The best thing about heading home, I've often told myself over the past year, was never again having to write aboutClay Helton'sUSC football program.
Not ever. It was too painful, too repetitive. Too much unfulfilled potential. Too sad for everyone involved. No one got out of here unscathed.Sam Darnold? How'd that turn out?
Every assistant coach who's been here since 2013? Name more than a couple for whom a stop in Troy with Clay wasn't essentially a career-ender.
Not to mention what it did to Trojan fans, students, alums, boosters, donors, former players and the entire Southern California and West Coast football community . . . . Well, you get it. The list is long.
That's how it goes when a person, completely unqualified for the position he holds, is allowed to stay years after it's been determined that he has no chance of getting the job done.
Or that he clearly obtained the job under false pretenses, preaching how "the son of an offensive line coach . . . " -- how many times did we hear that? -- understood the essence of USC football. It was a combination of an offense that featured tough, power running and play-action passing with a physical, punishing defense.
It would be classic USC football. But then reality set in for those Clay convinced he could re-invent USC football in the image ofJohn McKay andPete Carroll. The season after the Penn State Rose Bowl made it clear he couldn't and we'd all been tap-dancing around it ever since.
Oregon'sMario Cristobal showed us exactly how you do that. You build around offensive linemen, you recruit them, you stand behind them, you go into Columbus, Ohio, and you silence 100,000 Buckeyes because you can knock them off the line of scrimmage and beat them to the edge. USC under Clay not only couldn't recruit O-linemen -- didn't even try really --- but it had little luck recruiting someone to coach them.
And that was just one position, one undelivered-on promise. We'll not bore you with the complete list here. Or the fact that never again will any of us have to sit through a nonsensical postgame press conference that we often wished would have concluded with chair-throwing.
What made it possible for the administration to make the call so swiftly this week is the obvious fact that the call had already been made. Clay was not going to be coaching here next year. Maybe not even next month. Now he won't be here next Saturday.
It was never a question of "if?" but simply "when?".
And after Stanford, "when?" turned into "now."
And for one simple reason. The discussion about Clay was in effect over. The longer he stayed, the criticism was no longer going to be focused on Clay -- that story had played out, there was no doubt -- but on his bosses who, by their failure to act, would be performing their duties as badly as Clay had.
So with the spotlight turned on them, ADMike Bohn, Pres.Carol Spotand Board of Trustees ChairRick Caruso, agreed to the swift criticism-shifting move that should have happened two years ago. Mike talks of USC's "national championship aspirations" and Clay's inability to make that happen as critical to his dismissal.
As if that's changed a bit the last couple of years. What do we know now we didn't know then? Nada.
But here we are, with two years of wasted football careers for how many USC players? That's what's so sad. Those can never be made up. And that's shameful. Those young men placed their lives and futures in USC's care. And USC failed them.
Now here's the difficult part of saying this.Clay Helton was unfailingly kind and respectful in all of my dealings with him, never held a grudge for whatever I'd written and saluted me when I left last August even though there was nothing in it for him then.
Sure, he made millions and millions of dollars more than he ever should have as a college coach. And he's not giving any of that back. And the people paying for it were and are his players who didn't develop as they could have and should have.
Not that there's anything we can do about that now. We can learn from it if only we will. And we can vow to do better.
Which starts with getting it right from this moment on so that coaches likeDonte Williams & Co., coaches who make it clear by their performance, we can only hope, that they should be here as part of a better USC future.
And as much credit that the USC administration gets for all the investments in a football program, it's pretty clear that none of that means anything without the right man at the top.
Only once, in its long history, did USC football target the best man available, the manKnut Rockne told them to go get when Knute said he wasn't leaving Notre Dame. That would be, of course,Howard Jones, who made USC football . . . USC football.
John McKay was a no-name assistant from Oregon.Pete Carroll was a fourth-choice semi-unsuccessful NFL coach. Their six national championships are more than anyone could have hoped for. It's almost certainly never going to happen again, as Clay's tenure proves. No one gets that lucky three times.
USC football deserves the absolutely best person available in the nation. The person who has been there, done it, and could do it again. And until that person says unequivocally no after USC puts together the absolutely best possible package of whatever it takes to make him a reality here, the firing of Clay will have been in vain.
Stopping the pain is one thing but healing the patient on the road back to compete health and a life that reaches its full potential is what's needed now. Monday's move may end the pain of Clay's tenure but it must be just the start of USC getting back in the game.
Which gets us to this: There's simply one way for USC to go here. It's the same way USC should have gone two years ago. And in a post far-better-expressed than anything we could say here, Tiago2015's"We all know who checks every box"gets it exactly right.
It'sUrban Meyer. And it's legacy time. For his last coaching stop, Urban can do something no other coach -- not evenNick Saban -- has done. He can win national titles at three different colleges adding USC to Florida and Ohio State.
But he can do more than that. He can restore USC to its position in the top tier of college football royalty. And with USC reversing itself on a decision not to pursue him two years ago, he can re-establish his own legacy at the very top of the college football legacy crowd with Knute and The Bear, Nick and . . . well, Urban.
Better than hustling around in the NFL unable to coach the way you really coach, to run a program the way it has to be run, to be the big guy in a small town like Jacksonville, or the guy who brought USC back in a big place -- the biggest college football town in America -- where they really like their winners.
Urban would be a guaranteed winner. As would USC. So suck it up, Mike and Carol. You're getting a second chance to do this right. Same for Urban.
You're made for each other.
Make it happen. Telling Clay to go was the easy part. Now this will take a bit of doing.
And as a Nike school, you absolutely have to know what that means.
"Just do it."