For New Coaches Like Clay Helton, A Chance at Reinvention


From Clay Helton at USC, Mike Norvell at Memphis and D.J. Durkin at Maryland, this year’s head coaching carousel netted numerous first-timers jobs. In fact, per CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd, 69 percent of the FBS head-coaching hires in 2015 are newbies.

The influx of fresh faces into the coaching fraternity will yield the sport’s next generation of stars and champions. Some will succeed at the game’s pinnacle in just one stop, as College Football Playoff participants Clemson and Oklahoma have under Dabo Swinney and Bob Stoops, neither of whom had prior head-coaching experience before being tabbed at his respective school.

Some of the profession’s new faces will flourish immediately, as Houston’s Tom Herman did in his debut campaign. His American Athletic Conference champion Cougars will face Jimbo Fisher, who won a national championship at Florida State four years into his first head-coaching gig.

While prior experience and success elsewhere looks attractive on a resume, precedent shows it’s not a requisite. First-timers come with an inherent upside precisely because they lack prior success.

Essentially, a new head coach will be willing to experiment in ways one more entrenched in the profession might not. There’s no pointing to past successes when the formula goes astray, simply because there is no past and there is no formula. A clean slate can make for a more malleable coaching style, and that begins with the assembly of a staff.

The experienced coach will rely on his proverbial Rolodex when taking a new job, as we see time and again during coaching searches. New Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall is taking Robert Anae, who served two different stints as BYU offensive coordinator, with him to Charlottesville. Another example is Will Muschamp’s hire of Kurt Roper for South Carolina’s new staff.

Muschamp was a first-timer when Florida hired him in 2011, a move roundly lauded at the time. But as Muschamp gets the band back together at South Carolina, it seems four years is all it took for him to get that rigid mindset.

Honoring preexisting relationships isn’t inherently a negative, but can become one when a head coach remains committed to old dynamics that aren’t working. At USC, Steve Sarkisian brought several staffers over from Washington. Among them was defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who transformed the Huskies defense from one of the Pac-12’s most porous into a formidable unit just two seasons on the job.

What worked for Wilcox at Washington never quite clicked at USC. The first splash Clay Helton made as permanent USC head coach was quickly severing ties with Wilcox after a disastrous Pac-12 Championship Game, giving the program a clean sheet under its new leader.

Helton’s search for a defensive coordinator is among the more intriguing plots of the coming weeks in college football, particularly as it coincides with the Trojans’ preparation for the Holiday Bowl matchup with Wisconsin.

“You’ve got to know how to juggle, and thank God I know how to,” Helton said. “Between getting ready for a big bowl game, and putting together a good staff, that’s your job as a head coach.”

It seems a day doesn’t go by in December when news of a new assistant hire breaks. Monday, it was Jim Harbaugh bringing on Don Brown to replace D.J. Durkin. The following Tuesday, Durkin scored a major coup by luring Ball State head coach Pete Lembo on onto his Maryland staff as associated head coach and special teams coordinator.

Lembo was a popular name on the rumor mill for Power Five jobs in the last three years. For the first-time head coach D.J. Durkin to make such an impact, it only ups the ante for another first-time, Clay Helton. But don’t expect it to rush his decision.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is to bring the best coaches in here, and make sure they fit us as a university,” he said at last week’s Holiday Bowl press gathering. “A lot of those coaches just happen to [not have] availability [to interview] — say, NFL coaches. They go all the way to Jan. 3 before they can even talk to us.

“My ultimate goal is to have the staff together…by the time we’re back out on the road [for recruiting] and for [the new hires ] to be able to [recruit],” he added.

For those who hope to see Clay Helton assemble the best possible staff at USC, barring his landing someone the caliber of a Pete Lembo, an extended search is a good thing. It suggests exploring different avenues and a willingness to try new defensive approaches.

But in the same vein, Helton promoting colleague Tee Martin to offensive coordinator isn’t lacking in imagination. Josh Webb breaks down the hire expertly here, touching upon the sometimes overemphasis placed on experience. Helton giving a first-timer a shot ultimately has a higher ceiling than had he tabbed a retread for the same position.