Plaschke: USC is keeping Clay Helton. What were they thinking?

Mike Bohn has been here 10 minutes, and already he’s challenging a philosophy that has thrived for decades.

Seriously, new guy, what were you thinking?

By not making a change with Clay Helton, the recently hired USC athletic director just changed everything.

Fight On has become Trudge On.


“Conquest” is now “Kumbaya.”

Traveler must be fitted with blinkers.

By making the call Wednesday to retain Helton as the Trojans football coach in the wake of the program’s inexorable slide into irrelevance, the new boss has perhaps revealed the fine print on his resume.

None of it matches the script long ingrained in the USC championship football culture.


Bohn must be accepting of mediocrity. There is no other way you keep a head coach who has gone 13-11 in the last two seasons and hasn’t won a truly big game in three years.

Bohn must think USC fans are accepting of mediocrity. That is the only reason to ignore the dwindling Coliseum attendance under Helton and the mounting threats from boosters to stay home if Helton sticks around.

Bohn must believe USC football sells itself. There is no other explanation for discounting the many recruiting losses the team has endured under Helton, with the Trojans currently ranked 67th in the nation in the 2020 recruiting race.

Bohn must have the idea that a nice little Trojans football program run by a nice man is enough, that the Holiday Bowl is enough, that giving everyone a neat little extracurricular activity on a Saturday afternoon is enough.

Bohn must have completely forgotten he’s no longer at Cincinnati, Colorado, San Diego State or Idaho.

USC athletic director Mike Bohn speaks at his introductory news conference with USC President Carol L. Folt on Nov. 7.

USC athletic director Mike Bohn speaks at his introductory news conference with USC President Carol L. Folt on Nov. 7.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

USC football still aspires to be USC football, it aspires to national championships and Heisman Trophies and landscape domination, yet the decision to retain Helton aspires to none of that.

Again, sir, what the heck were you thinking?

If new President Carol L. Folt pushed you to this decision, as some have suggested, what was she thinking?


If USC’s board of trustees forced your hand, as some believe, what were they thinking?

“I am pleased to let you know Coach Helton will continue to be our head coach,” Bohn wrote on Twitter. “His commitment to our student-athletes and to leading with integrity is vital to restoring our championship program, which is the goal for all of our teams.”

Helton has as much class and integrity as any coach of a major sports operation in this town’s history. But surely Bohn knows that there are other coaches out there with similar traits?

Coaches whose teams don’t rank 124th out of 130 teams in penalty yards. Coaches whose teams don’t rank 112th in turnover margin. Coaches whose teams didn’t lose by 32 points at home to Oregon last month in its biggest game of the year.

There are great coaches out there, clean and accessible coaches, ones who could inspire a fan base and embrace recruits like Helton has failed to do.

You didn’t have to wade through the baggage of Urban Meyer to find a transformational head coach. You didn’t need to concede complete power to Bob Stoops to find a championship-caliber leader.

There were probably a half-dozen suitable candidates to lead the Trojans, from Penn State’s James Franklin to Baylor’s Matt Ruhle, and yet Bohn couldn’t figure out how to woo any of them?

There was talk that the university was concerned over paying a buyout that could have been as much as $20 million. But can you put a price on the program that serves as a national symbol for the university?


There was talk that Bohn wanted to be around longer before making such a big decision. But surely, he took this job knowing he would have to cut ties on Helton.

But he didn’t. For some reason, he couldn’t. And in the end, in a massive failing in his first official act, Mike Bohn did the one thing that the greatest of Trojans have never done.

He stood still. He kept the status quo. He shrugged on.


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