Roundtable: Why USC fans should feel great Lincoln Riley was hired despite a few flaws

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Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley shouts to his team before a 2020 game against Kansas State
Former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley has been named the USC Trojans' new head coach. (Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

USC wrapped up a quiet coaching search with a shocking hire, reeling in Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley to turn around the football program.

The Los Angeles Times’ Ryan Kartje and J. Brady McCollough discuss what’s happened and what’s next for the Trojans during a roundtable talk moderated by Times deputy sports editor Iliana Limón Romero.

Why does USC make sense for Lincoln Riley?

Kartje: When USC athletic director Mike Bohn fired Clay Helton back in September, he made clear that he wanted a championship-caliber coach. Lincoln Riley is exactly that. So much so, in fact, that none of us actually believed it was possible that USC could pull this off. Riley took Oklahoma to three straight College Football Playoff semifinals to start his career as a coach. He won four straight Big 12 titles and 55 games in five years. That’s basically unmatched in college football. His winning percentage would rank in the top five all-time among college coaches, just behind Urban Meyer. Outside of Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, there are no more championship-caliber coaches available in college football today. USC needed to make a huge swing with this hire, and I think it’s fair to say they completely knocked it out of the park in that regard.

McCollough: Ryan, you basically just answered why Lincoln Riley made sense for USC. I’ll address the question that was posed now, thank you. So, I’m kicking myself, because sometime in October, Riley popped in my mind as a guy that Mike Bohn could call as a “Hail Mary” but someone who may have reason to listen. I either got distracted or talked myself out of it so will now attempt to claim some of the brilliance I could have enjoyed if I had even sent a tweet to that effect. Things have not come as easily for Riley at Oklahoma the last few years — for whatever reason, he just could not get the offense humming with five-star prospect Spencer Rattler as he had with transfers Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts — and I think the unreasonable expectations he had created his first three years led to some unrest among the Sooners that Riley was feeling. Like, his worst season was two losses, and this year they started 9-0, and yet people were frustrated? The move to the SEC for Oklahoma was only going to make it harder for the Sooners to play for the big prize, and he has already been crushing it in recruiting in Southern California. Why not come enjoy the sunshine and (for now) a much more reasonable fan base?

Kartje: If two losses are the worst it gets under Riley, I think USC fans should be plenty happy, considering what they’ve gone through the past four seasons.

McCollough: If the playoff expands to 12 teams as expected, the Trojans should become a fixture, even in a two-loss season too.

What does this mean for recruiting?

Kartje: It’s hard to imagine a bigger boost for USC on the recruiting trail. Riley has already proven he can convince the top prospects in Southern California to come to Norman, Okla. Imagine if he only has to convince them to come up the 405. Four of the top prospects in Southern California over the next two recruiting classes were already committed to Oklahoma, including five-star Los Alamitos quarterback Malachi Nelson in 2023 and five-star Mater Dei running back Raleek Brown in 2022. Nelson, who was at one point a major USC target, already decommitted from Oklahoma, and Brown sent a cryptic tweet about potentially staying home. That tells you something about the sway Riley carries. He should instantly provide a jolt to USC’s recruiting, and the fact that his hire came with plenty of time before the early signing period could mean this 2022 class is about to explode.

McCollough: Sway? I think you mean swag, buddy. Riley has this confidence that radiates. It’s like he’s still that QB1 for the Muleshoe Mules and believes he’s going to win the game on the final drive, making him a proven closer on the recruiting trail. His biggest challenge will be finding those massive offensive and defensive line prospects that are needed to compete with the powers of the SEC — of course there will be no shortage of skill talent in the Southland — but his ability to recruit nationally should allow for USC to man the fronts.

What do we know about his staff?

Kartje: We know, thanks to an early-rising crew of reporters and videographers in Oklahoma, that at least four members of Riley’s staff boarded a plane bound for Los Angeles this morning. That group included defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons, director of operations Clarke Stroud, and strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie. Beyond that, we don’t know much yet. Grinch has experience in the Pac-12, having served as Washington State’s defensive coordinator from 2015 to 2017. The rest of the staff will begin to fill out from there, but the question now — and one we should have answered soon — is whether interim coach and defensive backs coach Donte Williams will be retained. I’m not sure that’s as necessary as it once was, given Riley’s gravitas on the recruiting trail. But it couldn’t hurt to have some continuity, right?

McCollough: It will definitely be fascinating to see if Donte is retained. I could see Riley wanting a full clean slate, and given his gravitas, I can’t imagine Bohn pushing him if Riley decides he wants to move on from Donte. What Riley has to gauge is how much that will ruffle feathers around the L.A. recruiting scene. Grinch has been mentioned as a candidate for head coaching jobs, so it will be interesting to see if he sticks as the defensive coordinator at USC if the right job comes calling for him. The Oklahoma defense still isn’t good, but it has improved a lot the last two seasons under Grinch, so there is clearly a trust built there between him and Riley. Graham Harrell and Riley have been friends going back to their Texas Tech days, but I have to think that Harrell will be moving on, even with that real bond. What do you think, Ryan?

Kartje: Yeah, I don’t see Harrell staying on staff, no matter how close they are. Harrell isn’t the type to share control of his offense, and while we don’t yet know the intricacies of how that Oklahoma offense will translate in L.A., we can assume that Riley will want to put his own unique stamp on it. That likely means saying goodbye to Harrell, who many fans were already ready to bid adieu.

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, right, talks with quarterback Spencer Rattler during a game against Kansas State
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, right, talks with quarterback Spencer Rattler during a game against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., on Oct. 2. (Orlin Wagner / Associated Press)

What does this hire say about the USC job?

Kartje: Since this search started, we’ve wondered aloud whether USC’s job still had the allure it once did in the halcyon days of Pete Carroll. Well … this was a resounding answer in the affirmative. Bohn and his chief of staff Brandon Sosna sold Riley on the idea of taking over a college program at the epicenter of sports, in one of the nation’s top media markets, and clearly, that was a draw. It’s very rare that coaches move from one powerhouse program to another, and the fact that USC was able to make that happen should ease any lingering concerns about it still being a big-time job.

McCollough: Well said. Anything I’ve got to add will likely end up in tonight’s column! So stay tuned.

Was this a big surprise locally and nationally?

McCollough: Well, the entire country was bracing itself Saturday night for the news that Riley was headed to LSU, which supposedly was about to offer him well over $10 million per year to come to Baton Rouge. Nobody had any feeling that USC was the school that was about to land him until Sunday morning when the Athletic’s Bruce Feldman tweeted the possibility. Truly a remarkable turn of events that will go down in college football history. Locally, I think USC fans had been hearing of a possible hiring of Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, but as the weekend wore on without an announcement (Campbell’s game finished Friday evening local time), the hope of that seemed to be dying out, and panic was possibly about to set in about who the next candidate would be.

Kartje: As we now know, Campbell was set to be Plan B. Which in itself, would have been a good hire. But USC apparently had an ace up its sleeve the entire time. The journey we all took from that initial panic to Riley being the guy is about as significant of a leap as I can remember in my experience around college football. USC fans haven’t had a lot to be optimistic about over the past few years, so there was a natural, lingering sense of dread as the search entered its final days. All of that disappeared in an instant as soon as the word got out about Riley.

OK, he can’t possibly be perfect. What are some of Lincoln Riley’s flaws?

McCollough: Well, if you believe everyone in Norman right now, he’s a disloyal traitor so get ready for him to leave for the NFL as soon as the right offer comes. But, in reality, Riley’s potential flaw for USC is that he hasn’t truly built up a program on his own before, and that is what this Trojan program needs. This is a full-on rebuild. Riley took over an Oklahoma program that was in fine shape from the legendary Bob Stoops and just kept the thing humming along, which was very impressive for a guy who at 33 was the youngest coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But this will be a different kind of work. I assume he knows that very well and is invigorated by that challenge.

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley answers questions during a news conference
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley answers questions during a news conference on Aug. 31 in Norman, Okla. (Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

Kartje: I agree with Brady. Riley definitely has his work cut out for him. But there are worse places to have to build up a program. He has the benefit of an unmatched talent pool in Southern California. Plus, he already has a talented quarterback in place. Jaxson Dart has the talent to absolutely thrive under Riley’s tutelage. When I spoke to his dad, Brandon, shortly after the hire, he was absolutely thrilled. But as far as other concerns with Riley … he’s an offensive mastermind. If we’re picking nits here, perhaps we could find some questions about his defense with Grinch as coordinator. This season, the Sooners are 57th in scoring defense and 70th in yards allowed. But for USC, that would represent a massive improvement. It’s really difficult to take issue with any part of Riley’s resume at this point, but the USC job is definitely different from Oklahoma in many ways.

How excited should USC fans be about the future?

Kartje: Judging by my Twitter timeline and a brief glimpse at some USC message boards, fans are sufficiently thrilled. As they should be. This is a landscape-altering hire, one that should put USC back on path to the College Football Playoff for the foreseeable future. USC fans are a hard-to-please bunch, but Bohn and his chief of staff Brandon Sosna have managed to turn the tides completely. They deserve some time to be happy after all they’ve dealt with over the past decade. But I’m sure it won’t be long before the expectations shoot through the roof.

McCollough: Advice to USC fans: Just enjoy this day. Savor it. Because your natural instincts will take over soon enough, no matter who the coach is.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.