The scuttlebutt long had been if Lincoln Riley was going to leave Oklahoma it would be for the NFL. Upon grooming consecutive Heisman-winning quarterbacks and No. 1 overall draft picks, Riley emerged as one of the most attractive coaching candidates in football.
The Dallas Cowboys expressed interest after jettisoning Jason Garrett following the 2019 season, and other teams have as well in recent years. Riley, thus, shocked and shook up the sport last week when he departed Oklahoma for USC.
Moving on from one blue blood for another is less common than leaving the college game for the pros. The 38-year-old Riley still has plenty of time, of course, to coach at the highest level. He intimated that the leap he did make came down to USC having a higher ceiling than Oklahoma, which is set to join the SEC in the coming years.
"One of the things I evaluated in this opportunity is I think we can build one of the best rosters in the country," Riley said on the latest podcast episode of Move The Sticks with Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks. "I don't think. I know we can. ... As college football is changing and a lot of things are shifting, each program, you've got to have your niche. You've got to have your thing that separates you or makes you different. I think this is one of the most unique settings and unique opportunities in college football, not just for coaches, but for players. My confidence level that we can build a roster that will be as good as anybody in the country is very high. It's because of the people here and the opportunities here and I think that's something that can happen very quickly."
It historically has for the Trojans. The four head coaches who have won national championships at USC all did so by their fourth seasons in Los Angeles. Still, Riley has his work cut out for him.
USC (4-8) posted its worst record since 1991. Its four-game losing streak to close out the 2021 campaign is the program's longest in 20 years. The cupboard isn't bare, however. Three of USC's past four recruiting classes ranked in the top 20, and Riley's arrival has already sparked a turnaround with future classes. The school's primary issues have been player development and performance.
All three areas figure to improve dramatically with Riley at the helm. Spurred by the play of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts, Riley's Oklahoma teams won at an .846 clip over five seasons while reaching two College Football Playoff games and two other New Year's Six bowls. Taking USC to similar heights is not only the challenge moving forward but the expectation.
Riley believes he has the support needed to build a champion at his new program. His plan now is to implement everything he learned prior.
"'SC didn't bring us here to adapt to 'SC. 'SC brought us here to bring our personality and our program and our belief system here," Riley said. "They made that very clear from day one. Up to this point, whether it's been the administration, whether it's been current players, whether it's been so many of the former players and people that were a part of those great 'SC teams, everybody's embraced that. There's a humble attitude, there's a real humility right now about this program in that you can't … you're not just going to win because of the logo. You're not going to win because of the great things that have happened in the past. It's gonna be about the here and the now. And we've got to go do everything necessary and everything possible to get this thing back. I felt that attitude from the beginning, and it was one of the most appealing things about coming here to L.A.
"You feel the possibilities of what this thing can be, but you also feel an attitude that people are dying for this to happen. They're starving for success. That's a great, great place to be. It's a tremendous situation to walk into."
It's one he ultimately chose over many others.