In February of 2018, not long after USC wrapped up its first Pac-12 football title in nearly a decade, Lynn Swann, then the Trojans’ athletic director, opted to lock up his coach with a long-term contract extension.
The decision to extend Clay Helton's contract through the 2023 season was met with sideways glances at the time, even after USC had won 21 games, including a Rose Bowl, during his first two full seasons as head coach. So when the Trojans fell from grace in the two years that followed, tallying just 13 wins to 12 losses, the extension became an even more outsized focus of a frustrated fanbase’s ire.
Swann was forced to resign last September. But Helton has outlasted repeated calls for his own ouster, remaining USC’s coach while his salary has consistently risen courtesy of his former athletic director.
According to a federal tax return filed by the university and obtained by The Times, Helton earned more than $4.5 million from USC and its related organizations from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019, the first fiscal year following that extension.
As a private institution, USC is not required to disclose salary information of its employees, but federal tax records from previous years show that Helton received a significant raise — more than 40% of his previous salary — in the wake of his extension ahead of the 2018 season. Helton was paid $3.2 million during the fiscal year 2017-18 and $2.6 million the year before that.
The Trojans finished the 2018 season with a 5-7 record, their worst since 2000, when Paul Hackett also went 5-7 and was replaced by Pete Carroll.
At $4.5 million, Helton’s total pay would rank just outside of the top 20 nationally and just behind Stanford’s David Shaw, who was the top-paid coach in the Pac-12 as of 2019, according to a USA Today database of coaches' salaries.
Helton wasn’t the only USC coach to receive a raise ahead of the 2018-19 fiscal year. Men’s basketball coach Andy Enfield, whose contract was extended by Swann in April 2017, saw his total pay bumped from $2.8 million to more than $3.1 million. Enfield hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since signing his extension; though, USC appeared to be on track for a tournament berth this past March before the postseason was shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those figures offer some context to the financial predicament that new athletic director Mike Bohn inherited as he took over the department last November. While fans demanded Helton's firing, the remaining years on his contract carried with it a considerable buyout believed to be more than $20 million.
The global pandemic has only worsened that potential financial strain ahead of a 2020 season that remains in doubt. University President Carol Folt suggested in April that USC could face an operating shortfall of $300 million to $500 million through the current fiscal year. If the college football season fails to move forward, the athletic department could find itself in even more of a bind.