Lincoln Riley took a calculated move to turn his back on Oklahoma for USC, but it could pay off massively
College football can’t help it. As healthy and adorable as it gets at times, there is always a Sunday when a coach in the prime of his career can stir up the industry with the typical backdrop of millions of dollars, a desperate fan base, shifting loyalties, and an opportunity for an entire conference to redesign.
Make this whole nation.
Lincoln Riley did that with a wave of his hand – or whatever gesture he made – when he took the USC job on Sunday. It was a shock wave felt from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Los Angeles, with significant tremors still being heard in Norman, Oklahoma.
Riley was the first Oklahoma coach to leave for another college football job since 1946. Every other Sooners coach since then had either retired, been fired, or – in the case of Jim Mackenzie – died on the job. That’s the definition of a target gig.
Riley used Oklahoma as a stepping stone. This is a necessary realization as the Sooner believers treat their wounds and seek to heal their injured pride. But who can blame a 38-year-old – in the prime of his career with the prospect of promotion – for taking such a calculated step? The difference is that in the real world they cancel at least two weeks in advance with a hedge fund expert or a corporate real estate titan.
Riley looked around, thinking he had peaked after five seasons in Oklahoma, and said goodbye less than 24 hours after declaring his loyalty. Somehow. When Riley said he wasn’t going to LSU after the Bedlam game on Saturday, no one thought about whether that meant he could go elsewhere.
That’s part of the shock. As long as Riley was in Norman, the Sooners would win the Big 12 titles and challenge them to the college football playoffs. His continued excellence was a big part of the reason Oklahoma loved joining the SEC.
The feeling of betrayal is palpable. Oklahoma Sporting Director Joe Castiglione took a risk in 2017 and named Bob Stoops’ 33-year-old offensive coordinator to replace the legendary coach. He paid Riley well and gave him the resources he needed.
But there will be no sympathy for OU in this case, especially not in Big 12 circles. Karma is a witch considering Riley adapted the same secret process Oklahoma used to jump to the SEC. The knife in the back can be turned in both directions.
One of the game’s best coaches made a calculated decision. So calculated that there could now be an explanation as to why Riley mysteriously disappeared for “personal reasons” on the Tuesday of the Baylor game. Regardless, it is now known that Riley spoke to USC mid-season as he chased a seventh consecutive Big 12 title and playoff spot.
The protocol in such situations has long since fallen out of the window. Riley eventually made the choice of recruiting California kids to beat SEC teams – he had three stud engagements from the state alone in the # 1 Class of 2023 – and recruiting in California beats a Pac-12 team. This is Oregon, the current class of a league that has fallen out of favor.
That had to play a role in Riley’s decision too. If he does the job at USC, it’s just going to be easier to win than Oklahoma or LSU. If Riley gets it right, it will be easier to recruit within 50 miles of LA than Texas and Texas A&M, now suddenly both SEC rivals, to beat Texas talent.
These are big “ifs” – huge “ifs”. Nobody said that made total sense.
Riley looked out into the open and took a risk, as well as a job. USC isn’t a sure thing, but it’s a new thing. Riley joins a program with significant motivation to be good again.
The LSU has to kick itself. AD Scott Woodward apparently threw around $ 100 million deals on the right coach to replace Ed Orgeron. Riley’s name had appeared in the speculation. Now, 42 days after Coach O was fired, LSU is the last of three high-level programs without a coach.
The money would be the money no matter where Riley ended up. Mel Tucker recently ensured that every substantial coach gets a raise after his $ 95 million deal with Michigan State. Riley chose his path by choosing a downtrodden 4-7 program that had just fired his coach for a program at LSU that won a national championship two years ago.
His decision is arguably the best news for the Pac-12 in the past 10 years. Big ups to USC AD Mike Bohn, who put down an absolute home run. The man now has Luke Fickell (in Cincinnati) and Riley on his hire file. The new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff could be in office for another 20 years and not add as much to his conference’s football fortune.
The league suddenly has a proven, young, savvy product that is responsible for its flagship program. USC and with it Pac-12 are on the way to become relevant again. The last time something like this happened to both the conference and school, former AD Mike Garrett dropped his fifth election at USC, Pete Carroll. How did that work?
Riley was doing much better than Carroll as a college coach at the time, and he took the job at a much younger age.
There is something about the lure of the west coast. The last, biggest, Power Five-to-Power Five move like this could be Lane Kiffin leaving Tennessee after a season for … USC. Sure, Kiffin had a history with the Trojans, but the point is that these kind of big job jumps don’t happen that often. If so, USC is usually involved.
The possibilities are endless. Will Riley bring Caleb Williams? Is there a transfer portal palooza for the departing Sooners after their coach is gone?
Riley no doubt thought about all of this before taking his calculated move. It has changed two football powers, maybe two conferences and maybe, if all goes well, the national landscape of the sport.