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Challenge lured Riley from Sooners to USC

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Lincoln Riley arrived at Southern California on Monday with a determination to restore the Trojans to their place atop the college football world.

Riley landed in Los Angeles roughly 24 hours after he agreed to leave Oklahoma following five successful seasons in charge. He addressed his new players before receiving his official welcome at the Coliseum in what he called “a surreal moment.”

“It was tough to leave the place I was at,” Riley said. “At the same time, I knew this was the right thing.”

The respected 38-year-old coach who went 55-10 with the Sooners made a swift decision to join the Trojans, who expressed their fervent interest in him shortly after he arrived home Sunday morning from Oklahoma’s narrow loss to Oklahoma State. Riley said he was happy in Norman, but the opportunity presented by this new challenge on the West Coast was too fascinating to resist.

Riley expressed admiration for his new school’s history, alumni base, facilities and the recruiting opportunities in talent-rich Southern California. He also took an immediate shine to the venerable Coliseum, which was packed with fans during Pete Carroll’s tenure before the past 12 years of decreasing success.

“This place is going to be full,” Riley said. “This is going to be the mecca of college football.”

USC finishes its current season at California on Saturday night, but Riley will already be at work planning his roster for next season and beyond. He also confirmed Oklahoma assistants Alex Grinch (defensive coordinator) and Dennis Simmons (receivers) will join him at USC, along with some support staffers.

Athletic director Mike Bohn effusively praised his new hire, calling Riley “our top candidate and one of the best coaches in all of football.”

“It says that USC is the premier destination for the best and brightest,” Bohn added. “It sends a loud and powerful message to the college football world that this sleeping giant is wide awake, standing up and fighting on.”

On the other side, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, school president Joseph Harroz Jr. and interim head football coach Bob Stoops combined to speak for nearly an hour on Monday about plans to steady the program a day after Riley’s departure.

Many of their comments followed a consistent theme: No one person is bigger than the Oklahoma program. Sure, the 38-year-old Riley compiled a 55-10 record in five seasons at Oklahoma. And under his tutelage, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray both won Heisman Trophies and were No. 1 overall picks in the NFL draft.

But Oklahoma has seven national titles and seven Heisman winners and is coming off a string of six straight Big 12 titles.

Stoops, who coached at Oklahoma for 18 years, knows the history as well as anyone. In his only head coaching job, he went 190-48 (.798), including a national title run in 2000. He retired abruptly in 2017, making way for Riley to take over. He will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame next month.

Stoops reassured the players that Oklahoma would remain elite.

“It’s okay. You’re the ones who are going to go make all the plays — or not make the plays,” Stoops told them. “You guys win or lose. You’re OU football. He (Riley) isn’t. I’m not. Any other coach who comes here isn’t. OU football has been here a long time, and it isn’t going anywhere else.”

It’s going to be here and it’s going to be at the top of college football and is going to continue that way.”

Still, Riley’s decision was just the beginning of steady chaos. Quarterback Spencer Rattler announced Monday that he is entering the transfer portal. And five-star quarterback Malachi Nelson, one of the top prospects in the class of 2023, is just one of several players to decommit to the Sooners.

“We get it,” Castiglione said. “It’s a tough thing to learn. And there’s a variety of emotional responses that come with it. And people want to be able to step back, exhale, consider whatever options might come their way.”

Rattler’s leaving is significant. He was a five-star prospect and the top high school quarterback in the class of 2019. After a successful 2020 season, he entered this season as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate. But he struggled at times to move the team and was booed by the home fans during a close call against West Virginia.

He was benched after a slow start against Texas, and Caleb Williams took over and rallied the team to victory. Williams kept the starting job, though Rattler eventually regained favor with the fans. For the season, the Phoenix native completed 75% of his passes for 1,483 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Stoops said he’s already having conversations with players about the portal.

“There’s going to be all of that, and some will (enter the portal),” he said. “I’ve already had guys come to me who have said ‘coach, I want to play in the bowl game, but I want to look at the portal just in case someone hired doesn’t fit me. You know, doesn’t work.’ So I understand. But that doesn’t mean that they’re all looking to leave.”

Castiglione has considered the fact that with transfers immediately eligible, some Oklahoma players could join Riley at USC.

“In the end, we don’t know what’s going through every player’s mind, but of course we’ve thought of it,” he said. “And we’ve been very positive as they have and very open in our communication with the types of thoughts and the thought process that they might have.”

Castiglione offered no information about a timetable or prospects to replace Riley.

“We’re moving as quickly as possible,” he said. “We understand the dynamics of it and we’re using every means possible to be thorough. We understand the most important thing is find the right and great head coach. We’ll move at the appropriate speed.”

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