Football

Column: Hello, Lincoln Riley. Goodbye, apathy

The new head coaching hire immediately brought life back to a USC fanbase that sorely needed it.

A photo of Lincoln Riley wearing a red Oklahoma sweatshirt, white Oklahoma visor and a headset, yelling on the sidelines during a football game.

The most disappointing part of USC’s 35-31 loss to No. 13 BYU Saturday night wasn’t that the Trojans fought back and took an improbable late lead, only to come up short of the upset. It wasn’t that sophomore receiver Gary Bryant Jr. came up a yard shy of a first down that would’ve given USC a golden opportunity to retake the lead in the game’s final minute. It wasn’t even that the defeat rendered USC bowl ineligible.

It was that outside of the locker room and the parties affiliated, no one really cared.

It was that on Senior Night, a night when running back Vavae Malepeai teared up in the postgame press conference when asked about the meaning of his 99-yard performance as his college career comes to a close, few were there to see USC’s veterans run out of the Coliseum tunnel one last time.

It was that the only reason the Coliseum’s attendance didn’t reach a season low was that BYU fans took it over, seemingly outnumbering the USC ones in a stadium that played host to a program once heralded as one of college football’s elite.

Disgust had taken a backseat as the primary emotion among USC fans long ago, making way for apathy.

That all changed on Sunday.

Lincoln Riley’s hiring by USC injected new life into a fanbase that even the most thrilling victory over the visiting Cougars couldn’t have begun to restore. That group, which once cared enough about the direction of the program to fund planes donning their recommendations regarding USC’s head coaching job, and eventually decided 25,000 empty seats would send a stronger message, believes again.

Riley hasn’t coached a game at his new school, and he hasn’t swapped out his trademark Oklahoma visor for one with an interlocking “SC” across the front (at least, publicly). USC is still 4-7 on the season, and at the time of publishing, its 2022 recruiting class still sits at No. 67 in the country.

None of that matters, at least right now. Riley is already making an impact on USC football, both in terms of the potential recruits hinting at or alluding to a change of heart, and in terms of the fans who have already experienced that change: from hopelessness, apathy and anger to belief, passion and euphoria.

Sure, it’s slightly dramatic. But that’s the point, because “shocking” is perhaps the only word better suited for the way the coaching search came to a head in the last week or so — from Luke Fickell, to not Luke Fickell, to Dave Aranda, to not Dave Aranda, to Matt Campbell, to not Matt Campbell, and finally, to Riley, whose name was linked to USC far less than the others only because he was viewed as too improbable to be worth the consideration.

Take a look through USC Twitter in the hours after Riley’s hiring was announced by various members of the media Sunday afternoon. No longer the laughingstock or punchline of college football instigators and internet trolls, it was the Trojan fans basking in not just newfound relevance, but rediscovered prominence — even redirecting those punchlines to a few salty fans of No. 13 Oklahoma, a concept that felt impossible a week ago.

No stranger to pointing out how difficult USC’s 2021 season has been on the eyeballs (props to him for still watching), it was former USC Heisman winner Matt Leinart who tweeted at 12:50 p.m. that “IT’S A GREAT DAY TO BE A TROJAN” — followed by 20 (count them) exclamation points — and, 67 minutes later, four words that encapsulated the feelings of every USC fan when the news of Riley’s hiring broke: “I can’t stop smiling.”

Tells you all you need to know, does it not?

To the Trojan fans who knew all along that USC was still a desirable destination for head coaching candidates, but nonetheless appreciated the extra validation from a guy who was wildly successful at Oklahoma and probably had a job reserved for him in the SEC, Sunday was for you. To the ones who had lost faith in USC’s athletic department over the years (under current and past leadership) to make a statement hire that would position USC to return to the top of the conference and the country, athletic director Mike Bohn and chief of staff Brandon Sosna provided a short sigh of relief followed by a much longer yell of acclamation.

And for the fans who had turned off the TV sets or canceled their season tickets, or even for the fans who went through the motions of tuning in strictly out of perceived obligation instead of legitimate investment, relish in this fact: “Fight On” was trending on Twitter this afternoon.

Trends are fleeting, but the return of vigor and the injection of tangible excitement to a fanbase that had so sorely lacked it for the previous four years — that is not. That’s here to stay.

Hello, Lincoln Riley. Goodbye, apathy.