USC makes a sensible choice with Helton's hire, but is it the right one?

Helton hire offers consistency for USC players

Danny Kanell shares his thoughts on USC hiring Clay Helton as its head football coach and the importance of stability and consistency for the Trojans.

Every coaching hire offers four stages of evaluation, and USC's decision to drop the "interim" tag from Clay Helton's title will be no different.

First, there is the immediate, emotional reaction, one that is often guided by the fan message boards and media. A program hires Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Chris Petersen, Chip Kelly, etc., and everyone leaps into the air, clicks their heels together and begins signing Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."

Or if it hires a 43-year-old offensive coordinator with name recognition only developed because he'd been promoted to "interim" coach when the former head coach got fired at midseason because of an alleged alcohol problem, then the enthusiasm is more muted and reaction in some quarters ranges from disappointment to outrage.

So we have Helton getting tapped to lead perhaps the premier college football program in the nation after what seems like a pretty darn short and rumor-free coaching search.

Another example of the latter reaction would be when USC hired a 50-year-old, failed NFL coach in 2001, one who came off as a fast-talking, New Age goofball his first season. Things, of course, got better for Pete Carroll.

Second stage, there are first impressions -- first recruiting class, first season, first adversity, first big win -- or confounding loss.

In 2001, Miami replaced Butch Davis with his offensive coordinator, Larry Coker, after impassioned lobbying from his players. Coker led the Hurricanes to an unbeaten national championship season and won national coach of the year honors. On the downside, Coker was fired in 2006 after the Hurricanes went 7-6, and it was later revealed during an NCAA investigation that booster Nevin Shapiro was doing all sorts of unseemly things behind the scenes.

Third, there's the "long view." That evaluative period used to last five years so a coach could fill his program with his recruits to fit his scheme. Now it's closer to three.

After five years, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, formerly Florida's defensive coordinator, had won a national title and an Orange, Cotton and Rose Bowl. After four years, Alabama coach Mike DuBose, formerly the Crimson Tide's defensive coordinator, had gone 24-23, faced allegations he'd had an affair with his secretary and left behind a recruiting scandal.

A good coach wins consistently at a big-time program. A bad coach does not and it often gets ugly when he's there.

Finally, there's the end. The coach gets fired for failure. Or he moves on because of high achievement. Or he succeeds for a while then fails and gets fired. Or he retires in a blaze of glory. Or he retires because he's lost his magic.

Obviously, we are at stage one with Helton, and it's a mixed bag. One could term it inspired and gutsy that athletic director Pat Haden is taking a chance on guy with little coaching pedigree. Helton was an assistant at Duke, Houston and Memphis from 1995-2009 until Lane Kiffin brought him out West to be a coordinator who didn't call plays.

Or it could be termed lazy, a stopgap until Haden is replaced himself.

Helton could end up like Keith Gilbertson did at Washington, a good man promoted from offensive coordinator who was overwhelmed by a tough situation after Rick Neuheisel was fired. Or he could end up like Dabo Swinney, who went from offensive coordinator under Tommy Bowden at Clemson, to interim head coach in 2008, to head coach and now the leader of the nation's unbeaten No. 1 team.

Helton has gone 5-2 since replacing Steve Sarkisian, most notably beating UCLA on Saturday -- ending a three-game losing streak in the rivalry series -- and captured the Pac-12's South Division. That is moderately impressive, but if Sarkisian were still the coach, an 8-4 record wouldn't be widely celebrated in Heritage Hall or among the USC faithful, South title or not.

Haden went as far in the press release announcing the hire to state, “Clay was not hired because his team defeated UCLA Saturday. He was not hired because many current and former players voiced their support for him. And he was not hired because he is a Trojan. He is our choice because we believe he can win Pac-12 and national championships here."

Many were thinking that, so Haden knew that thinking had to be directly countered.

As it is, we'll get an early start on substantive first impressions. USC plays Stanford for the Pac-12 title Saturday, and it is fully capable of winning that game if it plays well. In fact, ESPN.com's Stats & Information favors the Trojans.

After that, we'll get a bowl game -- potentially the Rose Bowl against a highly rated Big Ten team -- and then the recruiting season to begin to take the more substantive measure of Helton.

At USC, it won't take much time to arrive at a "long view." Trojans fans will expect Helton to immediately position USC in the Pac-12 and national title hunt. If he goes 8-4 in 2017, the grumbling will be loud.

On the positive side of the ledger, what Helton does offer is a contrast to the previous two failed hires after Carroll. He's a mature adult. He's polite and restrained. He will not embarrass USC. While the USC players were behind former interim coach Ed Orgeron after Kiffin was fired, their support this time feels different, more deeply rooted and sincere.

Helton doesn't offer pizzazz. USC fans won't be dashing off to rival message boards to hoot and holler and trash talk as they would have if Haden had announced the hiring of Kelly or Michigan State's Mark Dantonio or Jeff Fisher. Other Pac-12 coaches aren't fretting. More than likely, there are a few smirks inside rival coaching offices.

Today, the decision feels questionable. Hiring Helton isn't going to be judged a sure-thing by anyone, no matter how Haden or the Trojans frame it. Yet that immediate, emotional reaction can have a short shelf life when a coach starts leading his team. It's up to Helton and the staff he hires to change it.

On Saturday and going forward, Helton will move past stage one. Not to look ahead or anything, but just imagine if Helton should win the Trojans' 2016 season opener at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

That would be against Saban and Alabama.