Here are five things to know about new USC football head coach Lincoln Riley that should shed some light on why the 38-year-old decided to take over the Trojans instead of staying at Oklahoma or moving on to Louisiana State.
Riley is a quarterback whisperer, and Southern California is a five-star quarterback assembly line. Notice something in common about the starting quarterbacks for Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Georgia entering this year? If you did — they all hail from the Southland — then Lincoln Riley probably did, too (and that list doesn’t even include Mississippi’s Matt Corral, who is a possible Heisman Trophy finalist along with Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud.)
As soon as Bob Stoops handpicked Riley to coach the quarterbacks and run the offense at Oklahoma in 2015, Riley began to prove what he had already shown at East Carolina in Conference USA: The guy knows how to motivate and prepare players at football’s most important position. He took Baker Mayfield, a former walk-on transfer from Texas Tech, and turned him into one of the most prolific passers in the country. In 2017, once Riley took the reins from Stoops, Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy while leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff semifinals. In 2018, Kyler Murray, a highly recruited transfer from Texas A&M, stepped in for Mayfield and earned his own Heisman and playoff appearance. Mayfield and Murray became the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft during back-to-back seasons. For a routine follow-up, Riley mentored Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts during his graduate transfer season, and Hurts is now the starter for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Riley will have no shortage of talented quarterbacks to evaluate right here in his new backyard. Which brings us to our next topic …
Southern California recruiting success
Riley is already having huge success recruiting Southern California. While the Sooners did not recruit as much in the Southland in Riley’s first five years in Norman, they’ve made camp in recent years, pulling commitments in the last year from some of the top offensive talent in the region — 2022 five-star Santa Ana Mater Dei running back Raleek Brown, 2023 five-star Los Alamitos quarterback Malachi Nelson (the top quarterback in his class), 2023 five-star Los Alamitos athlete Makai Lemon and 2023 four-star Los Alamitos receiver DeAndre Moore Jr.
Those players could switch their commitments to USC soon enough, and there will be more local players and coaches taking immediate notice of Riley putting down roots in Los Angeles to restore the proud tradition of the USC program.
Maybe more frequent trips to Los Angeles planted some seeds that Southern California might be a nice place to raise two young daughters, Sloan and Stella, with wife Caitlin, even though it’s a much different lifestyle than what they’ve known in Norman, Okla. Which brings us to our next topic …
Dreamin' big in L.A.
Riley is a small-town guy, but clearly he’s up for an adventure. As noted in a 2019 Times profile of Riley, “Like most boys in West Texas, Riley grew up wanting to be the QB1, not coach him. As a senior, he led the Mules of Muleshoe, a town of about 5,000 people, to the state semifinals.” A coincidence — my step dad is from Muleshoe, and “small town” doesn’t really do it justice. (An even smaller coincidence — my step dad and Riley are apparently distant, distant cousins).
Anyhow, Riley wanted to be a college quarterback, but a shoulder dislocation kept him from reaching that potential. Texas Tech coach Mike Leach saw enough in him to recruit him as a walk on, but it wasn’t too long during his time in Lubbock before Riley moved into a student assistant role. Which brings us to our next topic …
Coached USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell
The first quarterback Riley ever coached was none other than USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. Harrell told The Times, “Really Lincoln was the first person that taught me Mike Leach’s offense. He was only a year or two older than me, but he knew the offense. We were so close in age, it became a friendship, but he was a friend I respected. In the beginning, it was because he was the only guy that was around to watch film with me.”
As of September 2019, Harrell and Riley kept in touch often via text message. They clearly remained friends throughout the years.
“He bought us steak knives with Harrell engraved in them,” Harrell said. “Every time we get steaks and have friends over, they ask, ‘Where did you get these knives?’ Always my wife will say, ‘The Rileys bought them for us as a wedding gift.’ He tells me to come and visit him. I'm sure he’s got a pretty nice home now, making what he’s making.”
It’s possible that Riley has been keeping up with USC from afar given his affinity for Harrell. It has been assumed Harrell would move on next season, but, with the hire of his friend, it will certainly be interesting to see if Harrell remains a part of Riley’s USC staff. Of course, it will be up to Riley to decide if he wants a fresh start with the Trojans’ quarterback room. The expectations for a quick rebuild will be ever-present, trumping any old loyalties. Which brings us to our final topic …
Aiming for new heights
Riley still has an itch to scratch when it comes to winning at the highest level of the sport and must feel he can reach the summit more easily from USC. In each of his first three seasons at Oklahoma, Riley led the Sooners to a 12-1 regular season, only to lose in the College Football Playoff semifinals to Georgia, Alabama and LSU of the Southeastern Conference. Oklahoma’s issue during those seasons was its porous defense, but, during the last two years, its offense sputtered (at least living up to its ridiculous standards), as Riley struggled to work his magic on five-star quarterback prospects Spencer Rattler and Caleb Williams Jr.
Look, when 10-2 is your down year, you’re doing pretty well. But Riley is still so young in the profession, and the longer he stayed in Norman, the more he risked the fan base’s appreciation of him running dry.
Riley is a fierce competitor, but it would be naive to think that Oklahoma’s upcoming move to the SEC — where the Sooners will be one of six programs which expect to annually compete for national championships — wasn’t something he weighed in making this shocking move west.
With a coach of Riley's pedigree now leading the Trojans, the Pac-12 is unquestionably now USC’s for the taking in the coming years. And maybe after a few recruiting classes keeping Southern California talent at home Riley will be in a better position to take down the goliaths of the SEC by facing them in the playoff rather than tussling with them during the entire regular season.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.