Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 12, 2019

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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38 OCT. 12, 2019 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI HOT (SEAT) TIMES Following USC's 30-23 victory over then-No. 10 Utah Sept. 20, longtime Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke summarized the ambivalence Trojans followers might have been feeling, whether overtly or in private, about fifth-year head coach Clay Helton. "Shortly after embracing USC's most exhilarating victory of the season … the Coliseum was imme- diately beset with the murmurs of buyer's remorse," Plaschke wrote. "'Wait a minute. Does this mean Clay Helton isn't getting fired?'" "Admit it, Trojans fans. Many of you were thinking it, or your compan- ions were feeling it, or the dude in the row above you was actually saying it. "'Great win, but, man, are we now going to be stuck with Helton for the rest of the season?'" "It was indeed a night when many believed the certainty of a loss to the undefeated and 10th-ranked Utes would make this one of the final games for a coach who many thought should have been fired last year. "In the minds of many, it was all planned out. The Trojans get trounced by the more physical Utes, then travel to Washington next week and get wiped out by the smarter Huskies, then the coach enters the bye week with a 2-3 record and no more protection from [former ath- letics director] Lynn Swann and … boom … done … Helton out, Urban Meyer in, bring on Notre Dame!" The feeling was almost identical at Notre Dame 15 years ago in 2004. Re- cruiting was suffering horribly under third-year head coach Tyrone Will- ingham, who like Helton was coming off a 5-7 season in 2003. The "problem" was that after los- ing at BYU by three points to open the 2004 season (Helton also lost at BYU this September), Willingham and Co. upset No. 8-ranked Michi- gan the following week to temporar- ily quell talks of an ouster. Later that same year, after Willing- ham fell to 0-3 versus Boston College and the record dropped to 5-3 — the Irish went on the road and upset No. 9 Tennessee. Every time it appeared that change was inevitable, a marquee victory ostensibly delayed the inevitable. Eventually, two more losses, to Pitt at home and a third-straight 31-point blowout by USC, sealed Willing- ham's fate that season — and what hastened the firing was the appeal of landing then-Utah head coach Urban Meyer. The former Notre Dame assis- tant from 1996-2000 was one the hot- test rising coaches on the market af- ter leading Utah to a 12-0 mark, and he had the Fighting Irish included in his contract as a future landing spot. Instead, he ended up at Florida, where he directed the Gators to two national championships (2006 and 2008) before capturing another at Ohio State in 2014. Because Helton getting replaced sooner than maybe later is still deemed inevitable, popular specu- lation has had the available Meyer potentially resurfacing at USC to win a national title at a third different program with an excellent recruiting base. USC hardly ever has problems attracting premier talent, but just needs the right leadership to direct it. Helton's head coaching career at USC began in 2015 when he was named the interim after the midsea- son ouster of Steve Sarkisian, and his debut was a 41-31 defeat at Notre Dame. He was the Trojans' fifth head coach in seven years, so the athletic department was seeking stability within the program. Winning the Pac-12 South that year helped earn Helton the promotion to head coach in 2016. While Brian Kelly and Notre Dame were in the throes of a miserable 4-8 campaign, Helton led USC to the Pac-12 crown, a 52-49 Rose Bowl win over Penn State and No. 3 final Associated Press ranking. Two years later, it was Kelly who finished the regular season 12-0 while Helton was 5-7. As an institution, USC is in a huge period of flux after having been embroiled in scandals that have included anywhere from a school doctor involved in criminal sexual assault, to admissions misdeeds in- volving parents bribing their chil- dren into the school via phony pro- files. The administration has been cleaning house, hiring new president GAME PREVIEW: USC Top STorylineS Head coaches Clay Helton of USC and Brian Kelly of Notre Dame find themselves in a role reversal from just three years ago. This year, it is Helton who is fighting for his job after going just 8-9 in the Trojans' last 17 contests. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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