LOS ANGELES — While rumors surrounding USC Trojans coach Clay Helton’s job security continue to swell, neither he nor his players are paying much attention to them as they prepare for fall camp next week.
“I’ve never worried about the outside noise,” Helton told ESPN during Wednesday’s Pac-12 media day. “Having been in it for 25 years of college football, having seen my dad in it for 40 years in both NFL and college, it’s part of the game. As a leader and as a head coach, when you go win a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title, you go hand out the accolades to everybody else. When you have an off season, you have to own it.
“You have to understand your job as a coach. It is not to worry about what’s going on outside of the team meeting room. You have to focus on doing your job and not what everybody else thinks. If you do, you’re not going to reach your full potential.”
Helton took over the program as the interim coach in 2015 after Steve Sarkisian was fired. After guiding the team to the Pac-12 championship game that season, Helton led the Trojans to a Rose Bowl title in 2016 and the Pac-12 title in 2017. However, his future as the Trojans’ head coach has been the topic of conversation since USC went 5-7 in 2018, the program’s first losing season since 2000.
Despite growing frustration from USC’s fan base, athletic director Lynn Swann gave Helton a public vote of confidence in November when he announced that Helton would return for the 2019 season.
“It is my firm belief that we have a good team returning next year and a solid foundation in place — and that Clay Helton is a good coach,” Swann said. “Let me be clear to everyone, our players, our recruits and our fans: Clay Helton is our head coach and he will continue to be our head coach.
“I am a strong advocate of consistency within a program, sticking by a leader, supporting them and helping them and their team improve.”
Helton made sweeping changes to his coaching staff before the spring, including bringing on former North Texas offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and deciding to run simplified versions of both his offense and defense in order to help guys play faster.
Despite a more energized spring from the Trojans, conversations around Helton’s future sparked up again when former USC star Reggie Bush told The Los Angeles Times in April that he and former teammate Matt Leinart would recruit former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer to come out of retirement and take the USC job if Helton struggles this fall.
“We’ll definitely be recruiting him,” Bush told The Times. “What makes you think we won’t be recruiters? Nothing is off the table.”
Players came to the defense of their coach on Wednesday, with senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. saying he didn’t believe Helton’s job was in jeopardy and “didn’t really buy” Helton being on the coaching hot seat.
“We’re not really concerned about that because we don’t think it’s going to happen,” Pittman told ESPN. “I think that he’s one of the best coaches in college football. I think that we had one down year after losing a No. 3 draft pick [Sam Darnold], and it’s hard to come back from losing a guy like that — and JuJu [Smith-Schuster] and all those leaders who left.
“We just have a bunch of news flying, people on Twitter just throwing stuff left and right without facts or really information to back it up. That’s what we expect, so it doesn’t really bother us.”
USC defensive lineman Christian Rector echoed Pittman’s sentiments, saying he believes those on the outside think they know more than they do about the stability within USC’s program.
“I just think it’s noise,” Rector told ESPN. “It happens every year. It’s just how college sports is. The L.A. fair-weather fans expect perfection. We could have a 10-win season and there would still be something wrong with the team. We had one off season and it’s the end of the world.
“Coach Helton is a great coach, a great guy. The players still love him, and people don’t really have that insider scoop that they think they do and they know what’s going on.”
The backlash that Helton and the program have received on social media since the end of last season has been particularly upsetting to Pittman, and that has fueled his motivation going into the 2019 season.
“I’m sick of people talking on Twitter, I’m sick of seeing it, I’m sick of hearing it,” Pittman said. “I am the most motivated in college football right now.”
Though Helton has received confidence from his athletic director over the past few months, the coach admitted Wednesday he has yet to have a one-on-one conversation with new USC president Carol Folt, who began her role on July 1. Helton said the two have traded emails about her coming out to practice in August, and he expects to sit down with her at some point.
Helton appreciated his players coming to his defense, but he also said he embraces the pressure and welcomes the negative backlash he and his program have received. He thinks it has galvanized everyone entering his critical fourth year as head coach.
“I love the expectations,” Helton said. “That’s why I came to USC 10 years ago, was to have the chance to win championships. It’s part of the territory and USC has the loftiest and the highest and the grandest. That’s part of it — and if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t have taken the job.
“I look forward to showing people why I’m here, and that’s to win championships. We had a bump in the road last year, and we’ve done the necessary things to address the issues that need to get corrected. I can’t wait to show people across the country what this team’s made of.”