“But What About The Moon?” Clay Helton, USC, and Conrad Hilton

As you know, the very notion of a Carousel — the Coaching Carousel — conjures images of Mad Men and Don Draper’s most iconic sales pitch.

Monday morning, a spot on the spinning Carousel was filled, and as a result, it’s impossible to resist another reference to a Don Draper moment in the conference room with a client.

In season three of Mad Men, we are treated to the spectacle of Don Draper trying to close the sale with Conrad Hilton, the owner of the world’s most prestigious hotel chain. Draper delivers a very effective pitch… but as we see, it’s not entirely what the ever-eccentric Hilton wanted:

At 1:37 in the three-and-a-half-minute clip, Hilton — after complimenting Draper on the style of his pitch — raises a central objection with the content of the presentation. More precisely, Hilton notices what’s missing from Draper’s words and his staff’s art:

“But what about the moon?… I said I wanted Hilton on the moon.”

The statement, coming from Hilton in relationship to what Don Draper is supposed to bring to an American audience in the early 1960s, is ludicrous on one level. Yet, it is the perfect way to capture the nature of the head coaching job for the USC Trojans’ football program.

USC is supposed to shoot for the moon.

Athletic director Pat Haden hired Steve Sarkisian a few years ago. Now, he has chosen Clay Helton — Sark’s interim replacement — as the permanent head coach. The announcement of a multi-year deal (more on that detail in a bit) came Monday morning:

We wrote about Clay Helton’s situation on Sunday following USC’s win over UCLA. Read that piece for context. It in many ways overlaps with this column, so now that Haden has already made his call, let’s simply offer a few salient words of analysis.


It is quite fair to say that Helton deserved consideration for the permanent head-coaching position at USC, based on winning the Pac-12 South. However, a quick look at Helton’s record indicates that his wins came against teams that were no better than moderately good. A 9-3 Utah team which looked dreadful in the past month of the season rates as Helton’s biggest scalp, and that win came at home, powered in part by an implosion from Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. USC’s other wins came against other Pac-12 South struggle buses named Arizona, Colorado (in a close game), UCLA, and (from the Pac-12 North) a California team which lost steam in November as well.

In USC’s two Helton-coached games against equal or superior opponents — Oregon and Notre Dame — the Trojans got drummed, particularly on defense. Much as it’s possible to be a 9-win team and not do much of anything, the Trojans under Helton did not reveal themselves as a next-level force despite winning their division. Yes, winning your division means something, but let’s acknowledge that in a year when every Pac-12 South team lost at least three conference games, the division — expected to be great when the season began — did not turn out to be very good.

If USC was really USC, Helton would have at least split the Oregon and Notre Dame games. The Trojans would have been a lot more authoritative in dismissing Arizona and Colorado. In 2015, the Pac-12 South wasn’t won so much as USC did less to lose it than any other school. Utah and UCLA have made a habit out of November flameouts. Arizona endured a miserably unlucky year after getting all the breaks in 2014. Arizona State crashed and burned. Colorado is still… well… Colorado. Let’s give Helton credit for winning the South, but let’s not make that achievement to be any greater than it is.


The long and short of it with this permanent hire is this: Pat Haden simply needed to wait a week. He needed to see how Helton and USC would fare against Stanford in Saturday’s Pac-12 Championship Game. Yes, if USC wins, the move looks great, and the team has a lot of momentum heading into 2016.

However… what if USC loses, especially by a large margin?


Haden, a Rhodes Scholar, should be smarter than this, just as he should have been smart enough to not hire an unproven Steve Sarkisian from Washington.

Hiring Helton as permanent coach is not necessarily the problem. The problem is that Haden needed to evaluate Helton — at one of the Hilton-level coaching jobs in college football — against David Shaw and the Cardinal. A win over a strong program — one of the two giants in the Pac-12 over the past six seasons, alongside Oregon — would offer considerable evidence that Helton was the right man for the job.

Haden simply needed to wait for that to happen. THEN he could have made the move with a lot less controversy.

As things stand, Haden has set up a situation in which 2016 could be a nightmare. A 20-point loss to Stanford would rob this program of any degree of momentum or confidence it might currently possess. Moreover, as said in the linked piece above, it’s very different to coach in an interim capacity than when you’re the guy. USC might beat Stanford, but Helton’s 2016 season will be a completely different animal compared to 2015.


One more note before concluding.

Let’s say Haden did wait for the Pac-12 Championship Game to be played. One option in this situation would have been to keep Helton for 2016, as a nod to the players who supported him. Much as Stanford could have been a one-game audition for the job, the 2016 season could have given Helton a chance to sink or swim, but reward the players who wanted him to stay. One season, as a prove-it-or-lose-it test of his coaching chops, would have given Helton a real chance to solidify his career without guaranteeing a long-term relationship.

This is where the multi-year dimension of this new deal, announced Monday, is also a problem. If Haden thought highly of Helton, he at least needed to see Helton prove himself in key situations before making a long-term commitment. That wasn’t done on multiple fronts, and that — more than the hiring itself — is what’s wrong with USC, its football program, and the athletic director who just doesn’t seem to “get it.”

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |