LOS ANGELES — Moments after USC defeated UCLA 52-35 on Saturday, Trojans coach Clay Helton presented a game ball to “Coach Bohn.” That would be new USC athletic director Mike Bohn, who must now decide Helton’s fate as USC's coach.
That is a decision Bohn wasn’t willing to talk about on Saturday night.
“Not today," Bohn told reporters, "we just beat the Bruins.”
Bohn has a big decision to make with USC finishing its regular season with an 8-4 record and, as of completion of the game, an outside chance to win the Pac-12 South division championship.
If Bohn fires Helton, which the fan base wants, he will need to pay off the remaining three years of his contract and whatever buyout a new coach might require. If he brings Helton back because USC won five of its final six games, Bohn must ignore the thousands of empty seats in the LA Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, as well a 2020 recruiting class that ranks 76th nationally according to 247Sports' Composite rankings, by far the worst since 247Sports started registering rankings in 1999.
Bohn could easily see that USC is led by freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, who passed for a school record-515 yards and four touchdowns against UCLA. But he also saw a game typical of the Helton era, as the Trojans were ahead by only 10 points entering the fourth quarter despite the big numbers from Slovis and four wide receivers (Michael Pittman, Drake London, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns) each surpassing 100 yards.
“Any of you in here could probably throw for 100 yards with these receivers,” Slovis said, speaking to reporters.
USC needs to excite its donors and season ticket holders, many of whom can no longer stomach Helton. Bohn must know this because, in his three weeks on the job, he has talked to anyone who wants to say hello on campus.
For his part, Helton talked about USC after the victory as if hadn't gone 13-11 the past two seasons.
“USC is an extremely special place, and always will be,” Helton said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m the coach or you’re the coach. USC is always gonna be special. That doesn’t change. That foundation is 125 years strong.”
If Bohn decides to move on from Helton and hires the right coach to replace him, he can get the school back to its glory days under John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll. That is what he was hired to do. But does he want to do it in one month, or wait until a year from now?
Helton was far from the only coach with a lot to answer for Saturday. UCLA clinched its fourth straight losing season, the first time that has happened since 1924. Bruins coach Chip Kelly has been a massive disappointment in two seasons, and he will get a new athletic director once Dan Guerrero retires next year.
“I think our coaching staff is doing a good job considering what we have,” Kelly said after his team gave up 643 yards to USC. That wasn’t even the Bruins’ worst mark of the season, as their defense surrendered 720 yards to Washington State in September.
“We’re a team,” Kelly said. “We don’t blame one side of the ball or one facet of anything else. I think we stick together as a group and that’s what we’ll always do.”
For now, Los Angeles has two coaches disappointing its fans.