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Forde-Yard Dash: Lincoln Riley Avoids SEC Mayhem, Forges His Own Path

The former Sooners coach made a rare blueblood-to-blueblood move in the thick of conference realignment chaos.

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When he’s introduced in Los Angeles as the new coach at USC, Lincoln Riley (1) will assuredly say all the right things about the opportunity to coach the tradition-rich Trojans. But pay attention to what Riley doesn’t say.

We already know he’s coy with his words. Saturday night after his Oklahoma team finished a flatly disappointing regular season by losing to rival Oklahoma State, Riley’s response to a question about the open LSU (2) job was something a lawyer would love. He said no more than he had to in order to answer the question honestly, while still deceiving the entire Sooners fan base.

“I’m not going to be the next head coach at LSU,” Riley said. “Next question.”

Unfortunately, the next question wasn’t whether he will be the next head coach at USC, a blockbuster move that Yahoo Sports first reported Sunday afternoon. This is a massive hire for the Trojans and the Pac-12, both of which badly need an infusion of relevance. It’s also a rare blueblood-to-blueblood move.

Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley looks on before the game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In Oklahoma’s gilded history, successful coaches don’t leave for other college coaching jobs. Bud Wilkinson retired from coaching and entered politics, then became a broadcaster. Chuck Fairbanks left for the NFL. Barry Switzer’s tenure was ended by scandal. Bob Stoops retired at the hour of his own choosing.

Riley is taking a different path. So is his university, which is leaving a Big 12 Conference it has dominated for the meat grinder of the SEC. No matter what he might say, Riley’s departure and Oklahoma’s realignment gambit probably are not coincidental occurrences.

College football has upped its considerable greed to new levels, to the point that Texas (3) and Oklahoma (4) are departing a conference that has bent to their whims for decades so they can make more money in the SEC. They may also get their royal asses kicked there, but hey—they can afford to build more stuff and hire more analysts, right? Isn’t that what fans want: the shiniest buildings and biggest staffs, instead of winning more games?

(Texas is on an even more nonsensical path. Unless the Longhorns can dramatically change its trajectory, they will be one of the worst three or four teams in the SEC upon entry.)

Riley doesn’t need that fool’s errand. He doesn’t need to butt heads with Alabama and Georgia and LSU and Texas A&M and Florida and Auburn. He’s a man with options, and he’s prepared to exercise them.

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He can get paid like a tycoon in SoCal while replicating almost all the advantages he had at Oklahoma, plus some. The competition is weaker than in the Big 12 and the immediate recruiting territory is stronger—instead of talking kids out of Texas, he can talk California kids into staying home.

Thus USC has won the 2021 coaching carousel—for now. The Trojans were the first to fire, and they clearly used that time to put everything in place to land the biggest catchable fish. Riley looked like the best option in September, then everything went subterranean for months. Mike Bohn is on the verge of the administrative coup that his two most recent athletic director predecessors at USC could never have pulled off.

If Oklahoma slips are losing Riley and Texas doesn’t regain its footing, it would be a powerful dose of humility for the two schools that launched the latest realignment spasm. Mo’ money, mo’ problems could be a reality for the notorious Big 12 turncoats.

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In a conversation with Sports Illustrated last week about the LSU vacancy, an Oklahoma source took umbrage at the idea that Riley would have the wandering eye, pointing to the repeated inaccurate reports that Stoops was headed elsewhere during his long tenure. After this reality check, the school heads into its first coach search this century, since Riley was Stoops’s hand-picked, in-house successor. Three names make obvious sense in Norman:

Bob Stoops (5). Once and future Sooner savior? Stoops will coach Oklahoma in its bowl game, and it’s not difficult to foresee a scenario in which he jumps back in full-time after that endeavor. Stoops is 61 years old; he could turn in a fairly substantial second act in that position if he so chooses.

Mark Stoops (6). Or Bob could recommend his little brother, who has arguably been Kentucky’s most successful coach since Bear Bryant. He has Kentucky scraping pretty close to its ceiling; this might be a good time and place to relocate with Bob there to help make the transition work.

Matt Campbell (7). The Iowa State coach has done well with far fewer advantages in the same conference with the Sooners. He’s racked up five straight winning seasons, something last accomplished by the Cyclones in the 1920s. The concern is that Campbell hasn’t hit any of the highest notes—when the expectations have been at their greatest, the performance has not followed. This year’s team was supposed to be the best in school history and has limped to the finish line 7–5.

Meanwhile, the intrigue continues at LSU. The Tigers jumped into the hiring pool more than a month ago but may be looking for a life raft now; athletic director Scott Woodward likes big names and there are some who think he’s still holding out for Jimbo Fisher (8), whose denials of interest have been rather strong—if you choose to take football coaches at their word.

If Fisher stays at Texas A&M, Stoops could be in play in Baton Rouge as well. If it gets past those two intra-conference options, things could get dicey—and potentially uncomfortable for Woodward.

That could tie back to the other big Sunday carousel news. Florida (9) announced that is has landed Louisiana coach Billy Napier (10), who has been wildly successful in the same state as LSU but did not draw any interest from the Tigers. Napier has built Louisiana into the smaller version of Nick Saban’s Alabama program, where he was an assistant for four years. Napier is well regarded by the Saban camp, and although the leap from the Sun Belt to the SEC is considerable, this feels like a hire that can work for the Gators.

Then again, so did Dan Mullen, and we all watched that fall apart with breathtaking speed. A mercilessly high percentage of college football coaches are hired to be fired someday, which is one reason why they’re paid so much. It will take a few years to figure out for sure who won the wild carousel spin of 2021, in which four premier jobs have now come open—and it’s still November. 

MORE DASH: Irish Debate | Heisman Race | Wild Week

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