Sports

We Probably Just Saw the Biggest College Football Coaching Move Ever

Riley hoists the trophy and smiles surrounded by his uniformed players with their title baseball caps on and celebrating
Head coach Lincoln Riley of the Oklahoma Sooners holds up the Cotton Bowl Championship trophy with his team after defeating the Florida Gators on Dec. 30 in Arlington, Texas. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

An easy way to be wrong is to insist that something has never happened before in the century-and-a-half history of college football, a sport with hundreds of teams and almost no centralization that would let you check everything. But I have spent some time thinking about it, and I’ve talked it through with plenty of peers who have followed and covered the sport for a long time, and I am pretty sure this is the correct view of Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley leaving to take over USC: Nothing like this hire has ever happened in the history of college football.

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By which I mean: No head coach has ever left a job like Riley’s at Oklahoma to be in charge of another college program. Of course, coaches leave jobs all the time for a range of reasons. Usually, it’s because they get fired. But sometimes they are hired upward—a Power Five conference coach taking an NFL gig, another coach from a less rich conference moving up to replace him, an assistant becoming a head coach, and on and on. From time to time, a coach leaves a prestigious national brand for another one, but in those cases, there’s usually a catch about why.

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What Riley is doing by leaving Norman for Los Angeles is its own thing. He took stock of one of the most elite, consistent winners in the sport, where he enjoyed a big paycheck and as much job security as anyone in his position could hope to have. And he saw a greener pasture and left for it, less than a day after Oklahoma lost a rivalry game to Oklahoma State. After that game, Riley told reporters in no uncertain terms, “I’m not going to be the head coach at LSU,” where the rumor mill had linked him for weeks. Riley, playing chess as everyone else played checkers, did not say anything about USC. The reason the move is so stunning isn’t that Riley deftly talked around it in a press conference, but that it doesn’t have an analog.

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Riley hasn’t explained himself in much detail yet, aside from calling USC “a new challenge” he wanted to take on. In the coming days, he’ll have to decide how forthcoming he wants to be. But even before you consider the possibility of some kind of extenuating circumstance, there are shrewd reasons for him to make the move from one of the plushest gigs anywhere. Riley-to-USC is the kind of marriage that really, really, really should work and, if it doesn’t, should prompt an industry shift away from weekslong searches and toward hiring coaches via games of darts or pin the tail on the donkey.

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To grasp the magnitude of Riley’s move, it’s worth understanding what Oklahoma football has been—with only brief interruptions—since World War II. Bud Wilkinson took over in 1947 and built a dynasty that lasted well into the ’50s, before John F. Kennedy ruined the Sooners’ fun. (I am only, like, 55 percent kidding.) Chuck Fairbanks won an Orange Bowl and two Sugar Bowls over the next seven years. Barry Switzer followed with a couple of national championships, including one team that was so good it won the title despite the NCAA banning it from a bowl game. Switzer carried the program through most of the ’70s and ’80s, and after a few lean years, Bob Stoops took over in 1999, won a national title in 2000, and presided over 18 years of Oklahoma winning, on average, 80 percent of its games. When Stoops retired before the 2017 season, OU had already handpicked Riley, then the offensive coordinator, as his successor. 2021 was the only year in Riley’s five-year tenure in which he didn’t win the Big 12. He made the College Football Playoff three times.

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Oklahoma has had a lot of great coaches across 75 years, but one might also conclude that there’s something about Oklahoma itself that facilitates all that winning. At this point, OU is a huge brand that can recruit top talent on a foundation of player development, national exposure, an electric game day environment, and lots and lots of offense. (Riley’s teams have scored 43.6 points per game over five years, second most in the country.) The Sooners have won in the Big 6, the Big 7, the Big 8, and, for the last quarter-century, the Big 12.

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That is a few years from changing yet again. Oklahoma will be in the SEC no later than 2025, and probably earlier. The move will mean a ton of TV dollars and a much harder competitive path. The Sooners will go from having one blue-blood rival that’s perpetually squandering its advantages (Texas) to competing every year with the same programs that have repeatedly knocked Riley’s Sooners out of the playoff: Alabama, Georgia, and LSU, plus other recent national championship programs like Auburn and Florida and the ever deep-pocketed and maybe eventually successful Texas A&M. (Oh, and Texas will be there, too.) All of these schools have gigantic football expectations, and no more than one or two can fully satisfy them in any given year. There are worse things for a coach than steering clear of that smorgasbord of disappointment. Riley might have tipped his hand that the SEC move was at least a bit of a factor when he mentioned the conference transition and then said, “Those are always conversations that we’re going to have.” OU fans will always insist he ran away scared.

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So Riley is going west. The weather is nice, but USC’s recruiting foundation is nicer. The Trojans are a singular talent-acquisition force on the West Coast. They start on second base in every battle for a sought-after California player, and when they’re doing things right—sometimes even when they’re not—they absorb a huge share of the elite talent in an entire region of the country. The nationalization of recruiting over the past decade or two means the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world will always be active in the Golden State, and the days of the Trojans having carte blanche of their backyard’s best players are not coming back. But USC should recruit dominantly under Riley, who has already made Oklahoma the premier destination for quarterbacks who’d like to win Heisman Trophies and then be drafted first overall into the NFL. USC hasn’t won big since Pete Carroll’s dominant run there in the 2000s, but the Trojans usually recruited well under successors Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, and even Clay Helton for a while. (The school fired Helton in September en route to missing a bowl.)

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If it all sounds like a perfect fit, it might be surprising that more coaches haven’t made the same sort of move from one historically great program to another—but they haven’t. Jimbo Fisher left Florida State for Texas A&M after 2017, but it became clear around that time that FSU was a neglected and sinking ship. He wasn’t leaving a program where he’d win more national titles to sit next to the one he won with FSU in 2013. Willie Taggart left Oregon for FSU to replace Fisher, but the Ducks weren’t where the Sooners are now, and Taggart was a Floridian making a homecoming. Lane Kiffin left Tennessee for these same Trojans in 2010, but the Vols were well past their salad days by that point. Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia for Michigan after 2007, but the Mountaineers’ dominance that year was a historic blip rather than a likely trend. Nick Saban and Jimmy Johnson left LSU and Miami programs where they won national championships, but they were bouncing to the NFL, not the Pac-12. The closest thing to Riley’s move might be Johnny Majors leaving Pitt immediately after winning the title in 1976, but Pitt was due for a decline and Majors was simply answering the call to come home to his native Tennessee. ESPN’s Bill Connelly, a one-man college football encyclopedia, floated a few ideas from past eras that don’t exactly fit. And at any rate, the pure bigness of a move like this in college football’s financial boom time of the 21st century would be impossible to match. (USC is a private school without the same disclosure requirements as most, but I would not be surprised if we learned soon that Riley’s deal is the most lucrative ever.)

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Riley could’ve kept winning a bunch of games at Oklahoma for his eternity, no matter how much the SEC complicated a path to national titles. But he found what’s probably an easier road at USC, the historically dominant Western program. In effect, he is leaving one of the nicest houses in one of the richest neighborhoods in college football to move into a hollowed-out architectural stunner in a more relaxed ZIP code. USC will pay him so much money and give him so many advantages to help him restore the new place to its former glory. That neighborhood will also afford Riley more anonymity in his personal life, if he wants it, than he could ever have in Norman.

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The past few years should have drilled into everyone’s head that the true slam dunk hire in college football doesn’t exist. Scott Frost fit that bill at Nebraska, where he’d starred as a player before rebuilding UCF over two years from a winless team to an unbeaten one. He is 15–29 in four years and has yet to make a bowl. Tom Herman had that look at Texas, and he got fired after four years. Jim Harbaugh was a slam dunk at Michigan, and it took him almost seven full seasons to finally deliver what Michigan wanted when it hired him in 2015. USC has gotten in its own way for years and might find innovative ways to hobble itself in the future. But on paper, the Riley hire should work out in spades. Nobody is better at coaching college offense, and no school has more unfettered access to talent to execute Riley’s plays. Every team in the Pac-12 should worry about what Riley might make the Trojans into. And if he doesn’t, it’ll be the firmest proof yet of a concept that should already have steam—that in this sport, no one knows anything.

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