"I am truly excited to come to USC and join the Trojan Family as its new head football coach. USC has an unparalleled football tradition with tremendous resources and facilities, and the administration has made a deep commitment to winning. I look forward to honoring that successful tradition and building on it," said Riley in a statement released by USC. "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.
Oklahoma went 55-10 under Riley with four Big 12 titles and three College Football Playoff appearances during his tenure. The Sooners posted a 10-2 record in 2021 but missed out on the Big 12 Championship Game after losing to Oklahoma State 37-33 in a Bedlam thriller on Saturday.
Though Riley has been connected to other high-profile openings in the past, including opportunities in the NFL, this is truly a rare, if not unprecedented, move in the modern landscape. He becomes the first Oklahoma coach to leave for another college job since Jim Tatum left OU for Maryland in 1947. This marks the first time the Sooners will be in the market for a new coach since 1999 when they hired Stoops.
Southern California's local talent pool, along with the the appeal of Los Angeles and USC's brand, were focal points in the stunning move, according to The Athletic's Bruce Feldman.
Riley's move West comes as Oklahoma and Texas are set to depart the Big 12 for the SEC. Though the two blue bloods are not scheduled to switch conferences until 2025, it's possible -- if not likely -- that they transition as soon as next year. Southern California is a recruiting hotbed of players who will likely be extremely attracted to Riley's wide open, up-tempo offense. Riley has produced two Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray) and sent another to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist (Jalen Hurts).
Since being hired as the team's offensive coordinator by Stoops ahead of the 2015 season, Riley has led Oklahoma to top-10 offensive performances each season except for 2021 -- the Sooners are tied with SMU for 11th -- reaching as high as No. 1 nationally in 2018.
"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," said Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn. "This is for our current players, our former players, our alumni, our fans, and our entire university community. Our time is now."
USC fired Helton two games into the 2021. Helton went 46-24 with the Trojans, including a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State following the 2016 season. Here are takeaways from Sunday's stunning news.
A coup of epic proportions
New USC athletic director Mike Bohn has a relationship with Luke Fickell, one of the hottest names on the coaching market, due to their time together at Cincinnati. Because of that, it was only natural to connect the dots and put Fickell at the top of Bohn's list. Bohn pulled off a ninja move nabbing Riley from Norman in a move that will go down as one of the most monumental hires in recent college football history.
This is the juice that USC needs. The program has to win the public relations fight in Los Angeles, but it has fallen into a place where it's hard to attract a name at the peak of the profession that will play well in L.A. Riley accomplishes both. His success with the Sooners will reenergize a program that had become stale and put the Trojans back on the map after a half-decade of irrelevance.
Needed recruiting prowess
USC has become an afterthought in recruiting circles in SoCal, but that will change with Riley running the ship. He brings the perfect system to attract talent in the area, evolving from a pure Air Raid coach into a quarterback whisperer who not only develops superstars but runs a system that is founded in the power rushing attack.
Riley has a five-star player from California committed to Oklahoma in the Class of 2022, and three more top-50 players from the state -- including five-star quarterback and No. 2 overall prospect Malachi Nelson -- committed to the Sooners in the Class of 2023. Those players not only could follow Riley to USC but show just how highly regarded he already is in California.
Riley runs the system that virtually every high school coach in the region employs, which means that he will be able to open the doors of Heritage Hall and five-star offensive skill players will be attracted to the building like moths to a light.
The SEC factor played a role
Riley was asked about relationship with the administration after the loss to Oklahoma State, and he referenced the program's impending move to the SEC.
"I have no concerns about our administration, our AD, our president," he said. "We've been through a lot together. This isn't our first rodeo together. So, we always have conversations about the future. And certainly with all that's changing right now in the college landscape, all that's getting ready to change, for us, at some point here we transition into a new conference, those are always conversations that we're going to have, and we would be having those yearly no matter what."
That sounds cryptic and a little bit like he was unhappy with the challenges that playing in the SEC will present.
It's hard to blame him. Oklahoma struggled in the trenches against teams from the SEC during his entire tenure, and he would have been forced to do that on a weekly basis once the move is complete. What's more, he'd probably be doing it with a roster that isn't comparable to the majority of teams he will face no matter how the SEC divides up its divisions or pods.
Is Riley scared of the SEC? That will be the narrative, but it's not the way to look at it. If he feels like the program hit its ceiling in the Big 12, why not go somewhere that not only has more upside, but won't face the same challenges that Oklahoma will face in the near future?
USC hiring Lincoln Riley marks the first major domino to fall in the 2021 coaching cycle. The Cover 3 Podcast dives deep into what this move means for Riley, USC and Oklahoma.