Clay Helton is out just two games into his seventh season with the Trojans’ football program and the list of USC head coach candidates is already being compiled. As the program prepares for a new era, the program’s targets will likely reflect a change of attitude.
Helton was a player-friendly coach that operated with a persona everyone gravitated toward. But as many have reported, the job often proved to be too big for him and his nice-guy personality could be taken advantage of.
It’s a characteristic the Trojans might be more careful of this time around, seeking a leader who can strike a balance between a supportive coach and serving as a direct leader when needed. With that in mind, let’s dive into five potential USC head coach candidates.
Best USC head coach candidates
Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell should be among the favorites to become the next Trojans’ head coach. Athletic director Mike Bohn worked with Fickell at Cincinnati, helping build that program into a College Football Playoff contender. Bohn hired Fickell in 2017, handing him the keys to a program that went 4-8. After repeating that mark in his first season, the Bearcats have gone 31-6 over the last three seasons.
- Luke Fickell buyout: $3.5 million
Fickell spent more than 20 seasons at Ohio State, first as a player and later a coach. Spending all of that time around legendary coaches and players, he understands both how to manage personalities and when to set the tone. The only question would be if the Ohio native wants to leave the Midwest, but this might be the best coaching opportunity for a few years.
James Franklin, Penn State
James Franklin took over a Vanderbilt football program that few wanted to touch and it didn’t take long before he turned it into a nine-win program. After posting a 24-15 record with the Commodores in three seasons, Franklin left for Penn State and delivered three 11-2 seasons from 2016-’19.
- James Franklin buyout: $4 million
There is a lot to like about Franklin as the head coach at a marquee program. He would immediately raise the level of expectations at USC and he could easily put together one of the best coaching staff in the country. Plus, he has an outstanding record on the recruiting trail. But it’s worth noting that Penn State is 3-3 in bowl games and has struggled against ranked teams during his tenure.
Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars
Meyer is only months into the first year of a six-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. But just about everything during his tenure is pointing towards this partnership ending badly. The legendary coach hasn’t been afraid to walk away when he isn’t satisfied with the situation and a rough season in Jacksonville might send him bolting back for college.
If he wants to return to college football and the Trojans are determined to win at any expense, this should be the hire. Three-time national champions with conference titles in the Big Ten, SEC and Mountain West don’t become available very often. One thing is for certain, Meyer would win at USC.
Kyle Whittingham, Utah
If the Trojans want to return to a physical brand of football with a coach who demands poise and structure from his entire program, Whittingham could be a target. The California native started at Utah in 1994 as a defensive line coach and climbed his way up the ladder, becoming head coach in 2005.
The Utes don’t have recruiting advantages compared to a majority of the Pac-12 teams, but Whittingham’s brand of football still wins. he boasts a 135-67 record in 18 seasons, including an 11-3 bowl record. If he can make Utah a ranked team each year, he’ll do even more in Southern California. Keep in mind, he took a pay cut last year.
Matt Campbell, Iowa State
One of the most popular names in coaching cycles, it’s only a matter of time until Matt Campbell is leading a marquee program. He almost instantly turned Toledo into a winner, taking over as interim coach and leading the program to a 35-15 record across five seasons. Iowa State recognized his coaching ability and brought him in. Following a three-win campaign, the Cyclones have averaged eight wins per season in the last four years.
- Matt Campbell buyout: $4 million
USC is the perfect opportunity for Campbell. He turned lemons into lemonade in Ames, Iowa. Recruiting talent in Southern California, with all the endorsement opportunities for players thanks to the name, image and likeness policy, would change his career. The Trojans might not win immediately, but Campbell could help USC return to the top of the Pac-12. He’s arguably one of my favorites among the USC head coach candidates.