LOS ANGELES >> Clay Helton hopes one day he’ll get a head coaching job that doesn’t result from the professional demise of a friend.
Until then, he plans to enjoy spending the rest of this year in charge of Southern California’s storied football program.
Although Helton is focused firmly on salvaging the Trojans’ season, starting with Saturday’s trip to Notre Dame, he’ll also have an eye on his own future beyond his second stint in this interim gig.
“I want to be the head coach,” Helton said Tuesday after his first practice formally in charge of the Trojans (3-2, 1-2 Pac-12).
“I’m up-front and honest, but I also know the reality of the situation,” Helton added. “In college football at this level, you have to prove yourself. That’s reality. You go out and win games, and then you talk about it. Right now, I’m focused on beating one team and competing against one team, and that’s Notre Dame. My ultimate goal in life, yes, is to be a head football coach, yes sir.”
The 43-year-old Helton’s accent reveals him as no California native, but he has been a rock on the Trojans’ tumultuous coaching staff since his arrival in 2010, when Lane Kiffin hired him as USC’squarterbacks coach.
Helton has been moving up and down the head coaching depth chart at USC for the past three seasons. He won the Las Vegas Bowl during a one-game stint in 2013 after interim coach Ed Orgeron quit when he was bypassed for the full-time job in favor of Steve Sarkisian.
Helton jokingly referred to himself as the “third-string head coach” back then, but this season he became the backup who gets a chance to play, albeit under dismaying circumstances.
Helton stepped in and took over the Trojans on Sunday after Sarkisian showed up to school in no condition to work, according to athletic director Pat Haden. Helton finished Sarkisian’s work in a team meeting and then organized practice when Sarkisian was deemed unfit to coach.
Shortly afterward, Helton got wild cheers when Haden introduced him to the locker room as the Trojans’ interim coach for the second time.
“I was extremely humbled the other day,” Helton said. “I’ve been in this profession 21 years. I’ve probably forgotten a lot of games and a lot of plays. I’ll never forget, as long as I live, Pat Haden introducing me to this team and the ovation that they gave.”
Helton made two staff changes, assigning tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo to replace him as the quarterbacks coach and promoting Lenny Vandermade to tight ends coach. Tuiasosopo is a former star quarterback at Washington who followed Sarkisian from Seattle to Los Angeles.
But Helton will continue to call plays while serving as the Trojans’ offensive coordinator. The offense-minded Sarkisian, also a former quarterback, ceded play-calling duties to Helton this season as the coaches developed a close bond despite the unusual start to their partnership.
“We love Coach Sark,” Helton said. “He is a very, very good man and a good football coach. We look forward to him getting healthy and doing what he loves to do, which is coach football. … I am not one that kicks a man when he is down. I will not comment on any personal things dealing with Coach Sark.”
Helton’s father, Kim, coached in Gainesville, Miami and Tampa Bay during Clay’s childhood, moving between college and the NFL. Clay Helton began his college career as a quarterback at Auburn before finishing at the University of Houston, where he played for his father.
After a three-year stint on his father’s staff, Helton moved to Memphis in 2000 and spent a decade with the Tigers. He gained a reputation as an up-and-coming offensive coach, and Kiffin persuaded him to leave a job at Arkansas State two months after accepting it.
Helton knows what happened to the beloved Orgeron, who didn’t get the full-time job in 2013 despite going 6-2 in a stirring late-season run. While the current Trojans are all but out of the national picture, they still have a talent-loaded roster — and Helton is eager for his chance to make it work.
“A lot of these guys, fortunately or unfortunately, have been in this situation before,” Helton said. “You have to be yourself, and you have to coach it your own way. I told the guys, we’re going to win a lot of ballgames here and we’re going to have a lot of fun.”