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Clay Helton to lead USC after Steve Sarkisian’s dismissal

| Friday, October 16, 2015

To say it’s been a tumultuous week for USC may be an understatement.

Former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian chats with a reporter following the Trojans’ win over Notre Dame last year in Los Angeles. Sarkisian was fired Monday by USC athletic director Pat Haden.Observer File Photo
Former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian chats with a reporter following the Trojans’ win over Notre Dame last year in Los Angeles. Sarkisian was fired Monday by USC athletic director Pat Haden.

Dropping a 17-12 home decision to unranked Washington on Oct. 8 and dropping out of the polls in the process would be enough to knock most teams off their game, but the termination of head coach Steve Sarkisian on Monday threw a program that started the year in the top 10 into further turmoil.

“After careful consideration of what is in the best interest of the university and our student-athletes, I have made the decision to terminate Steve Sarkisian, effective immediately,” Trojans athletic director Pat Haden said in a press release Monday. “ … Through all of this we remain concerned for Steve and hope that it will give him the opportunity to focus on his personal well-being.”

Sarkisian, who had appeared at a university function in August under the influence of alcohol, was terminated after “not meeting USC expectations and standards,” Haden said.

“He knew those expectations and failed to meet them, so we made a decision in the best interest of our student-athletes, and that was to terminate Steve.”

With Sarkisian out, interim head coach Clay Helton will lead the Trojans (3-2, 1-2 Pac-12) into the rivalry showdown against the Irish.

“I’m very confident in my ability to lead a football team and the opportunity ahead,” Helton, who served as Sarkisian’s offensive coordinator, said on the Pac-12 coaches’ teleconference Tuesday. “Our kids are extremely excited about it.”

For No. 14 Notre Dame (5-1), it means the Irish will face a fourth different USC coach in as many seasons: Lane Kiffin coached the Trojans in 2012, Ed Orgeron in 2013 following Kiffin’s dismissal the previous week and Sarkisian last year.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly said he expects to see similar things from the Trojans this week as they’ve shown earlier in the season but noted Helton is likely to put his own stamp on USC’s game plan.

“I’m certain that the system that’s in place is one that we’ll continue to see,” Kelly said. “But play calling is such a combination of art and science. Now that he is clearly running the program, you tend to see a little bit more of that finish come out, where maybe Steve had his thumb or stamp on it. I think certainly it would make sense that Clay would have a little bit of his. But I don’t think you go too far from what they are and who they are as an offense.”

And while there’s been a lot of turmoil at the program, Kelly said he expects to see a USC team that comes out and puts its best foot forward — comparing it to Texas’ performance last weekend against Oklahoma in a 24-17 upset win following a blowout loss at TCU.

“It’s a rivalry game for them as well. It’s a chance for them to respond,” Kelly said. “I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny. I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

The situation the Trojans find themselves in this year is eerily similar to the one two years ago, when Kiffin was fired midseason, and Helton said he thinks his team can draw off that experience to come together.

“The biggest thing is a lot of these guys — fortunately or unfortunately — have been in this situation before,” Helton said. “We were in in it two years ago. I thought that staff that was together did exactly what we’re doing right now; we bonded together as a Trojan family and a football team.”

Helton said his team has a big opportunity this week at Notre Dame.

“[We have] the opportunity to play in one of the greatest rivalry games in the history of college football this Saturday,” Helton said. “ … What an unbelievable Saturday it will be, and what a great opportunity for us as Trojans.”

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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