Sometimes Life Throws You a Curveball

Courtesy USC Athletics

I’ve been asked many times to share my thought process of our off-season move from Oklahoma to USC, and I recognized that this could be a good opportunity to provide some needed clarity and context to my family’s decision….

Seven years ago, I was sitting at gate 12 at Dallas Love Field when Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops called to offer me his Offensive Coordinator position. I remember that the call was straight to the point, and I didn’t need much time to say yes. I immediately called my wife, my parents and my mentor, Donnie Duncan. I couldn’t believe that I was getting the opportunity to coach for a Hall of Famer at such a historic program. It was the opportunity that I had been craving for years, and that phone call truly changed my life.

Norman was more than a coaching stop — it was home. My family and I made incredible friendships and memories that will last a lifetime. Our second daughter, Stella, was born there, and our family immersed ourselves in the community. The people we met along the way were so good to us, and we will forever be grateful. And boy, did we create some memories along the way….

I remember coaching against Tennessee in Knoxville in just my second game on staff in 2015 and winning a double-overtime thriller … though I was certain that Coach Stoops was going to fire me after the third quarter ended, because our offense had barely crossed midfield.

I’ll never forget the words Mike Stoops said to me after we won our first conference championship together in 2015 by blowing out Oklahoma State on the road. I’ll keep it private. It was simple and humble. But as a guy coming from East Carolina, just trying to do my part, it made me feel like I really belonged at this legendary program. 

After starting the year 1–2 in 2016, I remember coming back to win the Sugar Bowl versus Auburn. 

I remember one of my favorite wins ever, beating Ohio State in Columbus in 2017 in just my second game as Head Coach. 

I remember the 2017 Senior Day, witnessing the end of the Baker Mayfield era and the beginning of the Kyler Murray chapter in Oklahoma Football’s history. 

Lincoln Riley | USC Trojans | Thank You, Oklahoma | The Players' Tribune
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I remember dominating TCU in the return of the Big 12 Championship Game in 2017. 

I remember the back-to-back victories in 2018 at the end of the season – those were special.  Finding a way to win a crazy shootout against a very good West Virginia team in Morgantown gave us the opportunity to win another Big 12 title. And we beat Texas the following week to do just that.

I could never forget trailing Baylor 28–3 in Waco in 2019 without our best player, yet rallying to win 34–31 in the greatest comeback in the history of OU Football. 

I remember watching in pride when our young men displayed complete perseverance by winning the Big 12 Championship and dismantling Florida in the Cotton Bowl during the challenging 2020 COVID-19 season. 

And I remember a resilient comeback to win one of the most thrilling Red River games in history in 2021.

I could go on for days. There are countless memories, both on and off the field, from my time at Oklahoma that will stay with me forever. 

I have no regrets about the effort we poured into the program. The staff was completely invested in making OU Football better each day. We certainly weren’t perfect, but we gave it everything we had, every single week. Our staff wouldn’t have had the highest winning percentage in the history of the OU program without that effort.

So I want to say THANK YOU to everyone who was a part of our journey in Norman: every player, every staff member and every fan. I am eternally grateful for each one of you. Joe Castiglione, Barry Switzer and Coach Stoops are absolute giants in our game, and they couldn’t have been more supportive during our time in Norman. They will always be lifelong friends, as will so many others we met in Oklahoma. I was blessed to coach alongside tremendous coaches and staff members and develop relationships with hundreds of young men who proudly wore the Sooner colors. It was an absolute honor to go to work each day with them. 

Lincoln Riley | USC Trojans | Thank You, Oklahoma | The Players' Tribune
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As much as my family and I loved Norman and cherished the success we were having on the field, sometimes life throws you curveballs at the most unexpected times. Honestly, I always figured I would end my coaching career at OU. But when my agent called me to pass along interest from USC, I was immediately intrigued by the possibilities. 

Everything that happened next was a blur: I jumped on a Zoom with USC officials, I informed our athletic director, Joe Castiglione, of my decision and then, in one of the most difficult moments of my life and career, I stood in front of our Oklahoma team to let them know that I was leaving. I saw the immediate consequences of my decision on the faces of our players. I really hated the timing, because our team was coming off a gut-wrenching loss, but with the recent rule changes in college football impacting the recruiting cycle, it certainly affected the timeline and made a difficult transition even tougher. Shortly after that meeting, USC announced the news, and my family and I were on our way to Los Angeles. 

On the plane ride to Los Angeles, so many emotions were flowing through my mind. I was so excited about USC and its potential, but I was also filled with some guilt and sadness realizing that Norman was no longer home. There are aspects of my departure and transition that I would certainly do differently if I could do it again, and I acknowledge that I could have handled some parts of the situation better. I absolutely own that. While I was able to talk with several players after the team meeting, I wish I would have had the time to sit down with each individual player and staff member to explain my decision.

From the moment we touched down in L.A., everything moved quickly. There was so much to do, but also so much excitement and energy around the program and the city. I quickly embraced everything about USC: the elite academics, the opportunities in Los Angeles, and undoubtedly one of the greatest college football programs of all time. It was clear from my opening press conference at the Coliseum that the Trojan faithful were hungry to get this program back to the top of the collegiate football landscape. It has been amazing to see the entire Trojan Family rally around this common goal. As I have said repeatedly: We believe in what this place can be, and to win championships, it will take commitment from every single Trojan. My staff and I couldn’t be more excited for the challenge. The support from so many former Trojan players has been really special. I can’t explain how much it has meant to me. So many of the very best football players in history started their journey at USC, and hopefully we can add a few more to the list.

Lincoln Riley | USC Trojans | Thank You, Oklahoma | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy USC Athletics

With the support of the USC administration, we moved quickly but methodically to assemble what I believe is one of the best coaching and support staffs in the country. We were able to add some great young men to our roster, both through the transfer portal and traditional high school recruiting. We’ve started spring practice with a fast pace, and we are all pushing to get the most out of every day as we begin our journey here.

I’m very thankful for the opportunity at USC and for all of the people who made it happen. My family and I couldn’t be happier to be in Southern California as we begin this new chapter in our lives. It honestly feels like a dream to wake up in paradise every single day. 

Since my move, many have asked me why I would leave Oklahoma, and the best — and most honest — answer is that the opportunity at USC was simply the right job at the right time for me and for my family. We all have moments in life where we are faced with difficult choices, and this was the path my family and I chose. I don’t expect everyone to understand; in my line of work, that’s not possible. 

I appreciate the opportunity from The Players’ Tribune to write this piece. I have wanted to find the right time to say many of these things, as they certainly have been in my heart and on my mind. This was that time. 

For my family and I, nothing can ever take away from our appreciation for OU and the overwhelming number of positive things that we experienced there. And now, as we start this new chapter, nothing can temper our excitement to chase championships at USC.  

Fight On!