[Editor's Note: This story was first published on conquestchronicles.com on April 11, 2020]
After nine years of utter dominance under head coach Pete Carroll from 2001 to 2009, USC has struggled to find the man to take the reins of the program and run with them. In January of 2010, Carroll departed from USC to join the Seattle Seahawks as their new head coach. He would leave the program with 30 eliminated football scholarships, a two-year ban from bowl competition, and various other sanctions following the Reggie Bush/O.J. Mayo scandal. With Carroll onto greener pastures, USC sought yet another innovator at the position, and who better than the former offensive coordinator who helped lead the program to a 12-1 record for the 2005 season.
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE PRODIGAL SON
Lane Kiffin coached under Carroll at USC from 2001 to 2006 ('05-'06 as offensive coordinator) before receiving a call from the late great Al Davis who offered him the Oakland Raiders head coach position in 2007, effectively making Kiffin the youngest head coach in league history at the age of 31. The novelty quickly ran out on Kiffin as the Raiders went 4-12 in his first season in Oakland. Al Davis was known to have little patience with coaches, and his relationship with Kiffin was no different. Davis would go on to fire the second-year coach in September of 2008, leaving Kiffin with an unpleasant 5-15 NFL record on his resume.
The University of Tennessee opened its arms to Kiffin, offering him his next head coaching opportunity. He led the Vols to a lackluster 7-6 2009 season, causing more commotion off the field than on it. He had mentioned a recruit by name, told Alshon Jeffery that if he chose South Carolina over Tennessee he would be "pumping gas" the rest of his life, and accused Urban Meyer of breaking NCAA rules. In a move that infuriated Vols fans and students alike, Kiffin resigned from Tennessee without notice in the wake of his first season to fill the Trojans’ head coaching vacancy. USC was met with its fair share of both criticism and praise for the decision, with some fans elated with the memory of their 2005 season still in their minds, while other, more skeptical fans, pointed at Kiffin's last two positions and how controversial and average he was. However the fans felt, USC believed they had their next head coach for years to come.
The Trojans would finish the 2010 season with an 8-5 record under Kiffin which was respectable, especially when understanding what he had to overcome. Not only was it his first year installing his offense and getting used to his new team, but many key players transferred before the season as the NCAA allowed all junior and senior players to leave the school due to the two-season bowl game ban. On top of this, the 2010 Trojans team had just 71 scholarship players, including redshirts, when the allowance was 85. In his second year as head coach, Kiffin led his team to a 10-2 record, producing an offense with two thousand-yard receivers (Marqise Lee and Robert Woods), a thousand-yard rusher (Curtis McNeal), and a 3,000-yard passer (Matt Barkley).
This was the only other time USC had reached these offensive statistics since their 2005 offense that housed Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Steve Smith (957 receiving yards, close enough) and Dwayne Jarrett. 2011 marked the end of the bowl suspension for the program and they were coming off of a stellar season. Things began to look up for the Trojans. Due to their play in the season prior and the fact that they were returning nine offensive (including senior Matt Barkley) and seven defensive starters, USC entered 2012 as the AP number one football team in the nation. The Trojans were knocked off their high horse after a strong 6-1 start to the season, and finishing with a 7-6 record that included a loss to rival UCLA 38-28.
The disappointment from the season was tremendous, putting immense pressure on Kiffin to not follow up with another poor campaign in the next season. Kiffin and his redshirt sophomore QB Cody Kessler started the season 3-2, but both defeats came against conference opponents (10-7 to Washington, 62-41 Arizona State). The USC brass was fed up with the play and direction of their team and chose to fire Lane Kiffin immediately after the blowout loss against Arizona State.
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
The Trojans then turned to interim head coach Ed Orgeron to help steer the ship for the rest of the season. Following the firing of Kiffin, analysts and fans alike held low expectations for USC. Despite this, Orgeron saw the opportunity that he had in front of him, the chance to be the next head coach at the historic football program in which he was an assistant under Pete Carroll before returning with Lane Kiffin in 2010. His last head coaching position was with Ole Miss from 2005 to 2008, where he led the Rebels to a 10-25 record before becoming the defensive line coach for the NFL's New Orleans Saints. With Ole Miss, he was an aggressive and intense coach, to the likes of a military drill instructor, believing this was the best way to get the most out of his players.
Now as the acting head coach of USC, Orgeron decided it was time for a change, instead of his aggressive style, he switched to a more laid back form of coaching, treating his players as if they were his own kids. The change paid off as the Trojans would go on to win six of their next eight games under their new head coach. This was not enough for Orgeron to keep the gig for the next season however, despite fans and players adoring his coaching.
There were rumors that USC passed on him simply due to his unique voice, but one of his losses was to cross-city rival UCLA 35-14 at home, which is a big no-no in the eyes of USC Alum and boosters. Fans backed Orgeron and were upset (and still are) when he was not offered the position but once he got word he would not be the next head coach, he decided to resign before the Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State (USC would win 45-20 under OC Clay Helton). Orgeron would move onto his next venture as a coach, which was a coordinator position at LSU and we all know his story from there.
THE SARK EXPERIMENT
Completing the trifecta of former Pete Carroll assistants to become a USC head coach, Steve Sarkisian was hired in December of 2013. Sarkisian was an offensive assistant in 2001 and then the QBs coach from 2002-2003 under Carroll. He would accept a QB coach position with the Oakland Raiders in 2004 but would return to SC the very next season as assistant head coach. He kept this role until 2007 when he threw his hat in the ring to be the Raiders next head coach. He would eventually pull out of the race, allowing Lane Kiffin to take the position which would make Sarkisian the Trojan's new offensive coordinator. Just one season later, Sark was offered the head coach position at the University of Washington. Washington was coming off their worst season in school history, ending 2008 with a paltry 0-12 record. UW was the antithesis of USC at the time, who was atop the college football ranks. Sarkisian had his hands full, but the roster had talent on it with the likes of JR Jake Locker, FR Chris Polk, and SO Jermaine Kearse on offense and JR Mason Foster and FR Desmond Trufant leading the defense. The team would finish 2009 with a 5-7 record, tied for the school's best since 2003 (6-6).
Although their record was not pretty, Washington fans had hope, as the Huskies knocked off the #3 Trojans 16-13 and the #19 Cal Bruins 42-10. As we know, Pete Carroll would go on to leave USC in 2010, leaving the USC head coach seat vacant. Many media pundits linked Sarkisian to the position, but he was uncomfortable leaving Washington after just one season with unfinished business so he elected not to pursue the job. Each of the next three seasons, the Huskies would go an unexceptional 7-6 and win just 1 of 3 bowl games, earning Sarkisian the nickname of "Seven Win Steve." They would have no problem handling the lower level Pac-12 teams but would be dominated by Oregon and Stanford during this time. Sark's last season at Washington was an improvement, albeit a small one, ending with an 8-4 record. Before Washington's bowl game, Sarkisian received an offer to be the next head coach at USC and he wasn't missing this opportunity the second time around.
With the sanctions officially lifted for the Trojans, Sarkisian aimed to bring the success and dominance of the 2000s back to Southern California. As was becoming custom with USC, before the season even started, there was already controversy on the roster. Senior DB Joshua Shaw turned up with two high ankle sprains and explained that he got the injuries by jumping off a balcony to save his drowning cousin. He would later admit that he lied to the team and Sarkisian suspended him indefinitely. Despite the early distraction for the Trojans, Sark would lead them to a 9-4 record, posting nearly 36 points per game which was the 23rd best mark in the nation. JR QB Cody Kessler would have his best statistical season, throwing 39 TDs (2nd) against just 5 INTs, 3,811 passing yards (7th) and a 69.2% completion percentage (1st), all of which were top-10 among QBs in the Power Five. Even with their quarterback's commanding play, the Trojans would once again fall to UCLA, this time losing 38-20.
The next season was yet another rocky one for the head coach position at USC. The Trojans entered the season as the AP 8th ranked team in the nation but after starting the season 3-2, their playoff hopes were all but shattered. The early losses were the least of USC's issues, however, as on October 11th, Athletic Director Pat Haden announced Steve Sarkisian would be taking an indefinite leave of absence. Haden would later say that he asked Sarkisian to take the leave after he had missed practice that day and said he was "not healthy". The very next day, October 12th, Haden would fire Sarkisian and name offensive coordinator Clay Helton as the interim head coach for the rest of the season. ESPN would later report that the firing was due to a zero-tolerance policy within the program that prohibited alcohol consumption or being intoxicated on campus.
USC beat writer Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News, would report that multiple players on the roster smelled alcohol coming from Sarkisian while at practice. This incident alone was grounds for termination, but several assistants believed Sark was drunk in their 42-14 victory over Arizona State in week 4 of the season. Unsurprisingly, this was not the first time Sarkisian was reprimanded for alcohol-related incidents, as the Los Angeles Daily News reported that while at the University of Washington, he was involved in "numerous" amounts of issues revolving around alcohol. Haden would confess he did not look into Sarkisian's background outside of his football portfolio before hiring him. The fall of Steve Sarkisian would bring the rise of yet another USC assistant, Clay Helton.
THE CLAY HELTON ERA
Helton joined the Trojans in 2010 as the quarterbacks coach under Lane Kiffin. He would then be promoted to offensive coordinator in 2013, even serving as the interim head coach for the Las Vegas Bowl against #21 ranked Fresno State, crushing the Bulldogs 45-20. When Sarkisian was fired in 2015, Helton was once again named the Interim head coach, but after going 5-2, USC decided to remove the interim label and make him the permanent head coach. Although the Trojans would go on to lose their final two games of the season, they felt they finally had stability at the head coach position. Fans were not happy with this decision however, as they believed the signing was "safe" and would lead to stability but not success. The Trojans were the preseason AP #20 ranked school but sputtered out the gate with a 1-3 record with redshirt freshman QB Sam Darnold at the helm of the offense.
Succeeding their rough start, USC would win the rest of their games, including the Rose Bowl against Penn State 52-49. Sam Darnold proved to be a powerhouse at the position posting 3,086 yards at a completion percentage of 67.2%, throwing 31 TDs to just 9 INTs. The future once again looked bright for the University of Southern California. At the end of the season the Trojans skyrocketed in the AP polls, finishing as the third-ranked team in the country. Due to their sheer dominance after their less than stellar start to the 2016 season, USC entered 2017 fourth in the AP poll with high hopes for a playoff appearance. Unlike the season before, Helton led his squad to a 4-0 start, with a nail-biting 27-24 overtime victory over Texas. They would fall to a Mike Leach led Washington State team (30-27) in week 5, hindering their odds of a playoff berth. They still had a chance and would win their next two contests against Oregon State and Utah. The game all players and coaches circled once the 2017 schedule was released, was a week 8 bout against Notre Dame.
Despite USC playing well up to this point, they got the brakes beat off of them against the Fighting Irish, who put up 28 points by halftime while the Trojans still had zero on the scoreboard. Notre Dame completed just nine passes on their way to a 49-14 crushing victory, effectively dashing all playoff hopes for USC. Helton’s roster would win out the rest of the season and earn a spot in the Cotton Bowl, where fifth-ranked Ohio State would beat them soundly, 24-7. That would be Sam Darnold’s final game in Cardinal and Gold, leaving a giant hole at the QB position. Helton went to work recruiting and was able to land 247sports’ number two ranked pro-style quarterback and the overall 16th ranked player in the nation with J.T. Daniels of Mater Dei. Daniels, who graduated a full year early from high school, won the starting quarterback position as a true-freshman. 2018 was a difficult adjustment season for USC, as they would win just five games while losing seven. This marked the first losing season in school history since 2000. Despite the disappointing year, Athletic Director Lynn Swann confirmed Clay Helton would return as USC’s head coach for the 2019 season.
The Trojans were unranked in the AP preseason poll for the first time since Pete Carroll’s first season at the reins in 2001. Although they were unranked, USC had talent that was ready to burst onto the scene. With a year of college play under his belt, J.T. Daniels was primed to have a breakout season. He did struggle in the preceding season, completing just 59.5% of his passes for 2,672 yards, 14 TDs and 10 INTs. However, he was a mere 18 years old with much room to grow both physically and mentally on the field. Another young returning star was wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who racked up 750 receiving yards and 3 TDs in his first season of college football. USC once again had a promising horizon ahead of them and looked to Clay Helton to tap into the potential of all of their players. In the very first game of the season, Daniels went down with a torn meniscus in the first half, sidelining him for the rest of the year. You could hear the hopes of all USC fans vanish while their up-and-coming QB lay on the turf with the medical staff surrounding him.
Many were ready to throw in the towel on the season but once backup true-freshman Kedon Slovis out of Scottsdale, Arizona took the field, they came running back. Slovis took over as the starting quarterback and proved he was ready to take the keys of the offense, leading his Trojans to an 8-5 record, while throwing 3,502 yards, 30 TDs and 9 INTs, completing 71.9% of his passes in the process. Although USC would get stomped in the Holiday Bowl against Iowa, 49-24, the future looks bright in Southern California. After the season, there were rumors linking Urban Meyer to USC, but both sides shot this down, with Meyer stating "I think I am done coaching." Urban Meyer may not be the next coach for USC, but Clay Helton’s job is anything but secure in 2020. If he is unable to produce high caliber play out of this loaded USC roster, expect him to get the boot at the end of the season with fans already calling for his job.
It has been 15 years since the Trojans have competed for a national championship and fans are growing more and more impatient. Pete Carroll spoiled USC fans, garnering an asinine 97-19 record over his nine seasons as head coach. Since then, USC coaches have gone a combined 86-45, which is still above average, but not nearly close to what Trojans fans were accustomed to. The 2010s was an overrated decade for USC football and was filled with mediocre head coaching. Clay Helton played his part in that but now has a chance to start the 2020s off with a PAC-12 championship and a national championship run with Kedon Slovis under center and the plethora of talent surrounding him.