LOS ANGELES (AP) — Clay Helton believes his job at Southern California is secure as he heads into two games that could determine whether he’s right.
The coach addressed the pertinent topic of his future with the Trojans in a meeting this week, and he did it again when asked about it Tuesday night after practice. While he recognizes the fan unrest created by USC’s 5-5 season, Helton told his players to focus on their upcoming rivalry games against UCLA and Notre Dame, not on whether he is about to make a sudden departure.
“I feel very secure in where I’m at,” Helton said. “Like I told them, my plan is to be here for another 15 years. I’d like to do it ’til I’m 60, right here. That’s my plan. Know this, I’m not going anywhere. I want them to know my jaw is set.”
Helton is one season removed from leading USC to the Pac-12 title, and two seasons removed from winning the Rose Bowl in his first full year in charge of a program that he has twice rescued from turmoil. He is 32-15 as the Trojans’ head coach, and his contract runs through 2023.
But the Trojans (5-5, 4-4 Pac-12) are out of the Pac-12 South race heading into their 88th crosstown showdown with the rebuilding Bruins (2-8, 2-5). After three defeats in their last four games, including an embarrassing performance by Helton’s offense last weekend in a 15-14 loss to California, their bowl prospects are uncertain even with a sixth win.
A sixth regular-season loss would be the most by a USC team since 2000 — the year before Pete Carroll took over. Helton has been coaching long enough to know there’s a price to pay for such a season at a program with USC’s expectations, but he doesn’t expect it to be his job.
“I have a lot of support from (athletic director) Lynn Swann,” Helton said. “Lynn, every Monday, walks into my office and has given me nothing but, ‘Coach, we’re in this for the long haul.’ We’re going to get this done. That’s what I’ve felt from Day One, and what I felt after the Cal game also. I know, in my heart, I’m going to be here. … The only pressure I feel is to help a bunch of seniors and a bunch of kids go out and get the Victory Bell one more year.”
Swann gave a hefty contract extension to Helton last winter even though he didn’t hire the coach, and he has remained publicly behind Helton.
Helton’s players also stood behind Helton after practice. They know the sky-high expectations placed on every USC team by its fans, and they say they’re to blame for not reaching them.
“Coach Helton is worried about the ballgame,” freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels said. “He’s not worried about what some random dude in his pajamas is saying on Twitter. … Nobody listens to Twitter. There’s no requirement to have a Twitter account. Anybody can tweet what they want at any time. It’s on us as players to realize just because a lot of people are saying it, doesn’t make it true.”
Helton said he addressed his job status with his team because he knows social media chatter can get in the players’ heads. Helton has never been a popular hire with a vocal online segment of the USC fan base despite his stabilizing influence on the program and two seasons of immediate success with Sam Darnold as his starting quarterback.
A big finish to the regular season would relieve much of the pressure, and the Trojans would love to give it to Helton.
“I don’t think there is a situation,” receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said. “I feel like Coach Helton has become a better head coach this season. It may not seem like it to people outside, but I feel like he’s taken steps. He’s doing the right thing. It may not be the prettiest … (but) he’s coaching us hard, and I couldn’t be more proud of the changes he’s made. People see it as he’s ruining the team, but he’s actually making it better. It’s just we’re in construction years right now.”
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