Opinion: Lincoln Riley to USC was a no-brainer. He avoids SEC mayhem, has shot at a championship.
Like the final scene in "The Usual Suspects," the little clues that had been laid out for everyone to see started to come together just before 4 p.m. on the East Coast, roughly 16 hours after Lincoln Riley uttered the following words: “I’m not going to be the next head coach at LSU.”
As it turned out, Riley was telling the truth. But that wasn’t the important part. It’s what he didn’t say after Oklahoma lost to Oklahoma State on Saturday night that shook up the college football world.
With the Sooners out of the Big 12 and College Football Playoff race, he was free to become the next head coach at Southern California. And now that it’s a done deal, the pieces suddenly start to fit.
The silence of USC’s search that had people across the industry wondering what they were up to. The rumors that started to gather momentum Friday and Saturday from plugged-in people both in Baton Rouge and Norman that Riley might have interest in going to LSU, which now seems like a brilliant misdirection play to throw everyone off the scent. And, perhaps most of all, we now know what Riley really thinks about Oklahoma’s impeding move to the SEC.
First of all, congratulations USC athletics director Mike Bohn and his senior staff for pulling off one of the splashiest, and yet most Keyser Soze-like hires in many years. In getting a 38-year-old Riley, who is already successful and seasoned in what it takes to run a big-time program, the Trojans will have a real chance to return to dominance on the West Coast and be relevant in the national championship picture.
In a year where there just aren't many established, big-time coaches willing to move from their current situations, USC pulled off a massive coup.
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But the more interesting angle to this is what it says about the new-look SEC, where all 16 teams are going to be paying their coaches massive amounts of money and pouring resources into facilities. Where most of the fan bases are going to expect College Football Playoff spots, and where the coaches are generally going to be a three-game losing streak from the hot seat.
We all know the pay is great in the SEC, as is the upside of recruiting in the most talent-rich area of the country. But for the coaches who will be in that league when Texas and Oklahoma join, let’s face it: Most aspects of the job will be bad.
It will be interesting to hear what Riley says, if anything, about how Oklahoma’s move factored in his decision. Based on his history, he’ll probably avoid the conversation and stick to talking about the positives at USC.
But it’s undeniable that if Riley had stayed at Oklahoma, his job would have been much harder once the Sooners entered the SEC. It’s a reality that whomever replaces him will have to deal with.
In the SEC, Oklahoma is not going to be the best program historically. It won’t have the advantages over LSU, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia and the rest that it enjoys over Baylor, Oklahoma State and TCU. For Oklahoma to compete for SEC titles, its entire recruiting profile is going to have to change.
What Oklahoma had in the Big 12 was special. In the SEC? It’s just another good program that is going to have to scrap and claw with a bunch of really good programs for a seat at the table.
In five years at Oklahoma, Riley went 55-10 with three College Football Playoff bids and four conference titles -- and still, he often had to hear a narrative about what was wrong with his program when things didn’t go the right way.
That doesn’t mean the fans or the expectations are to blame for Riley walking away from one of the best athletic departments in the country. But you can understand him looking at the situation for what it is — he’s not going to win even close to 85 percent of his games the first five years in the SEC — and look for an escape hatch.
The next Nebraska?
The other layer to this is that Riley flat-out chose USC over LSU, where there were high-ranking people on campus late last week and into the weekend who thought there was a good chance Riley would be their next coach.
The fact that Riley chose a Pac-12 school over Oklahoma and LSU, where the last three coaches have won national championships, is one of the biggest paradigm-shifting decisions we’ve ever seen in college football.
Here’s the truth: As well-managed as Oklahoma has been for decades, we don't know what that program is going to look like in the SEC. From a recruiting standpoint, they’re going to be constantly playing road games in Texas, in Louisiana, in Georgia and in Florida, and trying to convince kids to bypass other SEC programs that have all the same stuff Oklahoma has but are actually closer to their hometowns.
That’s hard work, and there are going to be years when Oklahoma is a middle-of-the-pack team. In the worst-case scenario, there’s some danger that it becomes the next Nebraska.
Even beyond Oklahoma, we have not fully wrapped our minds around what a 16-team SEC is going to look like. You can’t blame commissioner Greg Sankey for adding two premier programs, and you can’t blame the administrations at Texas and Oklahoma for going to a league where they’re going to make more money and trying to get ahead of a shifting landscape.
But the math is the math. When conference play starts, half the teams lose every week. There are going to be a lot of 7-5 programs beating up on each other, with coaches working themselves to death for one more win that will preserve some semblance of sanity for their quality of life. And as the salaries rise even more — $8 million, $9 million, $10 million a year — the expectations only go one direction.
As ugly as it was for Florida to turn on Dan Mullen after what amounts to a bad month and a half, or for LSU to hit the eject button on Ed Orgeron two years after winning a national title, let’s face it: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
For Riley, getting out while he could and going to a top-shelf job where he can compete for national titles — far away from the craziness of SEC life — is a no-brainer.
Nobody in college football saw USC pulling this off until it was already a done deal. But in retrospect, it’s the most sensible move Riley could have made.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.