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Sports >  NCAA football

USC hires Lincoln Riley: What it means for the Trojans and the Pac-12 (hint: it’s gargantuan)

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 28, 2021

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

USC kicked off the coaching carousel Sept. 13, when the Trojans fired Clay Helton after a Week 2 loss to Stanford.

On Sunday, the Trojans ended the carousel. Not officially, of course. There are plenty of vacancies remaining. But for all intents and purposes, the comatose colossus at the corner of Figueroa and Exposition has awoken – and it just won the hiring cycle.

In fact, USC smacked a walk-off home run.

Assuming they touch home and dot the i’s with Lincoln Riley, the Trojans have hired a coach who will instantly transform their program, the Pacific-12 Conference and college football in the western third of the country.

For Riley, the move makes perfect sense: He has produced Heisman Trophy winners and College Football Playoff berths on a regular basis during a brilliant five-year run at Oklahoma. But the Sooners are joining the Southeastern Conference in a few years. Competing for the College Football Playoffs would be vastly more difficult against the likes of Alabama and Georgia than in the Pac-12, where USC is never far from a position of dominance.

For the Pac-12, Riley’s arrival is nothing less than gigantic – easily the most significant coaching hire since Washington lured Chris Petersen away from Boise State prior to the 2014 season.

The benefits of that move became clear a few years later when the future Hall of Fame coach took the Huskies to the playoff and reshaped the balance of power on the West Coast. But the Riley-USC partnership has greater potential because of USC’s unmatched brand value, tradition and recruiting potential.

This, folks, is the hire the Pac-12 needed – the antidote it required after so many years of stagnation … so many years of missing the playoff and losing premium recruits and struggling to ward off declining TV ratings and empty seats … after so many years helpless to fight back against the steady creep of the fog of bore.

Riley to USC won’t make all the ills vanish instantly. The Pac-12 still has challenges that are both self-inflicted and beyond its control. Many can’t be solved for years; some are with the conference forever.

Riley to USC doesn’t move the Pac-12 onto the Eastern time zone.

Riley to USC doesn’t increase the number of 300-pound defensive tackle prospects within the conference footprint.

Riley to USC doesn’t get the Pac-12 Networks on DirecTV.

Riley to USC does not convince parents wary of head trauma to let their kids play football.

Riley to USC doesn’t fill thousands of empty seats in stadiums across the conference.

But Riley to USC makes all those challenges more manageable.

Because when the Trojans are locking down five-star recruits and churning out first-round picks and entrenched in the top 10 and competing for playoff berths and participating in big games that draw huge viewership, the collective benefits.

The timing of Riley’s arrival couldn’t be better for the conference, which will begin negotiating new media rights contracts in 12-15 months.

The Trojans are the No. 1 college football product in the No. 2 media market in the country. If the growing buzz and perceived value of USC’s program increases – that value includes the annual showdowns with Notre Dame – then Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff has more leverage with potential media partners.

Riley’s impact on recruiting will be substantial and could be immediate. Elite prospects from Southern California who had considered signing with powerhouses in other leagues might think twice.

The next Bryce Young might pick USC, not Alabama. The next C.J. Stroud might pick USC, not Ohio State.

And those choices affect other choices, and a trickle-down effect results.

“This is huge for so many reasons but just on recruiting alone,” said Brandon Huffman, a Pacific Northwest-based national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “Oklahoma had commitments from three of the top five players in California in 2023 – all from Southern California. All who were USC fans growing up. …

“This isn’t Clay Helton that schools are going to be recruiting against, in the Pac-12 or nationally. This is a guy (Riley) who can recruit the South, the Midlands, and most importantly for USC, California.

“The conference recruiting momentum may have just returned on Nov. 28, 2021 in a way it hasn’t in a long, long time.”

The manner in which USC handled the entire process – from the swift, unexpected decision to fire Helton to the radio silence throughout the search to the stunning conclusion – stands in stark contrast to the Trojans’ clunky execution in years past.

Experience matters. Expertise matters. Instead of allowing a former USC player to run the athletic department, the Trojans hired a veteran in Mike Bohn.

During his tenure at Cincinnati, Bohn hired one of the hottest coaches in the game, Luke Fickell. Now, he has convinced Riley to relocate to USC.

In so doing, Bohn surgically repaired a blocked valve at the heart of the conference. With Riley in charge of USC football and Mick Cronin running UCLA basketball, the Pac-12’s blue-blood programs – together, they have 18 national titles – are positioned for national impact.

Not since the middle 2000s, when Ben Howland was taking UCLA to back-to-back-to-back Final Fours and Pete Carroll’s dynasty was at its peak, has the Pac-12 been as secure in Los Angeles.

We cannot help but think of the course events have taken in the past 11 months.

No athletic department was more frustrated with former commissioner Larry Scott than USC. Had there been no change at the top of the conference, the Trojans might very well have been willing to consider offers from other leagues when the realignment wave crashed down on college athletics in the dead of summer.

Instead, USC supported the change, embraced Kliavkoff’s arrival and made clear it planned to take a prominent role.

“I’m excited to partner with George and help execute a vision for the future of the conference,” Bohn told the Hotline in June. “I know what the Pac-12 can be when USC is at its best. We can take advantage of this opportunity to reset.”

Goodness, did they just help the Pac-12 reset.

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