IN TRAINING In the complex on the USC campus named after head coach John McKay, there is a whiteboard that has become more than just a classroom backdrop. Earlier this year, as players came together to start Spring Ball for a team that looked vastly different from the previous season, the whiteboard served as a rallying point for what USC players and coaches felt they needed to sign up for a Changing program that had just gone 4-8 to have semblance of success.
“When we got here, we all talked about making a standard,” said linebacker Shane Lee, who was from Alabama and became the team captain, of the importance of writing on the whiteboard. “That set the tone for everything we do. It was the basis of our success.”
While Lee said what’s on the plaque can be summed up with a phrase at the end that Riley coined and even made its way onto some t-shirts — “Win the inner battles” — has what on the board is almost secondary to the fact that the players actually performed it. As Lee put it, they could relate to it during a dream season.
It’s been a little over a year since the hiring of Riley sparked a fresh start for USC, and while the program’s prospects seemed to turn from bleak to bright overnight, perhaps nobody outside of the McKay Center expected success at USC would come so soon. The Trojans finished a regular season 11-1 and had a chance Friday night not only to win a Pac-12 title against the only team to beat them this season, but also to give the program its first appearance in college to bring football playoffs.
“I can’t say yes, I knew this was going to happen, but at the same time I don’t believe in setting limits on what you can accomplish, especially when you have the right people in the building,” Riley said. “I told you what our expectations were from day one. A lot of people thought I was crazy, and that’s okay. The people inside the walls knew what we were about and had a sense of what we were building.”
Riley’s arrival had its appeal, bringing talented transfers from all corners of the country and keeping players at USC looking to revive their careers. But in a sport that values the power of coaches, the Trojans’ success this season required a collective mindset that had been lacking before and that could not be developed by a single coach. For Lee, it can be summed up by a whiteboard, but for quarterback Caleb Williams, it’s rooted in a phrase he’s repeated all season.
“Good teams are run by coaches,” Williams said again this week. “But great teams are run by players. … That was one of the main things we focused on when we got here – leading our players.”
Nobody led USC last season. And while the quick turnaround the program has seen can be attributed to Riley’s hiring and his moves since then, what has emerged over the past 12 months to bring USC back to national relevance was a product of a common one Trust that did not originate in a single attitude or addition, but from a holistic approach and a trust in a roster that was assembled rather than built.
“I don’t know what games we’re likely to lose and that’s just the really honest guess,” said defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. “We expected to swing the racquet and have success. That’s why we came here.”
ANDREW VORHEES REMEMBERS feel nervous. USC’s senior offensive lineman, as well as the rest of the officiating players, found themselves in a unique position. Their future head coach had been hired with much pomp and circumstance, but they still had one more game to play. Due to a postponed game against Cal that was rescheduled for the week after the season finale, USC had to adjust to a meaningless game that had somehow become meaningful. It was a kind of rehearsal for an audience.
“You hear about him, you see him on TV, and then he comes out of here, and he’s just a human being like the rest of us,” Vorhees said. “It was just one of the most surreal moments to know [Riley] would be the head coach.”
The week before and after the game had given Riley and his coaching staff a chance to assess what they needed to work with and make decisions. After the game they lost no time. Within a week and after much discussion, Vorhees and several of his colleagues who had the chance to go to the draft, including Brett Neilon, knew it was worth returning to USC.
“With a coach like [Riley]you never know what can happen,” Vorhees said.
There seemed to be a hunger for structure and leadership among returning players that Riley brought with him immediately. The former came with the experience of running a top-notch college football program. But the latter could only really take off in the form of the players themselves, particularly those who had been around for a number of years.
Words like accountability, consistency and leadership are a recurring feature in the lexicon of football teams that perform well. The chemistry does, too, and USC was faced with the task of delivering just that, with more than 40 transfers and a slew of Trojans making it through a season that lacked any of the above qualities. Because of this, it was crucial to retain those players whose talent might have been under-utilized to bridge the gap between the past and the future.
“I think it sent a message to the whole roster about how serious these guys were,” Riley said of the return of veteran linemen like Vorhees. “I probably didn’t realize at the time how big it was, but it was important. It was a sound generator.”
Riley’s influence soon seeped into every part of the program. Only one coach from the previous regime was retained and there were also many additional staff turnovers. A typical program overhaul in the field usually takes time. But in this day and age, with the advent of the transfer portal, nothing is a better accelerator than talent.
After Riley recruited and signed players through the portal, the task was to turn theory into practice and talent into wins. From star transfer wide receiver Jordan Addison to transfer linebacker Eric Gentry to redshirt senior lineman Justin Dedich, an immediate buy-in had to be made.
But Riley’s words and practices could only do so much. For his fast-paced experiment to take shape, he needed something like a version of himself on the pitch, not only to initiate his offensive system, but to provide the leadership a player needs at the most important position in football, win or lose . Coincidentally, that person was a then 19-year-old quarterback who is now on the verge of winning the Heisman Trophy.
WILLIAMS WENT THROUGH the range of emotions that night in mid-October in Salt Lake City. Shortly after USC was unable to beat Utah and remain undefeated at the last second, tears streamed down his face while he was on the field. The agony of defeat gave way to frustration that he felt USC shouldn’t have lost that game. Upon entering the dressing room, Williams found kindred spirits; Players were upset, but they were also oddly hopeful. The scowls soon turned into a smile.
“The vibe of the room was completely different from times I’ve lost in college before. … It was more of a positive vibe,” Williams said last week. As Williams spoke to the media that evening, that agony appeared to be replaced by zeal. “We will not go undefeated,” Williams said at the time. “But that’s not the end of this season.”
That locker room scene has become something of a lore in the history of this year’s USC team. Every player seems to remember the outsized impact this had on the team. Some have described it as a wake-up call, others as a moment that solidified their collective vision, and some even saw it as a clear view of the team’s potential. Winning the rest of their games just didn’t feel necessary. It felt possible to her.
“If you try to change some things and win games, everyone is happy,” Riley said. “So you’re like, okay, you lose a tough game like this on the street like we did at the last second. Will everyone really stick to it now? The vibe, the vibe in that locker [was] disappointed but not defeated at all and maybe even more inspired.”
“We were already shopped in,” said offensive lineman Justin Dedich. “But I think it just made us more united. That loss helped, it gave us a new experience.”
“A great story or book cannot be written without adversity,” Williams said.
Storybook or not, the way USC has responded since that game has validated those locker room anecdotes. And now they’ve earned a chance to make amends by playing the same Utah team for the conference title and a playoff spot a little over 365 days into this entire experiment.
After that loss in Utah, Riley emphasized that USC could still achieve their goals if they keep winning. Not only has that happened exactly, but it has drawn attention to the immediate future rather than the past. If USC had put together a 9-3 season and not been playing for a conference title or a playoff spot, there might be more time to remember. Instead, Riley and company have more important things to spend intellectual real estate on right now than pondering how USC’s reality has lived up to their expectations.
“If you sit back for a second and think about where we were a year ago and some of the things that have unfolded in that time for this team and the program,” Riley said. “It’s fun to think about, but it’s just not the right time and place right now.”
USC is still trying to live week by week, day by day, game by game. There’s no two or five year plan to worry about because the time is probably now.
“That’s why we came here, to get an opportunity to play games like this,” Riley said. “We can do it here in Year 1.”
Riley has often spoken about what he wants to “build” at USC. In college football in the past, such a process usually required patience and time. However, what he and the rest of the program have shown this season is that may not be the case. In the current structure of the sport, such a quick turnaround is within reach.
But with USC one win away from the college football playoffs a season after losing eight games, it’s also shown that even if it can be done, not everyone can do it.
https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/35131091/inside-one-year-makeover-lincoln-riley-usc Inside the one-year makeover of Lincoln Riley’s USC