LOS ANGELES — Every time Clay Helton sits at the desk inside his USC office, two of his sanctuaries are in full view.
To his left, floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the Trojans’ practice fields. On the wall directly in front of him sits a giant photo of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum littered with cardinal and gold on game night.
When Helton talks about being home, that practice field and that stadium — in which he’s 16-0 — are it. Which is why it’s fitting that the Southern transplant turned hopeful USC lifer has shielded what lies behind that massive photo.
Approximately 10 miles away and almost directly behind the picture stands Los Angeles’ famous Hollywood sign. It’s a beacon for the city, hovering over a football program that is every bit the celebrity as any of the stars strolling down Rodeo Drive.
Helton embraces the Hollywood glitz and glamour, but he also doesn’t let it distort his vision. Snoop Dogg and Will Ferrell might patrol USC’s celebrity-filled sidelines. But it’s former USC stars such as Marcus Allen, Matt Leinart and Ronnie Lott who catch his eye.
“Those are my movie stars,” Helton told ESPN.
The Gainesville, Florida, native has jumped out of his comfort zone, going from a small-town background to trying to conquer one of the world’s most celebrated metropolises. He has balanced the Hollywood mystique to return the Trojans to the national conversation. Sure, USC isn’t competing for a national championship, but adding a Pac-12 championship to back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl appearances in only two seasons as USC’s full-time head coach is impressive, when you consider the recent turmoil within this program.
College Football Playoff absence aside, Helton said the 2017 season has been his biggest accomplishment in 22 years of collegiate coaching.
Getting the interim tag ripped off at USC in October 2015 was great and last year’s thrilling Rose Bowl win over Penn State was fantastic, but when you consider somewhat of a youth movement on offense this season and the early injuries that hampered the Trojans, Helton believes USC exceeded its true expectations with 11 wins (the most for the Trojans since 2008) and the school’s first Pac-12 title in nine years.
“I’m really proud of this group of kids, especially this group of seniors, to accomplish what they have,” Helton said.
Before the first snap of spring camp, USC had to overcome losing five players to the 2017 NFL draft and nine more players to NFL free agency.
Golden boy quarterback Sam Darnold was working with a very unproven receiving corps.
The Trojans entered the season with top tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, an All-America candidate, dealing with a hip injury that would force him to miss seven games.
Up-and-coming running back Stephen Carr went from 119 yards against Stanford and being a part of arguably one of the nation’s best running back duos with Ronald Jones II, to missing five games because of injury.
Coming out of the loss to Washington State, USC found itself down three starting offensive linemen.
Regardless of the lofty preseason prognostications, these Trojans weren’t built for anything more than what they accomplished.
“We tested everybody’s heart rate, we tested everybody’s soul in this season, but [Helton] brought them to the Pac-12 championship, we beat a good, resounding, solid Stanford football team, and now we’re going on to the [Goodyear Cotton Bowl],” USC athletic director Lynn Swann told reporters after the Trojans’ 31-28 Pac-12 title game win over Stanford.
“From the outside, you can say it was an underachieving season, but this [Pac-12 title] is our primary goal. This is a building process. You don’t come in one year because you have a great Rose Bowl win and one great recruiting class for a first-year head coach and suddenly you’re supposed to be a national championship team. That’s a little lofty; that’s a little presumptuous.”
Swann also gave Helton, who now has nine wins over AP Top 25 teams, which includes three top-5 teams, a public vote of confidence after a roller coaster year for the program; but according to the Los Angeles Daily News, Swann wasn’t happy with Helton during the season. Sloppy wins, a blowout loss to Notre Dame in front of the entire country and no playoff berth can irritate someone running one of the most prestigious programs in college football.
Helton knows that. USC hasn’t played for a national championship in more than a decade, and that isn’t acceptable.
“This place, we know where the bar is set, and the bar here is championships,” said Helton, who is now 27-9 as USC’s head coach. “That’s the reality and I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s what we demand.
“This is our opportunity to hit that first step.”
Helton’s players have total confidence that he’s the man to make sure this program takes a commanding next step. To them, they have a coach who truly appreciates being at USC. This isn’t just a job for Helton, “It’s a dream come true,” he said.
That resonates with his players, who have seen him sleep in his office a few nights a week during the season.
They see someone who didn’t change after going from interim to full-time head coach. He’s as enthusiastic now as he was when he was auditioning for the job. He’s also as compassionate, caring and motivating with his players.
“He preaches it and lives it,” Trojans linebacker Cam Smith said of Helton.
“It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ for him every day.”
As Imatorbhebhe added, “I’d follow him anywhere.”
To Darnold, it is Helton’s sincerity that has impressed him the most. Helton might not always tell you what you want to hear, but he’s at least going to be straight with you and he will not try to cut corners.
“He knows that 18-to-20-year-olds can smell bulls— when it’s there,” Darnold said. “He’s always going to be brutally honest with us and never someone he’s not.”
The brutal honesty with the Trojans is that they’re every bit the No. 8 team in the country and the Pac-12 champ they should have been. Now, they enter their Cotton matchup with No. 5 Ohio State, another team running from its lofty preseason praise with a ton of momentum after winning their past five games, with three coming by double digits.
Though USC’s embarrassing 49-14 loss at Notre Dame was an ugly stain on the season, it served as a springboard for the Trojans’ final run. Immediately after the game against the Fighting Irish, Helton said he walked into a locker room filled with frustration, anger and leadership.
Finally, the Trojans were mad and wanted to do something about a season quickly getting away from them.
“There was no pointing fingers or bitching. It was, ‘Hey, we know that’s not us. Let’s go play our brand of ball and get back on the horse.’”
So here they are: a two-loss, Pac-12 crown-wearing group of misfits with more wins than 120 other FBS teams out there. They’ve enjoyed exponential growth at the wide receiver position, and they still have possibly the first pick in next year’s NFL draft in Darnold.
The Trojans didn’t hit their stride until late in the campaign, but they were good enough to become a nugget in the final playoff conversations — something no one expected when they were 6-2.
Helton has done his job in making USC a talking point, again, and he’s having a blast doing it. He knows this team has a long way to go to get back to the top nationally, but he embraces the challenge of making that climb.
“To see where we started Game 1 to where we are now … this is one of those situations that’s never been a job,” he said. “I wake up smiling every day. I don’t got to do this, I get to do this.”