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How does Lincoln Riley’s USC turnaround fit into the history of the sport?

When you see something remarkable in progress, there’s a natural instinct to wonder if something like this ever happened.

USC’s wondrous hurricane from 4-8 to 11-1 and the college football playoff doorstep in Lincoln Riley’s freshman season got me thinking this week: Where does Riley’s masterpiece fit in with the best year-long coaching turnarounds in the sport’s history? ?

Well, for starters, he’s in illustrious and rare company. Most of the game’s legendary coaches: a) weren’t handed a program in tatters, or b) didn’t achieve great success until their second season at their new school. For example, Bob Stoops of Oklahoma, Jim Tressel of Ohio State, and Urban Meyer of Florida all broke through with year 2 national championships. Pete Carroll didn’t win the major title until Year 3 at USC, although it was clear by his sophomore season that he was well on his way to re-establishing a standard of excellence.

I had to dig pretty hard to find first year miracles. Here’s my jump into the top 5, from post-war to modern times:

  • Nebraska had lost six straight seasons when Bob Devaney took over in 1962. The Cornhuskers, who had gone 3-6-1 the year before, went 9-2 and began their current NCAA-record streak of 389 straight sellouts at Memorial Stadium. Tom Osborne was a protégé of Devaney.
  • Notre Dame went 19-30 in five seasons in 1959-63. Then Ara Parseghian rolled into town from the Northwest, and the Fighting Irish started the season 9-0 and jumped to No. 1 in the Associated Press rankings before losing to USC 20-17 to finish at No. 3. Parseghian also brought the school a Heisman trophy winner John Huarte in his debut campaign (sound familiar, USC fans?)
  • You may not remember the great job Terry Bowden did at Auburn in 1993 because none of the Tigers’ games were televised due to NCAA sanctions. Auburn was 5-5-1 in Pat Dye’s final season in 1992, and Bowden promptly led the Tigers to an amazing 11-0 record. They were the only undefeated team in the country that year but were unable to play in the postseason as Bowden’s father Bobby would win the national championship in a loss to Florida State. The Tigers were fourth in the ` rankings.
  • Funnily enough, Meyer had a similar experience during his debut season at Ohio State in 2012. The Buckeyes were on probation in the postseason because of the tattoo scandal that made Tressel pack, but finished 12-0 and finished 6-7 in third place of the ` year under interim head coach Luke Fickell. I’m hesitant to include Meyer in the same breath as the top three because he’s entered a program that was already humming at top-five level under Tressel, but it was hard to leave out an undefeated team.
  • The most recent example of beginner magic came from Gus Malzahn in Auburn in 2013. After a 3-9 run by Gene Chizik last season, Malzahn led the Tigers to their “Kick Six” miracle win in the Iron Bowl, an SEC championship and national team title game, where they lost to Florida State, finishing 12-2 .

Riley’s work in 2022 is certainly impressive on its own, but given the transfer portal, it could be a comparison between apples and oranges. Devaney, Parseghian, Bowden, Meyer, Malzahn and their peers basically had to take the players they inherited and work a kind of voodoo over the program in an offseason.

Riley used the portal to create a blank canvas for himself practically overnight, bringing in the likes of Heisman Trophy favorite quarterback Caleb Williams, star wide receivers Jordan Addison and Mario Williams, running backs Travis Dye and Austin Jones as well as linebackers Eric Gentry and Shane Lee. among many others.

The new transfer rules allowed Riley to serve equally as coach and general manager, capitalizing on this unprecedented era akin to free agency in college football.

Depending on your point of view, this can either detract from or enhance Riley’s performance. Regardless of your viewpoint, USC’s 2022 overhaul will go down in history as a historic touchstone. Up to this point there hasn’t been anything like it.

It’s worth noting that Texas Christian’s Sonny Dykes is making quite a statement this year after moving across town from Southern Methodist. The Horned Frogs are 12-0 and No. 3 after going 5-7 in 2021, and Dykes hasn’t benefited from the transfer portal to the extent that Riley has.

Riley and Dykes share a deep connection from their days at Texas Tech. Riley trained under Dykes as a student assistant and succeeded him as wide receivers coach of the Red Raiders in 2007 after Dykes left to become Arizona’s offensive coordinator. I called her old boss Mike Leach to see what he thought of her work this season.

“Well, they’ve both been head coaches before, so they know what they’re doing,” Leach said.

I asked Leach, now Mississippi State’s head coach, if he thought coaches in new locations had a better chance of quickly transitioning a program because of the portal.

“I don’t have a great answer to that just because the portal and what that means is unfolding the positives and negatives,” Leach said. “But you know, USC is a place that has a lot of firepower to use something like the portal because they’re one of those top-notch schools.”

Leach had obviously not followed Riley’s exploits too closely. He asked me what the USC record was and when I told him the Trojans were 11-1 and in position for a CFP berth, he said, “Wow, are they?”

Wow indeed.

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