INSIDE THE TRAINING complex named after head coach John McKay on USC‘s campus, there’s a whiteboard that has become more than just the backdrop of a classroom. Earlier this year, as players came together to begin spring ball for a team that looked completely different than the season prior, the whiteboard served as a catch-all for what USC players and coaches believed needed to change for a program that had just gone 4-8 to have any semblance of success.
“We all talked about creating a standard when we got here,” linebacker Shane Lee, who transferred from Alabama and became a team captain, said of what writing on the whiteboard signified. “That set the tone for everything we do. It’s been the foundation for our success.”
While Lee said that what is written on the board can be summed up by one phrase at the bottom that Riley has coined and has even found its way onto some T-shirts — “Win the inner battles” — what’s on the board has been almost secondary to the fact that players actually executed it. As Lee put it, it’s something they have been able to refer back to throughout what has been a dreamlike season.
It has been just over a year since the hire of Riley sparked a new beginning for USC, and though the outlook for the program seemed to go from bleak to bright overnight, perhaps no one outside the McKay Center expected success at USC to come this quickly. The Trojans completed an 11-1 regular season with a chance to not only win a Pac-12 title on Friday night against the only team that beat them this season, but also to give the program its first College Football Playoff appearance.
“I can’t say yes, I knew this was going to happen, but at the same time, I don’t believe in putting limits on what you can accomplish, especially if you get the right people in the building,” Riley said. “I told you what our expectations were from Day 1. A lot of people thought I was crazy, and that’s fine. People within the walls knew what we were about and had a sense of what we were building.”
Riley’s arrival had its gravitational pull, bringing talented transfers from all corners of the country and keeping players at USC who wanted to have their careers reignited. But in a sport where much is made of the power of coaches, the Trojans’ success this season required a collective mindset that had been missing, one that could not be engineered by a single coach. For Lee, it can be summed up by a whiteboard, but for quarterback Caleb Williams, it is rooted in a phrase he has been repeating all season.
“Good teams are led by coaches,” Williams said again this week. “But great teams are led by players. … That was one of the main things we focused on when we got here — our players leading.”
Nobody led USC last season. And while the rapid turnaround the program has experienced can be traced back to the hire of Riley and his moves since, what has transpired over the past 12 months to bring USC back into national relevancy has been a product of a shared confidence that originated not from a single hire or addition, but from a holistic approach and a trust in a roster that has been mended together more than it has been built.
“I don’t know what games we expected to lose, and that’s just the really honest evaluation,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “We expected to swing the bat and have success. That’s why we came out here.”
ANDREW VORHEES REMEMBERS being nervous. The senior offensive lineman as well as the rest of USC’s incumbent players were in a unique position. Their future head coach had been hired with plenty of pomp and circumstance, yet, they still had to play one more game. Due to a postponed game against Cal that had been rescheduled for the week after the season finale, USC had to suit up for a meaningless game that somehow had become meaningful. It was a rehearsal of sorts for an audience of one.
“You hear about him, you watch him on TV, and then he gets out here, and he’s just human like the rest of us,” Vorhees said. “It was just one of the most surreal moments, knowing that [Riley] was going to be the head coach.”
The week leading up to and including the game had given Riley and his coaching staff an opportunity to evaluate what they had to work with and make decisions. After the game, they wasted no time. In the span of a week and following many conversations, Vorhees and a few of his peers who had a chance to leave for the draft, including Brett Neilon, knew a return to USC was worth it.
“With a coach like [Riley], you never know what can happen,” Vorhees said.
Among returning players, there seemed to be a hunger for structure and leadership, which Riley immediately brought. The former came with the experience of running a top-level college football program. But the latter could only truly take hold in the form of the players themselves, especially those who had been there a few years.
Words like accountability, consistency and leadership always find their way into the lexicon of football teams that perform well. Chemistry does, too, and USC was faced with the task of creating just that with more than 40 transfers and a slew of Trojans who had made it through a season that had not included any of those aforementioned qualities. It’s why keeping those players whose talent had maybe been underutilized was key in bridging the gap from past to future.
“I think it sent a message to the entire roster about how serious these guys were,” Riley said of the veteran linemen like Vorhees returning. “I probably didn’t realize how big that was at that time, but that was important. it was a tone setter.”
Riley’s influence soon seeped into every part of the program. Only one coach from the previous regime was retained, and there was plenty of additional staff turnover as well. A typical program overhaul on the field usually takes time. But in this day and age, with the advent of the transfer portal, nothing is a better accelerator than talent.
After Riley recruited and signed players from the portal, the task then was to turn theory into practice and talent into wins. From star transfer wide receiver Jordan Addison to transfer linebacker Eric Gentry to redshirt senior lineman Justin Dedich, there had to be an immediate buy in.
But Riley’s words and practices could do only so much. For his rapid experiment to take shape, he needed the closest thing to a version of him on the field to usher not just his offensive system, but also provide the leadership required of a player at the most important position in football, win or lose. It just so happens that person was a then-19-year-old quarterback who is now on the brink of winning the Heisman Trophy.
WILLIAMS WENT THROUGH the gamut of emotions on that mid-October night in Salt Lake City. Just after USC was unable to complete a last-second drive to beat Utah and stay undefeated, tears ran down his face while he was on the field. The agony of defeat gave way to frustration about the fact that, in his mind, USC should not have lost that game. Upon entering the locker room, Williams found kindred spirits; players were upset, but they were also strangely hopeful. Scowls soon turned into near smiles.
“The vibe inside the room was completely different from times when I’ve lost before in college so far. … It was more of a positive vibe,” Williams said this past week. By the time Williams spoke to the media that night, that agony seemed to be replaced by eagerness. “We aren’t going to go undefeated,” Williams said then. “But that’s not the be all end all of this season.”
That locker room scene has become a bit of lore in the story of this year’s USC team. Every player seems to recall the outsized effect it had on the team. Some have described it as a wake-up call, others as a moment that solidified their collective vision, and some even saw it as a clear view of the potential the team had. Winning the rest of their games didn’t just feel necessary. To them, it felt possible.
“If you try to change some things and you win games, everybody’s happy,” Riley said. “So you wonder, all right, you lose a tough game like that on the road in the fashion that we did right there at the last second. Is everybody really gonna stick to this now? The mood, the vibe in that locker [was] disappointed but, but not defeated at all and even maybe more inspired.”
“We were already bought in,” offensive lineman Justin Dedich said. “But I think it just unified us more. That loss helped, it gave us a new experience.”
“A great story or a great book can’t be written without some adversity,” Williams said.
Storybook or not, the way USC has responded since that game has validated those locker room anecdotes. And now, they have earned a chance to make up for it by playing that same Utah team for the conference title and a spot in the playoffs just over 365 days after this entire experiment began.
After that Utah loss, Riley made a point to mention that USC could still accomplish its goals if it kept winning. Not only has that happened exactly in that way, but it has also kept the attention on the immediate future instead of the past. If USC had put together a 9-3 season and wasn’t playing for a conference title or a spot in the playoff, there might be more time to reminisce. Instead, there are more important things to spend mental real estate on at this moment for Riley and Co. than to dwell on how USC’s reality has matched their expectations.
“When you do sit back for a second and, and think about, where we were a year ago and some of the things that have transpired for this team and the program during the time,” Riley said. “It’s, it’s fun to think about, but it’s just not the time and place right now.”
USC is still trying to live week to week, day to day, game to game. There’s no two- or five-year plan to worry about because, improbably, the time is now.
“This is why we came here, to get an opportunity to play in games like this,” Riley said. “We get to do it here in Year 1.”
Riley has talked often about what he’s trying to “build” at USC. In the past, that kind of process in college football has usually required patience and time. Yet what he and the rest of the program have shown this season is that maybe it doesn’t. In the sport’s current structure, this kind of quick turnaround is within reach.
But as USC sits one win away from the College Football Playoff a season after losing eight games, what it has also shown is that even if this is possible, not everyone can do it.