The Dark Trojan – The Lincoln Riley Saga

Jamal Madni
USC Football Head Coach Lincoln Riley. Photo Credit: John McGillen | USC Athletics
USC Football Head Coach Lincoln Riley. Photo Credit: John McGillen | USC Athletics

The Dark Trojan – The Lincoln Riley Saga

“You either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” That was the iconic line uttered by Harvey Dent in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 epic, The Dark Knight. Dent was speaking about the revisionist history applied to transcendent conquerors from our past.

It’s also a line that perfectly encapsulates the character development of the seminal figures in USC football history. John McKay figuratively died the hero; retiring after winning four national titles and gift-wrapping a 5th for John Robinson, who was USC’s equivalent of Larry Coker, Barry Switzer, or Tubby Smith. But Pat Haden, Lynn Swann, OJ, Pete Carroll, Reggie Bush, Lane Kiffin, and Steve Sarkisian? All lived just long enough in Cardinal & Gold history to become Men of Troy villains.

Haden went from quarterbacking the ‘72 national title team, being a respected Rhodes Scholar and successful Trojan businessman to a disastrous, tone-deaf Athletic Director dissecting any semblance of football excellence.

Swann went from Super Bowl legend and aspiring national politician to inept Haden successor and a clueless organizational leader.

OJ went from Heisman winner and national endorsement treasure to…let’s euphemistically call it, “knife quality control technician,” and one of America’s most hated individuals.

Pete Carroll went from chief reviver of Trojan dominance, linchpin of two national titles, and a dynastic 34-game winning streak, to the west coast’s Art Modell; jumping ship from the Trojan titanic before inevitable NCAA sanctions became reality.

Reggie Bush went from arguably the sport’s most electric player ever to pariah serving a decade-long exile from the university, Coliseum, and Heisman Trust…wounds yet to have completely healed.

Lane Kiffin went from USC’s Sean McVay before Sean McVay, namely, boy wonder genius returning to restore past glory, to a guy who literally had to Uber home with just the clothes on his back, from an LAX tarmac.

And finally, Steve Sarkisian went from boy wonder genius returning to restore past glory, the sequel, to becoming the leading candidate for global brand ambassador of Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker, and all their life-of-the-party buddies. All while suing the university for unfair labor practices.

Character arcing the history of Trojan football would make even the Joker blush and compel him to rent a protective cup. Speaking of the Joker, what made “The Dark Knight” such a spectacular piece of cinematic art, was his intrinsic duality. The Joker was the hero for the mob desperate to eliminate Batman and go back to the way things were in Gotham City, while simultaneously being the villain within that very society. But in hiring a complex enigma they didn’t completely understand, the mob received short-term gains but ultimately devolved that society to years of carnage.

Sound familiar yet? How about if we replace the mob with Trojan fans, boosters, and the AD, Batman with the post-Carrol era, and the Joker with Lincoln Riley?

The Lincoln Riley Complex

USC has hired a man they don’t completely understand in the desperation to reclaim its glory years. Let’s get one thing clear – Riley is a mercenary, who above all else is the CEO of Lincoln Riley Brand LLC. This notion that he picked USC because of the Spirit of Troy is wishful hubris.

Born in West Texas, he left one of the two iconic brands in the region after OU provided him with a bullet-proof succession plan, gift-wrapped recruiting classes off the coat-tails of Bob Stoops, granted him a contract warranting him the purchasing power of an emperor, along with empowering him with six years of complete resource support from the administration and athletic department. And he did so…in less than 12 HOURS in the middle of the night! If he can do that to a place that practically raised him professionally, he’s going to do it to USC.

Much like breaking up with a Kardashian, it’s not a matter of if, simply when. Riley sees USC as the ultimate transit destination until Jerry Jones calls, Sean McVay retires, or Pete Carroll demotes himself. That’s the goal, you don’t leave OU for USC if it isn’t. It’s a lateral move and chance to add “restorer” to the professional portfolio that makes the NFL resume bullet-proof and interview answers a slam dunk. Period.

So why give the keys to the kingdom to the Dark Trojan? Because football IS USC. Without it, USC is Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount, or Claremont-McKenna, all terrific private universities in Los Angeles, but with a degree of anonymity. With football excellence, USC unlocks unparalleled alumni bonds, university giving and school spirit, the currencies it has over its crosstown arch-rival (sorry Bruin fans, but UCLA has SC beat in just about every other dimension – academics, neighborhood, medical ecosystem, social justice efforts, research excellence, and world reputation).

USC just went through arguably the most tumultuous decade in higher education history. Operation Varsity Blues, a $1.1 billion payout for inappropriate behavior by a university gynecologist, resignations of medical school deans for addiction, a very messy ouster of the university president, bribery charges with city officials, systemic misogyny in its Greek life, the School of Social Work accused of providing sham degrees and a School of Education knowingly withholding damning admissions data to preserve its ranking. So what does a school struggling to grasp onto tattered threads of integrity do with its most prized asset (i.e. the football program)? It hires a coach with equally questionable loyalty and transparency…but with a heck of a track record.

Now the Trojans settle into a role they’ve not only embraced but relished over the years…the PAC-12’s villain. It’s why society hates the big banks of Wall Street, NBA super teams, or the excrement of geopolitics. Entities that so blatantly and transparently put the bottom line above all else…and get rewarded for it.

Make no mistake, the Trojans will be rewarded for hiring Riley. It will be must-see, primetime, epic Herculean theater that will result in lots of wins, oozing swagger, filled stadiums, and whining opponents. When the Trojans are peaking, they’re a Ferrari, making all other PAC-12 teams’ ceiling look like a Kia Stinger.

But also make no mistake, it won’t last long and he’ll leave the program in just as much chaos as he inherited, while he surgically orchestrates an exit stage left to the NFL circa 2025. Don’t believe me? Just look up the state of recent blue-chip programs after an elite coach has left prematurely: Florida State post-Jimbo Fisher, Texas post-Mack Brown, Florida post-Urban Meyer. Perhaps the Joker was right all along when he said, “And you know the thing about chaos…it’s fair.”

If the historical fan psyche of Trojan football has demonstrated anything, it’s that Riley will end up a villain. Fortunately for him and ironically for everybody else, he’s a villain already.

Fight On Dark Trojan. Fight On.

USC Football Head Coach Lincoln Riley. Photo Credit: John McGillen | USC Athletics

USC Football Head Coach Lincoln Riley. Photo Credit: John McGillen | USC Athletics