Clay Helton has spent his entire life in coaching. The son of former Houston head coach and longtime college, NFL and CFL assistant Kim Helton, the younger Helton played college football at Auburn and Houston before plunging directly into coaching, first as a GA at Duke. He joined his father's staff at Houston as running backs coach in 1997, moved to Memphis in 2000 -- where he eventually rose to offensive coordinator -- and then to USC in 2010, where he has progressed from quarterbacks coach, to passing game coordinator, to offensive coordinator, and then to head coach.
A life spent in coaching means, to him, Helton has spent his entire life in public service.
"We get to put the final stamp on our young men," Helton said at the AFCA Convention. "We get the opportunity to teach them how to be professionals. I've always thought we have to have a servant's mentality at all times."
Speaking to an ballroom of assembled coaches, Helton dished on his life and philosophy Sunday night in Charlotte. The 44-year-old served on the USC staff through the Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian eras and was named the Trojans' interim head coach twice before landing the head job. He coached USC to a win in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl after the Trojans' first interim of the season, Ed Orgeron, left the team when he was passed over for the full-time head job. Helton then took over as a long-term interim in 2015 after Sarkisian's abrupt firing and was named the full-time head coach after leading USC to a 5-2 mark and a Pac-12 South Championship that season.
After a 1-5 start as the full-time head coach, Helton has gone 22-3 with a Rose Bowl win and a Pac-12 championship. But he looks back now in thanks he wasn't named the full-time head coach the first time around. "I thank God every day because I didn't know it all," he said.
After a 41-22 loss to Stanford in the 2015 Pac-12 title game, his first season the interim tag was removed, Helton said he realized he had to trust the men around him and delegate. "I've got 188 souls with me that are brilliant at what they do," he said.
Helton credited his ascension to head coach to his relationship with USC's players. "I am not the head coach at USC without the trust built between a coaching staff and a locker room," Helton said. And that trust was built, Helton said, through hard coaching borne through an intense love. "I always tell our players this: To be coached is to be loved. If I'm coaching you, it's because I love you and I want you to grow."
Furthermore, Helton said the toughest coaching should be reserved for the most talented players. "If you want to win the room, coach the best player the hardest," Helton said, before citing a Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan example, as legally required by a federal statute established in 2007.
Helton also explained what he looked for in an assistant coach. In short, a good person who loves his players and doesn't create problems for his boss. "The assistants I love the most?" Helton asked. "The ones that take care of their room."
"I appreciate the position coach that knows everything about a recruit, his mom, his dad, his girlfriend."
Helton also professed a love beyond coaching players: finding new ones. He said one of his favorite parts of the job comes on Friday nights before games, when he dons a generic baseball camp and sits in the stands of a recruit's game. "You can see so much that's not on tape, their body language and what kind of leader they are," he said.
"Guys, we chose this way of life," Helton told the coaches in front of him. "To be average is unacceptable. Doing things better is a way of life."
Below are the slides Helton showed the assembled coaches. (Apologies in advance for the blurry iPhone photos.)