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How Lincoln Riley's Unprecedented Move Shakes the Coaching Carousel

Riley's move is landscape-altering amid a busy coaching carousel cycle. Who is left to fill the openings at LSU and Oklahoma?

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — An hour north of here, late last night in a side room of Oklahoma State’s visiting locker room, after his team lost Bedlam 37–33, Lincoln Riley made clear that his next destination was not in the south.

“I’m not going to be the next head coach at LSU,” he said, shooting down unsubstantiated reports linking him to the Tigers’ opening.

Turns out, he’s going West.

Riley will be the next head coach at USC, one of the most significant coaching carousel moves in the modern history of college football—a coach moving from one elite Power 5 school to another. It’s a rarity in the sport, more high profile than Jimbo Fisher’s move in 2017 from Florida State to Texas A&M. Or Bret Bielema’s decision to leave Wisconsin for Arkansas in 2012. Or in 2017 when Willie Taggart went to Florida State from Oregon. Or Lane Kiffin’s jump from Tennessee to USC in 2009.

The comparison might not be in the sport of football. In 2003, Roy Williams left one hoops blueblood, Kansas, for another, North Carolina.

But this one tops all others. Oklahoma and USC are two programs that have won the fourth and 13th-most games in college football history, respectively, and have combined for 34 national titles (17 each).

USC wasn’t the only suitor either. How deeply was LSU in the race? That’s unclear. But another SEC blueblood program with an opening, Florida, was made aware of what you might call the Lincoln Riley Sweepstakes. Oklahoma knew too and had agreed to make enhancements to meet Riley’s requests. In the end, he left Norman for LA.

The move is somewhat unprecedented in the sport. And it is landscape-altering amid a coaching carousel cycle that rivals some of the busiest ever. Already, 20 FBS schools have experienced a coaching change— three more than last season’s total of 17. Ten of them currently have open jobs: Akron, Troy, Virginia Tech, Washington, Louisiana, Louisiana Tech, FIU, Duke and the two bluebloods, Oklahoma and LSU.

The pool is beginning to grow shallower by the hour. So who’s left out there for these two elite jobs? We took a crack at it.

Mark Stoops

In nine years at a basketball school, Stoops, 54, has the Wildcats a consistent winner, eclipsing the eight-win mark in three of the last four seasons. The Cats finished 9–3 this year. It’s hard enough to win a football division or conference title at Kentucky—you can forget about a national title. So why wouldn’t Stoops leave the chance at such a job?

He wouldn’t be the big, splashy name that LSU AD Scott Woodward is famous for landing, but he’s a solid candidate with a winning track record at a difficult place. At Oklahoma, he’d follow behind brother Bob, who is conveniently serving as interim coach for the Sooners bowl game.

Kentucky Head Coach Mark Stoops speaks to officials.

Lane Kiffin

Kiffin’s name has been linked for weeks to the potential opening in Miami, but for now, the Hurricanes are still employing a coach (Manny Diaz). Kiffin’s got the splash to excite either the fan base in Baton Rouge or Norman (he’s probably a better fit in Louisiana). But with the flare and offensive fireworks, he brings off-the-field concerns for some administrators and has a job-hopping track record.

At least at the start of LSU’s coaching search, there was a sense around the program that the 46-year-old had no shot at the gig. That said, weeks have passed and candidates have dwindled. Never say never in the Season of Silly.

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Matt Campbell

It sure feels like the Iowa State coach is ready to make a move out of Ames. His name has bubbled to the top of nearly every major search this cycle. The 41-year-old went 35–15 at Toledo and has gone 42–33 at ISU. He lost five games this year, a season in which the Cyclones were expected to compete for the Big 12 title. That said, five straight bowls in Ames is a strong resume. His fit in Baton Rouge is questionable at best. The Ohioan has never worked outside of the Midwest.

Matt Rhule

The guy who rebuilt Temple and Baylor into big winners is nearing the end of his second season with the Carolina Panthers with a career NFL record of 10–18. There are two big questions here: (1) would he return to college and (2) would he leave in-season to do it?

Rhule, 46, is held in high esteem by many athletic directors and coaches at the college level and some wonder if he’d like to return. It’d take some serious money (of which OU and LSU both possess). He makes about $8.5 million a year. There is the element of timing. Will either school wait until his season is over in January?

P.J. Fleck

The 40-year-old Fleck has a 58% winning mark at Western Michigan and Minnesota, not such an easy thing to do. This year, the Gophers finished 8–4 after upsetting Wisconsin, tying them for second in the Big Ten West.

Fleck hasn’t ventured much out of the Midwest, and he signed a new contract earlier this year with a whopper of a buyout ($10 million). So a team would have to really want him to pay such an exorbitant amount.

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach PJ Fleck reacts.

Luke Fickell

Fickell’s situation is made more complicated because the Bearcats appear to be barreling toward a CFP run, which means he’d be coaching through December and potentially through much of January. Will teams wait? There is a buzz that the 48-year-old will remain at the school this cycle, partially because of the timing element and partially because maybe no job fits him.

Yes, he’s a Midwestern guy too, having never coached outside of the state of Ohio. Maybe he’ll just wait for jobs in that region—say Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Penn State, etc.—come open.

Brian Kelly

The Notre Dame coach could be as well leading a team into the CFP and coaching through December, another complication in his moving jobs. The other complication: He’s the coach at Notre Dame. They pay him well and he’s done quite nicely. He publicly denounced leaving the school earlier this fall, but some in the profession feel like he’d move for the right opportunity.

Is that LSU or Oklahoma? Who knows.

Mario Cristobal

The 51-year-old Oregon coach has a sizable buyout at $9 million, but he’s an attractive option. He’s poised to win a third straight conference championship this weekend. He would seem to be a nice fit at a place like LSU, but there’s been little traction so far in that potential marriage.

Cristobal is from Miami, another program that would eventually have an opening this fall. He might have options for sure, but will he leave? He might have one of his best teams coming back for next season.

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