Sports

How a College Football Powerhouse Fell Apart

It’s not just their fired head coach’s fault. USC is a cautionary tale.

Dorlus wraps his arms around Slovis from behind on the field
USC Trojans QB Kedon Slovis is sacked by Brandon Dorlus of the Oregon Ducks during the first quarter of the Pac-12 championship game at United Airlines Field at the Coliseum in Los Angeles on Dec. 18. Harry How/Getty Images

Does college football need USC to be good?

It comes up from time to time among people who obsess over this weird sport. But it’s not the right question to ask, at least not exactly. “College football” isn’t a monolith, and whether USC is good or not doesn’t mean a ton to individual teams thousands of miles away. A better question is whether college football can be a national sport if there’s not at least one juggernaut program somewhere on the Pacific coast. And if you think that’s necessary, then yeah, college football does need USC to be good, for the simple reason that there is no other program on the West Coast that’s shown anything like USC’s ability to dominate for long stretches.

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The Trojans claim 11 national championships and have won the Pac-12 or its predecessor conferences nearly 40 times (with the exact number depending on whose official history you consult). They’ve produced seven Heisman Trophy winners, a figure that would tie them for tops in the country if the gatekeepers would give Reggie Bush his trophy back. Nobody else on the West Coast can point to accomplishments in USC’s stratosphere. The USC head coaching job is one of the most plum gigs in college athletics, and it speaks to the Trojans’ failures over the past decade that some no longer see that as obvious.

USC has played in one Rose Bowl and won the Pac-12 once since 2008. Clay Helton has been responsible for the past six-ish of those seasons, but he’s not anymore, because USC fired him last weekend after an ugly loss to Stanford. Helton is out, and USC will do what it does whenever it has a vacancy: It’ll get to hand-pick a coach from the most desirable candidate pool in college football and hope, somehow, that it doesn’t mess this thing up. The Trojans’ head coach search has high stakes not just for themselves, but for lots of other teams. All of their realities would change if they suddenly had to contend with a fully weaponized USC.

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Understanding USC provides a window into a lot of things about college football. Few programs better exemplify the advantages that geography, tradition, and good branding can bestow. Similarly few illustrate so vividly how a school can get in the way of its own football success. If you want to understand the sport’s many unique undercurrents, USC might be a better frame of reference than any other team.

The program’s greatness revolves around its stature as the primary destination for the best high school players in California. All of the school’s Heisman winners and most of its many All-Americans come from the Golden State—and usually Southern California specifically, where most of the best California players live. It’s common parlance from football coaches that a top priority is recruiting well in their “backyards,” but only a few programs can build bona fide national contenders almost completely on local talent. USC can. California’s share of the nation’s four- and five-star high school players typically dwarfs every state save Texas, Florida, and Georgia.

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In an environment like this one, the expectations are straightforward: win big, and win a lot. That should mean regular Pac-12 titles, occasional College Football Playoff appearances, and the odd national championship, which USC fans have every right to expect. Sometimes the Trojans have been better than even that. They were a legitimate dynasty in the 1970s, and Pete Carroll’s early-aughts teams were the sport’s gold standard before USC lost its way. (More shortly on how the Trojans did that.)

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It’s hard to be bad at USC, or to recruit like something less than a blue blood. But Helton—who took over in 2016 after a run as the interim coach in 2015—did both. He managed a 5–7 record in 2018, and USC’s recruiting later slipped to depths it had never reached in the modern recruiting-rankings era, which goes back to around 2002. USC’s 2020 class ranked last in the Pac-12, and it would’ve been middling even if the Trojans had taken more than a small group of 12 players. Before Helton arrived, they regularly signed top-five national classes, but on his watch, USC has slipped to the fringes of the sport’s elite recruiting tier. You can see signs of this decline all across the country. One is that the quarterback for Alabama, Bryce Young, was a five-star prospect hailing from SoCal high school powerhouse Mater Dei. There was a time when such a player going somewhere other than USC was unthinkable.

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Some things that have worked against USC are not directly in the school’s control. High school football enrollment in California has been bleeding for years, with more players leaving the Cali high school ranks than anywhere else. That makes for a narrower recruiting pipeline. The Pac-12 has fallen behind in a TV money arms race among other power conferences. That probably hasn’t stung rich, private USC as much as some other schools, but what drags down the whole league isn’t good for anybody.

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But USC’s biggest problems are its own. The most obvious is that USC’s power brokers have long had a preference for hiring people with prior USC experience to coach the team. That has not usually worked, and USC’s main success this century came under the one coach it hired (Carroll) who did not enter the job as a tried-and-true USC Guy. The athletic directors who have made these doomed hires, Pat Haden and Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann, are themselves USC Guys. In 2013, Haden fired USC Guy Lane Kiffin on an airplane tarmac after a road loss. The interim coach then was Ed Orgeron, who closed out that season strongly and seemed to have the support of a lot of USC’s players. But Orgeron is a Cajun with no prior USC experience—“not the country club guy they wanted,” he’d later say—and USC declined to hire him. He later coached a national champion, maybe the best ever, at LSU. Instead, USC hired former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who didn’t make it two years in the job. Perhaps USC should allow itself a wider talent pool than that consisting of USC Guys.

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Helton won a Rose Bowl in 2016, his first full year on the job after his own interim stint. (Maybe USC didn’t want to make the Orgeron mistake again by passing on a well-liked interim coach.) But Helton won that Rose Bowl with a roster he didn’t build himself, and even then, three early losses had put USC out of playoff contention immediately. Helton never looked quite right in one of the cushiest jobs in college sports. But he remained in the head job for almost six full years, even as it was clear for most of that time that USC could have hired someone better.

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A few factors helped Helton stick around. One, as ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura explained after years of covering Helton, was simply that Helton is apparently a good dude. People like him, and that sometimes buys people time in a workplace. Another likely element is that USC and its athletic department spent much of the past few years embroiled in various stupid scandals, which made having a non-embarrassing nice guy as the football coach a lot more appealing. USC was one focus of the Justice Department’s men’s basketball corruption case that went public in 2017, and the program finally got hit with NCAA probation earlier this year as a result. In 2019, USC was on the front page of the New York Times (and not the sports section) for its central role in the Varsity Blues scandal, wherein rich parents fabricated and bribed their kids’ way into elite schools. When your university administrators are dealing with racketeering and corruption cases and NCAA investigations, it pays to have a football coach who doesn’t humiliate you in ways more serious than getting destroyed by Iowa in the Holiday Bowl. If USC needed any reminders of that, outside legal disputes stemming from USC’s 2000s NCAA problems weren’t entirely wrapped up until the end of July. This July. These are fine reasons for Helton to leave USC with his head held high. They were not good reasons to leave the keys to a college football Ferrari in the hands of a coach who was absolutely not up to the job.

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There’s a lot about USC that feels like a dialed-up-to-11 version of a college football story that could be told anywhere. USC exemplifies how capitalizing on the right geography can make a team a major power for a long time. The same thing has unfolded at different points at three different Florida schools (Miami, Florida, and Florida State) for decadelong stretches or more, for instance, while the inverse—that it’s hard to win in places without lots of elite recruits—flummoxes dozens of schools that fail to meet their own expectations year after year and coach after coach.

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On another hand, the USC of the past 10 years is a cautionary tale about how organizational chaos can keep a program from fulfilling its upside. At USC, it’s been scandals and a pointless bent toward hiring only USC people. At FSU, it’s been constant discord and backbiting between various power centers. At Texas, it’s been booster and administrative meddling transcending multiple coaching staffs, and in the future, it might be a desire to satisfy racist white donors by playing a song that could alienate a majority-Black player and recruit base.

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Every program has its own advantages, and many have their own big problems. USC is just one of the most neatly packaged, exaggerated examples of all of the above.

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Against that backdrop, the hunt for Helton’s successor will hold a lot of eyeballs around college sports. The current athletic director, Mike Bohn, is not a USC insider. His only job in California college sports before taking the USC job in 2019 was as San Diego State’s athletic director in the aughts. The Trojans hired him away from Cincinnati, where he’d made an excellent coaching hire in former Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and helped the Bearcats become one of the fiercest teams outside the Power Five conferences. The names on early coach watchlists are distinctly not USC Guys. If Bohn is indeed driving this ship rather than boosters or board members above him, then maybe USC will conduct a proper search and get it right. If not, USC can keep being college sports’ most lucid case study in how to squander potential.

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