When will USC football’s long fall from grace end?

Nearly 15 years ago, USC stood alone atop college football. It won 34 consecutive games, churned out first-round picks on an assembly line and won or shared seven consecutive Pac-10 titles. With Pete Carroll jackrabbiting around the sideline and stars like Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush dueling each other for the Heisman, USC unquestionably led college football in both talent and cachet.

These days, USC leads college athletics in federal investigations, leadership questions and potential buyout payments. The most intriguing part of USC in 2019 has little to do with what will unfold on the field, as USC’s national relevancy is tied to the tenuous futures of embattled athletic director Lynn Swann and sputtering football coach Clay Helton.

The school that not long ago led the sport in buzz, now leads in industry speculation over who’ll replace its two most prominent athletic department positions.

The first significant domino expected to fall in this year’s coaching carousel is Swann, as it would shock the industry if he was still USC’s athletic director at Thanksgiving. His dismissal – regarded as an expectation by all corners of the industry – is expected to pave the way for a new athletic director to choose Helton’s replacement.

Perhaps the best way to sum up Lynn Swann’s three-year tenure at USC is that when a sweeping federal investigation that implicated athletics is mentioned, it’s often followed by a telling question: Which one?

There’s the college admissions scandal from Operation Varsity Blues that’s ensnared former USC executive athletics administrator Donna Heinel for allegedly taking more than $1.3 million in bribes. Some of Heinel’s activity happened prior to Swann’s arrival, but the arrest that “blindsided” him happened under his watch.

Lynn Swann and Clay Helton both have to be feeling the heat heading into this college football season. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
Lynn Swann and Clay Helton both have to be feeling the heat heading into this college football season. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

And there’s also still the expected NCAA fallout from the 2017 arrest and recent guilty plea of former associate basketball head coach Tony Bland in the federal basketball corruption investigation. USC is expected to be among the schools to receive a notice of allegations from the NCAA.

Much of USC’s uncertain administrative future should be decided in the upcoming weeks, when speculation will shift to Helton and the blunder of Swann committing to him through 2023 and guaranteeing a large swath of the contract when there were no other serious suitors.

Helton’s fate should be sealed either way by mid-October. USC opens the season with one of the most rigorous schedules in all of college football – Fresno State, Stanford, at BYU, Utah, at Washington and at Notre Dame.

USC, which went 5-7 last season, could end up as underdogs in four of those six games. Perhaps the most damning statistic about Helton is that he’s 1-12 as an underdog as USC’s coach.

The schedule also offers hope for Helton. A 5-1 start could change the industry narrative that Helton’s firing is a near-certainty and give recruiting an adrenaline shot. Most notable among Helton’s new coaching hires was offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, an Air Raid whiz tasked with resuscitating an offense that finished No. 90 in scoring last year.

Helton is a good man with high character. He was brought in to bring class, stability and dignity to the program after the tenures of Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and the NCAA fallout of the Carroll era. Helton has done that, without question, and has won both a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl. But the tricky part for USC if it goes 8-4 this season is the clarity that he’s not going to raise USC to the program’s championship expectations.

The issues transcend Helton’s 31-17 record since he took over for Sarkisian in 2015. Oregon has taken over as the West Coast’s top recruiting program, and schools like Clemson, Georgia, LSU and Ohio State have joined the Ducks in exploiting USC’s vulnerability to raid California for elite prospects in 2020. Only two of the top 28 committed 2020 players from California are headed to USC, the same number as Ohio State and LSU. (Oregon has four.)

USC’s recruiting ranking of No. 66 for 2020 is a somewhat unfair barometer, as the Trojans are planning a small class and have only 10 commitments. But USC’s 3.0 average star ranking is No. 40 nationally, behind Washington State, Georgia Tech and Illinois. That’s a five-alarm problem.

USC coach Clay Helton meets with wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (8) following the 24-17 loss against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in 2018. (Credit: USAT)
USC coach Clay Helton meets with wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (8) following the 24-17 loss against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in 2018. (Credit: USAT)

Expect the timeline at USC to potentially look similar to how Nebraska handled its changes two years ago. It fired former athletic director Shawn Eichorst in September, making Mike Riley a dead man walking and clearing the way for a new athletic director to hire his successor.

USC has a new president, Carol L. Folt, the former UNC chancellor. Will she break up USC’s infatuation with its own and bring in a competent candidate with relevant experience? A pretty good bar debate is whether former AD Pat Haden or Swann has been a worse hire. The Los Angeles Times has reported that federal investigators are scrutinizing Haden in regards to Operation Varsity Blues, so he’s the clubhouse leader. Once the home of championships and unbridled optimism, USC undermined its athletic department by ignoring college experience as a qualification and hiring celebrity athletic directors.

It would fit the hiring paradigm of USC to continue to white knuckle to one of its own – insert Jeff Fisher or Jack Del Rio joke here – and ignore the poor results that philosophy has yielded the past decade.

As for outsiders, Folt could attempt to woo a familiar face in UNC’s Bubba Cunningham, one of the country’s most respected athletic directors. A realistic candidate from the outside with USC ties is Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson, who was a senior associate athletic director in charge of football at USC before heading to Villanova in 2015. It would be an interesting time for an AD search, as there’s buzz in the industry about UCLA, Michigan State, Georgia and Arizona all potentially opening in the next year.

As for a potential coaching search, Urban Meyer’s name will inevitably dominate the speculation. Right now, that is more of a message board fever dream, as Meyer has been consistent about his plans to stay retired. Meyer will work as an analyst for Fox this season – alongside Bush and Leinart – and his perspective will be worth gauging to see how much he’s pulled back to the game once kickoff arrives this fall.

An early USC list would start with Meyer, Penn State’s James Franklin, former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell. From there, it would include Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, Baylor’s Matt Rhule, Syracuse’s Dino Babers, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and Memphis’ Mike Norvell.

By mid-October, Helton’s fate will be clear. And unless he runs off a spree of wins, USC will remain the talk of college athletics for all the wrong reasons.

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