Lincoln Riley driven to win, ensure USC elevates college football

Only days away from the start of USC’s second training camp under Lincoln Riley, valid questions remain.

Will this be the year he has a defense that can complement his juggernaut offense week in and week out?

Did the Trojans add enough quality depth in their second raid of the transfer portal so that they don’t lay down their swords quite so easily late in the season against a hard-nosed outfit like Utah?

Should Riley have been as loyal to the men who hopped that private jet from Norman, Okla., to Los Angeles without blinking … and not moved on from Alex Grinch as defensive coordinator?

Riley’s critics still have fodder for ridicule, even after he orchestrated an impressive seven-win turnaround in 2022.

But, after listening to Riley talk at Pac-12 media day Friday and spending a little time with him after he left the podium, I found one thing nobody should question about Riley:

His love and appreciation for being the head coach at USC.

Not at any blue-blood program. This one. We know that because he didn’t need much convincing to leave a comfortable situation that was set up for him at Oklahoma and put his reputation at risk in L.A.

Friday, he was answering a question about how he finds the right fits in the transfer portal, and his mind journeyed into a topic with a much bigger scope.

“I think coaching or playing at USC is one of the great responsibilities in our sport,” Riley said. “This is the program that is so important to the sport, to the success of football on the West Coast in general, and has such great history. I think we should all see it like that, right? We’re not owed the opportunity to do what we do at a place like USC. It’s an honor to do it at that place.”

USC coach Lincoln Riley runs on to the field before the Trojans' spring game at the Coliseum in April.

USC coach Lincoln Riley runs on to the field before the Trojans’ spring game at the Coliseum in April.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“I just see the responsibility because I think West Coast football is always going to go as USC goes.”

— Lincoln Riley, on the importance of USC football

Later, again unprompted, he came back to that theme once again.

“There’s no story in life or sports better than a comeback and a rise,” he said. “To get a chance to be a part of that, embrace that, it reinvigorates you. Like I said, not only do we get a chance to do it, but we get a chance to do it at one of the most important programs in our sport.”

You could feel eyes rolling from Norman to Eugene. It was interesting how willing Riley was to romance about the deeper meaning of his life as a Trojan and how special his new home is during USC’s swan song appearance at Pac-12 football media day.

When I spoke to him later, I was interested to find out exactly what he meant by “important.”

“Every job is good and is important, but this job is just so … I don’t know if there’s another job that’s as important to its region and its part of the country and moves the needle quite like this one,” he said. “I just see the responsibility because I think West Coast football is always going to go as USC goes.”

Of course, the rest of West Coast football — other than UCLA — won’t be allowed to come where USC is going after this season. The Big Ten’s doors aren’t open to Oregon and Washington, at least not anytime soon, it seems. So I’m not quite sure that part of Riley’s sentiment means exactly what it once did.

But let’s hear more.

“What it creates when it’s good is such a unique atmosphere and setting, and it’s so good not just for USC and the West Coast, but the sport in general,” Riley said. “It’s just something new and unique and different.

“It’s like going to a Lakers’ game when the Lakers are good. Whether people love them or hate them, it’s great for the NBA, because you can go watch a game at Crypto and you can’t go find a better atmosphere or scene like that anywhere else on the planet, and I think USC football is kind of that for college football.

“For all those reasons, it’s important to the history of the game. And I think if we’re not paying attention to that, we’re missing the point a little bit.”

And now I can feel the eye rolls from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Athens, Ga., to Baton Rouge, La. But hey, there’s a reason Riley is coaching USC and not Louisiana State — and we can assume it isn’t because LSU preferred Brian Kelly to the most coveted young coach in college football.

Riley wanted to be here. When I listen to him talk like this, he sounds more like that wide-eyed boy from the barren plains of West Texas than a millionaire football coach 10 times over. He sounds like a college football fan just as much as the caretaker of one of the sport’s crown jewels.

USC coach Lincoln Riley watches his players warm up before a game against Arizona State in October.

USC coach Lincoln Riley watches his players warm up before a game against Arizona State in October.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Now, I can’t honestly say that a revved up Coliseum atmosphere is on the level of a Saturday night in LSU’s “Death Valley” or an Ohio State-Michigan game at the “Horseshoe” or the “Big House.”

But he’s absolutely right about USC’s importance to college football. Let’s not forget that once USC dropped off from playing for national championships in 2006, the SEC immediately began its reign. The Trojans rising to national power status is the fastest path to evening college football’s balance of power — only this time it will benefit the Midwest way more than the West Coast.

I asked Riley if this feeling was something he felt when he took the job or something he’s realized since being here.

“Both,” he said. “I definitely had a sense of the history before I took the job and that was a part of taking it. I think my appreciation for it has grown more and more having been in it and experienced it a little bit.”

I can’t imagine what it must be like for USC fans to read Riley’s words, and that’s why I wanted to share them. I’m a Michigan alum, and, listening to him, even I can’t help getting a little fired up about what we’re going to witness here in L.A. in the coming years.

Actually, scratch that. Not coming years — this year.

“Listen,” Riley said. “We got a great opportunity in front of us. I think everybody within our program, every player, senses that and wants to do a great job taking advantage of this. These windows are short. You only get so many shots at this.”

Riley’s program will be ready this time because he believes in what USC football should be. He feels the weight, but he’s unafraid to bear it.

USC is going to win the Pac-12 and make the College Football Playoff semifinals for the first time in 2023. By doing so, the Trojans will remind the entire country of their importance.