Swanson: Lincoln Riley’s loyalty to Alex Grinch isn’t a bad thing

We could all use a friend like Lincoln Riley.

Someone so patient, so supportive, so loyal.

Folks in Oklahoma would balk at that assessment, of course. There he’ll probably always be derided for turning heel to come west to coach USC, for pulling a heel turn worthy of a WWE script. For becoming the first Sooners coach to leave for another job since 1973, and the first to leave for another college gig since 1946.

But here in L.A., it’s Riley’s loyalty – blind, bewildering, beautiful? – to embattled defensive coordinator Alex Grinch that the team’s supporters are going to find dismaying. At least in the near term, and maybe in the long term, too. We’ll see.

Because in USC’s two losses with a healthy Caleb Williams – against Utah on Oct. 15, and against Tulane in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2 – the Heisman Trophy winner threw for a combined 843 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Astoundingly, that wasn’t enough.

In the Trojans’ 43-42 heartbreaker in Salt Lake City, USC defenders missed 18 tackles, gave up 291 of the Utes’ whopping 562 yards in the second half, allowed three first downs by penalty and had just one tackle for loss.

Then, in the meltdown in Texas, they gave up 16 points in the final 4:07 of the season to succumb to the Green Wave, 46-45.

It’s tough to defend a defensive coordinator whose entire job is to prepare the Trojans on that side of the ball to stop opposing offenses, including good ones. Easy to point a finger at that guy, to blame the Grinch for stealing USC’s thunder amid an otherwise impressive revival, from 4-8 to 11-3.

But offend fans though he might, after some contemplation, Riley is doing the tough thing by sticking with Grinch, picking him up instead of making him the fall guy.

Riley broke the news Tuesday during a two-hour sit-down with beat writers, telling Southern California News Group’s Adam Grosbard and seven others: “I don’t even feel like 50-50 at all conflicted about it. I feel I have a clear vision of what we’re gonna be defensively, and I think we can and need to and will take a big jump here in the next 12 months.”

If you can, get you a boss like Grinch has.

A supervisor who has your back and sees your potential, and who has foresight and conviction. Those leaders who expect a lot from you, but who also hold themselves accountable.

That’s someone you’d want to work with, and someone you’d want your kid to play for.

“Alex has gotta be better,” Riley afforded in that revealing and entirely on-the-record meeting with USC’s scribes.

But so too does everybody else, he said.

“I still have an important role there,” continued Riley, who failed, in Year 1, to spend as much time as he needed to on defensive affairs. “Strength has gotta be better. Nutrition’s gotta be better. Like, sports psych’s gotta be better. Like every part’s gotta be better. … The assistants have gotta be better. The players have gotta be better.”

Bigger, too.

Riley was on the sideline at SoFi Stadium on Monday, when Georgia steamrolled TCU, 65-7, in the College Football Playoff championship game.

USC HC Lincoln Riley is on-site for the CFP National Championship @uscfb@LincolnRiley

(: @DaveSulfaro)

— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 9, 2023

He was there supporting his younger brother, Garrett Riley, TCU’s offensive coordinator – and sizing up the Bulldogs’ national championship roster, including a defensive line that featured seven players weighing in at 300 pounds or more, something only one of USC’s D-lineman did this past season.

“Do they look like our guys?” Riley asked. “Not yet. Our guys don’t look like that. We will soon.”

For USC, it will be a matter of bulking up physically. Talent-wise. And certainly depth-wise.

The Trojans have to add girth to what Riley called his roster’s “underbelly,” and they’re working on it. They recruited nine defensive players, including three four-star prospects who include highly touted talents such as Braylan Shelby, an edge rusher, and Tackett Curtis, a linebacker.

And, via the transfer portal, they’ll add Arizona defensive lineman Kyon Barrs, a second-team All-Pac-12 honoree in 2021, and Oklahoma State linebacker Mason Cobb, who was second-team All-Big 12 this season.

And they’re keeping Grinch.

For everything Riley wants to add – size, talent, depth – he’s not keen on introducing new voices. Not yet. Not after the wholesale changes the program experienced after Riley came on last season.

Moreover, he believes in Grinch.

His defensive coordinator didn’t make excuses last season. Before that, he helped Oklahoma’s defense improve in his three seasons there, taking a team that was giving up 453.8 yards and 33.3 points per game when he got there and, in his second season, cutting that to a more manageable 350.6 yards and 21.7 points, top-30 measurements nationally.

And, notably, Grinch believes in Riley too, having followed him to L.A. in the first place.

There’s something honorable about cultivating a supportive culture in the cutthroat environment of college football. Something that seems like a priority to Riley, who has had to reflect recently on what actually matters, following the deaths of USC assistant football coach Dave Nichol last March and pioneering coach Mike Leach, a mentor of Riley’s, last month.

“I doubt when any of us get the end of our lives, we’re gonna care a whole lot if we won this game or got this recruit, you know?” Riley said Tuesday to those reporters he sees most regularly. “And so it definitely, obviously doesn’t take away from our competitiveness of it, but it certainly puts things in perspective.

“(It) makes you, as the head coach, when you’re responsible for all these people, really think about what really, really is important at the end of the day.”

Such as, say, being loyal to your people.

Staff writer Adam Grosbard contributed to this story.

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