Former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley opened up on his decision to leave the Sooners and become head coach at Southern California in an article for The Players’ Tribune released Wednesday.
For the first time since his departure, Riley, who led the Sooners to a 55-10 record and three College Football Playoff appearances in five seasons as head coach, seemingly showed remorse about the handling of his exit.
“On the plane ride to Los Angeles, so many emotions were flowing through my mind,” Riley said. “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.”
Looking back more fondly, Riley recalled the phone conversation with former OU coach Bob Stoops that initially landed him in Norman as offensive coordinator, and rehashed some of his favorite memories in crimson and cream. Then, he explained the days and hours surrounding his hiring as the Trojans’ coach on Nov. 28.
“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,” Riley said. “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.”
Some, like former Oklahoma tight end Austin Stogner, have openly questioned the timeline of Riley’s contact with USC. The Los Angeles Times reported the Trojans had been pursuing Riley since September.
Stogner also said the rumors linking Riley to LSU’s head coaching vacancy became a distraction toward the end of last season, and the coach never addressed the matter with his players.
Riley’s departure came one day after his team lost 37-33 to Oklahoma State, upending its chances at a seventh straight Big 12 championship. Following a 9-0 start to 2021, OU dropped two of its last three regular season games while speculation swirled around its coach.
“I saw the immediate consequences of my decision on the faces of our players,” Riley said of the team meeting where he announced his leaving. “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.
“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.”
Riley’s choice left the state in shock until Brent Venables was hired as his replacement on Dec. 5 and returned stability to the program.
Riley also pillaged five assistant coaches and a handful of support staff members from Norman and added former Sooners quarterback Caleb Williams, wide receiver Mario Williams and cornerback Latrell McCutchin from the transfer portal.
Fans wondered about Riley’s motivations for the move to Los Angeles, and Wednesday, he provided clarity on the decision.
“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,” Riley said. “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 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.”
Riley’s first spring game at USC will be broadcast on ESPN at 3 p.m. on Saturday, kicking off at the same time as OU’s Red-White scrimmage.