Former USC Star Frostee Rucker: Clay Helton Firing ‘A Good Move,’ but Will Trojans Also Lose Donte Williams?

Frostee Rucker was a key part of USC’s unforgettable three-year run atop the college football world. The Trojans won national championships in 2003 and 2004, then finished as runners-up in 2005 after losing a Rose Bowl classic to Texas. Rucker, a first-team All-Pac-10 selection at defensive end in 2005, went on to play 13 years in the NFL. He spoke to about his college years with Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, the recent firing of USC coach Clay Helton and the current state of the program.

You were part of one of the most memorable dynasties in college football history. What was it like being a player on those USC teams, alongside Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and coach Pete Carroll?

It was football at its purest. It was as much fun as I could possibly have with the game. I’ll take that to my grave, just thinking back to the experiences I had.

What’s the best way to illustrate just how big of stars Leinart and Bush were at that time?

That’s a tough one, because I viewed them as my peers, my classmates, my teammates. But you couldn’t help but see those guys get noticed in ways that others didn’t. That was OK, because they worked extremely hard to be in that status. There wasn’t any envy or jealousy that came with that. I was so pumped because I knew I was making plays to get the ball back to Matt Leinart. I was doing my part to get Reggie Bush another carry. I never saw them as giants of people, because they were my peers, but I did know how talented they were. I just needed to do my part, and we had a chance.

USC was dominant back then, but since Pete Carroll left, the Trojans have not been at that level. What do you think has been the issue?

I believe it’s been the inconsistency in the leadership, the people in charge making decisions. When Pete Carroll went to the NFL, they recycled all our same coaches, trying to look for that same feel. I feel like that was detrimental to the program. Even though each guy had the resume and the familiarity around the program, I felt like trying to recycle that energy didn’t do it justice.

Obviously the B.S. sanctions that have now turned into NIL and other opportunities for guys. If we’re going to say it’s true, none of us knew about it, because it was someone’s parents doing things. [Editor’s note: USC was heavily penalized after Bush was found to have accepted improper benefits.] That was frustrating. I think that played a huge part of it. Not being able to recognize our class of guys that came through and won national championships. There was a period of time when Lane (Kiffin) was there or Steve Sarkisian was there, and I guess the leadership above them didn’t really want to associate with my class of athletes because of the sanctions that were put upon us. We couldn’t really come around.

The sanctions hurt, and that gave strength to all these teams in the SEC and ACC. Alabama is cherry-picking California to get athletes, and that never happened before. We controlled the West. We had every athlete from Arizona and up our coast, and we cherry-picked the best. Those were the things most detrimental to the team.

Has it gotten any better, as far as USC associating with your group? You would think from a recruiting standpoint, you’d want to highlight how well those teams played and how many guys went to the NFL.

I believe they’re doing better at it. They just reinstated Reggie back into the college (after a 10-year ban). There were some things that had to happen first, and I think all of that will be on the horizon. I think USC is in good hands with (athletic director) Mike Bohn.

What did you think about the Clay Helton dismissal in-season? Did you want them to wait, or with recruiting the way it is, was it necessary?

I think the best thing happened. Like many people can attest to, everyone likes Clay Helton. I like him. He’s a good guy. But having someone like (interim coach) Donte (Williams) right behind him, where the majority of these four- and five-star recruits are coming because of him, and him taking the helm helps when he’s been recruiting this entire time. A lot of people were hesitant, families and stuff, of Clay Helton. Knowing USC is going to pull the trigger on a big name, or with the current guy who has been in their living room and constantly texting, it only serves as a greater purpose for the program.

A lot of high-profile names have been bandied about, with Urban Meyer probably the biggest. Do you think it’s realistic that he would be interested, and would you want him at USC?

No. I don’t know. Look, in a perfect world, there are a couple guys that played at SC that I would love to stay on the staff. There are a couple guys that have done a tremendous job with what they’ve been given. I would hate to see someone come in, and for instance with Donte as the interim head coach, if you get a bigger-name guy, he might have another guy in mind to take the defensive back (coaching) role. One thing SC needed was a great recruiter, and we have him. If we bring in another name, does that push him out? Does Donte now look for other head coaching jobs? (Helton’s firing) was a good move, but at the same time, it’s a gray area for the future. We know something big is going to happen, and as long as we can retain the ones that got these kids there, so these kids don’t transfer, I think it works out. But everyone when they come in, they have their own staffs. So you don’t know.

Do you think there is a natural pull for the decision-makers to want to make a big splash with the hire?

Yeah. I’m not even at the top of the food chain with USC and I’m getting calls from guys that want to throw their name in the hat, because they think I have some type of influence. I wish I did. The public opinion is, ‘We need a big name.’ I was a big fan of retaining Coach O (Ed Orgeron). I was a fan of keeping Clay Helton because the kids went to the athletic director and said they wanted him. How do you go against that? Do I think his tenure should have stayed as long as it did? Probably not, because his success level wasn’t there. But I’m also on the side of, these kids have to have a say to some degree. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out. I hope Donte goes out there and has a successful run and doesn’t lose any more games, squeeze into the Playoff. Then we can see what will happen.

Can USC get back to an elite level? Is that realistic, or has college football changed too much?

I think in the next five years — I can’t say how quickly it will happen — but I think USC is trending that way with the recruits they have lined up and coming in. New head coach. We haven’t picked the grand finale of head coaches yet, but Donte Williams is the No. 1 recruiter in the land right now, and we have him. Kids are comfortable with him. L.A. kids are transferring back home. I think it won’t be long until we’re right there. We just have to win some ballgames and win them decisively like we did at Washington State. That’s what everyone wants to see. They want to see touchdowns. They want to see highlights. When you’re in grudge matches with the lowest tier of teams, that ain’t going to help you.

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