Georgia Southern hires former USC coach Clay Helton

Sports

FILE – In this July 27, 2021, file photo, Southern California head coach Clay Helton answers questions during the Pac-12 Conference NCAA college football media day in Los Angeles. For the sixth consecutive summer, Clay Helton is back for another shot at restoring Southern California to an annual spot among college football’s national title contenders. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

STATESBORO, Ga. (WSAV) – The Georgia Southern Eagles have named Clay Helton as the 12th full-time head coach in program history.

“I am very humbled to be named the head football coach at Georgia Southern University,” Helton said in a press release from the athletic department. “The passion and love its alumni and fans have for the University are second to none. Georgia Southern has always prided itself on the highest levels of success, and I welcome those expectations.”

The announcement came on Tuesday morning after several days of reported interest between the two parties. Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel reports that Helton’s deal is five years long with an average salary of $800,000.

“Clay is renowned for not only his coaching abilities but for the person that he is. He’s an elite offensive mind who has produced record-setting offenses and high NFL Draft picks everywhere he’s coached,” Georgia Southern athletic director Jared Benko said in a statement. “I’ve enjoyed getting to know Clay throughout this process, and I know he’s committed like I am to the holistic development athletically, academically and socially of all of our student-athletes.”

Former head coach Chad Lunsford made just over $700,000 in 2020, per records obtained from OpenGeorgia.

Helton, 49, has more than 25 years’ experience as a Division I coach. He spent 2010 to 2015 in various coordinator roles at University of Southern California before being elevated to the position of permanent head coach in November 2015.

Helton held that title for more than five years, accumulating a total win-loss record of 46-24 overall and 36-13 in the PAC-12. In 2016, Helton led the Trojans to a 52-49 Rose Bowl victory over the Penn State Nittany Lions. He followed up that accomplishment by delivering a PAC-12 conference championship in 2017, the Trojans’ first since 2008.

The Trojans fired Helton on Sept. 13 after USC’s 42-28 loss to Stanford in their second game of the season.

Prior to his career with the Trojans, Helton held various roles at Memphis (2000-2009), Houston (1997-1999) and Duke (1995-1996).

A native of Gainesville, Florida, Helton played college football at Auburn before transferring to Houston, where his father Kim was the head coach.

Helton will replace Kevin Whitley, who has been serving as interim coach since the Sept. 26 firing of Lunsford. It is not currently known whether Whitley will serve out the remainder of the season in his role or whether he will be retained on staff after Helton assumes control of the team.

W’e will have a staff and a team representing the toughness, discipline and GATA mentality on which this program was founded,” Helton added. “I cannot wait to get started to build a football program that is consistently winning championships and is the platinum standard of college football on a national scale.”

In his press conference immediately after Lunsford’s dismissal, athletic director Jared Benko said that it would be “highly unlikely” that a new coach would be named prior to the end of the season. However, the stated reason was because most of the Eagles’ preferred candidates would not have been available to interview due to current obligations to their teams, which was not an issue with Helton.

Georgia Southern fans have expressed mixed opinions about whether they want their next coach to keep the unique option offense that the Eagles have run for nearly their entire program history. Helton did not utilize this offense at USC, instead opting for a more pro style attack.

The Eagles currently sit at 2-6 overall and 1-4 in the Sun Belt after a 21-14 loss against in-state rival Georgia State last Saturday.

Here are the full statements from both Helton and Benko:

Helton: “I am very humbled to be named the head football coach at Georgia Southern University,” Helton said. “Thank you to President Marrero, Athletic Director Jared Benko, the search committee and the entire Georgia Southern family for this amazing opportunity. This football program represents a tradition of excellence spread over the past 40 years but has won six national championships and three bowl games in that short amount of time. The passion and love its alumni and fans have for the University are second to none. Georgia Southern has always prided itself on the highest levels of success, and I welcome those expectations. We will have a staff and a team representing the toughness, discipline and GATA mentality on which this program was founded. I cannot wait to get started to build a football program that is consistently winning championships and is the platinum standard of college football on a national scale.”

Benko: “What a great day for Eagle Nation with the announcement of Clay Helton as the new head coach of Georgia Southern football,” Benko said. “Clay is renowned for not only his coaching abilities but for the person that he is. He’s an elite offensive mind who has produced record-setting offenses and high NFL Draft picks everywhere he’s coached. I’ve enjoyed getting to know Clay throughout this process, and I know he’s committed like I am to the holistic development athletically, academically and socially of all of our student-athletes. He also takes great pride in producing men of character and future leaders. During this interview process, Clay demonstrated a thorough understanding of what it takes to be not only to be a head coach but to win at an elite level and he is the best choice to lead our football program here at Georgia Southern.”

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