PULLMAN – At 2:07 p.m., about a third of the way through his Monday news conference, Washington State coach Nick Rolovich discussed his friendly relationship with the Helton family.
At around 2:10 p.m., Rolovich told local media members that he expected USC coach Clay Helton to have the Trojans “ready to play” on Saturday, when they meet the Cougars in Pullman.
Coming off an ugly loss to Stanford, "those guys feel they are playing for something," Rolovich said.
There is sure to be pressure on the visitors, who will be eager to “get the bad taste out of their mouths,” said Rolovich, wrapping up his thoughts with something about how the Cougs need to focus on themselves.
A minute later, at precisely 2:11 p.m., USC athletic director Mike Bohn tweeted out a statement, informing the world that Helton had been fired.
Right on cue, at just about 2:12 p.m., an attentive reporter reversed roles and broke some news to Rolovich, asking for the coach’s reaction in real time.
“It’s definitely a crazy business we’re in, especially as of late,” said Rolovich, who appeared to be deeply considering what he’d just learned. “He did some great things for that place. I know he cares about the kids. He’s still my friend and I wish him the best in his next part of his journey.”
Rolovich let out a sigh and acknowledged the weirdness of the moment. He had never received such sudden news in a setting like this.
Just like that, the talking points surrounding WSU’s next game have changed.
The Cougs play host to the Trojans at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Gesa Field. The visitors will be led by interim coach Donte Williams, who had previously been in charge of USC’s cornerbacks.
One has to wonder how Helton’s abrupt dismissal will affect the Trojans in their upcoming performance.
“It’s hard on the coaches. It’s hard on their families. But it’s hard on these kids going through a coaching change, whether it’s right or wrong, or how everybody feels – it’s not easy for these guys … to go through that,” Rolovich said. “A lot of question marks go through your brain: ‘What’s the future look like?’ All that stuff. So, that definitely throws a little wrinkle in (the game), but this should not change our approach to the football game we have this weekend.”
Helton went 46-24 as coach of the Trojans before this fateful Week 3 of his seventh season at the helm. He was 2-3 in bowl games and helped USC to a Rose Bowl win in 2016 and a Pac-12 championship in 2017.
But USC’s program, which is consistently wrapped in lofty expectations, underachieved on the whole with Helton running the show – despite all its resources and recruiting prowess.
Fans had been simmering when the Trojans struggled to put away Week 1 opponent San Jose State until the fourth quarter. And the final blow came last weekend, when a rebuilding Stanford team stomped USC 42-28 at a lifeless Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Trojans never led and suffered their worst home loss to an unranked opponent in 21 years.
“As I committed to upon my arrival at USC, during the past two offseasons we provided every resource necessary for our football program to compete for championships,” Bohn wrote in the statement. “The added resources carried significantly increased expectations for our team’s performance, and it is already evident that, despite the enhancements, those expectations would not be met without a change in leadership.”
Rolovich said he and Helton share “a relationship that’s maybe stronger than just head coach to head coach.”
Helton’s brother, Tyson – now the head coach at Western Kentucky – was an assistant at Hawaii during Rolovich’s days as the Rainbow Warriors’ quarterback. The two were both on Hawaii’s coaching staff in the 2003 season.
“(I’ve) known Clay’s brother, Tyson, even longer,” Rolovich said. “Met their dad (journeyman coach Kim Helton). Coaching family. He (Clay) is a good person. He has checked in, welcomed me when I got in the conference.”
Clay Helton praised WSU’s hiring of Rolovich on a webinar in May 2020.
“You’re talking about an extremely brilliant offensive guy that also has a personality that’s big and relates to kids,” Helton said. “As soon as you saw that go across the wire, you were like, ‘That’s a really neat hire, that’s a really good fit.’ So Rolo, don’t change, man.”
If Helton wasn’t fired Monday, the pressure to defeat the Cougs would have been great. Pundits were predicting that a loss on the Palouse probably equates to a lost job. Football wins are mighty valuable to Rolovich and WSU right now, too.
USC still has the top-flight talent, but the Cougs are presumably wondering if they can effectively pounce on the coaching disarray.
Bohn selected the defense-minded Williams, also listed on USC’s website as an associate head coach and recruiting ace, to take the reins of a Trojan team that is known for its explosive skill players and Air Raid offense.
Williams “gives us a higher probability for success the remainder of the season,” Bohn said in the statement.
“Donte is an experienced and well-respected coach who is renowned for his ability to develop relationships with student-athletes, and I appreciate his willingness to take on the challenge,” Bohn continued.
Williams, 39, was hired by USC in February 2020 after two seasons as the cornerbacks coach at Oregon. He taught secondaries at Nebraska, Arizona and San Jose State before then. A product of Culver City, California, Williams finished his college career at Idaho State, where he played defensive back from 2004-05.
He coached at the junior college level before moving on to assistant roles at Nevada and Washington.