Lincoln Riley has USC Trojans starting to believe in themselves again

Just over a month ago, Lincoln Riley showed up to a practice at Los Alamitos High School in Orange County by himself. It was Oklahoma's bye week, and it was the first time he had been able to recruit on the road in nearly two years. He was there to watch five-star quarterback Malachi Nelson, then an Oklahoma commit, and his teammate Makai Lemon, a five-star wide receiver and also a Sooners commit.

Riley took in what Alamitos head coach Ray Felton said was one of the team's best practices of the season.

"I joked that he should come to every practice," Felton said.

At that point, Riley was not leaving Oklahoma, let alone heading to USC. But as he stood on the sidelines during what was an idyllic Southern California day, Felton recalled Riley turning to him and saying, "Man, it's nice out here."

Fast-forward to the present, and Riley is sitting inside the same conference room where former USC athletic director Pat Haden named Clay Helton interim coach back in 2015. Riley is announcing his first recruiting class with the Trojans, which is starting with just eight commits but features four ESPN 300 players, including the top player in California, cornerback Domani Jackson (No. 6), and running back Raleek Brown (No. 60), who was previously committed to Oklahoma. Riley leans back in his chair, crosses his hands behind his head and takes a deep breath.

"Not much sleep lately," he said with a chuckle. "It's been a bit hectic ... you don't just flip that switch over, but it feels more normal every day."

Riley does not feel quite settled in yet. The past three weeks have been a nonstop whirlwind of transition, logistics, travel, strategy and, as Riley put it, fun. Part of that fun has been the slow realization that this is now his new zip code. For someone from Muleshoe, Texas, it will take some time before the sights and sounds of the city fade into the background.

"The first day we got here, we're driving, just coming down on Figueroa, and I just look down there ... and here's our campus and there's the Staples Center," Riley said. "I knew it was close, but not right there, you know?"

The excitement that reverberated around USC from that first day has yet to fully subside.

The Trojans just finished the 2021 season 4-8, but already it feels less like history and more like it didn't happen at all. The pendulum that Riley swung from Norman to Los Angeles brought with it two highly rated 2023 recruits in Nelson (No. 3 in the ESPN Junior 300) and Lemon (No. 21), who flipped from Oklahoma to USC days after Riley's hire, as well as a newfound fervor from a fan base thirsty to believe in something besides the past.

"There's a new sense of relief and belief in the building," one USC staff member said. "The feeling now is that the top is attainable."

INSIDE A GROUP chat of former USC players on Sunday, Nov. 28, the flurry of sporadic texts picked up and suddenly turned into an avalanche. Someone dropped in the news that Riley was headed to USC.

"It was completely out of left field," one former player said. "We were in the mindset that it was going to be Matt Campbell, or a Matt Campbell kind of guy, and to end up 12 hours later with [Riley] as the head coach? It was wild."

Nelson and his family were already thinking about a backup plan when rumors swirled around Riley and LSU that weekend. Nelson's quarterback coach, Danny Hernandez, shot a text to Nelson's dad telling him to wait. He had a feeling USC was going to do "something sexy." When the Riley hire was announced, Nelson's dad sent Hernandez a text. "Yeah, that's definitely sexy."

"At the end of the day, [Nelson] was committed to Lincoln Riley," Hernandez said. "He checks all the boxes ... and it's really a dream come true for [Nelson] to be able to get the best of both worlds and get a chance to stay home. He's not going to be the only one."

On the USC side, the early-morning plane ride to pick up Riley in Oklahoma City became both a celebration and a war room. USC's personnel staff had been preparing for this moment for months, polishing a transition plan and accumulating information on the current roster and program on countless Excel sheets to present to a new head coach. But once he and his staff heard Riley was the hire, they were compelled to double-check everything and fine-tune the plan.

The stakes felt higher now.

And time was of the essence. Riley's priorities were assembling a staff, getting started on the recruiting trail, and evaluating and meeting with as many current USC players as possible before they went home after finals week. The recruiting itinerary resembled an ambitious but necessary travel log. First, Riley made in-home visits around Southern California before jumping on a plane that took him and the staff to Nevada, Utah, Louisiana, Florida, Maryland and Texas, all in less than a week.

Riley has refrained from talking too much about what happened before at USC, but when asked what he thought had been missing, he said, "I think the culture, the attitude around the program, there's going to be a shift. We need a locker room and a staff that everybody is on the same page, pushing in the same direction. You never get to see what the sum of all the talent is unless you can do that."

Riley is preaching to the choir that extends beyond USC. Multiple people in and around the Southern California recruiting scene noted that, at times over the past few years, it felt like USC hadn't been on the same page in its approach. For those familiar with Riley, that's no longer a concern. Anyone who has been around Riley will tell you he has a clear vision for the kind of program he wants to run, namely one where alignment is paramount and quality trumps quantity.

It's why he says that the way a facility is set up logistically is just as important as a recruiting strategy. It's why his offers at Oklahoma always carried more weight, why people around him say he's not afraid to part with anyone who doesn't share his vision. It's why, as he explained, the Trojans didn't try to flip players they weren't familiar with or try to get as many recruits as possible right away. And it's why being able to assess the current roster immediately by watching practice and the rescheduled game against Cal on Dec. 4 became a catalyst for a number of essential evaluations and conversations.

"Those players that you saw go in the portal last week from us, they weren't the best fits here," one USC source said.

It's not quite a blank slate, but it's enough of a fresh start that USC can unhook itself from the past six years of up-and-down results and anchor the program around Riley, whose premier skill lies in the fact that has been there, won that.

"I think that there's a confidence and belief that, no matter the path to get there, no matter how, I know what we have to do here to get there," Riley said.

IN THE DAYS after Riley's hire, Los Alamitos didn't have one of its best practices. But what it did have was a practice where all the chatter was about one thing: USC's hire.

"The feeling [around the West Coast] was that they needed a splash hire," Fenton said. "And they went and got that."

The conversation had shifted. At Serra High School, head coach Scott Altenberg noticed his players talking about it, too.

"He's a brand that sells itself," Altenberg said. "These kids want to play at USC, but more than that, they want to be in the playoff and play on that Monday night in January, and he's done that."

High school coaches in the region can attest: They have known their players have not just the desire but the pressure to stay and play at USC. Yet in the past few years, it had been a tougher sell due to fear of stunted development and a murkier pathway to the pros than they'd have at some of college football's premier programs, such as Alabama and Ohio State. Case in point: Heisman Trophy candidates Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud were quarterbacks from Southern California but played for the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes instead of USC. But one move and just a few weeks later, there's a feeling around the program that things are starting to change.

"There's been a lot of interest in wanting to come here," Riley said in his news conference Friday, adding that while he has always felt the majority of players in the region want to be Trojans, USC has to give them a reason to follow through on that while also being selective.

When news of the Riley hire broke, recruits who hadn't contacted USC staffers in a while were FaceTiming them and reaching out.

"It felt like a video game when you beat one stage and you get to the next stage and unlock a whole new set of things and rewards you can use," a USC source said. "This just unlocks a whole new level of recruits. We're at the forefront of their minds now."

It's not just recruits, but transfers, too. Riley said Friday that with an expected turnover of about 35 roster spots, there's no position for which the Trojans wouldn't consider the transfer portal. His hire also put USC in the thick of the sweepstakes for LSU transfer Eli Ricks, who played at local powerhouse Mater Dei. Ricks had interest from a slew of schools, including USC, but he picked Alabama on Wednesday.

A source close to Ricks said the decision went down to the wire between USC and Alabama, with USC even being in the lead a day before Ricks made his choice. According to the source, what appealed to Ricks about USC, beyond the hometown connection, was that he noticed "everybody there is focused on turning it around." Ultimately, having only one year left before being eligible to go to the NFL and wanting to maximize winning and his own potential appeared to tip the scales in favor of the Crimson Tide. Had Ricks been a year or two younger, the source said, he likely would be playing at USC next season.

USC's recruiting pitch has always involved highlighting the picturesque and powerful influence of Los Angeles. So it was no surprise that when recruits visited campus over the past two weeks, the Trojans literally rolled out a red carpet, took them to dinner at USC-alum-owned Rex Steakhouse on Redondo Beach, hosted another dinner at an oceanside Manhattan Beach house and took over SoFi Stadium for a night where players were allowed to go on the field and watch a USC hype video on the giant screens.

The Manhattan Beach dinner, in particular, seemed to strike a chord not only for recruits, but for Riley. As the sun set on the Pacific Ocean, Riley and his staff and their families took in the scene alongside recruits.

"I think that was a unique moment for him," one person who was in attendance said. "Not many programs get a chance to do something like that with recruits, so I think he understands how special this place is."

But whereas the luster of that L.A. luxury has worn off in recent years given the results on the field, there's now a sense that it doesn't have to be the main selling point. With Riley providing the substance and pedigree on the field, the off-the-field advantages such as the NIL opportunities that Riley referred to as "endless" can adequately play the part of the icing instead of the whole cake.

SCOTT WANDZILAK'S PHONE hasn't stopped buzzing. The associate athletic director at USC in charge of the Trojan Athletic Fund and the school's student-athlete alumni organization has been busy the past few weeks as interest in both engaging in and financially supporting the program has skyrocketed. As USC's chief of staff Brandon Sosna tweeted out recently, USC has already sold more than 1,000 season tickets for next season.

"People are wanting to either come back into the fold or come into the fold for the first time," Wandzilak said of the fund. "You can feel they are more energetic and engaged around that, around the team and the program and the coach."

Riley also understands the importance of engaging former players.

Talk to any of them, especially those who were recruited on the fumes of the Pete Carroll glory days, and they'll readily admit that the shortcomings of the past few years have been disappointing.

"It feels like this is not just blind optimism," former quarterback Max Browne said. "Until now it's felt like we've been trying to recreate those Pete Carroll days, but you can't. It finally feels like under this new regime, we're fully moving on from those ties and not trying to do that."

As Hernandez pointed out, people in the college football world are eager to see what Riley's version of USC looks like. How does someone with such a specific vision mesh with a program that carries a lot of history, traditions and sky-high expectations? The short answer is that the binding agent, the common ground, is the goal: to win again. And there's no shortage of that desire around the program.

"I do think there's a lot of people that are hungry for that here, which is good," Riley said. "You can feel that ... you have to build on that."

For as much focus as there has been on Riley the past few weeks, he is self-aware enough to shift the focus back on the players and staff, and on how building a championship team will take a village. But his addition alone seems to have turned the external narrative around USC 180 degrees.

"You're automatically talked about now in the conversation of, 'Are they gonna have a shot for the national championship?'" Hernandez said. "I mean ... it's wild to think something like that so early. But you know, with [Riley], people don't feel as ridiculous bringing that up."

The timing and buzz of the hire has placed Riley and USC in one of the most ideal positions in college football: with nine months until their next game, there will be no result on the field that can counter or diminish the positive energy around the program. If this is the start of the honeymoon period, there's no telling what it might look like once Riley & Co. can talk less about potential and more about results.