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Alexander: USC getting Lincoln Riley is a statement hire – Press-Enterprise


We should have learned by now: Never assume.

As USC’s desultory football season continued, the most interesting part of it seemed to be the Great Trojan Coach Search, and the week-by-week handicap of whose stock was rising or falling. Penn State’s James Franklin, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Baylor’s Dave Aranda were the assumed front-runners, but isn’t it obvious? Athletic director Mike Bohn and his chief lieutenant, Brandon Sosna, weren’t paying attention to the media’s helpful consultation.

They got it right anyway. Massively.

When news broke Sunday afternoon that Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley would be the choice, it’s safe to say no one saw that coming. But when you consider what USC needs, and what Riley can offer from his five seasons in OU’s high-profile program, it’s a natural fit.

Experience in one of college football’s blueblood programs? Check. Riley is 55-10 in five seasons at Oklahoma, another program in which competing for national championships is a given. He presumably will not be cowed by the expectations of the Trojan faithful.

An acquaintance with the College Football Playoff? Check. Riley’s teams have been there three times, and while they’re 0-3 (losses to Georgia in the ’17 season, Alabama in the ’18 season and eventual national champ LSU in the ’19 season), consider that Pac-12 teams collectively have played in three of the 21 CFP games since the current format began in 2015, and not at all since 2017.

An ability to develop quarterbacks? Check, and check. You have heard of Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, I presume. If Jaxson Dart is the real deal, his life is about to get a lot more interesting.

Recruiting chops in SoCal? Check. OU’s verbal commitments for the next two seasons included players from Mater Dei – which Riley had previously mined for talent – and Los Alamitos. If he could get California kids to play in Norman, Okla., imagine what he can do with the Coliseum, the white horse, etc., in his arsenal.

Remember in September when we suggested that the Trojans take a stab at Nick Saban just because? Yes, that was partly tongue-in-cheek, because the chance of actually getting Saban out here was maybe one percent. But the more salient point was that Bohn needed to think big, to go after the best coach possible rather than just the best coach available, in order to remind Trojan fans – and donors, and current players, and recruits – that this school has historically had one overriding football ambition and it’s time to get serious about it again.

The best coach available seemed to be where most of the speculation centered as the season continued. It was a collection of coaches who might work out but didn’t represent that big swing.

Franklin had restored stability to Penn State’s program but couldn’t get past Ohio State (or, this year, Michigan) in his Big Ten division. Fickell was having a wonderful season for a Group of Five team but was a Midwest guy with no certainty he’d want to come here anyway. Campbell was the prototype darkhorse candidate, and was 7-5 at Iowa State this year, which might not have done much for his marketability. Aranda had a SoCal background (Redlands High, Cal Lutheran) and will have Baylor playing for the Big 12 title this week against Oklahoma State, but he was in just his second year as a head coach.

(One thing the Great Trojan Coach Search, and its counterparts at LSU and Florida, did accomplish was to create some serious pay raises throughout the industry. Franklin and Fickell got contract extensions and Aranda is about to get one. Michigan State’s Mel Tucker, whose name never even came up in the USC speculation, parlayed two years at East Lansing into a 10-year, $95 million extension.)



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