After it was announced former interim head coach Ed Orgeron would not be returning next year as the head coach of the USC football team, several Trojan players said they felt they lost a father figure on the team.
If Orgeron was the team dad, then that must make current interim head coach Clay Helton something like that really quiet uncle that you forgot came over for Thanksgiving and is now taking you skiing at his house in Mammoth over winter break.
Helton has a pretty tough act to follow as he takes over the interim head coaching role from Orgeron and leads No. 25 ranked USC into the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl this Saturday against the No. 20 Fresno State Bulldogs. Helton replaces a man whose love from Trojan fans was matched only by the players who did everything they could for him over the last eight games of a crazy 9-4 regular season.
For Helton, the season has been just as crazy personally as it has been for the team as a whole. He began the year as the quarterbacks coach and the official offensive coordinator, yet that title would have been more aptly applied to former head coach Lane Kiffin, who did all the play calling.
After Kiffin was fired and Orgeron became the interim, interim head coach during the bye week, Helton was given full control of the offense as he took over the play-calling duties directly from the sideline.
When Orgeron resigned after it was announced he would not drop the interim label from his title, Helton got his second promotion of the year. But that wasn't necessarily good news for Helton, as incoming head coach Steve Sarkisian boasted one of the best offenses in the country at Washington this year, already starting to recruit a large portion of that offensive staff to follow him down to SC.
The Huskies averaged 514.3 yards and 38.5 points a game this regular season, good for eighth and 18th respectively in the country, while USC averaged 392.3 yards and 28.5 points per game.
So Helton has to keep a group of returning players that may already be looking to next season, a group of outgoing players that may be looking back on what could have been this year and a group of unsure players that may or may not be thinking about the NFL combine already, to all stay focused preparing for one more game.
On top of that, this will be Helton's first time ever as a head coach of a team during a game situation. He was an assistant for Memphis for 10 seasons before spending the last four in Southern California, and he once had to run practice for a short time at Memphis when then head coach Tommy West had off-season heart surgery, but this will be the first time Helton will ever be fully in charge of a game plan.
A strong performance Saturday would be a huge boost for the program going into next year for all the returning players as well as some recruits that are still unsure as to where they want to play in the future.
USC would break the 10-win mark for only the second time in the last five seasons, which is a big deal for a program that had double digit wins for seven straight years at one point during the Pete Carroll era.
For Helton, how the team looks on Dec. 21 will say a lot about his deservingness to stay on the Trojan staff, or possibly pursue a head coaching gig of his own.
What does Helton need to do to keep the team locked in for a very good Bulldogs team and possibly keep his spot on next year's offense locked in? He needs to keep everything fun. Not too much fun, but still fun. More like an Orgeron, less like a Kiffin.
The atmosphere around the team maybe shouldn't feel too much like a business trip, but also shouldn't feel like a scene from The Hangover. It should fall in the middle, like the Average Joe's trip to Vegas in Dodgeball.
Helton needs to harp on the underdog mentality, organize some quality team-bonding activities during the trip, keep the positive energy going at practice and make sure that the team goes out strong against Fresno. If the Trojans come out flat against the Bulldogs and look like they don't want to be there, Helton won't be back.
The signs from the few practices so far have been good. Players are saying all the right things and seem to be poised to go out strong, but Saturday will be the true litmus test. Whatever happens in the game, it is sure to be more exciting than your average winter break family ski trip. For more coverage, visit Bulldogs vs Trojans coverage.