The toughest year of Lincoln Riley’s otherwise charmed coaching life felt, in a lot of ways, painfully similar to this one. It was 2011, his second season as East Carolina’s offensive coordinator and nothing seemed to be going his or the Pirates’ way.
Injuries struck early. Each week seemed to bring a new bad break. Frustrations snowballed. East Carolina lost four of five games to start the season, then finished by losing three of four to miss a bowl game for the first time in six years.
It wasn’t the way Riley envisioned the second year of his tenure as an offensive wunderkind. He was just 28, the youngest coordinator in college football at the time. Since joining Mike Leach’s Texas Tech staff in 2003 as a student assistant, Riley had never finished below .500 as a football coach.
“I’d never been through anything like that,” Riley said. “I was kind of down in the dumps for a little while, honestly.”
Out of that disappointment, however, came perspective Riley could draw on a dozen years later, as USC enters the final week of a frustrating season during which the Trojans have dropped four of their last five. With UCLA on tap during its regular-season finale Saturday, USC isn’t in danger of finishing below .500 as Riley did in 2011, but at 7-4, it has definitely fallen well short of expectations, a fact that might’ve sent a younger Riley down a dark path.
Not so much the 40-year-old version.
“I rode the emotional roller coaster as a [younger] coach,” Riley said. “Now, I stay a little more even-keeled. I know what the good is. I know what the bad is. I know what we’ve gotta do to fix it. I know what it’s going to take. I know we’re going to get it done, and you’ve gotta be able to take any situation that comes up, whether you win a close game, you make that play at the end or you don’t, there’s still a whole lot else that’s going to have to continue to improve to go where we need to go, and I know all that. I know we’re going to get there.”
Effectively eliminated from the Pac-12 title race, USC won’t be going anywhere this season outside of a second-rate bowl game. But how it responds through the end of this season could be a catalyst going forward, and Riley has shown no signs of wavering in his belief in the program’s current direction, despite its recent slide.
“It’s just one day at a time right now, put your right foot in front of the left, and keep moving,” Riley said. “You do that, you’ve got the right people, and you’re at the right place, good things are going to happen. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”
It took a similar sense of faith to help get East Carolina going in the right direction, as Ruffin McNeill recalls. McNeill was the one keeping an even keel in those days. The coach had been working in college football for 30 years by 2011. At the time, he preached patience within the program, including to his young offensive coordinator and protege, whom he’d brought to East Carolina from Texas Tech. Two years later, East Carolina won 10 games for just the second time in program history.
“It takes time, if you want to do it right,” McNeill said. “He knows exactly what he wants. He has his philosophy. And he’s building that piece by piece.”
It’s no secret where most of those bricks need to be laid. The past four games have seen USC’s defense give up 2,133 yards, the most any Trojans defense has ever given up over a similar stretch. USC now sits in the bottom 10 nationally in both points (34.6) and yards (446.5) allowed per game and remains in the market for a new defensive coordinator.
But even after Oregon rolled over USC for 552 yards in Saturday’s loss, Riley still managed to find a silver lining.
“One of the big goals for us in the game was not to give up explosive plays in the run game and we did a really nice job of that,” said Riley, whose defense held the Ducks to 140 rushing yards, their fewest since early September. “So I thought some of the adjustments the coaches made, the kids made, showed up in that regard.”
The biggest adjustment this week might be a bit more subtle. After more than a month of clinging to hopes of a Pac-12 title, the Trojans no longer have any stakes to play for, outside of the usual bragging rights of the crosstown rivalry. But players and coaches say that hasn’t changed anything this week.
“His message has always been that the next game is the biggest game because it’s the next game,” rush end Jamil Muhammad said. “It’s just all about finishing. That’s what he’s all about.”
McNeill still keeps close tabs on Riley. In recent weeks, with USC reeling, he even texted a reminder or two to his former assistant. Keep hanging in there, he told him.
“You have to have patience,” McNeill said, “and you have to know exactly what you want and how to build it.