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How Lincoln Riley Launched USC’s Rapid Revitalization

In his first year in Los Angeles, the former Oklahoma coach mastered the transfer portal, navigated the new college football landscape, and returned the Trojans to national relevance

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It feels like USC is USC again. The Trojans are 4-0 and ranked no. 6 in the AP poll, their first time ranked this high since the start of the 2017 season. Their head coach, Lincoln Riley, is college football’s genius du jour. Their quarterback, Caleb Williams, is nicknamed Superman, and is on the short list of candidates to win the Heisman Trophy. Jordan Addison could be the first receiver in over a decade to win the Biletnikoff Award in back-to-back seasons. In just four games, Williams and Addison have connected for six touchdowns, including the game-winner against Oregon State:

And yet these people who are making USC feel like vintage USC were not involved with USC at all one year ago. Riley was the head coach at Oklahoma, and has no California roots—he was born in Lubbock, Texas, grew up in a town called Muleshoe, and then went back to Lubbock for college. His quarterback last season at Oklahoma was Williams, a D.C. native who didn’t have USC in his top five schools when he was the no. 2 high school QB recruit in the nation for the Class of 2021. Addison spent last season catching touchdowns from Kenny Pickett at Pitt, helping the Panthers win the school’s first ACC championship—a Maryland native, Addison wasn’t recruited by any colleges west of the Mississippi.

Riley recruited the greatest transfer class in the history of college football, a stunning 20 players, 17 of which made it onto the Trojans’ initial two-deep. He landed two five-stars, and five four-stars; he got players from Alabama and Ohio State and, of course, Oklahoma. (Caleb Williams is joined at USC by Mario Williams—no relation—one of his top receivers at Oklahoma.) All of USC’s offensive skill position starters are transfers, except for the tight ends. Riley got the school so hyped on transfers that the whole damn school is transferring—after 100 years in the Pac-12, they’re leaving to join the sport’s wealthiest conference, the Big Ten.

All this is happening at a school which, quite frankly, had recently fallen off the radar of the average college football fan. USC has one of the richest histories in college football—11 national championships and seven Heisman winners (even if the Heisman committee only recognizes six). USC was the perpetual class of the Pac-8-turned-Pac-10-turned-Pac-12. But the school hasn’t won a national title since the 2004 season. The Pac-12 hasn’t had a College Football Playoff participant since Washington made it in the 2016 season … and lately, USC hasn’t even been good enough to win its division within the conference, finishing fourth in the Pac-12 South last season.

Now, the Trojans have snapped back to relevance faster than a speeding bullet thrown by their own Superman. USC finds itself at the nexus of virtually every ongoing shift in college football: The Trojans are the kings of the transfer portal; they made the biggest move on the massively expensive coaching carousel; they shocked the world with their conference realignment plans; and their NIL moves have been the source of speculation. A sport that prides itself on tradition is changing more rapidly than ever—and all those changes will allow programs like USC to reinvent themselves overnight.

It’s funny that USC has become a haven for talented outsiders and a beacon of rapid transition—because for much of the modern history of the program, USC has banked on the power of insularity and inertia. With a rich history and access to the talent-rich recruiting grounds of Southern California, the Trojans have generally opted against switching things up. USC hired USC guys as athletic directors, and those USC guys hired USC guys as head coaches. Former USC Heisman winner Mike Garrett was the AD who hired Lane Kiffin, a longtime Pete Carroll assistant. But Kiffin quickly flamed out. The next AD, former USC quarterback Pat Haden, hired another former Carroll offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian. After firing Sarkisian in October 2015, USC didn’t make a flashy external hire—instead it turned to Clay Helton, a forgettable face with a forgettable résumé who had been hired by Kiffin to coach USC’s quarterbacks in 2010. He’d hung around after Kiffin’s firing and Sarkisian’s firing and one day he looked around and was the most senior guy there. When Haden retired, he was replaced by USC All-American and Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, who refused to fire Helton as the program sank further into irrelevance. Helton kept his job as head coach for parts of seven seasons. Seven seasons. (And I still don’t know a damn thing about the guy.)

Hiring Helton and retaining him year after year was not just a decision based in USC’s belief in the superiority of its own family; it followed the logic of an old model of college football, one in which stability was critical. This is a sport where coaches would spend decades at the same school. Players were technically allowed to go pro after just three seasons in college, but almost everybody spent five years—a redshirt freshman season to develop, and then four full seasons of playing time. Transfers were rare, and punished with the loss of a year of eligibility. College football operates on geologic time, which is why we call a coach’s tenure “an era,” as in “Iowa has developed a reputation for exceptional punting during the Kirk Ferentz era.”

But USC had some short eras. After speedrunning through Lane and Sark, USC kept Helton around simply because it wanted to stop the boat from rocking. Was Helton a good coach or a charismatic recruiter? Not really. But switching coaches can lead to a setback. Firing a coach and hiring a new one often meant multiple years of planned irrelevance: The old coach’s players and recruits would leave, the new coach would take a few years to recruit new players and build the roster he needed. (A new coach’s first year, often an underwhelming season played with the former coach’s players, was commonly referred to as “Year 0.”) USC felt it simply couldn’t afford yet another rebuild, and decided to continue sailing on the seas of mediocrity with Helton at the helm. He was a testament to the old college football belief in the power of inertia.

But USC was hardly alone in this program-building philosophy. Riley, too, was once hired for the purpose of stability. A walk-on at Texas Tech who played quarterback under head coach Mike Leach, Riley was hired as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator in 2015 by Bob Stoops, who had once hired Leach in the same role and won a national championship. When Stoops suddenly resigned ahead of the 2017 season, Oklahoma promoted Riley from within, hoping the 33-year-old would keep a string of back-to-back Big 12 championships going. It worked: Riley won the Big 12 in four of his five seasons as Oklahoma’s coach.

But during the Riley era at Oklahoma, he demonstrated a skill which would be critical in the still-uncharted new world of college football: He became a transfer portal god. In Riley’s first year as head coach, his quarterback was Baker Mayfield, who had come to the Sooners as a walk-on transfer from Texas Tech. Despite Mayfield’s short stature and lack of recruiting hype, he won the 2017 Heisman Trophy and became the no. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft. The next year, Oklahoma’s QB was another transfer, former five-star recruit Kyler Murray, who started his college career at Texas A&M and was expected to pursue a career in professional baseball. Murray won the 2018 Heisman Trophy, gave up baseball, and became the no. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft. Now a clear destination for transfer QBs, Riley landed one of the most accomplished quarterbacks ever to switch schools: Jalen Hurts, a former SEC Offensive Player of the Year at Alabama who led the Tide to back-to-back national championship game appearances, only to lose his job to Tua Tagovailoa at halftime of the 2018 title game. While Mayfield and Murray had both needed to sit out a year at Oklahoma due to the NCAA’s transfer rules at the time, Hurts was a graduate transfer, and was able to play right away. He didn’t win the Heisman—another transfer, Joe Burrow, won the award at LSU—but Hurts led Oklahoma to another Big 12 championship, another College Football Playoff berth, and became a second-round NFL draft pick. (He’s doing pretty well for himself now.)

Riley’s research into the potential of transfer QBs came at a moment when public opinions about transfers—and with them, the NCAA’s rules about transfers—were changing. Before Riley helped Mayfield to a Heisman, no Heisman winner had transferred directly from one school to another without a junior college stop in between since 1945. Then it happened in back-to-back-to-back years. Transfers were once viewed as disloyal. Now, they’re sometimes celebrated by fans of the school they left. (Again, see Joe Burrow and Ohio State.) The concept that schools could essentially hit players with a year-long non-compete clause without actually paying them money quickly became viewed as unfair. (And probably illegal, though a federal judge in 2017 sided with the NCAA when a former Northern Illinois punter challenged the transfer rules in court.) First came the graduate transfer rule, which allowed players to play a fifth year at a new school if they’d already graduated from their first school. (Russell Wilson famously popularized this practice when he left NC State for Wisconsin in 2011.) Starting in 2018, players no longer needed to ask their school for permission to transfer, and players who hadn’t previously taken a redshirt season were allowed to play in up to four games for a team one season, then play for another team the next year. Finally in 2021, the NCAA allowed players to transfer once with no repercussions at all. (The NCAA has tabled the “unlimited transfer” legislation that was recommended by the Division I council.) That made 2022 the first full offseason with truly unchecked transfers.

All that transferring makes it easier for coaches to transfer, as they can start building the program they want the second they step onto a new campus. Riley’s decision to leave was a stunner—on the Saturday night after Oklahoma’s final regular-season game last November, Riley calmly shut down a question about rumors that he would become LSU’s next head coach, and I guess technically he wasn’t lying. Less than a day later, he was USC’s head coach. He hit the ground running. At one point, it was rumored that coaches still on Oklahoma’s payroll were recruiting for USC.

We don’t know the exact details of Riley’s contract at USC—just that it was enough to buy him a $17.2 million oceanfront mansion. (There are no oceanfront mansions in Norman.) But nowadays, coaches aren’t the only ones getting paid. In May, USC added perhaps the best transfer player of all time—Addison, coming off a season in which he was voted the best wide receiver in the country. Rumors flew that Addison received millions of dollars for the transfer, with Pitt’s coaches alleging dirty tricks on USC’s part. Although those were never confirmed, USC’s NIL collective did help Addison secure a deal with United Airlines.

But even with his experience with transfers at Oklahoma, Riley was facing a fundamentally different challenge at USC. It’s one thing to slot an exceptionally talented quarterback onto a new roster; it’s another to essentially build a full roster of players who hadn’t played together, who didn’t know each other, who hadn’t been recruited together years ago with a common goal and mindset. “It’s kind of like an arranged marriage,” said Oklahoma-turned-USC wide receivers coach Dennis Simmons.

So far? The marriage is thriving. And while USC may be the most extreme transfer rebuild we’ve ever seen, they won’t be the last—they’re not even the only ones doing it right now. All across college football, first-year head coaches are thriving at their new schools, many led by key transfers. It’s now easy and plausible to make a top 20 list of transfer QBs in 2022. Washington hired Kalen DeBoer, who landed quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who played under DeBoer when he was offensive coordinator at Indiana; Penix leads the nation in passing yardage and the undefeated Huskies could be a potential Pac-12 title game foe for USC. Texas Tech went 0-3 against Texas under their last coach, Matt Wells—but new coach Joey McGuire got a win in his first game against the Longhorns, thanks in part to a big fourth-quarter touchdown from Texas A&M transfer Baylor Cupp, once rated the top tight end prospect in the nation. And when Georgia Southern knocked off Nebraska in Lincoln, they did it behind 409 passing yards from Kyle Vantrease, a transfer from Buffalo, who was recruited to GSU by the Eagles’ new coach … Clay Helton. (See? You’d already forgotten about him, right?)

And while Oklahoma’s reaction to losing Riley was an apoplectic outpouring of rage felt all across the Sooner State, the team he left behind is looking solid. Oklahoma hired Brent Venables, a longtime OU defensive coordinator under Stoops who was considered Dabo Swinney’s top assistant at Clemson. USC may have had the top-ranked transfer class this offseason—but OU was ranked fourth. They landed QB Dillon Gabriel from UCF, who currently has 11 TDs and no interceptions, and a slew of elite defensive prospects. The Sooners lost to Kansas State on Saturday, but should contend for the Big 12 title this season, just like they did under Riley.

What we once knew about the timeline of a college football program is no longer true. A rebuild doesn’t take three years. It takes an offseason. If a coach has the juice, they can—and will—win games, starting with their very first year in charge of a program. There’s no such thing as a Year 0 anymore—but it does feel like we’re in Year 0 of a new era of college football. USC changed coaches, rosters, and conferences overnight, things that would’ve set the program back years in the old model of this sport; instead it feels like they’re showing us a preview of college football from years in the future.