You spend any amount of time truly inside Nick Saban’s Alabama football program and you’re going to have a pretty good idea of what a championship culture looks like. If you’re Shane Lee and you spent your first three years of college ball riding with the Tide, you’ll have an intimate knowledge of championship culture, and the habits needed to keep that culture will be like second nature.

Lee stared as a freshman for the Crimson Tide in 2019, earning FWAA Freshman All-American honors. He posted 86 tackles as a first-year player in the SEC, the second-most on the team, including 6.5 for loss and 4.5 that were sacks. He had an interception and a pass breakup, a fumble recovery and two fumbles forced in 13 starts. To be an immediate contributor for Alabama means you bought all the way in from Day 1.

In 2019, the Tide won 11 games. In 2020, they won a national championship while going unbeaten. In 2021, Lee’s last year with the team, they once again played for a national title.

Injuries set him back with the Tide. But that story is written. Now he’s on the West Coast. Now he’s all about USC.

“Just bumps in the road, just a little adversity,” the inside linebacker said of his football story in Tuscaloosa on Trojans Live Monday. “Honestly, I’m just grateful to be here.

“This is what’s next. This is what I’m here to do—play football, be a leader, win. It comes back down to winning.”

The grad transfer linebacker went into the transfer portal on Jan. 13. Ten days later, he was a Trojan. A 6-foot, 245-pound throwback defender, Lee feels like a soft-spoken wrecking ball.

“It’s no question you’ll see more aggressive, physical football from SC,” he said.

And that’s what the Trojans wanted. That’s what new head coach Lincoln Riley and his staff wanted to pair with what they hope will be a high-flying offense. Riley got his quarterback to run the show on his side of the fun, and it was a move that sent ripples throughout the sport. In Lee, the Trojans landed the quarterback of the defense with significantly less fanfare. Lee’s about the work.

His on-field talent and his pedigree earned him plenty of attention in the portal. His approach to the non-Saturday aspects of football made him a must-have for Riley, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, and inside ‘backer coach Brian Odom.

“Through recruiting, Coach Odom and Coach Riley expressed how important it was to build a winning culture and how they were ready to go, ‘As soon as we touch down it’s time to go,’ and I’m on the same type of timeline they are,” Lee told the Trojans Live hosts. “I’m here to win, I’m here to build a winning culture, something that’s gonna last beyond me playing here. I wanna build something that when I come back to SC, it’s still jumping, it’s still booming, it’s SC football.”

During his own appearance on the in-house radio show just prior to Lee’s, Riley said they had two boxes any addition—coach or player—must tick: know what it means to win, and have a deep desire to do it at USC.

“Championship teams become championship teams because they do things a different way,” Riley said. “They do things at an elite level and then they do everything at that level because they realize everything is important. When you do that, you give yourself the best opportunities for success.

“Within the walls, as we see more and more of that, we’ll know that we’re headed in the right direction.”

Lee has immediately impressed his coaches as a guy whose voice commands attention with the rest of the team. His approach was to come in and be an asset to the team. He said he felt like he earned his teammates’ respect by just being himself—which is to say he got to Los Angeles and worked his tail off from the moment he touched down.

What did he learn from his time at Alabama? For one…

“Just how hard it is to actually win, what it actually takes,” he said. “The consistency, the early mornings, the late nights, it takes everybody.

“Whether you think you’re important or not, you are important and that is something that I just try to take with me every day—football, school, everything matters. Doing everything to the best of your ability, as best you can, as hard as you can. Even if you don’t want to do it, the discipline to get up and still do it, all that kind of stuff is really what I took from Alabama coming here.”

Sounds like a coach’s dream.

It also sounds like Riley’s bit about championship habits. The best teams are the best because from the top down everyone understands and executes their assignment. Riley says they intend to win as much as they can this season, but spring ball is going to be imperative in that pursuit. They can’t waste a day.

You sense a real urgency when Riley talks about this USC rebuild.

Great teams have winning cultures that are fostered by a coaching staff but upheld by the locker room. That takes time to build, but the transfer portal can expedite it a bit if you add the right players.

“You talk about those first 100 days, this is a guy that’s been instrumental within our program from the day he came here,” Riley said of Lee. The inside ‘backer has been at the forefront of a group of players looking to be foundation-setters.

He compared Lee’s work to another former Alabama guy who chose to join Riley at a different program.

“I’ve just been so impressed with him and his growth and his maturity and how invested he is in not just himself becoming an elite player but also in this team winning championships,” Riley said. “In such a short amount of time he’s had a huge impact. It reminds me a lot of when we brought Jalen Hurts to Oklahoma a few years ago and we had him for one year but his impact, you could feel it immediately. Shane’s had a very similar impact for this football team in the first 100 days.”

That Oklahoma team went through some stuff. Hurts succeeded Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray, who succeeded Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield. He was different from those two in just about every way, and the offense had to be retooled around his skillset. That took time. But it also took an acceptance from the rest of the team to work around a new one-and-done guy.

Hurts endeared himself to teammates and then set records for the Sooners on the field.

USC needs that physicality on defense. More than anything, though, this team needs those championship habits Riley hopes to instill.

We’ll see if lightning can strike twice.