Donte Williams, Urban Meyer and what we know about the USC football coaching search

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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 23: (L-R) Athletic Director Mike Bohn of the USC Trojans shakes hands with head coach Clay Helton of the USC Trojans after defeating the UCLA Bruins 52-35 in a game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
USC athletic director Mike Bohn, left, shakes hands with coach Clay Helton after the Trojans defeated UCLA at the Coliseum on Nov. 23, 2019. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Clay Helton was out of his job for no more than a few hours on Monday afternoon before the backchanneling began. With one of college football’s famed powerhouse programs in need of a coach following Helton’s firing, interested calls from agents came rolling in right away at USC.

There was scarcely time for the school's brass to catch its breath before the rumor mill, and the attendant speculative fireworks, erupted. Every news conference denial or non-denial regarding the USC job will be analyzed with a Zapruder-esque level of scrutiny. They already have.

The urgency to find the perfect fit has never been higher at USC, where the last three coaches have been fired midseason during a 10-year span that has yielded just one Pac-12 title. But for the two administrators at the center of USC’s search, athletic director Mike Bohn and his chief of staff Brandon Sosna, there’s no reason to rush. The benefit of firing your coach two games into the season is that you have all the time in the world to conduct a thorough search and get it right.

That leaves us with several months to debate who USC should hire as its next coach. It also means a minefield of misinformation to come, with all the flimsy rumors and anonymous reports the college football media can muster.

Let’s start with what we know — and don’t know — about where the nascent search is headed:

The search could last three months.

There's a good possibility that one or more of USC’s top candidates will be coaching into December. If the right person is still coaching meaningful games, USC has no problem waiting it out.

No serious conversations about its coaching vacancy have taken place yet, and a lot can change over the course of one season. If Cincinnati, Iowa State or Penn State crater in the coming weeks, interest in their coaches could change drastically by late November.

“We will go through an exhaustive national search,” Bohn said Tuesday. “The good news is we have time to do that. We’ll take full advantage of that time. We’ve already started with building our profile, building all the elements associated with a solid search. I’m looking forward to that. And having the Trojan family behind us will be a big part of that. I think that’s something we’re going to spend a lot of time rallying and trying to ensure we’re all aligned.”

It won’t be led by a search firm.

When Bohn and Sosna conducted their last coaching search at Cincinnati, it was largely contained to the two of them. That doesn’t mean USC won’t use a search firm in some capacity; in prior searches, Bohn and Sosna have used them for such bureaucratic tasks as background checks. Expect this process to follow a similar pattern, with the pair of them, and not consultants, creating the list of coaches.

Don’t expect USC to promote its interim coach this time. But . . .

USC interim head coach Donte Williams conducts practice.
USC interim head coach Donte Williams conducts practice Wednesday at the USC practice field. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The last time USC had an interim coach, Clay Helton was handed the permanent job ahead of the 2015 Pac-12 title game. But Donte Williams assumes the interim job with the understanding that USC plans to conduct a full search regardless of his results.

Williams could theoretically coach his way into candidacy. But the chances of him getting the job are slim given the mandate that USC make a major statement with its hire.

Even so, USC brass understands that no assistant on staff is more crucial to retain moving forward than Williams, whose work on the recruiting trail played a major role in the Trojans’ sudden turnaround on that front. Whether he’ll be satisfied with an associate head coach and cornerbacks coach title remains to be seen, but USC will do what it can to keep him. A school source said they expect that any coach they hire would be interested in retaining one of the nation’s best recruiters.

It’s too early to tell if USC will prioritize keeping any other assistants.

“There’s no replacement for head coaching experience.”

That was Bohn’s answer when asked Wednesday if he expected USC’s next coach to have experience running his own program. Notice that he never said a lack of experience was a dealbreaker. But any candidate without head coaching credentials is going to need to overcome that lack of proven success in some other way.

The only notable assistant on everyone’s early lists has been Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who hails from California. Could a national title pedigree as a coordinator be enough to allay concerns about a lack of head coaching experience?

Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott speaks during media day for the College Football Playoff national championship game in New Orleans on Jan. 11, 2020. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

When Rick Caruso, chairman of USC’s Board of Trustees, issued a statement to the Los Angeles Times about the search, he said that USC needed to hire a “world-class coach who will return the USC football program to the most competitive and highest levels of collegiate football.”

That sure sounds like someone who has already held the reins of a Power Five program.

USC is keeping an open mind on the type of coach it pursues.

As the search begins, there are no preconceived notions of whether USC should hire a hotshot offensive coach or a brilliant defensive mind or any other coach search archetype for that matter. The hope is to eliminate biases in hopes of achieving the best possible fit.

Bohn did offer up a few key, more general qualities on Tuesday.

“Well, no question it's leadership, high integrity, character,” Bohn said. “The ability to connect with young men. As you all know, our vision is to be the most student-athlete centered program in the country so we want somebody that understands the connectability with young men that are a part of this program and the ability to recruit and bring high-quality, character people to USC and again to pursue championships."

On that note, don’t expect a coach with integrity questions.

Since USC President Carol Folt was hired to clean up the university’s tarnished reputation following years of scandal, she has made it clear that she will not compromise on the appearance of character questions. One administrator who worked with Folt at North Carolina said in 2019 that there was “not a snowball’s chance in hell she’d hire a coach with integrity problems.”

That conversation is sure to move to the forefront again as every candidate is closely parsed over the next two months. There’s no reason to believe that Folt’s stance has changed since the last time it was discussed, after the 2019 season. The appetite for risk within the president’s office is still limited when it comes to coaches with off-field questions.

When Helton was last on the hot seat, Urban Meyer was the object of disillusioned USC fans’ deepest desires. Meyer, now the Jacksonville Jaguars coach, was asked on Wednesday about the USC search. Integrity questions have followed Meyer since his two-championship tenure at Florida, where 31 football players were arrested on his watch. At Ohio State, an investigation revealed that Meyer had protected an assistant coach accused by his ex-wife of a long history of domestic abuse.

(Meyer did not make it 48 hours before fielding his first question about the presumed Trojans vacancy. “No chance,” the first-year Jaguars coach answered at a Wednesday news conference. "I'm here and committed to try to build an organization.”)

It’s fair to wonder where USC’s pertinent decision makers will draw the line on the integrity issue. Penn State’s James Franklin came under fire for his handling of a 2014 sexual assault case involving players he coached at Vanderbilt. Does that situation rise to a level of concern that would worry the president’s office?

An obvious candidate is Luke Fickell. But that doesn’t mean he’s the runaway favorite.

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell leads warmups before a game against Murray State.
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell leads warmups before a game against Murray State on Saturday in Cincinnati. (Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

The Cincinnati coach is undoubtedly the most successful football hire of Bohn’s career, and it’s impossible not to connect the dots when it comes to USC. But it’s not as if the job is already Fickell’s to turn down.

There are questions about whether Fickell would want to trade the Midwest, where he’s spent his entire career, for Southern California. Or whether he'd trade Cincinnati for anywhere. His wife, Amy, was asked by the Athletic in August about Fickell turning down the coaching job at Michigan State.

“When your family is happy and it’s a good place, why would you leave?” she said.

Cincinnati is also on its way to the Big 12, where Fickell could turn the Bearcats into regular conference contenders.

If Bohn and Sosna have confidence that Fickell’s success could translate at USC, they’ll undoubtedly pursue him. But there will be plenty more candidates that receive consideration, too. And plenty more time to talk about them.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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