Commentary: With Lincoln Riley in charge, USC has finally stopped living in fear

USC football coach Lincoln Riley watches a basketball game at the Galen Center on Dec. 12, 2021.
USC football coach Lincoln Riley watches a basketball game between the Trojans and Long Beach State at the Galen Center on Dec. 12, 2021.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

We’re in the early stages of getting to know Lincoln Riley’s quirks. So far, here’s one: Detailed timelines of how seismic events occur aren’t going to be a strong suit.

Of course all anybody wanted to know from him Wednesday on national signing day was the nitty gritty of how he courted quarterback Caleb Williams to follow him from Oklahoma to USC. He did provide a glimpse of the start — one that will induce more red-faced conspiracy theories from the incredulous Sooner State.

“There’s zero communication, and then all of a sudden Caleb and his family make the decision to jump into the transfer portal,” Riley said, “and we had a conversation shortly after that, and I don’t think we talked even one bit of football. It was just kind of like long-lost friend. It was kind of good just to be able to reconnect.”


From there, Riley’s narrative jumped about four weeks with his old pal Williams getting himself enrolled last Friday, his last chance to do so and be eligible for spring practice. Frankly, while we’d like to hear more, Riley knows the fact that Williams is on campus this week taking classes with his fellow Trojans is all that matters.

For USC folks, after years of listening to a coach who talked too much and delivered little, it had to be refreshing Wednesday to observe one who says just enough to prove their precious program is in worthy hands.

To this point, Riley’s public persona has been friendly yet not cheesy, confident yet not off-putting. He can be mildly forthcoming, as long as you’re not hoping to put together a concrete sequence of behind-the-scenes maneuverings that could later get him in trouble with the Boomer Sooner Bureau of Investigation.

Riley was happy to discuss how he handled waiting on Williams’ decision while USC’s presumed starting quarterback, Jaxson Dart, entered the transfer portal and began taking visits. Certainly, he could have ended up with neither.

Trojan nation responds, often with a simple ‘fight on’ emoji, after former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams announces he is transferring to USC.

“Having been in this position for a few years I’ve learned to … I don’t try to project as much anymore,” he said. “I’m just trying to build the best roster that we can at USC. And with the transfer portal right now and the fact that there’s no guardrails, players can leave you virtually 365 days a year if they choose. So you can’t predict all of that. And you can almost drive yourself crazy trying to.

“And so for me, my standpoint has been we’re going to be honest with all parties involved, whether it’s a current player on our roster [or] somebody that we’re recruiting about what we’re doing, about future plans, try to be very transparent, but that we’re not going to recruit or try to build our roster out of fear that people will leave. Just, you can’t operate that way, and we’re not going to.”

Let’s recall that when Riley was asked at his introduction about how soon he could get USC back to national prominence, he basically said, sooner than you may think. In just two months, he has taken a Trojans recruiting class unthinkably ranked last in the Pac-12 and punched it into the nation’s top 10 (when factoring transfers and recruits).

How did he do it? Just like he said above, by being fearless and honestly quite ruthless in his evaluations.

Riley and his staff pulled scholarship offers from numerous high school players who had committed to USC under Clay Helton, which was predictable. They did not hesitate to do the same with young men who had proudly worn the cardinal and gold over the last few disappointing seasons. Seventeen Trojans have left, some by choice and others at the discretion of the new staff. Thirteen hand-picked transfers have taken their place, joining eight traditional recruits in a 2022 haul that should only continue to grow until August.

Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams celebrates with head coach Lincoln Riley.
Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams celebrates with coach Lincoln Riley after a touchdown against Texas Christian on Oct. 16, 2021, in Norman, Okla.
(Alonzo Adams / Associated Press)

“We know there’s going to be another surge of people in the transfer portal after these spring balls across the country start to wrap up,” Riley said. “And I believe we’re gonna be in a position to continue to build this roster at that time as well.

“I think you’re constantly building all parts of your roster. You just never really get to the part where, OK, we’re set at O-line, we’re good there. I think you’re constantly looking to upgrade and you gotta constantly be ready with an answer because it can change quickly both in having the opportunity to bring players in or potentially losing a player.”

Remember the days of Helton and the Trojans who became “loves of his life?” Over time, that led to a lack of competition across the roster, as players did not feel they could supplant the favorites among Helton’s 105 “sons.” Riley isn’t going to let football romance cloud his judgment or get in his way from completing the job, which is to have USC players celebrating under confetti on a Monday night in January.

In the short term, this class’ star power with Williams, Oregon transfer running back Travis Dye and Oklahoma receiver transfer Mario Williams could immediately help the Trojans retake the Pac-12. Long term, because of Riley’s relentlessness and intuition, the prognosis looks even better. The Southeastern Conference won’t have to worry about Riley just yet, but anyone with an appreciation for the sport’s history understands that a healthy USC is the top threat to shift the balance of power away from Dixie (it is no coincidence that the SEC did not take over the sport until Pete Carroll’s dynasty toppled).

Here are five things to know about new USC quarterback Caleb Williams, who is following coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to Los Angeles.

Riley came here to build something of his own at a place with a ceiling few can match. He is proving that he will do whatever it takes, even if it means living with uncomfortable stats like a 13:8 ratio of transfers to preps.

“I would fully expect in the future that our class has a much higher percentage of high school players than this one currently does,” Riley said. “I’ll be interested to see how it evolves. At the end of the day, nobody’s really going to ask ‘how.’ It’s ‘did you put together the best roster you could and give us the best chance to accomplish what we came here to do?’ ”

The “how” is already clear without Riley having to explain. With him in charge — and with the backing of university administration — USC football is no longer afraid to be great.