Georgia Southern head coach Clay Helton has yet to coach a game, but after his introductory press conference, he may feel like he’s 1-0.
Helton was officially named Georgia Southern’s 12th head coach in school history as athletic director Jared Benko officially introduced him Thursday to members of the media and a large crowd that gathered at Bishop Field House.
“There were several key traits we wanted in our new head coach,” Benko said. “Clay Helton embodies those traits and I am convinced he is the most prepared coach to have immediate and long-term success here at Georgia Southern. Clay is the best choice to lead Georgia Southern going forward and we are excited to welcome him today.”
Helton arrived on one of the Eagles signature yellow school busses and took an Eagle Walk through the crowd and cheerleaders that led the path to Bishop Field House for the press conference.
“Man, what a great day to be an Eagle!” Helton said, to a huge round of applause. “On behalf of myself, my beautiful bride Angela, my three children and my family, not only are we extremely excited for this opportunity but we are extremely humbled to be a part of this family and this community and the commitment to excellence that is Georgia Southern University.”
The 49-year-old Helton went 46-24 (.657) as head coach of the University of Southern California, one of the premier programs in college football. Helton led the Trojans to a Rose Bowl victory, three conference championship games and 12 victories over AP Top 25 teams, including three in the Top 5 and four in the Top 10.
About three weeks ago, Benko and Helton had set up what was to be a 10-minute phone call that turned into a conversation of well over an hour. That conversation was ultimately what convinced Helton to take the job.
“My agent asked me if I’d take a quick phone call with Jared,” Helton said. “When I hung up the phone after over an hour talking, I got really excited and I said that is a place I would really like to be. Just the genuineness and vision Jared had and then later seeing it aligned with (university) President (Kyle) Marrero was great. I am usually a hard sell but I hung up the phone and said I’ll walk there if I have to.”
Upon hearing the news that it was that one call that clinched it for Helton, Benko couldn’t help but compare that to the many phone calls it took to get his wife Sarah to even go out with him.
“When coach Helton said I sold him on the one phone call I joked with Sarah it took a lot more than one phone call to get a date with her,” Benko said. “Obviously I have gotten a lot more successful as I have gotten older.”
While he is the Eagles official head coach, Helton will not make any actual coaching decisions until the off season and will instead spend practice time evaluating players and coaches and also be busy recruiting.
“I have always believed in the honor and respect of the game,” said Helton. “Right now, this football team has four games left and I am going to honor and respect that. I am going to build relationships and be out at practice to evaluate our current team and see where our strengths are and where our areas of growth are. I am going to allow them to finish the season before making the transition as far as my leadership and coaching.’
As far as the offense that Helton will run, he was a little non-committal, saying that he feels the Eagles have a power running game, which he has coached in the past and didn’t rule out the possibility of mixing in a few option plays.
“I have been an offensive coach for 26 years and one of the things I have learned is lean on your strengths,” said Helton. “This is a football team who can run the ball but we also have the ability to throw the ball.
“We want to be a physical hard-nosed football team and I have had those opportunities with players like DeAngelo Williams at Memphis and Ronald Jones at USC. It’s OK to run the ball physically and then throw the ball over everybody’s head. With athletic quarterbacks there are also going to be some option driven plays. It may be quarterback option off a defender or run pass option or a quarterback driven run game.”
Coming from USC
Helton will be going from a USC program that has one of the largest athletics budgets in the country, to a budget at Georgia Southern that is one of the lowest in the Sun Belt Conference, but he said that doesn’t concern him.
“This university was founded on blue-collar toughness, and community and spirit and work ethic,” Helton said. “I can draw a 250-mile circle around this town and there are special people who are not only willing to help but also special players who would love to be a part of this community. We will recruit the best student athletes that can help us win championships and we will save Jared some money doing it, too.”
Helton will earn an average salary of $800,000, which includes plenty of incentives that give him the chance at making even more. Benko would not comment directly as to what will be available for his support staff but did say USC’s $10-million buyout when they let Helton go in September did help with landing Helton and provided some flexibility.
“When you have someone who has offsetting mitigations in their contract you take that into account,” Benko said. “For us, it allowed us to be creative with future staffing plans. As our philanthropic giving continues, we can do even more. What you will see in the next months is an elite coaching staff, but also a support team, including building a recruiting office. We are going to take the Alabama model and scale it down to work here similar to what they’ve done at Louisiana.”
Helton met with the team prior to meeting the fans and media at the press conference and encouraged them to finish the season strong and not to take the game for granted.
“I told the team earlier to cherish every part of this game,” Helton said. “I’d gone 26 years as a coach and then the last six weeks it was taken away from me and you realize how special it was to you when you aren’t around players that you love and not around the game that you love. The purpose you give in young men’s life is special and it’s a part of my heart and a part of my whole life and to only have to be outside of that for six weeks, the Good Lord is watching after me.”