Clay Helton said he wanted the head coaching job at USC more than anything. He got it. He also received all of the expectations -- usually unfair and inflated -- that aren’t listed in the contract.
A pair of publications -- Athlon Sports and Sporting News -- released their rankings of all the FBS coaches on Tuesday (Nos. 1-128) and it was quite interesting to see the discrepancy in how the Pac-12 coaches fell. But Helton’s ranking was by far the most fascinating.
Sporting News ranked him the No. 41 coach in the land. However, Athlon took a more skeptical approach and ranked him No. 86 -- last among all Pac-12 coaches.
So it emphasizes the question ... is Helton the worst coach in the Pac-12?
As is always the case when it comes to rankings, there is never a definitive “yes” or “no” answer. The empire that is college football was founded on subjectivity through its various polls. It’s a perception-based business. And, as the two rankings show, perceptions can vary wildly.
The word “worst” carries some pretty unfair stigmas. If you’re looking purely at wins and losses, then Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre or Oregon State’s Gary Andersen would have to lead the conversation. But how can you dismiss the work MacIntyre has done to turn the disaster he inherited into a competitive football team? How do you fairly judge Andersen and the sparse cupboard of his new digs versus Helton’s five-star-stocked program?
The fact that Helton is even the head coach at USC is probably a positive check in his column. Maybe it doesn’t have the prestige it used to, but USC is still one of the most desirable jobs west of Austin.
The idea that Helton ranks last among current Pac-12 coaches seems questionable after he helped shepherd the Trojans last season through one of the more embarrassing chapters in program history, getting them to the Pac-12 title game.
As a two-time interim coach, Helton guided USC to a 6-2 mark with wins over No. 3 Utah and No. 22 UCLA last season and a bowl victory over Fresno State at the end of the 2013 season.
But he is 0-2 as a full-fledged head coach, with a blowout loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game last season and a subsequent loss to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl.
So which coach will we get over the course of a full season? That’s tough to say. Helton is going to be a lightning rod for debate all season. The way 2015 ended doesn’t offer much in the way of a honeymoon.
The way 2016 could start -- the Trojans face Alabama in Texas and play road games at Stanford and Utah in three of the first four weeks -- could eradicate any goodwill he has with an uneasy fan base. A 1-3 start isn’t unthinkable for USC, which would give Helton a 1-5 start as the full-time head coach.
New coaches usually get the benefit of the doubt. Helton doesn’t have time for that.
He (rightfully) gutted most of the staff following the two-game slide to end last season. He has a new quarterback to break in and a tattered defensive line. He’s also has some of the best skill position players and offensive linemen in the country.
The only thing that is going to drive Helton’s perception upwards is wins, which might be tough to come by early. Does that mean he’s the worst coach in the conference? Of course not. Not many teams could negotiate USC’s schedule, nor could many coaches handle the unpleasantness of what happened with the Trojans in 2015 with the character and poise Helton showed.
The Pac-12’s roster of coaches is as good as it’s ever been, as both publications have eight of the league’s 12 coaches in their top 35. But Helton has a perception problem -- mostly because he hasn’t proven anything on the national stage.
Helton isn't particularly worried about his perception, though. Part of his appeal is that he’s the cut from the anti-Steve Sarkisian, anti-Lane Kiffin cloth.
But he better not take too long to prove he’s the right guy for the job. Because, much sooner rather than later, people might start believing what they read.