Winning in college football is not easy, but some coaches have a knack for making it seem that way. Talent and tradition go a long way in making a coach look good and the ability to land top recruits a little bit easier, but better talent and deeper tradition leads to raised expectations. Not many coaches can handle that, but the last few years one man has seemed to have had little trouble navigating the college football world and staying one step ahead of things, and he just might be the smartest man in college football.
Not even 40 years old, Lincoln Riley has amassed 55 wins and an .846 winning percentage at one of the most tradition rich schools in the entire country. He followed a coaching giant in Bob Stoops, and stepped in seamlessly when Stoops abruptly walked away in June of 2017. By that point, most college programs were heading into summer camp prospect evaluations and make fall preparations. It was unlikely to get a high profile coach with experience to take over, so Oklahoma turned to its hot shot offensive coordinator. Notre Dame is doing something similar with Marcus Freeman. Sometimes those hires and home runs, and sometimes they can set a program back for nearly a decade.
All Riley did was lead Oklahoma to a number 2 ranking and College Football Playoff birth in his inaugural season. Not bad for a debut, but he followed that up with 3 more conference championships and another berth in the College Football Playoff. Additionally, Riley’s teams never finished ranked outside the top 7 of the end of year polls and he produced back to back Heisman Trophy winners who became first overall draft picks at the quarterback position. He also revived and advanced the career of Jalen Hurts, who transferred after being replaced as the starter at Alabama. Bottom line, if you are a quarterback, this is the man you want to play for. Subsequently, top wide receiver talent is drawn to his program, as Riley has had two wide receivers also selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
Oklahoma seemed to be set up for long-term success for decades to come with Riley at the helm. Not only were they successful nationally, but Riley was 10-2 in his career games against arch rivals Texas and Oklahoma St.. On top of that, Oklahoma played a highly entertaining brand of football that lit up the scoreboard. Going up against the big boys in the College Football playoffs in Georgia and Alabama, they lost both games by one possession in high scoring affairs. If the Sooners could just show some improvement on defense, it looked like they were ready for a breakthrough with Riley at the helm.
Then something happened in July 2021 that changed the landscape of college football, and likely Riley’s coaching career. Oklahoma and Texas announced that they were leaving behind years of tradition and abandoning geographically logical conference ties with the Big 12 and joining the SEC. Athletic administrators were mesmerized by big dollars and more exposure, without considering the future ramifications. They seemed to forget the fates of Missouri and Nebraska that both enjoyed heightened football success and national prominence while playing schools in the Big 12. In the years since those two schools left the Big 12, they have struggled to maintain that football relevance in their own conference, let alone the national stage, except to highlight their failures.
Lincoln Riley is not a dumb man. He knows he had a good thing going at Oklahoma. The Big 12 is a very good football conference top to bottom. There are rarely any easy conference victories, but outside of Texas, no other Big 12 schools have the recruiting pull and resources that he had in Norman. However, all of the changes as the Sooners move into the SEC. While the SEC hasn’t announced its realignment plans with the additional of Texas and Oklahoma, it would be nearly impossible to avoid playing each other along with Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M, on an annual basis. Then factor in that Georgia has developed into a power in the east, and it is hard not to envision having 3 and 4 loss seasons becoming the norm for a lot of these schools. The 12-2 records that Oklahoma fans have become accustomed to would soon appear to be a thing of the past. Would they understand and tolerate Lincoln Riley going 9-4 or 8-5 against one of the toughest schedules in the country every year? They didn’t with Frank Solich or Bo Pelini at Nebraska.
All of this likely was kicking around in the back of his mind after Oklahoma failed to make the Big 12 conference championship game for the first time during his tenure. The season was already being labeled a failure and a disappointment, despite being 10-2 and awaiting another good bowl bid. If 10-2 isn’t going to cut it now at Oklahoma, what is it going to be like for fans when they join the most rugged conference in college football?
Credit to USC for sensing this and swinging for the fences. Football fans were stunned when a day after announcing that he wasn’t going to LSU, Riley signed on to be the next coach at Southern Cal. People seemed to be stunned by Riley’s abrupt move, but should they be? He never played or coached in California, but USC has that national brand appeal, and even more importantly, they seem to have a clear path to the sustained high level of success that Riley had gotten accustomed to at Oklahoma.
The Pac-12 gets knocked a lot for its seemingly below average performance when compared to the other power five conferences. Part of that is likely due to the fact that most of the country doesn’t tune in for their games, but when they do watch Pac-12 teams play they tend to flop on the big stage and give up a ton of points. Well, cue up one of the more innovative offensive minds, dynamic recruiters, and a tradition rich school craving a return to glory, and it is easy to see a quick path to success for Riley at USC. I’m not discounting Riley’s intelligence, but it shouldn’t have taken many coaches long to see that this was a much better opportunity for long-term national success than at Oklahoma.
USC just finished up an abysmal 4-8 season where they fired their head coach in September. It was their second losing season in the last 4 years, and the third time in four years they didn’t even make their conference championship game. USC has sunk to mediocrity in a mediocre conference. The biggest player on the national stage in their conference division is Utah, which doesn’t resonate with people outside of the region, and furthermore, cross-town rival UCLA seems to be gaining traction and making strides under Chip Kelly. However, this is USC, and it shouldn’t take long for them to reclaim their top spot in a division that includes Colorado, Arizona, and Arizona St.
Riley is taking over a program and a fanbase that would be ecstatic with a 10-2 record right now. USC has produced one less Heisman Trophy winner than Ohio St., Notre Dame, and Oklahoma, but the man who pushed the Sooner total past USC is now leading their program. Notre Dame and Ohio St. haven’t produced a winner in 15 years, so it is easy to see how Riley could also bring back that tradition with his resume of grooming pro quarterbacks in his high powered offense. He already got his top QB commit to follow him from Oklahoma to Southern California.
Living here in South Bend, the focus has been on Brian Kelly’s departure and how it was handled. Kelly seemed to be getting bored with double digit win seasons that didn’t result in conference championships and national praise, so he threw his hat into the SEC jungle. Riley seems to have made the smarter move. It is really difficult to image a scenario that by 2025 when Oklahoma joins the Pac-12 that he isn’t enjoying more success year in and year out than his former employer. Riley will likely have a conference championship by then as well, but more importantly seems to have a clearer path to the College Football Playoff each year. Playing Notre Dame every year provides a non-conference national showcase, that boosts an improving conference schedule. If Riley can do what he has done at Oklahoma, he will truly be one of the smartest coaches in college football for making this move now, and will set himself up to be in the conversation of the all-time greats when it is all said and done.