Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley was adamant Saturday night when addressing rumors that he would become the next head coach at LSU. He wouldn’t even let the reporter finish his question when he said, “I’m not going to be the next head coach at LSU. Next question.”
Instead, he’ll become the next head coach at USC, the school announced on Sunday. The news was first reported from Bruce Feldman of The Athletic.
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The move comes as a shocker among college football’s objective observers: Riley, 38, considered one of the nation’s top young coaches, has already produced sustained success at one of the sport’s premier programs. In five years, he produced four Big 12 championships, three College Football Playoff berths, two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray (and a runner-up in Jalen Hurts), plus a combined 9-2 record over rivals Texas and Oklahoma State.
“Leaving OU was probably the most difficult decision of my life. OU is one of the best college football programs in the country, and it has been forever. That’s not going to change. It’s not going to change in the SEC. It’s not going to change with another head coach. It’s stood the test of time and it’s going to continue to do so. This was a personal decision solely based on my willingness to go take on a new challenge, and I felt like it was the right opportunity for me and my family to do that,” Riley said in a statement released by Oklahoma.
But the allure of the Pac-12’s top football program — plus distance from the Sooners’ impending move to the SEC — appeared to be too much for Riley to turn down.
Sporting News has everything you need to know about Riley’s jump to USC, including contract details and who replaces him at Oklahoma in the meantime:
Why is Lincoln Riley leaving for USC?
Riley has several potential reasons to leave Oklahoma and the Big 12 for USC. The first and most obvious reason is he sees an opportunity for longer-term, sustainable success in the Pac-12 as opposed to the Big 12 and, eventually, the SEC.
The Pac-12 has been largely irrelevant during the playoff era, with only Oregon (2014) and Washington (2016) competing for the sport’s ultimate prize. It has seen modicums of success in that span, but has largely experienced a power vacuum without Pete Carroll’s Trojans, Chip Kelly’s Ducks or Chris Petersen’s Washington leading the way.
Riley, considered one of the nation’s foremost offensive minds, can step in almost immediately and cement USC as a college football power again — a point of emphasis made by the school when it fired Clay Helton: to find a coach “who will deliver on the championship aspirations we all share for our football program.” The Trojans fell to 4-7 following their 35-31 loss to BYU on Saturday.
Riley also has considerable relationships built up in the Southern California recruiting grounds. In the 2023 recruiting class alone, Riley has already secured the commitments of Malachi Nelson (No. 2 overall player, No. 1 QB, No. 1 player in California); Makai Lemon (No. 22 overall, No. 2 athlete, No. 2 player in California) and DeAndre Moore Jr. (No. 41 overall, No. 8 WR, No. 5 player in California). Oklahoma also has four players on its roster from the state of California.
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What impact does Oklahoma to the SEC have?
According to a report from George Wrightster III of Fox Sports Radio, Riley was not a fan of the Sooners’ impending move to the SEC:
I’ve heard multiple times that Lincoln Riley was not a fan of Oklahoma going to the SEC. That is the reason he is leaving Oklahoma for USC.
— George Wrighster III (@georgewrighster) November 28, 2021
Riley is 1-3 all time against SEC teams while coach of the Sooners. Those include a 54-48 overtime loss to No. 3 Georgia in the 2018 Rose Bowl; a 45-34 loss to No. 1 Alabama in the 2018 Orange Bowl; and a 63-28 loss to No. 1 LSU in the 2019 Peach Bowl. Each of those losses came in the semifinal of the College Football Playoff.
Riley’s only victory over an SEC team came against Dan Mullen’s Gators in the 2020 Cotton Bowl. The Sooners won 55-20 over a Gators team that would go on to fire Mullen in the next year and saw several of its top players opt out ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft.
In the Big 12, Oklahoma’s biggest competition was Texas, Baylor and occasionally Oklahoma State (which beat the Sooners 37-33 in Bedlam on Saturday). In the SEC, Oklahoma will contend against Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M, Georgia and Florida on top of its annual rivalry with Texas.
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Lincoln Riley’s age
Lincoln Riley was born on Sept. 5, 1983, making him 38 years old. To compare, other active coaches to have made the playoff include Alabama coach Nick Saban (70); Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly (60); Chip Kelly (58); former Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher (56); Clemson coach Dabo Swinney (52); Georgia coach Kirby Smart (45); and Ohio State coach Ryan Day (42).
Three of those coaches (Saban, Fisher and Smart) compete in the SEC.
What does that mean? Riley has already experienced tremendous success at a much younger age than many of his peers. He also stands to remain in power for decades, potentially, so long as he elevates — then maintains — USC to a position of national football prominence.
Lincoln Riley’s record at Oklahoma
Riley is a combined 55-10 in five seasons at Oklahoma, including a 37-7 Big 12 record and 1-3 bowl record. Prior to the COVID-19-affected 2020 season, Riley’s Sooners never lost more than once during the regular season. His team also went a combined 4-0 in the Big 12 championship game, beating TCU, Texas, Baylor and Iowa State by an average of 9.8 points per game.
The 2021 season is just the second time the Sooners have lost two regular-season games in the same year. It is also the first time since Riley took over in 2017 that Oklahoma will not participate in the Big 12 championship game. The Sooners needed to beat No. 7 Oklahoma State in Bedlam on Saturday to secure a berth in the conference championship, but ultimately fell after a muffed punt late in the fourth led to the Cowboys’ go-ahead touchdown.
It is the first time since TCU and Baylor split the conference title in 2014 that Oklahoma will not be the Big 12’s champion.
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Lincoln Riley contract details
Lincoln Riley’s contract details are as yet unknown. That said, Riley was reported to have received offers of $12-13 million from LSU, another team in the hunt for his services. USC’s contract should be in the same ballpark.
Riley signed a $38.9 million extension before the 2021 season that kept him under contract with Oklahoma through the 2025-26 season. Per USA Today, that contract paid Riley $7.6 million annually through Jan. 1, 2026. USA Today also reports his buyout is $4.5 million.
Who replaces Riley at Oklahoma?
According to a report from The Athletic, Oklahoma will look to former Sooners coach Bob Stoops to serve as interim football coach:
I can confirm Bob Stoops will serve as interim head coach for the #Sooners bowl game. Stoops was in the team meeting during which the players were informed of Riley’s departure https://t.co/KYYMbnqoBZ
— Jason Kersey (@jasonkersey) November 28, 2021
The program confirmed the move, with Stoops also being included among the statements released by the school Sunday evening.
“First and foremost, I’m a program guy and whatever I can do to help OU and to support the players, of course I’m glad to do it. I’ll do everything I can to help them finish the season in a strong and successful way and I look forward to that,” Stoops said.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter has also indicated the Sooners are targeting former Texas Tech coach — and current Arizona Cardinals coach — Kliff Kingsbury. The Cardinals are currently 9-2 thus far in the 2021 NFL season.
As for who else could take over the position in the long term, there are several options available. Those include Bob Stoops, younger brother and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and former Oklahoma assistant and current Tennessee coach Josh Heupel, among others.