Lincoln Riley was formally introduced Monday as USC’s head football coach, with the university president comparing him to a “unicorn in the forest” who will return the program to greatness on the field while molding players both on the field and as members of the community and Trojan family.
Riley, who spent five years as coach at the University of Oklahoma, echoed the sentiments of many Trojan fans when he walked up to the microphone at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during the introductory news conference, saying “Wow. Is this real? Unbelievable.”
“This is a surreal moment, to be honest,” Riley said. “I’m so honored to be the next head football coach here at USC. It means a great deal to me.”
USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn was exuberant as he spoke to the crowd, saying that when the search began for a new head coach, the university didn’t plan on shocking the football world with one of the “biggest moves in the history of the game.”
“But we did exactly that,” he said.
Bohn said hiring Riley “demonstrates that we’re committed to winning championships.”
“It sends a loud and powerful message to the college football world that this sleeping giant is wide awake, standing up and fighting on,” he said.
The hiring of Riley gave an immediate injection of life into a languishing football program, with the move winning raves from former Trojans such as Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, and earning praise from a host of college football analysts.
Riley was 55-10 in five seasons as the Sooners’ coach, including berths in the College Football Playoff in each of his first three seasons and Big 12 Conference championships in each of his first four.
Introducing him Monday, USC President Carol Folt called Riley’s hiring a “milestone” for the football program, saying the university was searching for a “unicorn in the forest” who could restore greatness to the team.
“We actually found that unicorn,” she said.
Folt called Riley “the perfect choice for USC,” rattling off his list of accomplishments as a coach at Oklahoma.
“He’s really just getting started,” she said. “What he’s going to do with our players is going to be amazing. And he’s determined to return our program to legendary status, and we certainly can’t wait.
“… He’s going to recruit like a Trojan. He’s going to fight hard for the most talented players. He’ll develop our student-athletes on and off the field. He’ll foster a culture that promotes character and integrity. And he’s going to be tough. He’s going to expect them to learn in practice, in the classroom and as members of the Trojan community.”
Riley’s move to USC has already had an impact on recruiting. Los Alamitos High School quarterback Malachi Nelson, the No. 3 ranked prospect in the ESPN Junior 300, announced on social media Sunday night that he was decommitting from Oklahoma “in light of the recent events and changes.”
Ari Wasserman, a national college football reporter for the sports news website The Athletic, tweeted Sunday that Riley called Nelson on behalf of USC.
Riley coached Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks each of his first two seasons as the Sooners’ coach — Baker Mayfield in 2017 and Kyler Murray in 2018.
“Lincoln will land any top QB recruit by reminding them of Baker & Kyler’s” Heisman Trophies, Fox Sports talk show host and former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho tweeted.
Acho called Riley a “top five” college football coach who “will put USC back on the map.”
The USC football news website ReignofTroy.com declared that Riley has the best resume of a football coach hired by USC since Howard Jones was hired in 1925 after winning national championships at Yale in 1909 and Iowa in 1921.
Jones coached the Trojans to national championships in 1928, 1932, 1932 and 1939.
Riley said Monday there was much to love about the USC coaching job, noting, “The history of this program is as good as it gets in college football. Period.”
He had high praise for Folt, Bohn and USC Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso, saying they were committed to returning the Trojan football program to glory.
“When they first came to me with interest on this position, that was the first thing that I noticed — they were completely in sync, completely in sync about what they felt USC football could be, what they felt like we needed to do to make up the gap,” Riley said.
“And they were totally united on doing anything and everything possible to get us to that point. And that was, as a football coach, to have that support behind you from some of the most influential people in this university, from your bosses, from people who are going to make big decisions, it said everything that I needed to hear.”
Riley said he was committed to building the best staff in college football, announcing that a handful of his coaches from Oklahoma would be moving west with him. In terms of players, he said the program will have a team-first attitude.
“When you care about the team the most, it’s funny how all the individual things tend to work out for you,” he said. “And that’s how it’s going to be here. The culture will be team-first. And we will have a room of great athletes … but they’re going to be people that care about winning championships, winning rings, holding up trophies, raising banners. That’s what we’re going to have in that locker room. And that combination of that and a great staff is how you do it. So I can’t want to get started on that.”
Riley got emotional when he spoke about his time at the University of Oklahoma.
“This was … the toughest decision of my life to come here. Those people there were tremendous to me,” he said, pausing to regain his composure.
When he resumed speaking, he said he was “grateful for my time there.”
“That’s one of the best college football programs in the country and has been forever and will continue to be,” he said.
Riley takes over a program that has won one Pac-12 Conference championship since Pete Carroll left following the 2009 season to coach the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.
With a 4-7 record entering Saturday’s season finale against California, the Trojans are assured of their second losing season in four seasons and third in 22 seasons.
Riley replaces Clay Helton, who was fired Sept. 13, two days after a 42-28 loss to Stanford dropped the Trojans’ record to 1-1 and 46-24 in four seasons under Helton including the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season, parts of two others and a one-game stint as interim coach in 2013.
Donte Williams has served as interim coach since Helton’s firing. Williams will coach the team Saturday against the Golden Bears.
Terms of Riley’s contract were not disclosed.
Riley was not among the coaches speculated as potential replacements for Helton, a list that included Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Baylor’s Dave Aranda, Penn State’s James Franklin and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell.
The speculation about Riley’s future was whether he would take the vacant LSU job. During his postgame news conference following Oklahoma’s 37-33 loss to Oklahoma State Saturday, Riley interrupted a question by saying, “I’m not going to be the next head coach at LSU.”
Born Sept. 5, 1983, in Lubbock, Texas, and raised in the 5,000-person West Texas town of Muleshoe, Riley was on the football and track teams at Muleshoe High School.
Riley was a walk-on quarterback at Texas Tech in the spring and summer of 2003 before starting his coaching career as a student assistant there under Mike Leach from 2003-05, working with the offense.
Riley received his bachelor’s degree in exercise and sports science from Texas Tech in 2006 and was an offensive graduate assistant at Texas Tech in 2006, then joined the Red Raiders’ full-time staff as the wide receivers coach in 2007.
Riley remained at Texas Tech through 2009, then became the offensive coordinator at East Carolina in 2010. Following five seasons with the Pirates, including being the assistant head coach in 2014, Riley was hired as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator in 2015. He became head coach at Oklahoma in 2017.