USC had a terrible 2018. The Trojans went 5-7, the worst they’ve done since putting up an identical record in 2000. When the 2000 team sputtered, continuing a three-year decline under Paul Hackett, it led to the coach’s firing. USC hired Pete Carroll to replace him, and two or so years later, the Trojans were firmly perched as one of the sport’s best programs.
The Trojans’ days of national contention are not over. That’s not how it works when a program has USC’s tradition and is located in ultra-talented Los Angeles. But everything that’s happened since that awful 2018 season ended has only made USC look farther away from getting back to Pac-12contention, let alone anything beyond that.
1. Clay Helton didn’t get fired.
As recently as the week leading up to Thanksgiving, coaches around the sport thought Helton would be fired if the Trojans lost their finale at home to undefeated Notre Dame. They did, but AD Lynn Swann announced shortly thereafter that Helton would keep his job.
It’s possible Helton rights the ship at some point. In 2016, he won nine games in a row after installing Sam Darnold as his starting QB, and USC won the Rose Bowl. In 2017, he won 11 games and got to a New Year’s Six bowl (which he lost to Ohio State). None of this was that long ago, and at points during those years, Helton seemed like the right guy for the gig.
Swann could point to those pretty good recent seasons as reason to keep Helton. But he’s failed to make USC a dominant force even in the Pac-12 South, which he’s won once in three years as the full-time coach. It was surprising that going 5-7 didn’t get him fired.
2. Helton turned over his staff of assistant coaches, but the centerpiece of that transition left after a month.
Kliff Kingsbury was an amazing offensive coordinator hire. The fired Texas Tech coach is an offensive whiz, and USC landed him in early December to fix a unit that struggled with five-star freshman JT Daniels at QB. This appeared to be a match made in heaven.
But Kingsbury got a better offer. The NFL, lusting after college spread offense, came calling, and he did what almost anyone would do, taking over the Cardinals as head coach.
3. Swann embarrassed USC as Kingsbury was leaving by trying to deny him the chance to interview with NFL teams.
USC had that contractual right. But it’s typical in coaching for teams to let assistants interview for jobs that would represent promotions in the industry. Instead, Kingsbury had to resign from USC to talk to the Cardinals, per the team president. Arizona ultimately covered Kingsbury’s $150,000 buyout.