Column: Oklahoma’s big-time SEC move may have cost it the big-time coach

The Trojans got their guy … big time.

A photo of USC athletic director Mike Bohn handing new head coach Lincoln Riley a white USC visor at Riley's introductory press conference Monday at the seventh floor of the Coliseum. Los Angeles hills are in the background.

On 4th-and-8 in overtime, USC just passed for a game-winning touchdown. The Trojans’ Air Raid offense will be rejuvenated by the “quarterback whisperer” himself: Lincoln Riley.

During his five years with the Sooners, Riley mentored two Heisman trophy winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. To top it off, he then developed Heisman finalist Jalen Hurts.

But it doesn’t stop there … He secured four Big 12 titles, a 55-10 record and three College Football Playoff appearances.

If that doesn’t convince you that his hire is a home run, I don’t know what does.

But, how did Oklahoma let this man escape?

When the Sooners decided to join the power-laden SEC, Riley had to accept reality. They were about to enter a conference that has represented at least one team every season in the CFP showdown. This same conference has two of the strongest teams in college football: Georgia and Alabama. With this move, Oklahoma will risk becoming just another strong program on the list.

USC was a different story.

The Pac-12 hasn’t reached the CFP since 2016, with only two teams ever making an appearance: Oregon and Washington. Now put those scenarios side by side. This move just makes sense.

The shift from a soon-to-be SEC school to a Pac-12 program in desperate need of a rebuild may be one of the best. It’s not that Riley was necessarily hesitant to coach in the SEC. He has the opportunity to come into a struggling USC program with a chance to turn this team around. How could he not jump all over that?

“I was completely in favor. I was kept in the loop the whole way by our president and AD. I supported it the whole way,” Riley said when asked about Oklahoma’s shift to the SEC. “I thought it was the right move at the time and still think it was the right move.”

By coming to USC, Riley can now recruit like a king while climbing a shorter hill to get to the playoff.

“Things are going to change. The roster is going to change. Facilities are going to change. I saw the right leadership behind it. I saw a place that is fully committed to being where we feel like we can be here,” Riley said at his introductory press conference Monday. “It’s time to go to work now. It’s time to bring in the great staff. This is the fun part. This is where you build it. We are going to work like crazy to get it done.”

It’s not like Riley is walking into a plate full of chopped liver.

According to 247Sports, USC has the seventh ranked recruiting class for 2021, but has struggled in the past with attracting the top California prospects. In 2020, USC signed only two of the top 30 players.

Riley’s success in luring California talent to Oklahoma bodes well for him maintaining that presence in the state. It’s now a quick trip on the 405 instead of a plane ride to Norman.

But who could this hire have been the best news for?

It’s safe to say freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart is feeling like he will maximize his talent under the Lincoln Riley magic. He was a four-star recruit, having won the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year in 2020, and has shown flashes of brilliance at points this season.

The stage could not be more set.

USC now has the pieces in place to return to the national prominence it has enjoyed in the past, a feeling many Trojan fans have forgotten. Riley experienced that feeling with the Sooners, making this move that much harder.

“This is the toughest decision of my life to come here. Those people there were tremendous to me. I am grateful for them. That is one of the best college football programs in the entire country and has been forever and will continue to be,” Riley said while slightly choking up.

So would Riley have taken the job if Oklahoma didn’t make the jump to the SEC? Maybe. Did Riley choose to leave a powerhouse program with the Sooners? Yes. But, is the future bright for this Trojan football program? Absolutely.

Now Riley needs to show the college world what all this hype is about. USC wanted a championship caliber coach, and it got exactly that.

It’s time for the rubber to meet the road.