10 potential candidates for USC head coaching job include Penn State's James Franklin and Clemson's Tony Elliott

·5 min read

The USC brass made it resoundingly clear its expectations of the program by firing Clay Helton after the season’s second week.

USC fired its third straight coach in the middle of the season, ending Helton’s tenure after getting blown out by 17-point underdog Stanford.

The school released a statement that essentially declared “CHAMPIONSHIP OR BUST” in all caps. “Our university and its leadership are committed to winning national championships and restoring USC football to glory” is the takeaway from what athletic director Mike Bohn released with the news.

Who can do that? Here’s a look at who Bohn could hire to replace Helton at USC:

1) James Franklin, Penn State 

There’s a lot about this hire that makes sense. Franklin worked miracles at Vanderbilt and has been consistently excellent at Penn State. He has done everything but reach the College Football Playoff, but has shown he has the recruiting chops, coaching ability and staff-hiring savvy to maximize a job like USC. He costs only $4 million to buy out, which is reasonable for a coach with his experience.

Penn State head coach James Franklin celebrates with fans following a 44-13 victory over Ball State in an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Penn State head coach James Franklin celebrates with fans following a 44-13 victory over Ball State on Saturday. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

2) Bill O’Brien, Alabama OC 

O’Brien was a dynamic recruiter and moved relative mountains in the wake of the devastating NCAA sanctions that he inherited at Penn State. He’s an accomplished NFL coach and elite playcaller. A pro name would sell well in the NFL market, and O’Brien’s pro experience could be attractive for West Coast recruits. O’Brien is intrigued with staying in the college game, and he’d be wired to handle Los Angeles.

3) Matt Campbell, Iowa State

The magical Fiesta Bowl win and giddiness of the offseason took a hit against Iowa on Saturday. But Campbell is one of the sport’s promising young coaches, and he has shown the charisma and program-building ability to take advantage of a situation like USC. The knocks on Campbell would be leaving his Midwestern footprint and lack of experience recruiting five-star players. But he has defied gravity at a traditionally downtrodden program. What could he do with high-end resources? The buyout is $4 million for him to leave.

4) Luke Fickell, Cincinnati 

Fickell can handle the job, but would he want the flash? Fickell has earned his spot, going 33-6 the past four years and leading the Bearcats to the Peach Bowl. Fickell took over a 4-8 program and led it all the way to the Big 12. Even with the AD being his old boss Bohn, who hired him at Cincinnati, it's a leap to think of Fickell coaching on the West Coast. Fickell has essentially never lived outside of Ohio and this would take him out of his Midwestern comfort zone and recruiting sweet spot. His buyout is $3.5 million.

5) Mario Cristobal, Oregon 

He has brought to Oregon what USC desperately wants – elite recruiting, national buzz and playoff contention. If Oregon makes the College Football Playoff – and the same goes for Penn State, Cincinnati and others – it could make this hire untenable. USC can’t afford to wait until January, and no one wants all that awkwardness. USC wouldn’t flinch at the $9 million buyout after committing more than $10 million to get rid of Helton, especially because it would puncture a Pac-12 rival.

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck runs onto the field before their game against Miami-Ohio during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 31-26. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck has established a strong reputation for his high energy and program-building skills. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)

6) P.J. Fleck, Minnesota 

Few have the capacity to energize the recruiting base and send an electric shock through the program like Fleck, who is one of the sport’s most dominant personalities. He has one more MAC title than Campbell and has proven himself as a relentless national recruiter. He’d welcome all the cacophony that comes with Los Angeles, which was an elite strength of Pete Carroll. Fleck's buyout is $4.5 million.

7) Greg Schiano, Rutgers

He got a long look from the USC brass when Helton was elevated. While most of the leadership from that era is gone, Schiano is showing again at Rutgers that he can figure out a path to push a program to its potential. His NFL experience would also be intriguing as USC re-thinks its offensive identity. It’d cost $4 million to buy out Schiano.

8) Tony Elliott, Clemson OC

Elliott is from Southern California and has always been intrigued by returning there. It’s unlikely that USC will seek anyone without significant head coaching experience. But Elliott has, for many seasons, been the most sought-after offensive assistant in the country.


Don’t underestimate the allure of hiring a former head coach when a job comes open as early as this one did. USC essentially can’t interview any of the above candidates for at least two more months. But a coach who is out could be brought in for a chat/program diagnosis/candidate consultation. Often, those turn into chats about the job. There could be a long courtship, and that allows an administrator to fall in love and the coach plenty of time to prepare a staff, feel around recruits/transfer portal and generally get a running start.

1) Chris Petersen, Fox 

It’s lost in lore who turned down who when USC courted Petersen from Boise State after the 2013 season. Petersen wasn’t thrilled with all the off-field aspects of the job – media, boosters and the type of glad-handing that are against Petersen’s straight-laced DNA. USC wasn’t thrilled that Petersen wasn’t thrilled. USC moved on to Steve Sarkisian; whether it did the dumping or were dumped depends on who you ask. But there was mutual interest at one point. After two seasons off, is Petersen, 56, energized enough to take another head job?

2) Bob Stoops, Fox 

For a guy from Youngstown, Ohio, who went to Iowa and made his mark in Manhattan, Kansas, Gainesville, Florida, and Norman, Oklahoma, there has always been a tug West for Stoops. He loved playing in Los Angeles, recruiting there and always saw the appeal of the West Coast. At age 61, does he have the energy for another rebuild?

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