LOS ANGELES — Clay Helton has twice taken charge of the Southern California football program in moments of crisis and steadied the Trojans with calm leadership.
Athletic director Pat Haden decided Helton has earned the chance to be much more than his backup plan.
USC hired Helton as its permanent coach on Monday, removing the interim tag five days before the Trojans face Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game.
Helton guided the troubled Trojans (8-4, 5-3 Pac-12) to five victories and a Pac-12 South title in his seven-week tenure after taking over for Steve Sarkisian, making him 6-2 in two interim stints at USC over the past three years. The 43-year-old career assistant coach’s reward for that combination of success and stability is one of the most coveted jobs in college football.
“I totally understand that I am not a flashy name, but I don’t want to be flashy,” said Helton, who is in his first full-time head coaching job. “I never have been, and never will be.”
Although Haden claimed he interviewed several more prominent candidates, his quiet in-season search ended with Helton, who got a five-year contract to stay on. He had been an assistant at USC since 2010, working as the offensive coordinator under Lane Kiffin and Sarkisian.
“After I observed Clay in action the last seven weeks, it became abundantly clear that what we were searching for in a coach was right here in front of us,” Haden said.
A born-and-bred Southerner who called his wife “Miss Linda” during his hastily called news conference, Helton has grown to love his West Coast school. Helton took over a 3-2 team on Oct. 12 after Sarkisian was fired for showing up to campus in no condition to work, an apparent reflection of his struggles with alcohol.
With Helton emphasizing physical play and a familial bond among his talented roster, the Trojans have won five of their last six games in fairly impressive fashion. USC routed UCLA 40-21 on Saturday to snap a three-game skid in the crosstown rivalry, earning its first trip to the conference championship game and a chance at a Rose Bowl berth.
“I’ve had the great experience and fortune to be a part of this special place for six years,” Helton said. “In that time, I have learned about the tradition of excellence that USC has, both on and off the field. I totally understand the high bar of excellence and expectations that come with the job. I welcome them with open arms, because as a coach, I expect them of myself.”
Helton has succeeded by keeping things simple at USC, a place where nothing seems to happen easily or normally.
The Trojans have had five head coaching changes and no conference titles since Pete Carroll’s departure following the 2009 season, fighting through heavy NCAA sanctions and scholarship restrictions that only ended last year.
USC is winning with uncomplicated football from a roster loaded with NFL talent. The Trojans have outrushed their opponents in every game, averaging 263 yards on the ground to just 124 for opponents, while committing nine fewer turnovers.
“You realize that this place was founded on a blue-collar toughness, a toughness that I hope to emulate with my time here,” Helton said. “I apologize for not being glitzy, but I believe that that blue-collar toughness mentality is what wins championships, and it has been proven here over a long period of time, way before me.”
Helton’s players loudly advocated for his promotion to the full-time job, but Haden said Helton’s broad support among past and current Trojans was only one factor. USC’s team meeting still erupted into raucous celebrations on Monday when Haden told the players about Helton’s promotion.
The timing of Haden’s move was surprising, even if the outcome had seemed increasingly plausible for weeks. Faced with an unwanted midseason coaching change, little news leaked about USC’s search — and Haden flatly denied that he had interviewed Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly, a popular candidate among fans and alumni.
Although Carroll doesn’t know Helton personally, the national title-winning coach heartily endorsed the decision from Seattle.
“It’s a great choice, I think, in so many ways,” Carroll said. “I’m fired up for everybody down there. He’s done a really good job. He’s got a way about him. … The players really respond, and they’ve got a great style, too. They played so tough last week against UCLA and showed what their makeup is and what it’s going to be in the future.”
Helton, a former college quarterback and son of veteran coach Kim Helton, spent a decade at the University of Memphis before joining Kiffin’s staff. After serving as the Trojans’ head coach for a Las Vegas Bowl victory in 2013 following the departures of Kiffin and Ed Orgeron, he stayed on Sarkisian’s staff.
Helton jokingly referred to himself as the Trojans’ “third-string head coach” when he took over for Orgeron, but the backup to the backup is now the starter.
“This is the most unique place in the world,” Helton said. “It is the pinnacle of college football.”
AP College Football Writer Ralph Russo and AP Sports Writer Tim Booth in Seattle contributed to this report.