Southern California hired Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley to be its next coach Sunday in a stunning and rare move of one traditional college football powerhouse swiping another’s highly accomplished head coach.
Riley went 55-10 in five seasons leading the Sooners, winning four Big 12 titles and making three College Football Playoff appearances in his first head coaching job. The 38-year-old Texan is widely considered one of the top offensive minds in the college game, and USC sold him on the chance to return the Trojans to their glory days as a national championship contender and the West Coast’s premier program.
“USC has an unparalleled football tradition with tremendous resources and facilities, and the administration has made a deep commitment to winning,” Riley said in a statement. “I look forward to honoring that successful tradition and building on it. The pieces are in place for us to build the program back to where it should be and the fans expect it to be.”
Riley “will immediately transition to USC,” according to the school. Interim coach Donte Williams will lead the Trojans in their season finale at California on Saturday night.
USC fired Clay Helton in September of his seventh season in charge. The school has been searching for a head coach to revive a program that has had meager success since a dominant run through the 2000s under Pete Carroll that included two national titles.
Since Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks in late 2009, the Trojans have struggled under three former Carroll assistants and Helton, who brought stability and professionalism to USC, but not nearly enough on-the-field success while going 46-24.
The Trojans have been a sleeping giant on the college football landscape for over a decade — and Riley is expected to wake them up.
After being connected to several top candidates for jobs in this hiring cycle, USC athletic director Mike Bohn managed to land an even bigger name than all but his most starry-eyed fans imagined.
“His successes and offensive accolades as a head coach the past five years are astonishing,” Bohn said of Riley. “Lincoln will recruit relentlessly, develop his players on and off the field, and implement a strong culture in which the program will operate with the highest level of integrity and professionalism. 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.”
Riley was Oklahoma offensive coordinator when he was anointed successor to Bob Stoops after the veteran coach retired in 2017. The Sooners have owned the Big 12 ever since. Riley produced two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks — Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray — and some of the most prolific offenses in college football history.
Riley also has recruited well in California, and the Sooners currently have several commitments from elite local talents over the next two recruiting classes.
Riley led the Sooners to yet another 10-win season this year, but Oklahoma’s string of Big 12 titles was snapped when the Sooners (10-2) narrowly lost to Oklahoma State on Saturday night. With the Sooners out of contention for the College Football Playoff, USC dived in to make a splash.
Rumors connecting Riley to the opening at LSU had been persistent for several weeks, but he shot them down after the Oklahoma State game.
“I’m not going to be the next head coach at LSU,” he said. “Next question.”
He said nothing about USC.
The last big-name coach to make such a seismic move was Jimbo Fisher, who left Florida State for a 10-year, guaranteed contract at Texas A&M at the end of the 2017 season. Riley was already making over $7 million per year in Norman, so he is likely to have received a significant increase from USC’s deep-pocketed boosters.
Oklahoma will be forced to conduct its first head coaching search since 1999, the year Stoops was hired. Riley is the first OU coach to leave for another job since Jim Tatum left for Maryland after the 1946 season — but the Sooners hired Bud Wilkinson and became a dynasty.
New leadership will be yet another big change coming at Oklahoma, which is moving to the Southeastern Conference along with Texas. The move is currently set for 2025, but could very well come sooner than that.
The Trojans (4-7, 3-5 Pac-12) still have one game left to play this season. They must beat the Golden Bears to avoid their first eight-loss season since 1991.
Williams, Helton’s cornerbacks coach and top recruiter, has gone 3-6 as the interim head coach alongside offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. Coincidentally, Harrell and Riley are both former Texas Tech quarterbacks who played for Mike Leach in the Red Raiders’ Air Raid offense.