Mike Bohn had just delivered a rousing salvo to kick off a news conference he knew he was going to win, and the reverberations were still ringing from ramparts of the Coliseum as Matt Leinart slipped quietly into the first row of seats with his wife, Josie, and teenage son, Cole.
This sleeping giant is wide awake. Standing up and fighting on!
That Leinart has a son who stretches well past 6-feet tall was a jarring sight, a sure reminder of just how long the program's dormancy has extended. When Cole was born in 2006, his young father was fresh off USC’s crushing Rose Bowl loss to Vince Young and Texas, which was the last time the Trojans had played for a national championship. Like any dad, Matt envisioned taking his grown son to his alma mater’s football games and indoctrinating him in the Trojan Way, showing off the culture of excellence that molded him into a Heisman Trophy winner.
But by the time Cole was old enough to appreciate it, USC was under crippling NCAA sanctions and supervision, and university decision-makers somehow had taken it all for granted, assuming that the good times would just keep on rolling, because, hey, this is USC. The last few years, as much as it hurt him on the inside, Leinart has been trudging along in fight-on fashion, serving as USC’s de facto national ambassador in his analyst role on Fox’s "Big Noon Kickoff."
“It is hard,” Leinart said on Monday afternoon, “because I love USC, and my job is to be objective, and I just want to talk some college football. But I want my alma mater to be good, and I want them to do well, and I root for them, and that’s OK, because that’s how sports are. And it’s been challenging. Challenging to see this place not where I think it should be. But this just changes all of that.”
This is the hiring of Lincoln Riley, the new USC football coach, introduced Monday to great fanfare that was well-earned over his five seasons at Oklahoma. Leinart and Riley are both 38 years old. They are peers — one wins the Heisman Trophy as a player and the other mentors quarterbacks who win it — and yet Leinart seemed very much like a fan as he watched the Trojans’ transfer of power in person.
“This is the happiest I’ve been in a long time,” Leinart said, “to get someone like Lincoln, just what he stands for, his history. I’ve had a chance to cover him for years now working at Fox, and he’s just a really, really special guy, special coach. I just know he’s going to change the culture here. That’s all we want as Trojans, alumni and fans, we want to breathe energy back into this place and get people excited, because it really is a special place. There’s no doubt he’s going to do that, just no doubt.”
Leinart knows better than anyone what the national narrative has been around USC the last decade because he’s been one of the only people in a position to dispel the notion that the Trojans are living in the past with no direction for the future. It really is a special place.
For the last two years, since Bohn took over the athletic department after the era of decay under former Trojan legends Pat Haden and Lynn Swann, he has internalized the pain of the faithful. And so when he fired Clay Helton, he knew that he simply could not mess this up.
From Day 1, he put Riley, the quarterback whisperer of the plains with the baby blue eyes and easy smile, atop his list. Hey, why not dig in, prepare for the pitch, swing from the heels and make the guy say no?
Bohn and his chief of staff, Brandon Sosna, prepared a 50-slide presentation that aimed to answer every question a prospective candidate may have about a USC program that has won one Pac-12 title since 2008. Why leave Oklahoma, which has been to three College Football Playoffs under Riley’s leadership, for USC? Bohn and Sosna, with the backing of school president Carol Folt, made sure to have all the right answers.
“Because we care, a great deal,” Bohn said, “and we felt immense pressure, immense pressure. This is a program that is deserving of that type of respect. We know what it means. We know what it means to our alumni, to the brand, what it means to Los Angeles, to the Pac-12, and in a big way, I think we know what this means to college football.”
Bohn’s belief that he could lure one of the sport’s few proven big winners to L.A. was tested throughout this search, he admitted. There were doubts Riley would ditch the school that gave him such a tremendous head start after the retirement of Bob Stoops in 2016. Oklahoma is a proud institution with a rabid fan base for whom tradition runs every bit as deep as it does at USC.
If Riley had said no and USC had signed Iowa State’s Matt Campbell instead, it would have sent the message that the Trojans are still a top-10 destination despite the recent collapse. But Riley’s hire more resembled a full-on coup, sending the message that the USC job remains as desirable as any in the country.
“I’m aware of this program, aware of what it’s done and what it can be,” Riley said. “I think that’s very well known in the college football world. That was part of it, but you can’t just rely on the logo.”
In Bohn, USC finally had an athletic director who realized that it would take more than nostalgia, romance and just hoping for a renaissance. His preparation and timing, combined with the allure of coaching, recruiting and living in Los Angeles, were the difference why Riley and his young family were here today and not Norman, Okla., or Baton Rouge, La.
A head coach leaving one legendary program for another is nearly unprecedented in this sport. USC could gloat about that for maybe 24 hours. In today’s college football, no advantage lasts long, no national stage remains exclusive; by late Monday afternoon news was leaking that Louisiana State had quickly answered the Trojans’ heist of Riley by plucking Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly out of South Bend, Ind.
The beautiful thing for USC fans? They no longer had to look longingly at other programs’ posturing, their desperate moving and shaking to reach the top at any astronomical cost.
This time, the Trojans finally played their part in the wild and wonderful ecosystem of college football. They aren’t all the way back, but they’re back in the game.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.