Lincoln Riley on his Oklahoma exit, the appeal of USC in college football's changing landscape

LOS ANGELES -- Lincoln Riley's meteoric rise has been a bit surreal, even for Riley himself.

Not even 10 years ago, he was living in Greenville, North Carolina, and working as East Carolina's offensive coordinator. Fast forward to now, and the 38-year-old Riley makes his home in Hollywood (Palos Verdes, to be exact) and is entering his first year as head coach at USC, one of the most tradition-rich programs in college football and yet one of the more underachieving teams for much of the past decade.

That's why Riley is USC's fourth head coach in the past 10 years and at least part of the reason he left another Rolls-Royce of college football, Oklahoma, to take on the challenge of restoring the Trojans to their past glory.

In five seasons at OU, Riley won four Big 12 championships and led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff three times. But when USC called last November, he decided to make the move west.

Riley sat down with ESPN this week for a wide-ranging conversation that covered his exit from Oklahoma, how the Sooners' impending move to the SEC impacted his decision, the Trojans loading up in the transfer portal, the future of college football in general and his belief that USC will benefit as much as anybody from the new world of name, image and likeness.

There were a lot of hard feelings among Oklahoma fans when you left, especially so abruptly. Do you understand their angst?

Riley: There's no easy way to leave jobs like that, unless you retire in them. They're either going to force you out because you're not winning or you do something wrong, or you're going to take another job and they're not going to be happy about it. I mean, I've been coaching for a little bit now, but I've never obviously been in a transition like this.

It wouldn't have changed my decision, but are there things along the way that I could have done better throughout the transition? It was not going to be smooth, but maybe smooth it out a little bit? Yes, there is when I look back. But at the end of the day, it was going to be an emotionally charged decision for a lot of people on the periphery of it.

Were you ever involved at all in the LSU job search?

Riley: No, and I've told people this all the time. I learned this from Mike Leach, and he probably still says it. You're on one of two lists as a head coach. You're on a list to get fired or you're on a list of other people wanting to hire you. And he's right. I never had one year at Oklahoma where people didn't call in-season. I never subjected myself to it. It's never rocked me. It's never had anything to do with me doing my job. I've taken one phone call in seven years at OU, and it was the USC phone call after the Oklahoma State game. That's the only phone call I've ever taken -- ever. I didn't take one NFL call. I didn't take any of them.

When you say you didn't take any calls, they're calling your agent, right?

Riley: Yes, 100 percent. But that's why you have an agent, why you have that buffer, because you can't control when the phone's going to ring, but you have a job to do in those moments. I always felt like I was able to stay focused on the task at hand. Nobody ever said a word about it when the NFL teams were calling, and we were winning a bunch. I'm a professional. I'm going to do the job I'm assigned to do. Plus, especially now, there are no secrets. If I would have engaged with those guys before [the season ended], people would've known. And, again, the people that know me know I would never do that.

When you heard Bob Stoops say recently that Lincoln Riley didn't invent OU football (and Stoops added that he didn't, either), what went through your mind?

Riley: I've talked to [Stoops] since I took the job. He's an OU guy, and I understand that. But he also listened and got very close several times with other schools when he was at OU. My timeline and all that was different, and he's told me that if he had to make a decision on a different day, things might have turned out differently for him. You never know. They're hard decisions to make.

I'm sure you heard critics claiming that part of your rationale for leaving was that you were running from the grind of the SEC with Oklahoma's impending move to the SEC.

Riley: Oh yeah, I knew that was out there. Football is football. I wasn't running from the SEC. I was running to USC. That's probably the best way I could answer that.

Growing up in Texas, how did you view USC football when you were younger and how will this challenge be different from what you faced at Oklahoma?

Riley: It's such a different opportunity than the one I had at OU, and I wouldn't change anything about the one at OU, especially for a first-time head coach. There were some advantages of taking over one like that and some advantages of taking over one like this. But one of my biggest memories when I was younger, junior high and high school when I was already a big college football fan, was watching a game out here on a Saturday night in the Coliseum on a TV screen in Muleshoe, Texas. I don't know how to describe it, just the energy and getting the feeling that it was different than watching football anywhere else. There are a lot of other great places in our sport, but they're all more similar than they are different. This one, there was something different about it, and that's what captured people during their heyday. I know it did me.

What was the biggest attraction for you to the USC job?

Riley: Every coach in any job is going to look at what kind of roster do they think they can build, and I don't think anywhere is positioned like this place is to build an elite roster. Most of college football fits into small market, average-to-good academics and then your varying degrees of different programs. The combination here of the elite academics and you've got a proven football history -- it's been done here -- and then that big L.A. market, all of that ... I just don't know of anywhere else that has those three.

Coaches talk about timing all the time when they change jobs. Was that a factor for you?

Riley: You're kind of catching the program here at a humble point, and I also think just looking back at history, and you can debate the number, but when you talk about the six or seven greatest college football programs of all time and study their history, what makes them the greatest college football programs of all time doesn't mean that they don't have dips, but they don't have many of them. And then when they do have one, they typically, history would say, come back with a force. That's what makes them great, and this is one of those places.

In a market the size of L.A., how beneficial will that be for USC in the NIL world?

Riley: I know what we'll do to build a roster, and I know what we won't do to build a roster. I know we will recruit our tails off. I know we'll run a first-class program, and you know NIL is going to be a factor going forward. We're at a place that you know can position your guys to be able to capitalize off that, and there are so many different routes to capitalize off it in LA. You're talking about things for guys that can be long-term things. This isn't just like a small car dealership in a small-market town. You're talking about doing deals with major, major entities, especially for guys that have a chance to play in the NFL, that could be 20-year arrangements.

Do you believe some of the NIL financial numbers that are being thrown out there for some players, especially those still in high school in states like California where high school players are allowed to accept money?

Riley: There's just so few restrictions right now. I do believe there's a lot of propaganda out there now when you hear some of these figures. A lot of it's not true.

Do you envision any structure in the way NIL is implemented in the near future, particularly its usage as a recruiting inducement?

Riley: You look at all these collectives right now and all this stuff going on. The NCAA has come out and said they're going to try to enforce some of this, keep boosters out of it. But nobody knows. You talk to 10 different people and you're going to get 10 different opinions. Nobody knows where that thing is headed. For us, that's kind of our ace in the hole. What do we know right now? NIL is a legal thing for guys once they're on the football team and once they're enrolled in the university. We know that. That ain't changing. I don't know what all is going to happen with all that other stuff, and nobody else does either.

The transfer portal has created its share of chaos, and there was a report you guys may have tampered with Jordan Addison before he got into the portal. Is there anything to that?

Riley: No, and a lot of that comes with the nature of the portal. Go back to Caleb [Williams] when he left OU. Everybody thought that was a done deal. Shoot, there's still so much new about this that he's got to go through, that his family has to go through, a different location, a different league, a different staff, different teammates. They were thorough in their process just like they were in high school, and guys like Caleb and Jordan see the bigger picture and see the advantages of this.

There's a short-term game, but there's also a long-term game. They felt like they could play both here, and we were hardly the only school Jordan was interested in. There were several, and what I can tell you is there was no tampering on our part.

What will an offense with Williams throwing to Addison look like?

Riley: We've had a great run of wideouts and guys that have produced, so bringing somebody with Jordan's skill level in is exciting, and I think he can get a lot better as a player too. But that combination could be something, and I think Jordan would tell you that was a big factor in him wanting to come here. That's smart.

I was a wide receivers coach when I started. Playing wideout is a dependent position. The ball only gets to your hands by design and the right guy throwing it to you. So, yeah, you're talking about two extremely talented players, and we've got other weapons too. If people are going to throw a lot of attention at Jordan, we've got a lot of guys who will be able to hurt people.

You've had tons of success with transfers -- Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield and Jalen Hurts to name a few. How much faster can you get it turned around at USC because of the transfer portal?

Riley: When we got the job, we started hearing from players immediately, shockingly fast. We're going to wind up in the low 20s in number of transfers this year. So you're probably doing two years' worth of work probably twice as fast as you previously could. A couple of years ago, you're taking a bunch of fliers and you're taking maybe some junior college guys. Juco was your aggressive route to get the older guy. It was very clear to us after being here for a day that transfers were going to be the way to build this in the beginning.

The Pac-12 hasn't had a team in the College Football Playoff since 2017 when Washington lost in the semifinals to Alabama. Where does USC fit into that equation if the Pac-12 is going to be relevant again?

Riley: To me, the biggest difference in this league and the other leagues is the flagship school is not playing like it. If OU had been down the last 10 years, what is the perception of the Big 12 right now? Take Clemson out of the ACC or Ohio State out of the Big Ten. Even as good as the SEC has been, let's say Alabama had been down the last 10 years -- the point being leagues cannot survive if your flagship team is down. They can't prosper if their flagship teams aren't playing like it.

Do you agree with several of your coaching peers that a break in college football is inevitable where a certain number of teams play in their own division with their own rules and their own commissioner/president?

Riley: It sure feels like it, and I think the most important thing is we've got to get one person in charge, one voice. That's where college football has messed up, because it's a great sport, just phenomenal, and there's way more good about it than bad. But the fact that some have gone left and some have gone right is what makes it so hard, just our alignment. We've got to all go in the same direction, and we haven't. That's what has hurt us, not having that one strong voice that when we make a decision on the direction we're going, that's the direction we're going.

What's your take on playoff expansion?

Riley: I think we need to expand. My thing is that the leagues are so different year in and year out that the conference champions have to be in. It's crazy to think that we have a sport that you can win your league and not be in the playoff. It makes no sense. We're trying to compare teams that haven't played each other or like opponents. The league formats are different. The playoff committee right now has an impossible job, and we've put them in that position.