We need to be very clear and precise in recommending a certain course of action for USC football after Monday’s disastrous Cotton Bowl ending against Tulane: The idea of firing Alex Grinch as defensive coordinator, something USC fans obviously support right now, can’t exist on an island, in isolation.
If Mike Bohn and Lincoln Riley take that step, it has to be done as part of a connected series of actions with certain knowledge that other steps can be taken concurrently or are already lined up and secured.
“Fire Alex Grinch” is easy, but the easy thing isn’t what good leaders do.
“Fire Alex Grinch if you know you can get a much better replacement and are already doing the work behind the scenes”? That’s an actual plan and a legitimate course of action. Let’s explain that nuance as we try to map out a path for the Trojans, Mike Bohn and Lincoln Riley:
FROM OUR RILEY FILES PODCAST SERIES
Head coach Lincoln Riley of the Oklahoma Sooners talks with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch before their spring game at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on April 24, 2021 in Norman, Oklahoma. Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Let’s set the scene with words from Oklahoma insider Kegan Reneau on our Riley Files podcast series from the summer of 2022:
“When the crap hits the fan in Southern California, does Lincoln have it in him to move on from some of the people that he has been the most loyal to over the last couple years,” Reneau asked. “When does that happen? When does that moment of truth occur?”
MORE RILEY FILES
OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch walks past players before the Sooners’ 76-0 win against Western Carolina on Saturday in Norman.
More from Reneau:
“Will he (Riley) feel the pressure earlier or later, and how much rope will he personally feel on the job? That’s a very compelling question,” Reneau said.
Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch before a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Iowa State Cyclones at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.
“There are some very interesting decisions he (Riley) made, carrying over from Oklahoma to USC, that we’ve talked about,” Reneau said. “To me, that’s a problem. He didn’t recognize those were problems at Oklahoma.”
Nov. 11, 2022; Los Angeles, California; Southern California Trojans head coach Lincoln Riley watches game action against the Colorado Buffaloes during the second half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
“He’s going through with the same (as Oklahoma), running it back with the same crew at USC, besides Josh Henson,” Reneau said. “The best coaches are very self-aware and aware of what they need to do at all times to win.”
THIS BRINGS US TO THE REAL CONVERSATION
Jan. 2, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; USC Trojans head coach Lincoln Riley reacts during the first half against the Tulane Green Wave in the 2023 Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
I’m not going to sit here and say this is an easy choice for Lincoln Riley, because Alex Grinch is a friend and someone Riley has been loyal to. It can’t be easy for Riley to want to part with Grinch. That’s surely a part of why Riley answered only three questions from reporters after the Cotton Bowl. He was torn up precisely because of this inner conflict and the knowledge that, deep inside, Alex Grinch is not giving USC the very best chance to win and thrive. Riley knows something has to change.
However, this complicated process doesn’t have to be dental surgery. It doesn’t have to be more painful than it already is.
Let’s flesh this out:
IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT FIRING ALEX GRINCH -- IT'S MORE THAN THAT
Dec. 10, 2022; New York, New York; Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams (right) poses for photos with his head coach Lincoln Riley during a press conference in the Astor Ballroom at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York, NY, after winning the 2022 Heisman Trophy. Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
This is also a conversation about giving Caleb Williams the support he deserves. Caleb played brilliantly — again — versus Tulane, yet lost. That’s not fair to him. Riley needs to think about Caleb and the USC offense, the USC fan base and the USC administration here. Is he doing his best for all of those constituencies if he keeps Alex Grinch? Loyalty to one man, Grinch, has to be balanced against loyalty to a lot of other important people. Making this about one man obscures the larger conversation.
HOW TO HANDLE THE DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR SPOT
April 23, 2022; Los Angeles, California; Southern California Trojans defensive coordinator Alex Grinch during the spring game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Let’s be clear: Firing Grinch might seem like a plan, but it’s not a real plan unless it is immediately accompanied by the hire of an elite replacement.
It’s at least a two-pronged plan, but in a certain sense, it’s a three-pronged plan: It’s not just about firing Grinch (part one); it’s not just about replacing Grinch (part two); it’s about replacing Grinch with someone really good (part three).
USC, Riley, and Mike Bohn have to get all three parts right. It’s not just about firing Grinch or even simply replacing him.
"ANYONE BUT GRINCH" IS NOT A REAL PLAN
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch on the sidelines during a 66-14 Trojans win over the Rice Owls at United Airlines Field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 3, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Harry How/Getty Images
Anyone but Grinch is not a plan, folks. Getting another mediocre defensive coordinator means USC will drift through a few seasons and then realize it hasn’t made any progress, which will only lead to another defensive coordinator hire a few years down the line after some wasted seasons or (if not wasted) seasons which fail to maximize their potential. Riley and USC can’t have that.
If USC weighs the value of keeping Alex Grinch versus the value of replacing him with a mediocre coordinator (think Clancy Pendergast), the Trojans might as well keep Grinch, give him his “prove it” season in 2023, and then see where things stand in December.
The only acceptable non-Grinch plan is replacing him with an elite guy. USC can’t “settle” for anyone but Grinch. That’s a low bar, not a high one. It’s not how a potential replacement chase should go.
THE CANDIDATE: JIM LEONHARD
Nov. 26, 2022; Madison; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Jim Leonhard looks on during warmups prior to the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Camp Randall Stadium. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
It’s very obvious Jim Leonhard should be USC’s target if it wants to fire Grinch. Leonhard turns out great defenses each year. He was magnificent at Wisconsin. He’s an elite defensive coordinator, period.
LEONHARD IS A FREE AGENT
Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst, right, and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard argue in vain against a Notre Dame touchdown reception during the second quarter of their game Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill. MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL
Leonhard did not stay at Wisconsin with new coach Luke Fickell. He hasn’t signed with the Green Bay Packers yet. This is USC’s window to go out and grab him, or to at least make calls to his agent and work back channels.
LEONHARD WOULD BE ABLE TO RECRUIT AND COACH FOR THE BIG TEN
Nov. 26, 2022; Madison; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Jim Leonhard reacts to a play during the third quarter against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Camp Randall Stadium. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
The fact that USC is moving into the Big Ten in 2024 makes Leonhard an especially perfect choice. He knows the conference. He can recruit within the conference. He would have USC’s defenses prepared for Big Ten opponents like no other possible candidate.
MIKE BOHN AND LINCOLN RILEY CAN BE CUTTHROAT AGAIN
Nov. 29, 2021; Los Angeles, California; Lincoln Riley (left) and Southern California Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn react during a press conference to introduce Riley as USC head coach. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Bohn and Lincoln Riley were cutthroat operators when they pulled off their USC move. It left a lot of people sore in Oklahoma (understandably), but it was because they wanted to do something special at USC.
If they really are serious about doing things right — and big — at USC, they’ll make a run at Jim Leonhard and successfully land the plane.