Dietlin: USC’s New DC, a Bus, and ‘The Cat’

Clay Helton has been masterful at swapping out assistants to save his job

Posted on January 31, 2020

  By Mik Dietlin, SportsPac12

All right. Another day, another Trojan football change. The most recent cog in the mediocrity machine, Todd Orlando, was hired as the new defensive coordinator, snared away from Texas Tech before he could locate Lubbock on a map.

USC fans are used to bizarre comings and goings. 

Kliff Kingsbury, if you’ll remember, when announced as the offensive coordinator just in time for the holidays in 2018, had the traditional fan base screaming, “RAID!!!” as they scurried like frightened cockroaches evading predators, utilizing complex escape routes, hiding among the shadows, and disappearing in the cracks. 

They didn’t want to face the new music.

Ground and pound was officially declared dead after being on life-support for several years. The change made sense in a convoluted sort of way, however. What the hell are we going to do with all these fancy, shiny wideouts?


Head coach Clay Helton tossed his self-proclaimed “gumbo” offense into the garbage disposal, telling Kingsbury to make the offense more appetizing, easily digestible. But before Kingsbury had the opportunity to contemplate how his offensive scheme fit with his new players while strolling Southern California beaches, he bolted for the Arizona Cardinals.

Sudden head coach departures have been more dramatic. Steve Sarkisian was en route to a substance abuse treatment center when then-athletic director Pat Haden tried in vain to inform him that his services were no longer required.

Lane Kiffin

And before Lane Kiffin could claim his airport baggage and go home following a humiliating loss at Arizona State, he was relieved of his misery, though for some reason he begged to keep his job and remain miserable. His exit was as ridiculous as the idea that he was the right man to run the program. 

Juiciest of all, perhaps, former AD Mike Garrett lowered the boom on John Robinson via the national championship coach’s answering machine. I know, it sounds cruel, but it really is the ultimate guy-breakup method.

Helton has a unique position within this pantheon of idiocy. 

He’s a very loyal gentleman. Anyone will tell you as much, often without being prompted. As sole driver of the USC football bus, however, he’s been bestowed with the power to defy his loyal and gentlemanly persona by placing his assistants underneath that bus and driving forward in search of more bodies. 

Clay Helton after USC’s win over UCLA in 2019. | Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Helton has truly become the proverbial “cat with nine lives,” but with a twist. The lives are those of his assistant coaches. He hasn’t hesitated to sacrifice any of them to keep his job. 

It almost feels like there’s something sinister going on, perhaps of an occult nature.

Now, I’m a respectable journalist. Don’t laugh. I would never suggest that when Haden stripped the interim tag off Helton’s Trojan swag, making him the official head coach, the contract he signed was actually a pact with the devil. (The devil being Pat Haden, in case you’re wondering). 

But I stake my journalistic integrity (there’s that ‘I’ word again!) on the premise that there’s something of a nefarious nature going on at Heritage Hall.

Maybe Helton dabbles in chaos magic. Maybe he has an other-worldly ability to slither his way to the top, taking full advantage of the misfortunes and incompetency of others, perhaps even masterminding their downfall. 


On second thought, let’s all pretend I didn’t just say that. I am not reporting or suggesting here that Helton has specific knowledge of sigils or codes. For the record, I refuse to entertain such nonsense—The Cat might be reading this.

A great many Trojan fans are meeting the Todd Orlando hire with a yawn. Todd Orlando, Tony Orlando and Dawn—it really doesn’t matter. No significant change is possible unless The Cat is gone. I completely understand and share the indifference. 

Tony Orlando and Dawn, circa 1970s. |

Trojan fans need to know The Cat couldn’t care less about your indifference. He’s trying to survive, one assistant at a time. Other times more than one assistant at a time. You may not want to hear this, but with the hire of Orlando, he may have solidified his position as head coach through 2021. 

Orlando has a proven record of turning bad defenses into good defenses, then turning those good defenses back into bad defenses again. True, injuries played a factor in Texas’ terrible pass defense last year, Orlando’s final season with the Longhorns. But any coach who uses injuries as an excuse for losing has run out of ideas. 

So you had to use seven freshman on defense much of the year.

First of all, Texas is one of the top three fertile high school recruiting states in the nation. Second, the fact you had to use so many freshman indicates that either you didn’t recruit depth all that well the previous few years, or you didn’t develop what you had during the season. 


Playing your starters too much in every game is a recipe for disaster, as Clancy Pendergast should know by now. So at least Orlando isn’t afraid to see what his reserves can do. He also isn’t afraid to recruit, which already is a an upgrade. 

And I hear he likes to practice hard—even tackle! 

My sacred mantra is, and has always been, “Never Trust a Coach Who Doesn’t Trust His Players.” You can’t develop backups without playing them. Throw them a bone. Give them a taste of the thrill. It might sting a little, but it’ll pay dividends in the long run. Much of the time, sooner than you think.

At any rate, the Trojans will have a better defense come fall. They’ll be more stout against the run. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who will blare during practices as the offense runs double reverses, jet sweeps, counters, and every other type of misdirection in an effort to teach the defense to stay home. 

The Who in concert, 1971. | Hunter-Desportes/Creative Commons

If the offense can improve even slightly on last year’s impressive totals, and the defense can crack the top 50 nationally, a 9-3 regular season isn’t far-fetched. It could even create pressure on AD Mike Bohn to consider forestalling one of The Cat’s lives so he can lay waste to more bodies.

What if the Trojans lose to Alabama in Arlington (a near certainty), fall to Oregon on the road (a strong probability), and stumble at home against Notre Dame (a reasonable assumption)? 

They would be undefeated in the South and likely be playing for the conference championship. If they were to win that game, finish the season 10-3, and play on New Year’s Day, regardless of the outcome, how can you fire The Cat? 


If USC has a bad season, perhaps even another 8-5 one, 2020 will be OC Graham Harrell’s final year as a Trojan, provided his offense performs as expected. He could easily leave town no matter what happens this year. Those recent Texas and Philadelphia excursions into the unknown will be bona fide job offers next year. 

One will be enticing enough to take. Then what? Is there an Air Raid coaching factory somewhere in a desolate part of the U.S. under military protection? If not, will we all be forced to swallow gumbo again? 

I can’t eat anymore.

There’s fear lingering just beyond the periphery of frustration in Trojan Town, and it’s too overwhelming  to be allowed to surface. It’s a fear perpetrated by Bohn and President Carol Folt telling us that after 10 years of incompetence, we’re doomed for years more. 

The only action that will remove this fear is to extinguish the present energy and allow a new vibrant intelligence to emerge. And there’s just one way to change the culture and future of USC football: Tell The Cat he’s run out of lives.

—More from Mik Dietlin—