Whicker: Lincoln Riley, Mike Bohn and the power of USC’s calculated audacity

LOS ANGELES — In September, they said they were launching a nationwide search.

In reality, the nation was no wider than the city limits of Norman, Oklahoma and the search began and ended with one coach.

Sure, there were others. Brandon Sosna, the right-hand man to Athletic Director Mike Bohn, said USC had investigated “dozens” of candidates. There was a Plan B and a C and maybe even a Z.

But Lincoln Riley, the fourth-highest-paid coach in the game and the winner of 55 of 65 games at Oklahoma, was it.

It was like shopping for batteries. He was A, AA and AAA.

“He was always our No. 1,” Sosna said, as he stood on a balcony high above the Coliseum floor. Behind him were the mountains and the skyscrapers and everything but the big nasty redhead by Randy Newman’s side. It was the soundstage for Riley’s introduction as USC’s coach.

“That goes back to when I was Mike’s intern at Cincinnati. We called Lincoln. He didn’t take our call. We laughed about that. But we didn’t know he was about to become the head coach at Oklahoma.”

That was 2016. Riley had spent two years as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator. He took them to the College Football Playoff in three of the next five years and had won four consecutive Big 12 conference titles before a loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday.

Make no mistake. Hiring Riley is a cataclysm that is still hard to fathom two days after the news broke. Absolutely no one suspected he would leave Oklahoma for USC.

But Bohn said he felt “immense pressure” to make the front page, to break into regularly scheduled programming, to do what the Dodgers and Rams and Lakers traditionally do.

“And we got the guy,” he shouted, slapping the podium.

Bohn, Sosna and a hearty village of staffers showed the power of calculated audacity. Has such a celebrated coach ever bolted for another college job, without shadows of scandal? Maybe it’s Frank Leahy, 20-2 at Boston College, who went to Notre Dame in 1941 to establish dynasty days.

USC fired Clay Helton in September because of an irredeemable loss to Stanford but also because Bohn’s battle plan required time.

He said that whenever a snag appeared, USC president Carol Folt would implore him to “get the guy.” That meant a financial commitment that USC hasn’t disclosed, but figures to be at least $9 million a year for at least five years. Riley was already making $7.6 million at OU, and there’s a $4.5 million buyout.

The biggest feat was keeping it quiet. The restless media kept coming up with names which, Sosna said, “provided some levity” in the war room.

“If word gets out, it probably ruins it,” Sosna said.

On Saturday night Sosna was pacing in USC’s Coliseum suite, and not because the current Trojans were beginning an afterthought game against Brigham Young. He was sweating out Oklahoma’s game at Oklahoma State and fearing a Sooners win, them clinching a trip to the Big 12 title game and perhaps another CFP semifinal on New Year’s Eve.

“I’m not sure people understood why we were so attentive,” he said. “It was one of the more excruciating experiences of my life. Intellectually, if Oklahoma wins maybe it’s a different outcome. Luck can be incredible.”

So maybe USC will honor Collin Oliver, the Oklahoma State defender who ended the 37-33 win by sacking quarterback Caleb Williams.

Once Riley returned to Norman, USC called. That led to a Sunday morning Zoom call. Because Riley was such a known quantity, there was no need for a private plane flight that the sleuths could have tracked.

After Riley said yes, Sosna called Tim Tessalone, the sports information director who is retiring next month.

“He’s usually so level-headed and calm,” Sosna said. “But there was no response. He said later that he couldn’t really process it. He had written all these bios for the other candidates, but not Lincoln’s.”

What got it done?

The money, obviously, but it goes a lot farther in Norman, where the median home price is only $183,000.

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