USC football coaching candidates: Top names to replace Clay Helton

The Clay Helton era is over at USC and one of the best coaching jobs in college football needs to be filled.

Helton helped USC to a Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl title, but couldn’t reach the next level and clean up a messy, often underachieving product on the field. He lasted longer than he should have, surviving 2019 largely because the university was going through an administrative transition period, and the pandemic-shortened season of 2020. But Saturday’s 42-28 loss to Stanford, which displayed many of the warts Helton’s teams simply could never remove, became the final straw for athletic director Mike Bohn. Rather than let Helton rack up wins against lesser competition in the coming weeks, Bohn pulled the plug Monday.

Despite no College Football Playoff appearances and no national championships since 2004, USC remains a job almost any coach would covet. USC has by far the most tradition of any program on the West Coast, and access to one of the nation’s premier recruiting markets. Recent and long-overdue upgrades to the program’s support staff should give Helton’s successor every chance to win big.

Since Pete Carroll departed for the NFL in January 2010, USC has been plagued by insular thinking, both with head coaches (Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, Helton) and, perhaps even more damaging, at athletic director with Pat Haden and Lynn Swann. Bohn has the opportunity to truly swing big for USC’s next coach, saying in Monday’s statement, “I want to be exceptionally clear: Our university and its leadership are committed to winning national championships and restoring USC football to glory.”

So, who will be next in line at USC? One name you won’t see below is first-year Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer, a longtime favorite of USC fans to replace Helton. While Meyer’s likely Year 1 struggles have some wondering if he could pull a Bobby Petrino, I don’t see him returning to college football any time soon.

Here are the names to watch.


Tier 1

Penn State coach James Franklin

Franklin’s name has been linked to USC almost as long as Helton has been on the hot seat. Although Franklin has a great job in his home state, he has been looking up at Ohio State for most of his tenure and could be ready for a fresh start in a slightly better position. Franklin did incredible work at Vanderbilt (24-15) and led Penn State to a Big Ten title in 2016, just four years after the NCAA imposed major sanctions on the program. The 49-year-old is 62-28 with three top-10 finishes. He needs to rebound from a 4-5 season in 2020 but has a team primed to contend for a Big Ten title. Franklin’s spirited and energetic personality would be a hit on the West Coast, and industry sources think he and Bohn would connect really well. USC also never has hired a Black football coach, and Franklin has a really strong profile.

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell

Bohn hired Fickell at Cincinnati and the move has worked out wonderfully. The longtime Ohio State assistant, who had a rough year as Buckeyes coach in 2011, has blossomed with the Bearcats. Fickell is 33-6 since the start of the 2018 season, recording three straight Top 25 finishes. Cincinnati finished No. 8 in 2020 and currently occupies the same spot in the AP poll as it seeks to become the first Group of 5 program to reach the CFP. Fickell, 48, is an exceptional recruiter and strong defensive mind who would bring the toughness and discipline USC has lacked at times under Helton. The only potential drawback is USC’s location. Fickell has spent practically his entire life and career in Ohio, and might be hesitant about working in Los Angeles. The Cincinnati job also is becoming more appealing with the school headed to the Big 12.

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal

There aren’t many obvious candidates for USC who currently coach college teams and have direct ties to the region. Cristobal is one. Despite no West Coast experience until 2017, Cristobal, 50, quickly rebooted his career and restored Oregon as the Pac-12’s premier program. The Ducks have won consecutive league titles and appear to be on their way to a third after Saturday’s win at Ohio State. USC would be foolish not to pursue Cristobal, especially since hiring him would damage a league competitor. The question is: Would Cristobal leave? USC has natural location advantages that Oregon lacks, and more long-term tradition. But Oregon is ready to compete for the CFP right now, and should have its best team in years in 2022. Plus, Oregon gave Cristobal an incredible opportunity when few considered him a top head-coaching candidate. Cristobal’s buyout to leave Oregon is $9 million until Jan. 15, which is fairly steep for any suitor, even USC.

Former coach tier

Bob Stoops

After coveting Urban Meyer in 2019 and 2020, USC fans likely would be thrilled to land the man who replaced Meyer in Fox’s college football analyst chair. Stoops, 61, left Oklahoma on his own terms and seems to be enjoying his new role in the media. He looks great and still has plenty of energy, though, and probably would at least listen to what USC has to say. Stoops brings an exceptional résumé from Oklahoma, where he won a national title in 2000 and 10 Big 12 championships. The College Football Hall of Famer recruited California while at Oklahoma. He commands respect and brings an approach that would greatly benefit USC. If Stoops has genuine interest in a return to the sideline, USC should go all-in on him.

Chris Petersen

Many Pac-12 observers think if USC had hired Petersen years ago, it wouldn’t be in this position. Petersen won big at both Boise State and then Washington, guiding the Huskies to a CFP appearance in 2015 and two Pac-12 titles in three seasons. He’s 147-38 as an FBS coach and has recruited California throughout his career. The concern is that Petersen ultimately burned out at Washington, a job carrying less eyeballs and pressure than USC. Although he’s also working for Fox, he never seemed comfortable in the media and recruiting spotlight, which the USC job undoubtedly brings. But at 56, Petersen is still young enough to give coaching another go, and likely would return only to a premier job.

Other candidates to watch

Iowa State coach Matt Campbell

There aren’t many candidate lists for major college jobs or even NFL openings that won’t include Campbell’s name. He has elevated Iowa State to historic heights, as the Cyclones last fall reached their first Big 12 championship game, won the Fiesta Bowl and finished No. 9. Campbell has two wins over Oklahoma and has guided ISU to four consecutive bowl appearances. The 41-year-old knows quarterbacks and offense, and brings a strong recruiting and development approach. Like Fickell, Campbell would bring a more detailed approach to a USC program that needs it. And, like Fickell, Campbell is an Ohioan who might be a better fit for premier Midwest programs than USC.

Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien

O’Brien will be a head coach again soon. The only question is whether he returns to the NFL or remains at the college level. He did great work under incredibly difficult circumstances at Penn State, going 15-9 in the two years following the NCAA sanctions. O’Brien is well on his way to a successful season with coach Nick Saban and quarterback Bryce Young (a former USC recruit) at Alabama. O’Brien has never worked on the West Coast and might not be an obvious fit at USC. But he brings NFL and college head-coaching experience, and a track record of developing quarterbacks that includes Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson. Like others on this list, he also has a no-nonsense philosophy that USC could use to clean up its play.

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck

Would “Fight On” embrace “Row the boat”? Industry insiders have long wondered whether a traditional power would hire Fleck. USC would need to fully embrace all that he brings or it wouldn’t work, but no one would question the program’s identity with the 40-year-old at the helm. Fleck led Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl and won 11 games at Minnesota in 2019. He’s full of energy and would be a natural frontman in the Los Angeles spotlight. His holistic approach to player development might appeal to Bohn and USC president Carol Folt, and Fleck’s teams are typically very sound and disciplined in their play. Fleck likely will need a strong season this fall to help his stock, but he shouldn’t be counted out.

Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott

After Helton, USC likely wants its next coach to have previous experience running a program. But Elliott undoubtedly is ready to lead after an incredible run at Clemson that includes two national titles as the team’s primary offensive playcaller. He has remained at coach Dabo Swinney’s side longer than many expected, and rebuffed opportunities at Tennessee and elsewhere. Elliott, 41, was born in California, spent part of his childhood there and has an incredible backstory of overcoming adversity. He’s also part of a Clemson staff that recently has recruited more in the state. One question could be whether Elliott, who is more reserved, could handle the attention that comes at USC.

The wild card

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin

A return to Troy would be absolutely wild, but it would also be emblematic of Kiffin’s coaching career. Kiffin would need to deliver a big season at Ole Miss, which seems increasingly possible with one of the nation’s most exciting offenses and quarterbacks (Matt Corral, a California native). The 46-year-old has grown significantly as a coach since his first go-round at USC, and remains one of the game’s top playcallers and recruiters. Still, it’s hard to see Folt embracing a Kiffin redux, given the attention/controversy that often follows him and her focus on cleaning up USC’s reputation since her arrival in 2019. But many think if given another chance, Kiffin would soon have USC competing nationally again.

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