'We're going to be relentless about it': Lincoln Riley pulls back the curtain on USC's cultural rebuild
Lincoln Riley has a picture framed and hanging to the right of the window in his office at USC.
A scoreboard. On one side: 50. On the other: 0. There are plenty of iconic images in USC lore, but maybe this one is specifically illustrative of the work Riley’s doing in his first season as the Trojan head coach.
On Nov. 22, 2011, then-UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel proclaimed “the gap is closed” between the Bruins and their crosstown rivals. At that point in time, USC had won 11 of the previous 12 meetings in the series. Five days later, Matt Barkley threw for 423 yards and six touchdowns and the Trojans made a statement that even though sanctions that season would keep them out of the Pac-12 title game, the real South winners were cardinal-clad.
The gap looked as wide as ever that night. USC pounded UCLA in the most lopsided game the series has seen since 1930 (a 52-0 USC win).
The series is tied at five games apiece in the 10 years since that night, though. Last season, the Bruins picked up a historic and resounding win. Neuheisel was a bit premature, but the statement rings true now. The gap between the Trojans—the Pac-12’s undisputed darling program—and not just the Bruins but everyone else has closed.
That’s why Riley’s here, hanging photos in his office and holding Zooms with reporters and running practices in Nike gear rather than Jordan gear.
Riley’s here to mind the gap.
“The bar should never be low at USC,” Riley said on signing day. “Our expectations were high the day we got here, and they will be high every single day that we’re here coaching. That will not change.”
USC has buzz as a darkhorse College Football Playoff team in 2022. The Trojans are expected to take a massive step forward after a 4-8 season last year. They’re a way-too-early top-25 team for publications that put out such lists. The expectations for Riley are high.
To build a team that can meet them, Riley and his staff are focused on building a championship foundation first.
“Whether guys are missing class or late to tutors or whatever it may be, it’s addressed and nothing goes unseen,” USC offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees said Tuesday after practice. “That’s something that hasn’t necessarily been the case in the past here.”
What exactly is Riley doing?
“We’d be on a Zoom for the entire weekend if we covered it all,” he quipped when speaking to reporters on Saturday.
The basis of the message: everything has to matter. If the coaching staff asks for something to be done, that thing has importance, no matter how small or insignificant it seems.
“We just believe championship teams and playing football at a championship level involves being at that level in every single thing you do,” Riley said. “You can’t pick and choose—as a player and as a coach—which things matter because in reality they all matter. This game’s that competitive. The margins are that thin.
“We approach everything the same way. We treat these guys going into the weight room and working out just like we treat them going to class. We treat practice or a position meeting just like we treat a tutor or a mentor academically, just like a medical appointment, it’s all the same. You’re either performing at the standard we expect, which is a championship-level standard, or you’re not. And if you’re not, it doesn’t matter who it is, how much they’ve played, we really don’t care, staff member, player, we’re all accountable to it, we’re all held to the same standard, we’re all expected to perform at that level.”
No leeway. No excuses. No miscommunication. No inconsistency. The way things are now is the way they were in the winter and it’ll be the same in the summer and in the fall.
“We’re going to be relentless about that,” Riley said.
Building a culture takes time. Building it right is painstaking. You can cut corners, but the foundation gets shakier each time you do. Riley has been in a championship program. There’s a confidence about him and this staff that they know how to build the same kind of program at USC. There’s an urgency about him, and yet still a commitment to doing things the right way.
That means the change—and it has been a change—was stark.
How’d the team respond?
Riley smiled again.
“Like any time you change things, it’s gonna take some time,” he said. “There’s been rapid progress. A little rough in the early going, much improved right now, and needs to continue to get better.”
Don’t think of the process being undergone inside USC’s walls as breaking bad habits and building good ones. Riley doesn’t look at it like that. It’s not that clear-cut. It’s not about habits, it’s about choices. “We’ve got to clearly articulate everything we want these guys to do,” Riley said, “and articulate not only what we want them to do but how we want them to do it, what the expectation level is, and I think once you establish that, then guys have to make a conscious decision (to either meet it or not).
“This whole thing’s about your choices. Guys that continually make the right choices are going to get better, they’re gonna be a part of great things here. Guys that don’t, there’s gonna be repercussions. It just is what it is.”
One thing the Trojans have put into practice is a process Riley has called “gold-plating.”
“Players start with just the Cardinal helmet,” he said. “They’ve got to earn the logo.”
USC’s players aren’t practicing with the iconic Trojan decal on the sides of their helmets. Those were removed. They aren’t given. They have to be earned. Maybe that sounds gimmicky, but Riley wants it to mean something.
“We felt like this is one of the most iconic programs, it’s one of the most iconic jerseys, helmets, uniform combo that there is, and we felt like that decal should be earned, not just given because you’ve got a spot on the roster,” Riley said.
The process by which a player earns that Trojan decal back is all-encompassing. Do the right things on the field and off it. Come with a competitive nature. Put the team first. Be reliable and accountable. Players are able to nominate their teammates. The coaching staff has the final call. When players have earned their “gold plate,” the coaching staff has brought in a former USC great to award them.
As of Saturday, the players who had done so numbered in the “early double-digits,” according to Riley’s rough estimate. He said the team’s response has been great.
“Our guys have got to learn the history of this place, the history of this program, how special it is to play here, how special it is to coach here,” Riley said.
This isn’t an Ohio State buckeye leaf or a Florida State tomahawk. It’s not a sticker added to the helmet. And Riley says don’t worry about whether a player will be on the field this fall without having earned their keep. “Guys who aren’t gold-plated, you probably won’t have to worry about seeing them on the sidelines,” he said.
This is about the gap.
The gap between where USC has been before and where it is now.
The gap between where USC is and where it wants to go.
This is about closing the gap.