The 12 hours that transformed USC football: How the Lincoln Riley deal went down

Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley talks with players
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Since the day Clay Helton was fired, just two weeks into this college football season, Mike Bohn had his sights set on hiring a head coach at USC that would send shockwaves through the sport.

USC’s athletic director knew the hire would not only define his tenure, but determine the direction of a Trojan football program that spent the better part of the past decade tumbling from its perch atop college football. Bohn wanted a championship-caliber coach whose credentials alone would proudly declare USC’s return to prominence.

So he set his aim in September on one of the top coaches in college football, an offensive mastermind and ace recruiter so coveted that he seemed entirely out of USC’s reach. Over the course of a three-month search, that aim never wavered, and by the early morning hours Sunday, shortly after Oklahoma’s season had ended, a bombshell deal quickly came together to bring Sooners coach Lincoln Riley to Los Angeles.

By Sunday night, Riley was officially announced as USC's 30th head coach, ending a search characterized by its quiet with a boom sure to be felt across college football. His stunning arrival at the end of an aimless USC season has the power to transform a struggling football program and perhaps even lift a middling Pac-12 Conference back to national relevance.

“Lincoln is universally considered one of the brightest and most talented football coaches in the nation, and the fact that he chose USC is a testament to the strength of our brand, the power of the Trojan Family and the leadership of our university,” Bohn said in a statement. “This is for our current players, our former players, our alumni, our fans, and our entire university community. Our time is now.”

USC fans have been waiting for years for the school to bring in a coach who could restore its treasured football program to glory. In Riley, they now have a coach who has already proven plenty capable of leading a prestigious program to the College Football Playoff semifinals. In five seasons at Oklahoma, Riley led the Sooners to three consecutive CFP appearances and four consecutive Big 12 Conference titles.

It was that resounding success, virtually unmatched in college football today beyond Alabama's Nick Saban and Clemson's Dabo Swinney, that Bohn coveted most when USC’s search first began in September. After spending his first two years as athletic director rebuilding the football program’s barren infrastructure, Bohn said in the wake of Helton’s firing that he believed USC was “better positioned right now than we have been at any other time in the past decade to recruit the best and right leader for us.”

Still, as USC fell to 4-7, securing a losing season for the second time in four seasons, the question lingered: Would Bohn and his chief of staff Brandon Sosna take advantage of the long runway they gained by firing Helton on Sept. 13 and land a coach that could quickly rally the Trojan legions?

Conversations with representation for Riley and other candidates carried on throughout the season, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the discussions who were not authorized to speak on the record. Bohn and Sosna had once before considered Riley, then-Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator, when conducting their last coaching search at Cincinnati, but ultimately landed on Luke Fickell, whose name was also regularly connected to USC’s search.

With Oklahoma set to soon join the Southeastern Conference, the belief among USC’s decision makers was that the Sooners' wunderkind coach might now be willing to consider a move to a conference where he could more easily pave his own path to the College Football Playoff.

It wasn’t until Saturday night, however, after Oklahoma’s season ended with a loss to rival Oklahoma State, that leaders at USC made their late-night pitch directly to Riley. They sold him on the investments they’d made in the Trojans football program, the top-tier talent he could pluck from across Southern California, and the promise of leading a program in a major media market, at the epicenter of sports.

Backup plans were put in place just in case Riley opted to stay put. Consideration was given to Baylor’s Dave Aranda and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell. During the weekend, Campbell emerged as the top option behind Riley. The belief was that the Iowa State coach would accept the job if offered.

It never came to that. As rumors swirled about Louisiana State’s pursuit of Riley in the wake of Oklahoma's regular-season finale, the coach denied he would take over the Tigers.

“Let me stop you right there,” Riley said Saturday. “I’m not going to be the next coach at LSU.”

It seemed certain then that Riley would stay with the Sooners. But a few hours after that 9 p.m. postgame news conference, a deal between USC and Riley was reached. University officials vetted their new coach early Sunday morning. By Sunday night, USC officially announced the dawn of a new era in its football program.

“USC has an unparalleled football tradition with tremendous resources and facilities, and the administration has made a deep commitment to winning,” Riley said in a statement. “I look forward to honoring that successful tradition and building on it. The pieces are in place for us to build the program back to where it should be and the fans expect it to be. We will work hard to develop a physical football team that is dominant on both lines of scrimmage, and has a dynamic balanced offense and a stout aggressive defense."

Riley will immediately take over running the USC football program, with Bob Stoops to coach the Sooners in their bowl game. Donte Williams will remain the Trojans' interim head coach for Saturday’s game at California.

Of the other coaches linked to USC’s search, including Aranda and Campbell, none boasts a resume quite like Riley, who won 55 games over five seasons in Norman, Okla. His winning percentage (.846) over that time currently places him among the most successful coaches in college football history.

In that short time, Riley has proven himself as college football’s preeminent quarterback guru. His first two quarterbacks at Oklahoma, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, both won the Heisman Trophy before being selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. The Sooners next quarterback, Jalen Hurts, was a Heisman finalist. All three are now starting NFL quarterbacks.

That reputation should serve him well in Southern California, where the landscape is replete with top recruits, several of whom Riley had already plucked out from under USC. Four of the top prospects in Southern California, including Mater Dei 2022 five-star running back Raleek Brown, were already committed to join Riley at Oklahoma.

It used to be a guarantee that USC, with its abundant riches to pick from across the Southland, would compile a top-five recruiting class. But it has not done so since 2018, the most glaring sign the program had lost prestige under Helton.

The Trojans have not appeared in a College Football Playoff semifinal in its eight years of existence and have won just one Pac-12 title since 2008 when the Pete Carroll era was still going strong.

Riley is the first hire that USC has made since Carroll who is nationally relevant on his own merit. Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were Carroll proteges who were brought back to keep the good times rolling after the NCAA handed the program massive sanctions in 2010 because of the Reggie Bush scandal. Helton, hired as an assistant by Kiffin, had never been a head coach when he was promoted to the permanent role by then-athletic director Pat Haden in 2015.

Bohn, after deciding to keep Helton in place after the 2019 and 2020 seasons, fired Helton after USC was beaten soundly by Stanford 42-28 at the Coliseum in the second game of the year. His final record with the Trojans was 46-24.

Helton has since been hired to lead Georgia Southern, while USC leaders patiently waited for their chance to land Riley, the championship-caliber coach they’d had their eyes on all along.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.