With just a few days to go before Lincoln Riley’s second USC training camp begins, legitimate questions remain.
Will this be the year he has a defense that can complement his formidable offense week in and week out?
Have the Trojans achieved enough depth of quality in their second attack on the transfer portal that they won’t easily lay down their swords against a stubborn force like Utah?
Shouldn’t Riley have been just as loyal to the men who hopped on the private jet from Norman, Oklahoma to Los Angeles without batting an eyelid… and didn’t replace Alex Grinch as defense coordinator?
Riley’s critics still have cause for derision, even after he posted an impressive seven-win turnaround in 2022.
But after listening to Riley’s speech at Friday’s Pac-12 media day and spending a little time with him after he left the podium, I realized there’s one thing about Riley that nobody should question:
His love and appreciation for being the head coach at USC.
Not on any Blue Blood program. The one. We know this because it didn’t take much persuading to leave the comfortable situation he was given in Oklahoma that put his reputation in LA on the line
On Friday he was answering a question about how to find the right candidates on the transfer portal and his mind wandered to a topic of much wider scope.
“I think coaching or playing at USC is one of the great things about our sport,” Riley said. “This is the program that is so important to the sport and the success of West Coast football in general and has such a great history. I think we should all see it that way, right? In a place like USC, we don’t get the opportunity to do what we do. It is an honor to do so in this place.”
“I just see the responsibility because I think West Coast football will always be done the way USC does it.”
— Lincoln Riley on the importance of USC football
Later, again without being asked, he came back to this topic.
“There is no better story in life or in sport than a comeback and a rise,” he said. “For a chance to be a part of it, embrace it, it gives you a boost. Like I said, not only are we getting the chance to do it, but we’re getting the chance to do it on one of the most important programs in our sport.”
You could feel eyes rolling between Norman and Eugene. It was interesting how readily Riley romanticized about the deeper meaning of his life as a Trojan and how special his new home was during USC’s swan song performance at Pac-12 football media day.
When I spoke to him later, I was keen to find out exactly what he meant by “important”.
“Every job is good and important, but this job is just like that … I don’t know if there is another job that is as important to its region and its part of the country and has as much impact as this one,” he said. “I just see the responsibility because I think West Coast football will always be done the way USC does it.”
Of course, the rest of West Coast football — other than UCLA — may not get where USC is going after this season. The doors of the Big Ten aren’t open to Oregon and Washington, at least not anytime soon, it seems. So I’m not entirely sure if part of Riley’s feeling means exactly what he once did.
But let’s hear more.
“What it creates, when it’s good, is such a unique atmosphere and setting, and it’s so good not just for USC and the West Coast, but for the sport in general,” Riley said. “It’s just something new, unique and different.
“It’s like going to a Lakers game when the Lakers are good. Whether people love it or hate it, it’s great for the NBA because you can watch a game at Crypto and you won’t find a better atmosphere or scene like this anywhere else in the world, and I think USC football is like college football.
“It’s important to the story of the game for all of these reasons. And I think if we don’t pay attention to that, we’re missing the point a bit.”
And now I can feel the eyes rolling from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Athens, Georgia, to Baton Rouge, La. But hey, there’s a reason Riley coaches USC and not Louisiana State — and we can bet it’s not because LSU chose Brian Kelly over college football’s most eligible young coach.
Riley wanted to be here. When I hear him talk like that, he sounds more like the wide-eyed boy from the barren plains of West Texas than a ten-million dollar football coach. He appears to be a college football fan, as well as the supervisor of one of the sport’s crown jewels.
Now, I can’t honestly say the heated Coliseum atmosphere is on par with a Saturday night at LSU’s Death Valley or an Ohio State-Michigan game at Horseshoe or The Big House.
But he’s absolutely right about USC’s importance to college football. Let’s not forget that when USC gave up its participation in national championships in 2006, the SEC immediately took over. The Trojans’ rise to national power is the quickest route to a balance of power in late-night college football – only this time it will benefit the Midwest far more than the West Coast.
I asked Riley if he felt that way when he took the job or if it was something he recognized from his time here.
“Both,” he said. “I definitely had a sense of history before I took the job, and that was part of taking it. I think my appreciation for it has only increased after being there and experiencing it a bit.”
I can’t imagine what it must be like for USC fans to read Riley’s words, so I wanted to share them. I’m a graduate student from Michigan, and listening to him I can’t help but get a little excited about what we’re going to see here in LA in the years to come.
Actually, you are deleting that. Not in the coming years – this year.
“Listen,” Riley said. “We have a great opportunity ahead of us. I think everyone in our program, every player, feels that and wants to do a great job and take advantage of that. These windows are short. You only get a limited number of attempts.”
Riley’s program will be finished this time because he believes in how USC football should be. He feels the burden, but he’s not afraid to carry it.
USC will win the Pac-12 and reach the semifinals of the College Football Playoffs for the first time in 2023. In this way, the Trojans will remind the whole country of their importance.