Lincoln Riley upended the college football world this past weekend when he shot down speculation that he would leave Oklahoma for LSU, only to take the job at USC hours later. The Sooners are one of the premier programs in college football, and while an OU coach hasn’t left his post for a job at another school 74 years, the logic behind Riley swapping Norman for Baton Rouge would have at least been internally coherent with how college football operates: LSU is one of the few schools with more money and power than Oklahoma. However, going west to helm a once-prominent program in the worst major conference and choosing to live in California has fully scrambled everyone’s brains.
See here: Tulsa World columnist Guerin Emig sternly and repeatedly invoking The Grapes of Wrath in a column that included the following: “Lincoln Riley is flesh and blood, unlike ‘Grapes of Wrath’ hero Tom Joad. His leaving Oklahoma for California, the Sooners for the USC Trojans specifically, impacts real lives.”
Elsewhere in the state, Oklahoma state treasurer candidate Clark Jolley—who looks like a man named “Clark Jolley”—tried to score points by noting Riley is moving to a communist hellscape of a state that requires residents to pay taxes, but instead effectively reframed his own state as one worth paying to escape.
One key aspect to Riley’s reign as OU coach was his successful recruitment push in talent-rich Southern California, a push that will be much easier now that he doesn’t have to convince players to actually leave Southern California. Six high-profile OU recruits have already announced the reopening of their recruitments, and former OU starter and 2019’s top QB recruit Spencer Rattler announced he will be transferring. Riley also took the USC gig at a crucial time in the recruiting process: November 28 was the first day of this cycle’s “contact period,” where coaches can conduct in-home visits and communicate with recruits as much and as often as they want. All of this leaves Oklahoma scrambling at an inopportune moment.
This would perhaps be worth getting steamed about if Oklahoma were not about to poach another school’s coach (and recruits) to replace Riley, or if the business of any college football program didn’t hinge on the successful exploitation of its players, or if Riley had done something unprecedented and not chosen to simply take a cushier job in a nicer city. In the abstract it is slimy to lie to people or deliberately misrepresent your status like this, though to pin the fallout on Riley’s personal deviousness instead of the gross incentives of college football is to misread the most relevant dynamic in play here. College football’s superstructure necessitates ruthless competition with rivals, and when players are paid in experience and vibes and not U.S. dollars, by institutions that restrict them from switching schools, under coaches who make tens of millions of dollars, they are always going to be left in the lurch.
Riley will join USC after racking up a 55-10 record in five seasons. He reached the College Football Playoff three times as a head coach and once as OU’s offensive coordinator, though the Sooners went 0-4 in the CFP. Riley succeeded Bob Stoops at OU when he was only 33 years old, and OU made him the youngest coach in FBS in part because it was the only way to keep him from getting poached by all the big-time programs trying to pry him away. He’s mentored NFL starters Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, and Jalen Hurts, and has consistently engineered vibrant, potent offenses. All of which is to say, yes, he was very good at his job.
However, we have to consider the feelings of a very special group of people: grown-ass adults. What a sad weekend this has been for them.