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Here’s the $20 million question hanging over USC’s new athletic director

Athletic director Mike Bohn has been on the job at USC for less than two weeks, and he’ll watch the Trojans’ final regular season football game against rival UCLA on Saturday.

That means on Sunday, the countdown to a decision on the future of embattled coach Clay Helton begins. Mike Bohn faces a $20 million question that will ultimately define his tenure, the future of USC football and, really, the direction of the Pac-12 conference. That’s some heavy freight after a fortnight.

Helton has underachieved at USC for the second consecutive season. The Trojans are 7-4, with a home blowout loss to Oregon, a dispiriting loss to a bad BYU team and an authoritative loss to mediocre Washington. The decision to move on from Helton is an easy one in the eyes of a dissatisfied fan base, ambivalent recruits and throughout the college football industry. But Bohn is walking onto a campus beset by scandal and attempting to fill a decade-long leadership void in the athletic department. What makes sense on paper could be tricky in reality, as it’s inherently difficult to walk into a relatively successful program and fire everyone before you learn their name. And it’s even more complex when it means the administrative equivalent of driving to the Santa Monica Pier and dumping more than $20 million into the Pacific Ocean. Especially if landing Urban Meyer or James Franklin to replace Helton isn’t realistic.

Bohn is a veteran and experienced enough – both with good and bad hires – that he knows both he and USC can’t let him flail around on a search. If he does decide to move on Helton – and his recent comments to the Los Angeles Times show he’s in no hurry – expect him to have a quality coach targeted that’s a proven upgrade. Instead of running a search, he’d be making a switch. If you need to learn the difference, Google “Tennessee football search” and it will become apparent.

USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton looks on during a college football game between the Oregon Ducks and the USC Trojans on Nov. 2, 2019. (Brian Rothmuller/Getty Images)

Having a distinct upgrade lined up is foggy in this marketplace. Landing the next tier of candidates – Baylor’s Matt Rhule, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham or Iowa State’s Matt Campbell – would also require an onerous buyout and deft maneuvering. Plus, a lot more cash for their bigger salaries and inevitably bigger staffs.

The more than $20 million cost represents both what it would take to buy out Helton’s contract and the rest of the Trojan staff. The Helton contract was one of the worst administrative decisions in modern college athletics, as former athletic director Lynn Swann bid against himself to keep Helton and guarantee a large swath of that contract through 2023. None of the USC athletic department lifers were savvy enough to stop him, as they’ve been around for USC hiring three straight lemons – Helton, Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin – and have watched a Cadillac job turn into a Corolla.

As if having to ponder sending $20 million to the scene of “Cast Away” isn’t vexing enough for Bohn, here’s the backdrop surrounding his decision. There’s a president, Carol Folt, who loves Helton for his stability, calm and professionalism in a program that desperately needed it. That’s refreshing for Folt on a campus department besieged by waves of scandal. Losing games in football is far from USC’s biggest institutional issue.

It was interesting to hear another high-profile athletic director volunteer on Tuesday night that they’d keep Helton through next season if thrust into the same situation. Without time to properly diagnose issues in the program and come up with solutions, firing him would bring the risk of diminishing returns.

There’s conflict everywhere Bohn turns. There’s a loyal fan base that’s largely checked out while waiting to see who’ll replace Helton. There’s also a talented program, especially freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, that could be framed as having a strong base of talent for the future.

Conversely, there are recurring issues that reflect poorly on the coaching staff – special teams incompetence, defensive inconsistencies and a lack of discipline that’s led to USC ranking No. 109 in penalties. Hey, that’s better than being ranked No. 120 last year. Would firing defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and special teams coach John Baxter be enough? Or would the fans protest with empty seats?

Mike Bohn speaks during a press conference announcing his selection as USC athletic director on Nov. 7. (Jevone Moore/Getty Images)

The messy contractual situation with Helton is indicative of what happens when you hire consecutive unqualified athletic directors who turn out to be wholly incompetent. USC hired former stars Pat Haden in 2010 and Swann in 2016 because they had letterman’s jackets, not credentials. The suffering in the wake of those felonious hires transcends the federal investigations that followed them. Did either Haden or Swann really know what a cutting-edge football program was supposed to look like? Unlikely, as neither spent a day working in an athletic department. That’s a decade of atrophy that Bohn needs to address, as USC regressed while Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State all stayed on the cutting edge.

With the $20 million decision in mind, it’s important to remember that Bohn isn’t going to make it solo. After all, he’s coming to a university that’s been so inundated with controversy that the optics of any move will be weighed considerably.

Folt took over a campus plagued by scandal back when she was hired in March. Her charge at USC has been to help heal a campus scarred by a sexual assault scandal tied to a campus gynecologist and a former medical school dean who admitted to frequent methamphetamine use.

Amid the backdrop of all the dueling USC scandals – the federal basketball investigationOperation Varsity Blues and the campus scandals – there’s a sense that USC is going to proceed with caution moving forward on Helton. USC could still fire Helton this year, but it won’t happen at noon on Sunday. (Losing to UCLA, of course, could reinforce the notion that change needs to happen.)

All the reasons to fire Helton are still there. He’s proven he’s not a national championship-level coach, he’s massively underachieved the past two seasons and USC’s recruiting is untenable for a program that aspires to win championships. (While this is a small class for USC of only a dozen or so players, they’ve whiffed on nearly every top West Coast player and have the same average per-player ranking as Duke, Indiana and Cal.)

But can Bohn glance around for two weeks and throw away $20 million? The football decision whether or not to fire Clay Helton appears easy. The reality involves a suitcase of cash, dueling scandals and attempting to fix issues that haven’t been diagnosed.  

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