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Column: L.A. approves Lincoln Riley, asks how soon can he restore USC to national prominence

USC coach Lincoln Riley, left, and USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn take part in a news conference.
USC coach Lincoln Riley, left, and USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn take part in a news conference at the Coliseum on Monday to announce Riley’s hiring.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The identity of the person most shocked by the shocking USC hire of Lincoln Riley has officially been revealed.

It’s, well, Lincoln Riley.

“This a surreal moment, to be honest,” he said.

The Trojans rolled out the cardinal-and-gold carpet for their newest football coach on a scenic seventh-floor patio at the Coliseum on Monday afternoon, and the young fella from the rural Texas panhandle was as wide-eyed as a tourist who suddenly stops talking to stare incredulously over his shoulder at the Hollywood sign.

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Which, he actually did.

“Unbelievable,” he said.

In a news conference featuring nine marching-band members, three Song Girls and one flaming cauldron, Riley showed up in an oversize blue suit and read from a rumpled legal pad while unwittingly reminding everyone of a few facts that have gotten lost in the fanfare.

He’s still just 38. This is still only his second head coaching job. His last job was in a town of 123,000 in the middle of nowhere.

There is going to be an adjustment period. There will be some growing pains. It’s going to be fine. This was a highly unusual acquisition. He’s arguably the best young coach in America and, to acquire him, USC had to hurriedly steal him away from Oklahoma like the wind that comes sweepin’ down the plain.

“It’s been a whirlwind honestly,” he said.

The whole thing is crazy, honestly.

USC sent shock waves through the sports world when it hired Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley as its football coach. Here’s everything you need to know about Riley.

One minute he was coaching Oklahoma with no serious thought that he would leave one of the best jobs in college football. Less than 48 hours later he was standing in the middle of downtown Los Angeles listening to my big fat mouth ask him how soon he could fix the Trojans.

He looked at his watch.

“I’ve been in L.A. for a few hours,” he said with a grin.

One minute he was flying out of Oklahoma in the darkness of a Monday morning. Twelve hours later, he was posing for photos with USC officials amid a thousand clicks and camera operators shouting at photographers.

Lincoln Riley is introduced as the head coach of USC football during a news conference at the Coliseum on Monday.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“So this is what L.A. is like,” he said with a trace of wonder.

His beard is stubbled, his Muleshoe, Texas, accent is syrupy, and his emotions seem real.

“Is there a little bit of shock even now?” he said. “Yeah.”

He laughed easily, and he roused everyone to laugh with him when athletic director Mike Bohn was asked whether Riley was his first choice.

Said Bohn: “He was No.1.”

Said Riley: “You probably wouldn’t tell them if I was two or three, would you?”

Said Bohn: “Are we going to have some fun with a guy like Lincoln Riley or what?”

Patience and a well-timed recruiting pitch helped USC lure Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma, sending shockwaves through the college football world.

He also cried easily, tearing up when he started talking about leaving a Sooners program that gave him his first head coaching chance.

“This was honestly… the toughest decision of my life to come here,” he said. “Those people there were tremendous to me.”

Riley paused and his eyes welled. There was a short silence before Bohn valiantly attempted to end the moment by loudly clapping.

But it wasn’t awkward. It was real. It was refreshing to see such honesty from a stranger. It was cool to see that this brilliant football mind who has won more than 85% of his games in five seasons actually show his humanity.

He was blown away on the first day of his new job in Hollywood? Who isn’t? He becomes openly emotional when talking about leaving all those who supported him in his old job? Who doesn’t?

Then, in the sort of aw-shucks tale that seems to fit him perfectly, he talked about bringing some of his buddies out West with him, and who wouldn’t?

USC athletic director Mike Bohn and chief of staff Brandon Sosna pulled off a game-winning Hail Mary, luring star Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma.

Riley said that before boarding the private jet to Los Angeles early Monday morning, he rounded up four of his Oklahoma assistants and convinced them to join him on the flight. No agreed salaries, no official positions, just… c’mon!

“These guys got on a plane with me this morning, without a contract, without anything,” he said. “I called them and said, ‘You want to come?’ They said, ‘Yup.’”

When spinning this story, Riley’s eyes light up. This is his kind of story.

“I said, ‘All right, the plane leaves at 6 a.m.’…they were there at 5:40,” he recalled. “They have been instrumental in our success at Oklahoma and I think it says a lot that they wanted to be here with you, with all of us, and I can’t imagine doing it with any other guys.”

As Lincoln Riley assembles his USC coaching staff, he’s starting by pulling from his former staff at Oklahoma.

While many USC fans will view that as endearing, many Sooners fans probably consider it infuriating. That’s the one nagging narrative that follows Riley to Hollywood. Many believe he didn’t run to USC as much as flee Oklahoma. They believe the only reason he so suddenly scooted was because the Sooners were moving from the Big 12 to the SEC and he wanted no part of competing every year with Alabama and Georgia and all those folks. In essence, it is said, in choosing USC he chose the easier Pac-12 path to a national championship.

Um, would you blame him?

I have heard the same story. I have heard that USC first saw a chance to get him when officials heard of his unhappiness with the SEC move. I asked him about this. He denied it.

Lincoln Riley brought swagger and several new staffers to his introduction as USC’s new football coach. He also promised to deliver results. Quickly.

“I was completely in favor [of the move],” Riley said. “I supported it the whole way. I thought it was the right move at the time and I still think it’s the right move. That had zero impact on where we’re at today.”

Back to my original question.

How soon can he return the USC football program to national prominence?

Sooner than you think, he said.

“In this day and age, I think it can happen quickly, I do,” he said. “In this day and age with the way college football works, you can turn over rosters in so many different ways, we’ll be very deliberate and creative and intentional about that.”

Then his smile turned tight. He may have shown up Monday draped in innocent amazement, but make no mistake, he’s come here to fight.

USC won 11 national titles under icons Howard Jones, John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll. But the last 103 years haven’t been all wins and Roses.

“I just look at it like, how can we not do it?” he said. “How is it not going to work? No time is soon enough. We’re going to fight like crazy.”

The battle has begun. As he walked purposely away from the news conference, the downtown skyline was beginning its afternoon glow. He didn’t look once.


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