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From his new gilded perch atop the Coliseum, with the city of Los Angeles suddenly at his fingertips, Lincoln Riley surveyed the scene he now presided over in stunned disbelief. Over one shoulder, the Hollywood sign stretched across the distant Santa Monica Mountains. Over the other, downtown skyscrapers sprouted from the sprawling landscape. Close by, trumpets sounded and Song Girls swayed.
It was a surreal picture for a coach who’d spent the vast majority of his life in West Texas and Norman, Okla., building up a championship reputation that would one day bring him much farther west, where his arrival at USC would stun the college football masses.
“Wow,” Riley said from the podium, offering an audible gasp. “Is this real?”
For the Trojans faithful, it was perhaps even harder to believe that one of the top coaches in college football could be standing here at the end of a three-month search and a decade’s walk through the proverbial desert. Few imagined USC could be capable of luring a coach of Riley’s stature, with his three consecutive College Football Playoff appearances and his virtually unmatched 55-win resume at Oklahoma.
But after months of back-channeling and intel gathering, over 400 pages of data analysis and a 50-slide presentation shown to key players through the search, here was proof of what once seemed impossible, as Riley stood in a blue suit and cardinal tie before a crowd atop the Coliseum’s Scholarship Tower, marking a major turning point in the hallowed history of USC football.
“It was never our goal to change the landscape of college football with one of the biggest moves in the history of the game. But we did exactly that,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn said. “It sends a loud and powerful message to the college football world that this sleeping giant is wide awake.”
That siren’s call had reached Riley barely 36 hours earlier, in the aftermath of Oklahoma’s season-ending loss to Oklahoma State. That night, Bohn and his chief of staff Brandon Sosna watched the rivalry game anxiously from their Coliseum suite, knowing full well that a Sooner win could upend their hopes of landing the coach who’d long topped their list.
It wasn’t until early the next morning that a parade of university leaders offered their pitch over Zoom. Until that point, Riley said he hadn’t engaged in any serious discussions with any school — Louisiana State included, he said — about leaving Oklahoma.
The impact of the united message from USC’s leaders was immediate, he said. Riley came away impressed by the commitment already in place to return the program to its previous glory and the promise of building further, which included plans for possible facility improvements.
Within a few whirlwind hours, the move was made official.
“They were completely in sync with what they felt like USC football could be, what they felt like we needed to do to make up the gap and they were totally united on doing anything and everything possible to help get us to that point,” Riley said. “It’s everything I needed to hear.”
After five years in Oklahoma, where he’d inherited a ready-made football power in the wake of Bob Stoops’ retirement, Riley was intrigued by the opportunity offered by USC, where a full-on rebuild would be required in the years to come. It wasn’t just the location or the history or the fertile recruiting ground, but the promise of an entirely new experience for his family — and especially his two young daughters — that convinced Riley to leave the comforts of Oklahoma.
“For them to experience new things in this life is very, very important to me and my wife,” Riley said. “We’re not scared to take a risk. I don’t think of this as a risk, but we’re not scared to take a jump, and this was the right time and everything about it made sense.”
When he spoke about leaving Oklahoma, where scorned fans had unleashed their fury since Sunday’s decision, Riley choked up, pausing for a moment to compose himself.
“This was honestly, I told the team earlier, the toughest decision of my life to come here,” Riley said.
More tough decisions lie ahead. Riley brought four assistants with him from Oklahoma on Monday morning, including defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, receivers coach Dennis Simmons, strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie, and director of operations Clarke Stroud. But no decision had yet been made on USC interim coach Donte Williams, whom the administration had hoped to retain.
Riley wouldn’t offer much more about Williams, his possible staff or his thoughts on the roster he inherited. The new coach will have a rare chance to see the team in action before taking the reins when USC takes on California in its rescheduled season finale Saturday. Otherwise, the next two weeks will be spent hiring staff and working the recruiting trail, where USC’s momentum behind Riley is already rising ahead of the early signing period.
From there, he’s confident it won’t take long to return USC to its past prominence.
“I think it can happen quickly. I do,” Riley said. “I think there’s a lot of things going on in this program right now that we can absolutely build on. In this day and age with the way college football works, you can turn over rosters in so many different ways. We’ll be very deliberate and creative and intentional about that. The combination of the staff we’re going to bring in, the players we’re going to bring in, the leadership that we have. … I just look at it like how can we not do it? How is it not going to work?”
Only time will tell if Riley lives up to the potential USC’s leaders promised in introducing him. Bohn called him “one of the best coaches in all of football.”University President Carol L. Folt referred to Riley as “the perfect choice” to return USC to “legendary status.”
Amid all the bold declarations, USC’s new coach looked out over the Coliseum and the sun-soaked scene behind him before offering one of his own.
“This place,” Riley said, “is going to be the mecca of college football.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.