USC’s 10 best coaching candidates to replace Clay Helton next season

By | September 13, 2021

Who is the best fit for the USC job? 

That’s the wide-ranging question after Clay Helton was fired on Monday. Helton replaced Steve Sarkisian in 2015 and compiled a 46-24 record that included a Pac-12 championship in 2017. Helton, however, could not shake the hot seat that followed him for the last few seasons. 

A 42-28 loss to Stanford on Saturday was the final blow for a tumultuous tenure. Now, USC will turn to interim coach Donte Williams, and the search for the next coach promises to attract big names for one of college football’s biggest brands. 

BENDER: Week 2 takeaways, from the Ducks to the Longhorns to the Hawkeyes

Sporting News breaks down a look at the candidates:

Rock stars 

Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars coach 

We have to at least address Meyer, who is in his first season as an NFL coach. Meyer will be the subject of USC speculation for the entire season, especially if he struggles to make the transition to the NFL. Meyer has a 187-32 record and three national championships as an FBS coach, and he is one of the best recruiters of all time. That said, Meyer’s unceremonious exits from Florida and Ohio State are well-documented, and if he wanted the USC job he would have had it before making the jump from the FOX studio to the NFL ranks. Meyer, 57, would be the biggest name possible, one that is comparable to Pete Carroll. Just keep in mind Carroll was 50 years old when he took over at USC. 

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Bob Stoops, FOX college football analyst 

Could Stoops make a Mack Brown-like return to the college football game after a six-year absence? Stoops, 61, did coach briefly in the now-defunct XFL, so the itch may still be there. Stoops is another hyper-successful college coach who had a 190-48 record at Oklahoma. He won a national title, 10 conference championships and could bring that no-nonsense style to Los Angeles. Don’t rule this move out. 

Power 5 coaches worth watching 

James Franklin, Penn State

Franklin has a $4 million buyout at Penn State, but that would not be that difficult to manage. It becomes a value decision for Franklin, who has enjoyed success with the Nittany Lions with a rah-rah style that helped take the school to its last Big Ten championship in 2016. Franklin would not have to deal with Ohio State in conference play, and he’s a successful recruiter who would be able to generate much-needed enthusiasm around a stagnant program. Franklin, however, is a Pennsylvania native who has said that Penn State is his “dream job.” 

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota 

Fleck also has a persona that would inject some energy into a program badly in need of it. He’s 57-42 at Western Michigan and Minnesota, but those were intensive rebuilds with big-picture limitations. Fleck did lead the Broncos to a New Year’s Day Six bowl and nearly put the Gophers in the Big Ten championship game in 2019. Fleck is an offensive mind, and the Broncos and Gophers have put solid position players in the NFL in recent seasons. USC has had one running back drafted in the past five seasons. 

Matt Campbell, Iowa State 

Campbell’s program-building skills are tremendous, but he might have maxed out at Iowa State with this year’s Top 10 ranking. Campbell played at a winning culture at Division III Mount Union, and he’s worked through the college ranks with a player-first style that resembles Carroll. Would Campbell be able to take that show to a bright-lights program? That’s a question we’ve been asking for the last two years. Campbell, 41, might have a tough time turning down this job if offered. 

Mario Cristobal, Oregon 

Remember when USC pulled Sarkisian from Washington? This would be that kind of move, but Cristobal might be tough to pull out of Oregon knowing the Ducks are the two-time Pac-12 champions and currently better positioned as a program. Cristobal learned from Nick Saban in his stint as an assistant coach, and he’s taken those recruiting lessons to the West Coast. Cristobal has Oregon well-positioned for success. This would be a shocking lateral move, especially if Oregon stays in the CFP hunt this season. 

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Wild cards 

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati 

Fickell worked with USC athletic director Mike Bohn at Cincinnati, but that connection doesn’t always line up. Fickell has built the Bearcats into a legitimate College Football Playoff contender, and he might be willing to stay with the program given his Ohio ties and the newly-found light in the Big 12 conference. Fickell’s next big move still feels like it will be in the Midwest, but if he wants to level up, the USC job would be hard to pass up. 

Joe Moorhead, Oregon offensive coordinator 

Moorhead gave a nice job interview Saturday in the upset against No. 3 Ohio State. He’s a sophisticated play-caller who would be a better fit on the West Coast than he was through a two-year stint at Mississippi State that produced a 6-12 record. Moorhead, 47, could be a much better head coach the second-time around, and Pac-12 schools are known to poach from each other. 

Chris Petersen, former Washington coach 

Hey, Petersen is the last Pac-12 coach to make the College Football Playoff. He had a 147-38 record between Boise State and Washington, and he won a pair of Pac-12 championships with the Huskies. Petersen always was a coach who did more with less, and it would be interesting to see what he learned after retiring in 2019. This is by no means and off-the-wall-hire, though when he left UW he said he was ready to step away from the game.

Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator 

If nobody in the NFL will do it, then why not the college program that thrives when it has that NFL feel? Bieniemy played his high school ball in California and was a UCLA assistant from 2003-05. He has learned the mesh point between college and the NFL with Andy Reid in Kansas City, and that “worked with Patrick Mahomes II” card could play well with high school quarterbacks in California. Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia all have QBs from California. Could Bieniemy, change that?