ESPN's Paul Finebaum says Lincoln Riley's days at USC are numbered

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There was a widespread belief that former Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley left his position his comfortable position at OU three seasons ago because he feared that the fun ride and glory would be over for the Sooners when they went to the SEC.

Riley sought out greener pastures (pun intended), leaving the plains of Oklahoma for the sunshine and glamour of Los Angeles and all the history and tradition of USC football as well as the presumption of a clearer path to a conference championship and the College Football Playoff than would be the case in the SEC.

After a couple of up and down seasons at USC, however, and the dissolution of a conference he had hoped to dominate like he had at Oklahoma, Riley finds himself faced with a similar challenge he had previously tried to avoid. USC is now a member of the Big Ten Conference with a brutal schedule that comes close to rivaling the one foisted on the Sooners the next two seasons.

Riley's stock and favor in the state of Oklahoma immediately plummeted when he figuratively kicked Sooner fans, not to mention the OU players and administration, in the teeth by bolting town with little notice. One state legislator went as far as to propose a bill naming the last three inches of state highway 325 exiting the state the "Lincoln Riley Highway."

For sure, Riley made a lot of enemies, and not just in the Sooner State, turning his back on OU football, and since then, it seems, he has gained even more critics along the way over how things have gone and been handled within the USC program.

Perhaps the biggest outspoken critic of Riley the past several seasons has been Paul Finebaum, a sports columnist and radio-TV personality who works for ESPN and largely covers and comments on major sports in the SEC. To be completely fair, Finebaum has not been what you would call favorable to Oklahoma football, either. He had plenty of critical things to say during the Bob Stoops era of Sooner football.

Speaking out on his and several other radio shows and TV segments in recent weeks, Finebaum has upped his noise level on Riley's future at USC, suggesting that the writing may already be on the wall and the 2024 season could be Riley's swan song in his dream college coaching job.

"I mean, I think its over for Lincoln Riley. To me, he's lost control. And once you lost control, you're like in the middle of quicksand."

Paul Finebaum

Riley has compiled a 19-8 overall record in two seasons at USC. His 2022 Trojan team, with former Sooner and 2023 Heisman winner Caleb Williams at the quarterback position, went 11-3 and won the Pac-12. The bottom appeared to fall out last season, however, as the Trojans fell to 8-5 overall and 5-4 in the conference.

After bringing in top-10 recruiting classes in four of the five seasons he was head coach at Oklahoma, Riley has not been as successful in the last two recruiting cycles at USC. His 2023 class with 22 commitments, finished 17th, according to 247Sports, and so far in the 2025 cycle USC ranks 23rd with just 13 commitments.

Riley hasn't been as successful the past two cycles in recruiting elite prospects, even in an era boosted by NIL (name, image, likeness) money. And the USC recruiting effort has suffered a rash of decommitments over the past three weeks. Since June 21, the Trojans have had two top-50 defensive linemen back away from their USC pledge as well as a top-100 running back.

"I've always thought he (Riley) was a good coach, especially on the offensive side" Finebaum said. "But I don't think anybody today views him in that same realm."

Finebaum went on to say that if Riley is let go after this season, he doesn't see him having a patch back. "I think his only way back is as a coordinator."

That seems a bit over the top given Riley's record and stellar reputation as an offensive magician and his history in recruiting and coaching Heisman-winning quarterbacks, But the brutal truth is this is probably a make or break season for the coach many Sooner fans now refer to simply as "Muleshue," in reference to Riley's Texas home town.

Oklahoma athletic director threw out a not so subtle jab at the former OU head coach during the Sooner celebration in Norman on July 1, the first official day as a member of the SEC:

"I will tell you without reservation that every (OU) head coach that we talked to was excited (about the move to the SEC)," Castiglione said. "The ones that weren't aren't hear anymore.

"You either gotta accept it or not," he added. "This is Oklahoma. Get with it, or get on with it."