By Kyle Kensing
Clay Helton was asked the inevitable question immediately following USC's 40-21 win over rival UCLA on Saturday: Had he done enough to be named the Trojans' permanent head coach?
Quarterback Cody Kessler interjected with a quick and firm "absolutely."
Monday, USC athletic director Pat Haden confirmed Kessler's assessment, removing the interim tag and making Helton the program's permanent head coach. Helton, who is 43, became USC's interim head coach for a second year in three seasons on Oct. 12, when Steve Sarkisian took an indefinite leave of absence and was shortly thereafter dismissed because of off-field issues.
Saturday's win over UCLA capped a 5-2 regular season for Helton, whose victories include wins over Utah and UCLA and a Pac-12 South divisional title.
There are plenty of pros for keeping Helton.
Four Trojans coaches tried to beat UCLA's Jim Mora since 2012. Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Sarkisian failed in succession. Helton also has the opportunity to win a conference championship on Saturday against Stanford, a feat no USC head coach has accomplished since Pete Carroll in 2008.
An assistant under Kiffin and Sarkisian, both of whom introduced finesse offenses, Helton worked to return USC to its roots.
"We've been trying to establish ourselves, over the second half of the season, as a physical football team, both defensively and offensively," he said.
The Trojans were the more physical team against UCLA, a program that has staked its identity on employing a rugged style since Mora's arrival in 2012.
Helton is also an entrenched USC recruiter. He pointed out having six-year relationships with the program's redshirt seniors, like Kessler, who played their last games at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum this past month. Building bonds gave Helton's resume further validity, evident in the impassioned pitches players made for his candidacy.
"Coach. Helton," linebacker Su'a Cravens said emphatically when asked how USC rebounded from its sluggish start to win the Pac-12 South. "He's changed our mentality. He's made us a physical team. He's made us men."
But not everyone is as convinced, per Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman:
Helton is not a splashy hire -- certainly not in the vein of USC alumni and current NFL coaches Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio. Helton's not John Harbaugh, whose brother Jim turned USC's Pac-12 title game opponent, Stanford, into the powerhouse it is today.
Both the hire itself and the timing are risky for Haden and USC athletic brass. A win Saturday to land the Trojans in the Rose Bowl vindicates Haden, who received his share of criticism for Sarkisian's turbulent year-and-a-half in charge.
A loss -- and especially a lopsided loss -- could throw a program enduring a half-decade of turmoil into further chaos. Both of Helton's defeats (Notre Dame and Oregon) were by double-digits.
If Helton wins, though, he'll become the fourth former assistant coach promoted to head coach to win the Pac-12 Championship Game. Each winner since its inception in 2011 -- Chip Kelly, David Shaw and Mark Helfrich -- was an internal hire.
Helton's promotion just came through much different circumstances; he's what Kessler called "a special man."
"[Players] can see through B.S.," Kessler said before the announcement was made. "He's not fake. He's very real, and that's why I love him. That's why this team loves him."
Let's just hope, for Helton's sake, the love lasts.
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Kyle Kensing is a contributor to Sports on Earth. He is a sports journalist in Southern California and has covered college football and basketball for a variety of outlets in the last decade. Follow Kyle on Twitter@kensing45 for insights on sports, cinema and old Simpsons episodes.