Lincoln Riley Leads USC in Cotton Bowl


Lincoln Riley and his USC Trojans head into their Cotton Bowl matchup with Tulane at 11-2. | Image by Steve Marcus, AP

Just over a year ago, University of Southern California (USC) head football coach Lincoln Riley left the University of Oklahoma to attempt to reestablish a sleeping giant.

At the time, the USC job had been tied to many other head coaches across the country, but Coach Riley’s name had only been mentioned in rumors surrounding the LSU coaching job. He publicly denied those rumors, which eased Sooner fans’ minds for mere hours before he announced he was leaving for USC.

The move was met with shock and awe from across the college football world as it created a potential shift in the balance of power. Oklahoma fans, meanwhile, were split between denial and mourning — some even accusing reporters of false information or downplaying the impact of Riley and his staff.

Regardless, he was now entrusted with rebuilding one of the traditional blue bloods in college football, a daunting task considering the increased public spotlight.

It could have been a complete disaster. An abject failure.

After all, the lights of a big city like Los Angeles have been too much to handle for many others, including coaches like Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, Steve Sarkisian, and Clay Helton — who have found success at other universities.

Plus, who leaves the lifetime job security that can come with leading a program that basically runs its conference and has an easy path to the College Football Playoff for a reclamation project in a conference that is constantly left out of consideration?

Sure, Oklahoma’s move into the Southeastern Conference (SEC) had already been announced and may have had something to do with the decision, but the SEC has even stronger ties to the playoff and often has multiple teams in the field

But Riley bet on himself, his coaching staff, and the players — those who remained at USC and those he brought with him as transfers and high school recruits — and year one has been a resounding success.

Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams is a player who fits in two of those categories, having followed Riley from Oklahoma in the offseason.

“He’s a younger guy and he’s still learning but he’s a phenomenal coach as everybody knows,” Williams said in an interview on Friday.  “That’s the good part about him. He’s always trying to learn how to be better. He knows his personnel. How to talk to them and how to deal with them. He knows his guys so that makes him pretty special.”

Offensive coordinator Josh Henson, who is in his first season as part of Riley’s staff, has noticed the head coach’s impeccable work ethic.

“Man, attention to detail. Just his ability to intake information and remember it. Kind of photographic memory is outstanding. It’s elite,” he told reporters during a press conference on Friday.

“That’s why he’s so good at what he does. He is looking for and going to find where our best match‑ups are to put our guys in position to make plays. And that’s what’s been impressive about him to me this season. He grinds through it, and it’s been really impressive to watch.”

The Trojans went 4-8 with no bowl game appearance last season. This year, in his first season at the helm in Los Angeles, Riley led a remarkable turnaround that so far has included 11 wins, a PAC-12 Championship Game appearance, and a shot at the College Football Playoff.

Had it not been for a second loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship, USC would be playing for something much more than a 12th win.

But the Trojans are not letting those shortcomings take away from the progress that has been felt throughout the program, and Riley knows the importance of the Cotton Bowl and the significance of reaching this point in such a short timeframe.

“Biggest thing he’s talked about is making sure we finish the season the right way,” linebacker Shane Lee said after practice on Thursday. “We’ve had a great season so far, and this being the last game we’re playing together, it’s important we go out the right way … Close out the season in the best way possible.”

“We know the reputation of this bowl, the hospitality, just the first‑class job that everybody with the Cotton Bowl does, and we’re looking forward to experiencing that, getting to know everybody here, and having a great week,” Riley said in a brief press conference upon his team’s arrival in Dallas on Tuesday.

“But the biggest message is just to embrace it. And then we want this game and this week to be reflective of the journey we’ve been on the last 12 months. And that’s been our goal throughout.”

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