July 23, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Mike Bohn explains why USC chose to keep coach Clay Helton

Mike Bohn is choosing his words carefully. It’s a delicate dance these days, discussing the fate of his football coach, and Bohn, at the start of his second year as USC’s athletic director, understands the frustration surrounding his decision to keep Clay Helton for another season.

So when he’s asked about the circumstances that led to that decision, Bohn would prefer to turn the attention elsewhere. He’s happy to wax poetic about the Trojans’ rebuilt recruiting operation, which reeled in the No. 1 overall recruit this month, or the improvements on defense, where a new staff and a new mind-set made an immediate difference.

In discussing Helton, though, Bohn is far less forthcoming. There was no official announcement after the Trojans’ 5-1 finish that Helton would return in 2021, nor, Bohn said, did he feel the need to offer the same public vote of confidence that Helton received after the 2018 and 2019 seasons. The Trojans were a combined 13-12 those years.

So what exactly gave Bohn the confidence that Helton should return?

“If you look at the progress we made and the adjustments we collectively worked on, I can’t think of one area where we didn’t improve,” Bohn said in a phone interview.

But when asked if he deliberated at all over Helton’s future after the Trojans fell short in the Pac-12 title game, Bohn, keenly aware of his own precarious position, wondered aloud how he should answer, before choosing not to.

The circumstances of a pandemic-altered season certainly make answering that question more complicated than usual. What was once characterized as a make-or-break 2020 campaign for Helton was undoubtedly muddied by a pandemic that cut the Trojans’ season to six games and threatened financial ruin throughout college sports, including at USC, where the department has so far avoided layoffs or any major cuts among its 21 sports.

“I think it would be disingenuous to insinuate that that doesn’t enter into decisions associated with our growth,” Bohn said of the pandemic’s impact.

“My expectations continue to be high, driven by our incredible history and tradition and high intensity of interest in our program from our donors and fans.”

Mike Bohn on USC football

In spite of those unprecedented circumstances, USC managed to rebuild the foundations of its football program, adding more support staff, retooling its recruiting operation and forging ahead toward a future that Bohn envisioned since taking the job more than a year ago.

“If we want to meet the high expectations of our program, then we have to provide championship-caliber resources and tools and staff and coaches,” Bohn said. “We’ve been able to do that through a pandemic. I’m extremely proud of that.”

That aggressive approach, Bohn said, was encouraged by university President Carol Folt, who urged campus leaders to “come out of the pandemic stronger.” When asked if he consulted Folt about Helton’s future, Bohn praised their partnership, noting that “we talk about all kinds of aspects associated with our program.”

USC rose from the 64th-ranked recruiting class in 2020 to a top-10 class in 2021 that included the No. 1 overall recruit, Corona Centennial’s Korey Foreman. A defense that looked lost a season ago allowed 3.5 fewer points and 40 fewer yards per game while leading the league in turnovers forced (16).

USC President Carol Folt, left, stands next to USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn during a news conference in November 2019.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“The results are very, very clear,” Bohn said.

That’s the progress that Bohn would like to focus on. But it’s the question of Helton’s place in Bohn’s vision for the future that will inevitably follow USC’s athletic director into next fall.

Bohn understands that. Still, he won’t comment publicly on whether he believes Helton will be coaching for his job next season.

“From Day One, I have had candid and honest and progressive conversations with Clay about the program, and we’ll continue to do that together and continue to make progress,” Bohn said. “My expectations continue to be high, driven by our incredible history and tradition and high intensity of interest in our program from our donors and fans.”

It’s unclear exactly what those expectations will be in 2021. When Helton spoke to The Times earlier this month, he said he felt the football program was “trending upward, if you look at it correctly.”

Asked if he agreed with that assertion, Bohn paused for a beat, searching for the right answer.

“The evidence shows the progress we made,” he said.