Lincoln Riley Ditches the Sooners as This Summer’s Realignment Bombshell Comes Full Circle
Lincoln Riley wanted the Jimbo Fisher contract without following in Jimbo Fisher’s footsteps.
Donald Trump may no longer be in the White House, but the recurring detonation of bombshell news stories that marked his presidency now defines the college football news cycle in 2021. On Sunday, several sports news outlets reported that Oklahoma Sooners head football coach Lincoln Riley would be leaving the program to become head coach of the USC Trojans. The move followed nearly a week of persistent rumors linking Riley to the still-vacant LSU head coaching job. And considering the success Riley has had in Norman developing quarterbacks and competing for a spot in the college football playoff, there was simply no reason to think he would leave the powerhouse program he has built there.
But in a preseason marked by sudden and shocking changes — yes, the emergence of NIL in June but mainly the exodus of the Sooners and the Texas Longhorns from the Big 12 conference in July — Riley’s exit seems like the crazy, chaotic ending to a news cycle that never made sense to begin with. In just a few short months, the Sooners and Longhorns have gone from selfishly smart future SEC rainmakers to the red-headed stepchildren of a conference that didn’t really need them in the first place.
As a fellow older millennial, Riley’s decision to head further West after five seasons at Oklahoma makes a lot of sense to me. Although I had my doubts about the appeal of the USC job, I knew that whoever took it on needed to be young and eager for a project. Most importantly, they needed to figure out how to get California kids like Alabama’s Bryce Young to stay in California. That likely meant landing a coach known for his recruiting prowess.
But after a couple of months the USC job just seemed kind of forgotten, and ultimately less desirable as LSU and Florida gave their coaches the boot. Clearly Lincoln Riley took advantage of the shift in media attention away from the vacancy— and looking back, some now wonder if Riley may have been distracted by his contemplation of L.A. life all along. Just hours before Riley departed for L.A. for good, the Sooners had lost to their in-state rival Oklahoma State in the Bedlam battle.
At any rate, Riley and USC were able to reach an agreement for him to become the next head football coach without much of the college sports media getting the scoop. But USC is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a young head coach. Though jarring as the news was, anyone, even members of the team Riley left behind in Norman, OK, should be happy for him.
But Riley didn’t pursue the USC job like a coach who knew he was doing something people would respect. He pursued it like someone eager to teach a bunch of athletic directors, university system presidents and chancellors, and one very determined conference commissioner a lesson: money and brand can only take a program so far. You need a coach who can not only win games, but consistently position the program to compete for championships.
In other words, in choosing USC Lincoln Riley cashed in on his own stock when he feared it was about to take a hit. He wasn’t necessarily afraid to compete in the SEC — he just knows he can get more for his name by going out West where there is barely one playoff-eligible team every year than by going 10–2 in his first few years in the SEC. He’d rather battle Alabama or Georgia in the college football semi-finals once a year than do so regularly in conference play. Of course Alabama or Georgia could win out either way; but Riley creates more value for himself as the coach who got USC on the field with them, especially if he’s considering an NFL job in the future.
Still, I can’t help but think last night was Riley’s Aaron-Rodgers-trade-rumors-on-opening-night-of-the-2021-NFL-draft moment. Perhaps the rollout to this announcement went so poorly (Oklahoma players and staff found out about Riley’s departure at just about the same time as everyone else according to The Athletic) because Riley wanted to cause a firestorm. Oklahoma had ditched the Big 12 with little consideration for how the move might impact his coaching career moving forward. Now, he is leaving with little regard for the program as it inches closer to a new chapter in the SEC. At least that’s one way to interpret the five-hour wait between the first reports of the hire and Riley’s actual announcement that he had already left for L.A.
But this is what an exceedingly high-stakes college football world begets. The cold, calculated manner in which Riley acquired a coveted coaching job halfway across the country is the same sort of conceit that drove the Sooners and the Longhorns to the Deep South. It’s what I feared an increasingly deregulated and decentralized college sports world was building towards with NIL even though the status quo was undeniably untenable. When anything can be understood in terms of making a business decision, does it even matter what the right thing to do is anymore?