique and constant competition. And yeah, there is talent, too. Helton says USC has fully recovered from the effects of NCAA sanctions, and it’s not just numbers but depth. He no longer sees a dramatic drop-off from starters to second-teamers.
“You could put our first- or second-team offensive line out there,” he says, “and feel like we’d be as good as anybody we play.”
That’s one example. While as always the Trojans have big, fast playmakers, they also have serious questions on the defensive line and uncertainty at quarterback, where Browne, a fourth-year junior, was named the starter Saturday. And they face one of the nation’s toughest schedules, beginning with top-ranked Alabama and finishing with Notre Dame, with a grueling Pac-12 slate between.
“We’ll see where we’re at,” Helton says, and he points to last season’s 5-2 finish (while he was the interim head coach), including a Pac-12 South division title, as evidence of the Trojans’ potential. He points to a loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship as reason for their motivation, for their buy-in to his unglamorous approach.
“It’s a very hungry team,” he says. “I think it’s a team that really wants to prove itself. I can feel that. I think they want to represent what this place is.”
Helton clearly does, too. Almost an hour after the Salute to Troy had ended, he was still there, standing just offstage. As he signed autographs, posed for photos and talked with fans, one thanked him for hanging around — “Oh, it’s awesome! I’m having the time of my life,” Helton said — and then said Helton reminded him of Pete Carroll.
After the crowd had thinned some, a campus police officer attempted to steer Helton away. There was a scrimmage video to break down, a quarterback race to call, and myriad other duties that are essential to meeting those ultra-high expectations.
“Sorry,” the officer said, “he’s got to go.”
But Helton didn’t. And a few moments later, when the officer headed for the exit, the coach was still hanging around just offstage, having the time of his life.
Contributing: Daniel Uthman
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