Hiring Kliff Kingsbury Is Exactly the Move Clay Helton and USC Needed to Make

Daniel Rapaport
Sports Illustrated

USC has made a shiny coaching hire—perhaps not the shiny coaching hire many Trojan faithful had hoped for—but a shiny coaching hire nonetheless.

Kliff Kingsbury, who was fired as Texas Tech head coach after three straight losing seasons and a 35–40 overall mark in six years, has reached an agreement to become USC’s next offensive coordinator. He’ll replace Tee Martin on the staff of Clay Helton, the embattled head coach whom many felt should have been let go after the Trojans limped to a 5–7 mark this year, the program’s worst record since 2000.

Kingsbury, 39, reportedly had offers from other college teams as well as significant interest from NFL franchises.

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Kingsbury, who himself starred as a Texas Tech quarterback in the early 2000s, shot to coaching stardom in 2012, when he was the offensive coordinator for Texas A&M the season Johnny Manziel won the Heisman. Tech hired him as their head coach the following offseason, and he immediately implemented an air raid attack predicated on spreading the field and throwing the ball an inordinate amount. His teams in Lubbock had significant success on the offensive side of the ball, finishing in the top 25 nationally in scoring offense five of his six seasons at the helm and ranking third (520.2) in total yards and second (379.9) in passing yards during his tenure. Kingsbury is also credited with identifying, recruiting and molding Patrick Mahomes into the prolific gunslinger he is today.

His issues at Tech were defensive, which explains why there was so much interest in his offensive ingenuity immediately after his firing. It’s a significant coup for USC, and surely an expensive one—though terms of the deal were not announced, all signs point toward him being one of the highest paid coordinators in the country.

It’s also just what the doctor ordered for Helton, who promised widespread changes to his coaching staff after a bitterly disappointing year. Helton has rightfully received criticism for his unwillingness to look outside the program for assistance; though this move was a no-brainer, it does represent a departure from Helton’s preferred method of keeping things in-house.

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The unit Kingsbury inherits is a young and talented one, led by rising sophomore quarterback JT Daniels. Daniels had mild success during his freshman season, throwing for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns, but struggled (as did the rest of the offense) often in second halves of games. USC’s three leading receivers—Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns—also figure to return for 2019, and St. Brown showed massive potential in his rookie campaign. Two of the team’s top three rushers in Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr should also return.

Should Kingsbury stick with his tried-and-true style and bring the air raid to the Coliseum, it would mark a significant change in offensive philosophy for a program that has run a pro-style offense in recent years. During his first three seasons heading the Trojans after taking over from Steve Sarkisian, Helton spoke on numerous occasions of his vision for the offense­—a run-first, play-action heavy unit in the mold of Stanford.

Kingsbury’s units are more reminiscent of another Pac-12 North team: Washington State, which Mike Leach flipped from a perennial bottom-feeder to a serious contender. The Cougars have won 36 games over the past four years with a fraction of USC’s financial or reputational strength. There is a precedent for such a pass-heavy offense working in the conference.

Kingsbury, a charismatic figure with Hollywood good looks, surely has ambitions of becoming a head coach once again. This hire brings an interesting scenario into the realm of possibility. Say USC’s offense is clicking early next season but the team gets off to a poor start record-wise. Helton would find himself under intense scrutiny, with an exciting assistant with a national profile and head coaching experience waiting in the wings. Kingsbury would certainly be in the discussion for the interim job should Helton get the boot next season.

More positively speaking: If USC bounces back next year, Kingsbury will once again become a trendy candidate for Power 5 head coaching vacancies. His reputation took a hit in the latter years at Tech, but not the type of hit that takes multiple seasons to rebound from. In that sense, there is not much to lose here for Kingsbury, which could explain why he chose this over an NFL position.

This is a mutually beneficial transaction for the USC program and Kingsbury. The ultimate loser here could be Helton, who needs a nine-win season like oxygen if he is to keep his job.

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