LOS ANGELES – Clay Helton's exuberance turned the microphone in front of him into a useless prop. USC's football coach had no trouble making himself heard Thursday, when he joined school officials, local politicians, and Trojans donors to celebrate the completion of a $315-million renovation that has transformed the 96-year-old Coliseum from ravaged to ravishing.
"What a great day to be a Trojan, huh?" Helton boomed, apologizing for using what he called his coach's voice.
Helton and USC had little occasion to speak with such enthusiasm while his team went 5-7 last season, including 4-5 in Pac-12 play. Athletic director Lynn Swann's confirmation that Helton would return in 2019 was widely questioned, and it still might turn out to be the wrong decision. The challenges for Helton this season are plentiful. His toughest might be getting his team to play up to the surprisingly high level of its surroundings.
"Without question. That's USC," Helton said after a morning of speeches and a ceremonial ribbon cutting near the Coliseum's artfully refurbished peristyle. "That's the expectations that you have to have. The beauty of being at 'SC is there's the highest expectations there are, both as a stadium and as a team."
Most arena or stadium renovations emphasize adding luxury boxes, suites, and perks that many fans never see, and the privately funded makeover of the Coliseum includes plenty of amenities and cushy spaces in the new Scholarship Tower on the south side.
Twenty-one of 22 suites were sold at prices that ranged from $7.5 million to $10 million with a commitment of 20 years. The wide concourse and new concession stands are welcome, and the views from the 1923 Club on the rooftop are dazzling.
But every fan will benefit from enhancements made during the two-year process. Some aren't obvious, such as improvements to the electrical, plumbing, and WiFi systems, but many other changes were visible during a media tour on Thursday.
Crumbling concrete that made steps hazardous in many places has been replaced. In many places stair treads are deeper, providing more leg room. Stairs in the aisles were given a non-slip coating and handrails were installed. Every seat in the stadium is new and wider and is equipped with a cupholder. Capacity will be 77,500, down from 92,348.
Signs on the tunnels were added to help fans find newly numbered seats, and new video boards and more than 600 TV screens will make it easy to follow games – assuming there's something worthwhile to follow. There will be more concession stands and the restrooms will continue to undergo improvement during the season.
There was a new-car smell in the air while workers polished glass panels, buffed countertops, and stenciled the new sponsor name United Airlines Field onto the grass.
USC will hold a scrimmage on Saturday that will be open to the public; its first game will be on Aug. 31 against Fresno State, with an audience that will include construction workers who participated in the renovation. The Los Angeles Rams, who will move to Inglewood after this season, will play their first game in the updated stadium with an exhibition against Denver on Aug. 24.
Don Barnum, principal of the architectural firm DLR Group, said preserving the Coliseum's historic integrity was important – but so was making sure the Trojans wouldn't play in a relic.
"It's obviously important to USC that they're competitive with their national peers, including football, and the Coliseum just wasn't accomplishing that," he said. "Now, with the improvements to the game-day experience for all the fans, we think that they're back on par with their competitive peers."
Swann expects the renovation to draw recruits and future investment. "When you look around Los Angeles, the city and the county, there's a lot of new buildings and there's new ones coming on with the Rams and so forth. So the competition for venues is very, very high," he said. "For us to still compete in this marketplace with our college team, to draw people here, we've got to have a better game-day experience, and I think that was what everybody thought about in 2013 when the contract was negotiated and that's what they envisioned. This is the end of a lot of people's hard work and dedication."
Helton's surroundings are new but his mission is the same. "That never changes. The expectation is that we're going to win the Pac-12 championship," Swann said. "If we want to be in the picture, in the conversation about a national championship on the national scene, that's where it starts. We're not going to get there if we're not winning our own conference. And so we're going to make that step and move it forward that way. Clay knows that. Clay knows that's always the first goal and we move it forward from that point in and giving him the ability to do it."
USC gave him an upgraded stadium. Swann said Helton has the right tools and tool box to succeed. "When you look at last year compared to what we have coming this year we have 18 new people on the football staff, coaches and people in the office. We've got a lot of young men who played on that team last year and they've got a bad taste in their mouth," Swann said. "You hear Clay talk about that all the time, having a bad taste in your mouth and wanting to get rid of it. They want to get back and prove that they're better athletes and a better team than you saw last year."
Swann said the Trojans have practiced "extraordinarily well this year," and said he has confidence in Helton and "everybody who's out there. Clay's not going to do it by himself. He's got a great coaching staff, people he feels comfortable with. And they've got to give the kids a great game plan, give them the confidence, give them the tools to be able to go out execute and play great football. So we're looking forward to it."
The renovated Coliseum is a sight to see. It's less clear whether the Trojans will be able to say the same.