Commentary: Where does Lincoln Riley's first-year turnaround at USC fit in college football history?
When witnessing something remarkable in progress, there is a natural instinct to ponder if anything like it has ever happened.
So, USC’s wondrous whirlwind from 4-8 to 11-1 and the doorstep of the College Football Playoff in Lincoln Riley’s first season got me to thinking this week: Where does Riley’s masterpiece fit among the best one-year coaching turnarounds in the sport’s history?
Well, for starters, he’s in illustrious and rare company. Most of the game’s legendary coaches either: a) weren’t handed a program in total tatters, or b) did not achieve major success until at least the second season at their new school. For instance, Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, Jim Tressel at Ohio State and Urban Meyer at Florida broke through with national championships in Year 2. Pete Carroll did not win the big one until Year 3 at USC, though it was clear after his second season that he was well on his way to reestablishing a standard of excellence.
I had to dig pretty hard to find first-year wonders. Here’s my crack at a top five, from the postwar era to modern times:
Nebraska had endured six straight losing seasons when Bob Devaney took over in 1962. The Cornhuskers, who had gone 3-6-1 the year before, went 9-2 and began their current NCAA record streak of 389 straight sellouts at Memorial Stadium. Tom Osborne was a Devaney protege.
Notre Dame went 19-30 over five seasons in 1959-63. Then Ara Parseghian rolled into town from Northwestern, and the Fighting Irish started the season 9-0 and vaulted to No. 1 in the Associated Press rankings before losing to USC 20-17 and finishing No. 3. Parseghian also brought the school a Heisman Trophy winner, John Huarte, in his debut campaign (sound familiar, USC fans?)
You might not remember the amazing job Terry Bowden did at Auburn in 1993 because none of the Tigers’ games were on TV because of NCAA sanctions. Auburn was 5-5-1 in Pat Dye’s last season in 1992, and Bowden promptly led the Tigers to an astounding 11-0 record. They were the only unbeaten team in the country that year but could not play in the postseason, as Bowden’s father, Bobby, would take the national championship with one-loss Florida State. The Tigers finished fourth in the AP rankings.
Funny enough, Meyer had a similar experience during his first season at Ohio State in 2012. The Buckeyes were on postseason probation because of the tattoo scandal that sent Tressel packing but finished 12-0 and ranked third by AP after going 6-7 the previous year under interim head coach Luke Fickell. I am hesitant to include Meyer in the same breath as the first three because he walked into a program that was already humming along at a top-five level under Tressel, but it was hard to leave out an unbeaten team.
The most recent example of rookie wizardry came from Gus Malzahn at Auburn in 2013. After going 3-9 in Gene Chizik’s last season, Malzahn led the Tigers to their “Kick Six” miracle win in the Iron Bowl, an SEC championship and the national title game, where they lost to Florida State, finishing 12-2.
Riley’s work in 2022 is certainly impressive in its own right, but it might be an apples-to-oranges comparison because of the transfer portal. Devaney, Parseghian, Bowden, Meyer, Malzahn and their peers basically had to take the players they inherited and work some kind of voodoo over the program in one offseason.
Riley used the portal to create a blank canvas for himself practically overnight, bringing in the likes of Heisman Trophy favorite quarterback Caleb Williams, star wide receivers Jordan Addison and Mario Williams, running backs Travis Dye and Austin Jones and linebackers Eric Gentry and Shane Lee, among many others.
Because of the new transfer rules, Riley was able to function as equal parts coach and general manager, taking advantage of this unprecedented era that is akin to college football free agency.
Depending on your vantage point, that could either cheapen Riley’s accomplishment or accentuate it. No matter your view, USC’s 2022 overhaul will go down as a historical touchstone. To this point, there has been nothing like it.
It’s worth noting that Texas Christian’s Sonny Dykes is making quite a statement this year after moving across town from Southern Methodist. The Horned Frogs are 12-0 and ranked No. 3 after going 5-7 in 2021, and Dykes did not benefit from the transfer portal to the degree Riley has.
Riley and Dykes share a deep connection from their time at Texas Tech. Riley coached under Dykes as a student assistant and succeeded him as the Red Raiders' wide receivers coach in 2007 after Dykes left to be Arizona’s offensive coordinator. I called their old boss, Mike Leach, to see what he thought about their work this season.
“Well, they’ve both been head coaches before so they know what they’re doing,” Leach said.
I asked Leach, now Mississippi State’s head coach, if he thought coaches in new locales have a better chance at turning a program around quickly due to the portal.
“I don’t have a great answer for that just because the portal and what that means, the positives and negatives of it are unfolding,” Leach said. “But you know, USC is a place that has a lot of firepower to utilize something like the portal, because they’re one of those pick-of-the-litter schools.”
Leach clearly hadn’t been following Riley’s exploits too closely. He asked me what USC’s record was, and, when I told him the Trojans were 11-1 and in position for a CFP berth, he said, “Wow, are they?”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.