The pressure is on USC athletic director Pat Haden, as he begins his search to replace Steve Sarkisian. After taking over for Mike Garrett in 2010, Haden was considered the perfect choice to revitalize USC, a school that has won 11 national championships in football, in the wake of stiff NCAA sanctions.
But some have questioned his leadership and decisions after some notable setbacks to the football program in recent years. It will be up to Haden to find the right coach after so many Trojan fans shrugged at the somewhat uninspiring choice of Sarkisian in 2014. While many USC fans wanted an outsider who can revitalize the program in the same fashion as Pete Carroll, the decision to hire Sarkisian was considered a safe choice due to the former Washington head coach's ties to USC, his understanding of local recruiting, and his Pac-12 experience.
For now, offensive coordinator Clay Helton gets a chance to audition for the role as a full-time head coach. Helton may have his work cut out for him, as many challenging games remain on USC's schedule. And should Helton lead the Trojans over the likes of Notre Dame, Utah, Cal, Oregon, and UCLA, he would immediately vault to the top choice.
Helton’s situation might look eerily similar to Ed Orgeron’s time as interim head coach in 2013. The affable Orgeron guided USC to a win over Stanford, but lost some momentum to keep the position when UCLA trounced USC in the final game of the regular season. Coincidentally, it would be Helton who would take over as head coach in the next game, a victory in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Aside from Helton, USC fans will cringe if Haden hires a former Trojan offensive coordinator, which was the case with Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. A new face with no ties to the programs seems like the best route.
Here are seven potential candidates to take over USC's football program in 2016.
It’s surprising that no NFL team swooped up Austin in the offseason. But the NFL’s loss can be USC’s gain. The Detroit Lions defensive coordinator has the right personality to be a head coach, and has had plenty of experience at both the NFL and college level. Austin, 50, seems certain to move on from the Lions at end of the season, and might be a perfect fit for the Trojans.
At age 40, Fitzgerald is a young and successful coach who seems entrenched in his current job. He has been in charge of Northwestern since 2006, and has helped a historically weak program overachieve. If Fitzgerald decided to leave Chicago, it would probably be for Notre Dame or the NFL, but he might feel the USC vacancy is too good to pass up. Fitzgerald has a great attitude and Trojan fans would embrace the idea of having him as the face of the program.
The only former USC offensive coordinator on this list, Jackson was at the helm during USC’s dark period: the Paul Hackett era. But Jackson knows the Los Angeles recruiting landscape and has an excellent understanding of the game. The Bengals have overachieved this season with Jackson as offensive coordinator, and many think Jackson got a raw deal when he was let go as the Oakland Raiders head coach.
The chances are slim of Kelly sticking around the Philadelphia Eagles if they don’t make the postseason. Kelly, who coached Oregon to consistent success, might be an ideal fit for the Trojans because of his extensive knowledge of the Pac-12 and his track record in the conference. USC would have to abandon their pro-style offense, but the program would almost certainly be boosted by Kelly’s recruiting presence and his reputation for winning.
This is an outside-the-box choice and a long shot. Morris, 39, already has head coaching experience from his time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Currently the defensive backs coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Morris would likely defer to a top offensive coordinator, much in the same way that Carroll did with Norm Chow. Many would scratch their head at this hiring, but Haden would look like a genius if Morris works out.
Like Jackson, Norton is part of the USC family. But also like Jackson, USC fans will not like the idea of bringing back a former assistant as they did with Kiffin and Sarkisian. Norton, 49, served as an assistant coach under Carroll, and moved on to be the defensive coordinator of the Raiders. USC would love to return to having No. 55 players dominating again after Junior Seau, Willie McGinest, and Chris Claiborne, and Norton’s prestige can bring that back. But it might be a stretch to have Norton as a viable candidate, because of his short amount of coaching experience.
Does Whittingham want to leave Utah? That would be the big question. Whittingham, who had previously worked with Chow, has compiled a 90-43 record with the Utes and has a reputation for getting the most out of above-average talent. Off-the-field problems would likely go away with Whittingham at the helm, as well. A highly respected coach amongst his peers, Whittingham would likely alleviate many of the distractions that often plague USC.