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The Morning Column: November 29, 2021
The hiring of Lincoln Riley is the biggest move USC has made in over a decade in trying to reclaim its spot as one of the elite programs in college football.
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1. “Do you think Lincoln Riley would leave Oklahoma for USC?”
The text came from a booster at USC on Saturday night as I walked around a half empty Coliseum that was half filled with BYU fans as USC fell to 4-7 on the season. I responded with a laughing emoji.
Riley had compiled a 55-10 record through his first five seasons at Oklahoma. He had coached two Heisman Trophy winners that went on to be No. 1 overall NFL picks and coached the Sooners to four Big 12 championships and three College Football Playoff appearances. He was 38 years old and could have any job he wanted. He was linked to the LSU opening, was a hot name among NFL teams searching for the next Sean McVay or Kliff Kingsbury and could have had a lifetime deal to stay at Oklahoma.
“I’m serious,” the booster responded. “This could really happen.”
It made sense why USC would be interested in one of the best college football coaches in the country but I wasn’t sure why it made sense for Riley, who vehemently denied he would leave Oklahoma for LSU on Saturday night. No one asked him about USC because the idea Riley would leave Oklahoma for USC seemed as unimaginable Saturday night as it did when it was announced less than 24 hours later.
2. I wasn’t really sure how serious USC was about actually conducting a national coaching search and going after the biggest and best candidates from around the country. The last time they actually conducted a legitimate search and hired someone without any previous ties to the program was Pete Carroll in 2001 and that was only after they were turned down by Mike Bellotti, Dennis Erickson, Mike Riley and Sonny Lubick.
The hiring of Riley marks the first time in 20 years USC is breaking away from any connection to Pete Carroll. Since Carroll left in 2009, USC football has been led by Carroll’s former assistants Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian and most recently Clay Helton, who was an assistant under Kiffin, Orgeron and Sarkisian. Carroll’s nine seasons at USC from 2001-2009 produced one of the greatest eras in college football history but it was time USC moved on from trying to recreate that magic with someone from his coaching tree.
3. In retrospect the hiring and high-profile firings of Kiffin and Sarkisian arguably set the program back more than the heavy-handed sanctions did in 2010. The bar to become and remain USC’s head coach had been lowered to the point that being viewed as a “good guy,” not creating unnecessary bad press and winning more games than you lost was enough for someone like Helton, who had never been a head coach before, to not only get the full-time job but sign multiple lucrative extensions. Helton should have been fired by USC athletic director Mike Bohn after he arrived at USC in 2019. Helton had gone 13-11 over the previous two seasons and had a recruiting class that was ranked outside of the top 65 at the time. That was apparently good enough at the time. The hiring of Riley for the first time in over a decade raises the bar for USC football. It’s no longer good enough to be a coach with ties to Carroll, it’s no longer good enough to just be a "good guy," and it’s no longer good enough to be 7-6 at USC or your last job. USC’s fans have always expected more and for the first time since Carroll left in 2009, the program has made a hire that lives up to their expectations.
4. A lot has changed since Clay Helton became USC’s head coach in 2015. Los Angeles, which didn’t have an NFL team for 21 years, got two teams in the Rams and the Chargers, which share the new $5 billion SoFi Stadium. The city got a second MLS team in LAFC and built the $350 million Banc of California Stadium next to the Coliseum. Los Angeles is primed to be the center of the sports world over the next decade with the Super Bowl, World Cup, Olympics, and other major sporting events coming to town. The market has two teams in every major sport and is home to some of the biggest global names from LeBron James to Shohei Ohtani. The competition for eyeballs and dollars in this town has never been greater and USC knew it had to make a home run hire. The school spent $315 million renovating the Coliseum before the pandemic, including adding suites, loge boxes and club seats, which have often been empty. It’s no surprise that the announcement of Riley’s hire in an email to fans on Sunday included a link for 2022 season ticket deposits. As competitive as the Los Angeles sports landscape is right now, when every team is at their best, USC football is still the city's third most popular team behind the Lakers and Dodgers.
5. I don't think the turnaround at USC will take as long as others do. When Carroll was hired to replace Paul Hackett following a 5-7 season, he went 6-6 in his first season and 11-2 his second season. I think USC will be better than 6-6 next year and could be a 12-2 team in two years. Matt Leinart, who was on those teams and saw Carroll turn around USC quickly, thinks the same thing could happen under Riley.
6. It’s important to note that Riley is the second “home run hire” for Bohn. In May, Bohn hired Lindsay Gottlieb as USC’s women’s basketball coach. Gottlieb led Cal to the Final Four and seven NCAA tournaments in eight seasons before she became the first NCAA women's head coach to be hired by an NBA team in 2019.
Bohn welcomed members of the USC women’s basketball team that won back-to-back national championships in 1983 and 1984 to campus just before the pandemic last year for a screening of the HBO Sports documentary, “Women of Troy.” He was inspired by the film and promised to help restore the once storied women’s basketball program that had qualified for the NCAA tournament just once since 2006, had not made it past the second round since 1994 and had not advanced to the Final Four since 1986.
“This story could not come at a better time for this university,” Bohn told the women. “USC is actively engaged to do everything we can to reclaim the torch that this team brought to this campus and that’s for all 21 of our sports.”
7. Here are some odds if you’re thinking about placing a wager today brought to you by Circa Sports.
8. Here’s the local pro sports schedule today brought to you by Yaamava’.
7:30 p.m. New Orleans Pelicans at Los Angeles Clippers – Bally Sports SoCal
9. Here are the “get in” prices for tickets locally on TickPick if you’re thinking about going to a pro sports game today.
New Orleans Pelicans at Los Angeles Clippers – $6
10. On Friday’s The Arash Markazi Show, we talked about the Sparks being left out of the biggest naming rights deal but finding a way to work out a deal with Crypto.com.
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