The line throughout the past year-plus about USC football was, essentially, Hey, I like Clay, I just don't like the direction of the program.
Which begs the question: What happens if the direction of the program changes?
After starting 3-3, USC on Saturday closed its regular season with wins in five of its final six games, rising to No. 22 in Tuesday night's College Football Playoff rankings. The Trojans' fortunes are currently in limbo: a Colorado win over Utah on Saturday night would lift USC into the Pac-12 title game, with a Rose Bowl trip on the line.
But even though the Trojans aren't playing this week, it's still an incredibly active time for the future of USC football. Clay Helton's future, widely assumed to be a foregone conclusion once then-AD Lynn Swann retained him after a 5-7 debacle of 2018, hangs in the balance, and that future seems brighter by the day.
The Athletic's Bruce Feldman wrote Wednesday that USC's leadership is leaning toward retaining Helton for 2020.
New USC AD Mike Bohn has been impressed with Clay Helton with the Trojans head coach in his time around him. And USC president Carol Folt, nearly as new on the job as Bohn, also is a believer in Helton, is very comfortable with him and likes the tone of his leadership, people with knowledge of the situation tell The Athletic.... People I’ve talked to the past 10 days inside the USC athletic department as well as industry sources feel like the new leadership is leaning toward bringing Helton back.
For what it's worth, both Folt and Bohn have been publicly supportive of Helton through the past month.
There are two ways to view a tweet such as the one above. Yeah, it's a single tweet after the football team wins its annual rivalry game. On the other hand, this isn't a TV station sticking a microphone in Folt's face forcing her to comment. She chose to go out of her way to publicly support the program in a period where every public move is going to be dissected up one way and down the other.
The decision to keep Helton will be difficult no matter the final verdict. A sizable portion of the USC community never bought into the Helton administration, and last season's 5-7 campaign typecast him for good in their minds. Most of the West Coast's elite recruits have voted with their feet, as only two of California's 31 4- or 5-star recruits in the Class of 2020 are currently committed to the Trojans.
On the other hand, Helton has led the program with dignity in a time where that matters on a scandal-plagued USC campus. He's kept his head above the fray in a time where it would be easy to complain. The 2019 team has finished strong, led by the stellar play of true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis.
Helton has been USC's full-time head coach for four seasons. Outside the 5-7 season of 2018, he's won the Rose Bowl and finished No. 3 in the AP poll (2016), won the Pac-12 (2017) and, potentially, won the Pac-12 South (2019). That will never be enough for some in Los Angeles, but it sounds like it could be enough for the two people who matter at USC.
As always, stay tuned to The Scoop for the latest.