The USC ended a quiet coaching search with a shocking hiring, forcing Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley to change the football program.
Ryan Cartier of the Los Angeles Times and J. Brady McCollough discuss what happened and what awaits the Trojans next during a roundtable moderated by Iliana Limon Romero, deputy sports editor of the Los Angeles Times.
Why does USC make sense for Lincoln Riley?
map: When USC Athletic Director Mike Bon fired Clay Helton in September, he made it clear that he needed a champion-level coach. Lincoln Riley is just that. So much so that none of us really believed that the USC could pull it off. Riley led Oklahoma to three consecutive college football playoff semi-finals to kickstart his coaching career. He won four consecutive Big 12 titles and 55 games in five years. It is virtually unmatched in college football. His win rate would be one of the top five college coaches of all time, right behind Urban Meyer. With the exception of Nick Saban of Alabama and Dabo Sweeney of Clemson, there are no championship coaches in college football today. USC needed to make a huge leap forward with this rental and I think it’s fair to say that they completely knocked it out of the park in that regard.
McCollough: Ryan, you basically just answered why Lincoln Riley made sense for the USC. I will answer the question that was asked now, thanks. So I kick myself because around October Riley popped up in my head as a guy Mike Bon might call “Hail Mary,” but someone who might have a reason to listen. I either distracted myself or talked myself out of it, so now I will try to state what I could enjoy if I even tweeted about it. For Riley in Oklahoma over the past few years, things have not been going so easily – for some reason, he just couldn’t get offended with five-star avenue Spencer Rattler, as with the transfers of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Herts – and me. I think the unfounded expectations he created in his first three years led to some of the excitement among Rano that Riley felt. Like, his worst season was two defeats, and this year they started 9-0, and yet people were disappointed? Moving to the Oklahoma Securities and Exchange Commission will only make it harder for Sooners to play for the big prize, and he’s already crushing it when recruiting in Southern California. Why not enjoy the sun and (for now) a much smarter fanbase?
map: If two losses are the worst he gets under Riley, I think USC fans should be lots of happy considering what they’ve been through over the past four seasons.
McCollough: If the playoffs expand to 12 teams, as expected, the Trojans should become a permanent feature, even in a season with two losses.
What does this mean for hiring?
map: It’s hard to imagine a bigger push for USC on the hiring journey. Riley has already proven that he can convince the best prospects in Southern California to come to Norman, Okla. Imagine if he only needed to convince them to climb to 405th place. The top four Southern California candidates for the next two recruiting courses have already been committed to Oklahoma, including Los Alamitos five-star quarterback Malachi Nelson in 2023 and five-star Mater Dei running backwards. Ralik Brown in 2022. Nelson, who at one point was the main target of the USC, has already been decommissioned from Oklahoma, and Brown sent out a cryptic tweet that he could potentially stay at home. This tells you something about Riley’s influence. He needs to kickstart the recruitment of USC immediately, and the fact that he had enough time before the start of the contract signing period could mean that this 2022 class is about to explode.
McCollough: Sway? I think you mean, buddy. This confidence radiates from Riley. It looks like he is still QB1 for the Muleshoe Mules and believes he will win the game in the final stages, which will make him more recruiting. His biggest challenge will be finding those massive offensive and defensive line prospects that are needed to compete with the SEC forces – of course there won’t be a shortage of talent in Southland – but his ability to recruit nationally should allow the USC people at the fronts.
What do we know about his staff?
map: We know thanks to an early riser group of reporters and videographers in Oklahomathat at least four of Riley’s employees boarded a plane to Los Angeles this morning. This group included Defense Coordinator Alex Grinch, Outside Foster Coach Dennis Simmons, COO Clark Stroud, and Strength and Conditioning Coach Benny Wylie. Besides, we don’t know much yet. The Grinch has experience with Pac-12, serving as Washington State Defense Coordinator in 2015-17. The rest of the staff will start to fill up from there, but the question now – and one that we had to answer soon – is whether the interim and defensive coach Donte Williams will be retained. I’m not sure if this is as necessary as it used to be given Riley’s authority in finding recruiters. But some continuity won’t hurt, right?
McCollough: It will be interesting to see if Donte continues. I could see that Riley wants a full blank slate, and given his authority, I can’t imagine Bon pushing him if Riley decides he wants to leave Donte. What Riley has to appreciate is how much excitement it will get for Los Angeles recruiters. The Grinch is being cited as a candidate for the head coach position, so it will be interesting to see if he will stay as USC Defense Coordinator if he needs a suitable job. Oklahoma’s defense is still not very good, but it has improved significantly over the past two seasons under the Grinch, so there is clearly a lot of trust between him and Riley. Graham Harrell and Riley have been friends since the Texas Institute of Technology, but I have to think Harrell will move on, even with this real connection. What do you think Ryan?
map: Yes, I don’t see Harrell staying on staff, no matter how close they are. Harrell is not one to share control of his crime, and while we don’t yet know the intricacies of how this Oklahoma crime will move from Oklahoma to Los Angeles, we can assume that Riley will want to put his own unique stamp on him. Most likely, this means goodbye to Harrell, to whom many fans were already ready to say goodbye.
What does this employee say about working for USC?
map: Ever since this quest began, we’ve wondered aloud if USC’s work has retained the charm it once had in the serene days of Pete Carroll. Well … that was a convincing affirmative answer. Bon and his chief of staff, Brandon Pine, sold Riley the idea of taking over a college program at the epicenter of sports in one of the nation’s top media markets, and apparently it was a draw. It is very rare for coaches to move from one program to another, and the fact that the USC has succeeded in doing so should allay any lingering fears that this is still a lot of work.
McCollough: Well said. Anything I have to add will likely end up in today’s column! So stay tuned.
Was this a big surprise locally and nationally?
McCollough: Well, on Saturday night, the whole country was gearing up for news that Riley was heading to LSU, which was supposedly going to offer him over $ 10 million a year to come to Baton Rouge. No one felt that USC was the school that was about to land him until Sunday morning when Bruce Feldman of Athletic tweeted about it… A truly remarkable turn of events that will go down in American football history. Locally, I think USC fans heard about the possible hiring of Iowa coach Matt Campbell, but as the weekend went by without an announcement (Campbell’s game ended on Friday night local time), hope seemed to be dying, and probably here -that will start panic over who will be the next candidate.
map: As we now know, Campbell was supposed to be Plan B. Which in itself would be a good choice. But USC seemed to have a trump card up its sleeve all along. The path we all went from that initial panic to when Riley became a boy was about as significant a leap as I can recall from my college football experience. USC fans have had little to be optimistic about in the past few years, so as the search drew to a close, a natural feeling of dread emerged. All of this disappeared in an instant as soon as Riley became known.
Okay, it may not be perfect. What are some of the disadvantages of Lincoln Riley?
McCollough: Well, if you believe everyone in Norman now, he is a disloyal traitor, so be prepared for him to leave for the NFL as soon as a suitable offer comes in. But in fact, Riley’s potential drawback for USC is that he hasn’t built the program himself before, which is what this Trojan needs. This is a complete overhaul. Riley took over the Oklahoma program, which was in good shape with the legendary Bob Stoops and just kept buzzing, which was very impressive for a guy who was the youngest coach in the Football Bowl at 33. But that will be a different job. I believe he knows this very well and is inspired by this challenge.
map: I agree with Brady. Riley definitely has a job for him. But there are worse places for creating a program. He has an unrivaled talent pool in Southern California. In addition, he already has a talented defender. Jackson Dart has a talent for doing well under Riley’s tutelage. When I spoke to his dad, Brandon, shortly after hiring, he was ecstatic. But as for other issues with Riley … he’s the mastermind behind the attack. If we’re collecting nits here, maybe we can find some questions about protecting him with the Grinch as coordinator. The Suners are ranked 57th in defensive performance and 70th in yards this season. But for USC, that would be a significant improvement. It’s really hard to argue with any part of Riley’s resume at this point, but the job at USC is definitely different from Oklahoma in many ways.
How much should USC fans look to the future?
map: Based on my Twitter graphics and a cursory glance at some of the USC forums, the fans are quite excited. It should be so. It’s a pivotal deal that should put USC back on track for college football playoffs for the foreseeable future. USC fans are hard to please, but Bon and his chief of staff, Brandon Pine, turned the tide completely. They deserve some time to be happy after everything they have faced over the past decade. But I’m sure expectations will explode soon.
McCollough: Tip for USC fans: just enjoy the day. Enjoy it. Because your natural instincts will prevail, no matter who the coach is.