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Thursday, November 21, 2013
Assistants hoping for permanent ride

By Greg Katz

LOS ANGELES -- While a majority of the attention is focused on USC’s astounding football turnaround -- specifically the audition and future of interim head coach Ed Orgeron -- almost lost in translation has been the performance and future of the Trojans assistant coaches.

There are nine assistants whose livelihoods and potential family relocations might be at stake, pending the outcomes of the Colorado and UCLA games. It’s a tenuous position, as Trojans athletic director Pat Haden will soon make the difficult decision on the next USC head football coach, which will affect some, if not all, of the current assistants.

Be assured that Haden has empathy for Orgeron, his assistants, and their limbo status, as this coaching staff attempts to finish the regular season in spectacular fashion and state their case for further employment at USC.

“I want to say our coaching staff -- the entire coaching staff -- these are men of high integrity and character in the difficult situation they’re in,” Haden said Tuesday night on KFWB-AM. “I completely understand that and they have families they worry about and such, and they’re coaching their tails off and working hard and I see them having a blast, too.”

Javorius Allen
Ed Orgeron has allowed his assistant freedom to sub in players, helping spark the surge of sophomore RB Javorius "Buck" Allen.
The life of an assistant coach can be that of a vagabond, and nobody is more aware of that than the majority of the current Trojans staff, which was hired by previous head coach Lane Kiffin.

So how does an assistant at one of the nation’s most storied football programs handle a coaching change of this magnitude knowing he might have to uproot his family?

“We’re like mules,” said offensive coordinator Clay Helton with a laugh. “We keep plowing and keep our head down and that’s all we do.

“We focus on the approach of just worrying about the kids and making it special for them. I think it has paid off very successfully. It’s equaled wins and that’s what we’ll keep doing.”

So what did Orgeron actually do to create such newfound energy, enthusiasm, and, according to players, a more fun-loving, freed-up collection of assistants?

“We just followed his lead,” Helton said of Orgeron. “He said this is the start of a new season for us. Let’s just focus on just taking care of the kids and make it a great experience for them.

“Let’s just take it one week at a time and make it as fun as we can possibly make it for these kids. In return, we’ll have fun and we have. I mean we’re having blast. It’s been really, really good.”

Lane Kiffin recently said that his biggest mistake as the Trojans head coach was micromanaging and having his hands in everything. Orgeron was not about to continue down that road, so drastic changes were made.

So it was Orgeron’s idea to give his assistants the freedom they didn’t have under Kiffin. Now assistants such as running backs coach Tommie Robinson can substitute their own position players freely. The results, like the emergence of tailback Javorius Allen, are obvious.

“Yeah, we’ve just followed Coach O’s lead,” Helton said. “We wanted to get guys in there that could help us and make a difference for us.”

And the new management style for assistants hasn’t been lost by veteran observers of USC football.

“What Ed (Orgeron) has done in terms of coaches doing their thing is that it has empowered them,” praised John Jackson, a former Trojans standout wide receiver and game analyst on the USC radio broadcasts.

From a team perspective, nobody has more of a pulse on what the players are thinking than starting senior offensive right tackle Kevin Graf, who gave his approval when asked about whether the assistant coaches have benefited from the head coaching change.

“Absolutely,” Graf said, “when you have a coaching staff that has been so enthusiastic, it definitely goes towards us as players. It makes it a lot more enjoyable to be in meetings and be on the field and it makes football fun. This is definitely the funniest I’ve had playing football.

“I think everybody since the coaching change has been a little more relaxed because we are trying to have fun out here and I think that’s even the coaching staff. They want to relax and have fun. We’re still doing the job that needs to get done and be serious, but a more relaxed feeling and players don’t feel as tense and it shows on the field how loose we are. That’s not by accident.”

Robinson is on record as saying that nobody could have accomplished this type of rebuilding job except for Orgeron, and the outspoken Robinson even went even further by saying there is no question in his mind that the Trojans current interim head coach should be hired permanently.

So would this staff be invited back if Haden decides to give the keys to Orgeron permanently?

“USC is the pinnacle of college football,” Helton said. “It’s the mountaintop. You know the Trojans family is extremely special. This is such a special place that you’ll be here as long as they’ll let you.”