While Bruining continues, Clay Helton makes a special moment for USC

It’s easy to make USC’s 40-21 pounding of UCLA on Saturday another case study in the art of “BRUINING,” the new college football gerund for squandering prosperity and face-planting in season-making situations.

That school in South Carolina? It now carries itself at a higher level and holds itself to loftier standards.

UCLA is what Clemson used to be. It’s beyond obvious.

Last year, UCLA had the Pac-12 South in its grasp, but it got thrashed at home by the worst Stanford team of the past six seasons.

This year, Jim Mora, Jr., followed up that stink-bomb with this doozy in the Los Angeles Coliseum, getting completely outcoached by an interim on the USC sideline. Again, the Bruins missed out on a division title. Again, they imploded when they had everything to play for.

Bruining, defined.

Yet, let’s not make this all about UCLA.

That interim coach from USC did a pretty darn good job on Saturday. He had his team ready to play. He had his team ready to persevere. He watched his team break open a tight game after 40 minutes with a forceful finishing kick in the final 20 minutes.

The Pac-12 South was not very good this year — Utah, the standard-bearer most of the season, collapsed in November in an all-too-familiar way — but someone had to win it. By taking the division from UCLA, Clay Helton stopped the Bruins’ three-game winning streak in the series. That streak was achieved against three mediocre coaches: Lane Kiffin (2012), Steve Sarkisian (2014), and a third man in 2013.

That third man in 2013 shows why this achievement is so significant for Helton… even though the idea of making him permanent head coach should not yet be seen as desirable or even likely.


In 2013, USC also hosted UCLA under an interim coach. Ed Orgeron was a beloved figure in the locker room, and he certainly inspired his players to repair a season which had spiraled out of control under Kiffin, who was fired just before the midpoint of the 12-game journey. However, Mora and the Bruins (not playing for a division title, by the way) pounded the Men of Troy, 35-14, and as much as the players wanted Da Coach O to stay, the idea of keeping him just didn’t make much sense.

Helton, on the other hand, managed to beat UCLA in the City of Angels’ pigskin version of high-stakes poker. Ever since Pete Carroll left L.A., the battle for the city on the gridiron has been up for grabs. Helton — whom I admittedly and errantly discounted as a possible permanent head coach after the Trojans were smashed by Oregon a week ago — does deserve to be considered as the new guy.

Regardless of whether he is selected by athletic director Pat Haden as USC’s next head coach, Helton has this moment to point to as one of the foremost features of his career resume… and as a sun-kissed afternoon when he tasted one of the sweetest experiences a football man can have.

Beating a rival… in a big market… as an interim coach asked to rescue a season… seeing players give 110 percent to the cause, totally trusting your leadership and buying into your plan.

Clay Helton will never forget November 28, 2015 — it’s in the books as a mountaintop thrill which can never be taken away from him. Saturday afternoon is its own reward in its own context. Let that much be given to Helton, so that this victory over UCLA is not minimized in the larger run of history.


Now, though, let’s pivot to the issue of whether Helton should be retained in Los Angeles. Does one win over UCLA and a championship in a not-very-good Pac-12 South mean that Helton should be given the keys to the program?

Some, such as Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke, think the answer should be yes.

I’m not going to go that far, but I will say this: If Helton can beat Stanford for the Pac-12 title next Saturday in the San Francisco Bay Area (Santa Clara, to be specific), the idea of keeping him on would become a lot more reasonable. Helton has, if nothing else, bought himself another game and another audition.

Making him the long-term answer right now, however? That would be premature.

Here’s what any pro-Helton argument fails to account for, even though Helton has succeeded to a higher degree than Ed Orgeron did as an interim boss in 2013: Coaching in the back end of a season as an interim leader provides a psychological context in which a coach is playing with house money. The interim coach didn’t come to a given program as the public face of the school. He was an assistant, working in the shadows. Becoming that public presence — shouldering all the responsibilities of the leader of the program — is entirely different within the context of a month and a half, compared to 12 months.

Filling in after the permanent head coach steps down in the middle of the season is one thing; going into a season knowing you are the man, the one expected to deliver results, is quite another. Interim coaches who are loved in the locker room can ride the magic carpet for six or seven weeks. Mapping out the future of a program, being the primary driver of recruiting strategies and a larger operation 365 days a year, is substantially different.

Think of all the times an NFL team has gone 4-8 or 3-9; fires its coach; and then watches the interim get hot in December to finish 8-8 or 7-9. No, USC wasn’t that bad, but the larger point remains.

Let’s get down to brass tacks with Clay Helton: He’s done a good job in an uncomfortable situation, but in order to merit permanent status, he needs a win over a coach and an opponent which have set a higher standard.

UCLA is not that program. Colorado is definitely not that program. Arizona, California, Utah — the other three teams Helton defeated — are not that program.

Beat David Shaw, a short distance from Stanford’s campus, with the Pac-12 title on the line? That would show something more… a LOT more. A win over the team which is poised to make a New Year’s Six (formerly BCS) bowl for a fifth time in six seasons would indicate that Clay Helton can become the home-run hitter which should coach at USC.

This is an elite program. It’s one of the best jobs in the country. USC should expect only the very best.

Clay Helton has not earned that distinction just yet. He should get a chance to prove himself against Stanford, but beating the kings of “Bruining?” That shouldn’t stamp him as “the man” in L.A.


With all of that having been said, though, let’s reaffirm the most important point of this piece: Regardless of whether he beats Stanford and becomes USC’s next permanent head coach, Clay Helton has a moment to treasure for the rest of his life, a shining Saturday he will cherish as long as he walks this Earth.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |