USC got it right with hiring of Clay Helton

He is the not the famous choice. He is not the flashy choice. Popularity polls wouldn't pick him. Hollywood wouldn't take him.

The new face of arguably the nation's most glamorous college football program is only recognizable when his face is shrouded in a baseball cap.

But he pulls that cap low, and tightens that jaw, and runs the football, and stresses the fundamentals, and commands the respect of kids who on Saturday ran through a powder-blue wall for him.

Clay Helton does not possess one ounce of Showtime, but he is pure Fight On, and the University of Southern California Trojans smartly recommitted themselves to the essence of that motto Monday when they named him their permanent head coach.

After a recent spate of questionable decisions, Athletic Director Pat Haden got this one right. Amid questions about the future of a program that has struggled for the six years since the departure of Pete Carroll and the arrival of NCAA sanctions, that future now looks solid.

Clay Helton is not Chip Kelly, and he's not John Harbaugh, but he's exactly what USC needs _ a committed Trojan who uses old-fashioned philosophies to connect with the new wave of players.

"Choosing a coach is an inexact science. In Clay's case there is exactness," Haden said in a statement issued Monday morning. "We have a man with unquestioned integrity. He is a fantastic person and he is real."

He is also real good, as his overall 6-2 interim record would indicate, with the only two losses coming to perhaps the two best non-playoff teams in the country, Notre Dame and Oregon.

In two stints as interim, the six-year Trojan veteran assistant coach has won a bowl game, won all of his home games, beaten UCLA, and has led the Trojans from chaos to within one win of reaching the Rose Bowl.

His tenure began this season with everyone talking about Steve Sarkisian's embarrassing appearance at the "Salute to Troy" function. He has led the team to the point where folks are actually saluting Troy as USC heads into Saturday's Pac-12 championship game against Stanford. That's pretty good mileage in a pretty short time.

How to quantify the strength of Helton's impact? It seems like it was last year, not less than two months ago, when Sarkisian was fired. It seems like it has been several seasons, not several games, since Helton has changed the Trojan culture.

The son of an offensive line coach brought back the running game. The former quarterback brought back intelligent play devoid of dumb turnovers. The former college benchwarmer opened his arms to anyone with enough devotion to put on a Trojan uniform.

Helton welcomed the parents back to practice and to team dinners. He welcomed the redshirts, walk-ons and scrubs to special Monday practices devoted completely to their football education.

A program that had recently been dominated by hey-look-at-me head coaches was suddenly being run by a guy who directed all the light on the players, and how they loved him for it.

"Everything we are, it comes from our head coach,'' said freshman cornerback Iman Marshall. "He came in and sat us down and turned us into a team again."

A couple of weeks ago it was written in this space that Helton, 43, was the best coach for this job. I became convinced not only after watching his team play, but also after spending part of a morning with him in his office, listening to him speak with great humility and passion about his players, checking out the giant books on his coffee tables that contained photos of those players and their parents. This was clearly a football coach who was all about the football, an educator who was all about the students.

How dare USC turn an anonymous assistant coach into a head coach? Hmmm. Perhaps the same way that happened with John McKay and John Robinson.

After that column appeared, the Trojans lost by 20 points to Oregon and those words were questioned. But then, last weekend, the Trojans dominated UCLA, 40-21, in a perfect Helton-type game that included 235 rushing yards, a special team's touchdown, and a 3-1 victory in the turnover battle.

Afterward, Helton tugged his trademark cap even lower and ducked his head in embarrassment when I told him I was going to basically write the same column again, only stronger. The deal had been sealed. He had just proved he deserved to be the permanent coach.

Haden claimed in his Monday statement that Helton was not hired because of the UCLA game, but don't believe it. Helton's players made not only a statement on the field, but afterward, when they lined up to essentially beg for him to remain.

And so Monday it became official, and now USC has a head football coach who couldn't be picked out of a crowd by anyone but hustling, hitting, happy USC football players.

Which is exactly the point.