Georgia Southern’s Clay Helton finds Statesboro ‘happier place’ than Hollywood

Credit: AJ Henderson / Sun Belt Conference

Credit: AJ Henderson / Sun Belt Conference

Trading the tinsel and glamour of Rodeo Drive for Beautiful Eagle Creek and swapping an iconic restaurant like the Musso and Frank Grill for Gnat’s Landing is something first-year Georgia Southern coach Clay Helton was more than willing to make.

It has taken Helton no time to adjust to the slower-paced lifestyle in Statesboro after living in Los Angeles and coaching at Southern Cal for the past 12 years. And the traffic getting to work each day is bad only when you get stuck behind a school bus or a Bulloch County work crew.

“It took me anywhere from 47 minutes to an hour and seven minutes in L.A. traffic to get in, and I really slept at the office Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights through the season,” he said. “I’m currently seven minutes − basically two country songs − away from my house … a half a cup of coffee. And I don’t want to put a price on being able to sleep with my wife every night. That makes it a happier place.”

The Eagles, who will begin their new season at home at 6 p.m. Saturday against Morgan State, are hopeful that Helton can restore the program to the glory days it enjoyed under the legendary Erk Russell and Paul Johnson, who made national championship runs a regular occurrence. The fans might even accept a semblance of the success they enjoyed under Jeff Monken, who won two Southern Conference titles, or Willie Fritz, who stayed only two seasons and won the Sun Belt before leaving for Tulane.

Since then, the Eagles have produced only three winning seasons over the past six years. Georgia Southern started 1-3 last season, which led to the firing of Chad Lunsford, and finished 2-6 under interim Kevin Whitley, who remained as an assistant coach.

Helton brings a record of success. He spent six seasons as an assistant coach and six seasons as the head coach at Southern Cal, going 46-24 with 12 wins over teams ranked in the Top 25 and three among the top five. He was released after a 1-1 start to the 2021 season and snapped up by Georgia Southern on Nov. 2.

One of Helton’s first priorities has been to mend fences with the school’s rabid alumni and fan base.

“Part of the job of being a head coach nowadays is being accessible not only to the media but to your fan base and to alumni,” Helton said. “We got in the car this spring and drove to different groups in all parts of Georgia. We talked to every one of our alumni groups, from Atlanta all the way up and all the way down, making sure we build that relationship. Football is about relationships. The strength of the relationships help bolster your program.”

There also was a concerted effort to reengage with high school coaches in Georgia, a relationship that had become frayed over the years.

“One of the things we have to do a great job building a championship program is our relationship within the state of Georgia, whether it’s with alumni or the alumni base or whether it’s with the Georgia high school coaches,” Helton said. “So we hit the ground running, and we did every county in the state.”

Helton also quickly won the acceptance of his players.

“Me, being an older guy on the team, after having a one-on-one meeting with him − and we talked about two or three hours, just about life and football, who we are as people,” sixth-year defensive lineman Dillon Springer said. “And after that meeting, any other thoughts I had about going somewhere else, was like how could I not want to play for a man like this.”

Kyle Vantrease, a sixth-year senior who transferred from Buffalo, was swayed during his official visit with Helton.

“It was a different feeling, a different sense of home,” Vantrease said. “And I could see it in my mom and dad’s eyes when they were with us. The emphasis that coach Helton and the rest of the staff put on growing the relationship with me and my parents was really spectacular. It was something I really wanted to be a part of.”

Helton said the players have bought into his philosophy and are ready to move away from last year’s disastrous season, one that included a player being suspended for drinking beer on the roof of a moving bus.

“They want to be coached,” Helton said. “You set the standards, you set what the expectations are and then you let the players have that opportunity to run with it. When you talk about leadership, not only that Dillon and Kyle have brought, but their teammates have brought, that culture of toughness, of discipline and accountability, where the team is more important than the individual. That’s what this team has done. I’ve really appreciated them over the last eight months, and I can’t wait to see them compete this year.”