How Lincoln Riley turned USC haters into key members of his Trojans coaching staff

Over two decades of friendship, Dennis Simmons felt he had a pretty good read on Lincoln Riley. They met at Texas Tech when Riley was 19 and transitioning from quarterback to trainee coach, supported each other through marriages and the early stages of fatherhood, and, after Riley took over from Bob Stoops in Oklahoma, he eventually made Simmons his partner. the head coach.

And yet, Simmons was not remotely prepared for the phone call he received from Riley on a Sunday in late November, just hours after the Sooners’ loss to rival Oklahoma State in Stillwater. .

“I’m not going to lie, extremely shocked,” Simmons said.

USC? Like, for real?

“I need you there,” Simmons recalled telling Riley.

“At what time and where?” Simons replied.

“The relationship, the friendship and the brotherhood that Lincoln and I share,” Simmons explained, “is a very strong bond.”

Early the next morning, Simmons left his wife and two children at Norman and boarded the USC private plane with Riley, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie and COO Clarke Stroud to embark on a grand adventure.

The four former Sooners staffers, quickly branded traitors by the Oklahoma fan base, accompanied Riley that Monday to his introductory press conference. They weren’t talking then, but two months later, a day after the Trojans welcomed 13 new transfers to the program, USC made Simmons, Grinch and seven other assistants available to discuss their backgrounds, philosophies and motivations. to join Riley in LA.

Grinch got the same call from Riley as Simmons and didn’t hesitate either.

“You have the opportunity to be under elite leadership,” says Grinch, who will remain Riley’s defensive coordinator at USC. “As an assistant coach, that’s very rare in this business.”

Grinch and Simmons, who will serve as assistant head coach and outside receivers coach respectively, then welcomed former Oklahoma assistants Brian Odom (inside linebackers coach and associate head coach for defense) and Roy Manning (outside linebackers and nickel cornerbacks) on staff. Odom and Manning share a deep loyalty to the Grinch, having worked under him in Washington State and Oklahoma.

“There’s a lot of familiarity in this room, especially with the three of us,” Odom said.

For Manning, the choice to come to USC seemed a bit unnatural. As a linebacker at Michigan, he lost to the Trojans in the 2004 Rose Bowl. As an assistant coach, he battled USC in Washington State and UCLA.

“I was a hater, man,” Manning said.

It’s been a while, but he already feels he hurt a lot about USC.

“The thought is, when I’ve been to other places, USC, you’re in this major market, this bustle, a mess of a city,” Manning said. “But then you get here, and it’s really really neat, how this campus is near downtown, but it’s not a downtown feel. [You assume students are] hop on buses, use public transport, but they do just the opposite. These are skateboards and scooters. I was pleasantly surprised.

Four USC assistants will work under Riley for the first time, including defensive backs coach Donte Williams, who served as the Trojans’ interim head coach in 2021.

Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch before the start of a game against Tulane on September 4, 2021 in Norman, Okla. Grinch will be USC’s new defensive coordinator.

(Alonzo Adams/Associated Press)

Williams wouldn’t speak Thursday about his time at the helm of the program, saying “the past is the past.” Grinch said retaining former staffers is an advantage “only if they’re good enough”, and Williams made the cut.

Josh Henson (offensive coordinator and offensive line coach), Shaun Nua (defensive line coach) and Kiel McDonald (running backs coach) have all left top-tier programs on an upward trajectory (Texas A&M, Michigan and Utah, respectively) for USC.

When Henson saw that Oklahoma offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh was not coming with Riley, he contacted Grinch to register his interest.

“I heard what kind of man Coach Riley is, the character he has, the way he runs his program, the culture he builds, and I wanted to be a part of that,” Henson said. . “It’s fun to be in the room with him thinking about attacking. Combine that with 76 degree weather, I’m in.

Last season, Nua coached Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson to a second-place finish at the Heisman Trophy and guided David Ojabo to a first-round projection. But his West Coast roots as a native of American Samoa were hard to deny, especially once he spoke with Riley.

“Talk to Coach Riley for five minutes and you want to do whatever he does,” Nua said. “I’m not saying it was easy to leave Michigan. But Coach Riley and USC made it easy.

The opportunity was so attractive to McDonald that he had the awkwardness to leave Pac-12 South rival Utah for the Trojans.

“We all grew up watching USC, who they are and what they can accomplish, the heights they’ve reached,” McDonald said, “and I just want to be part of the staff who hopefully bring it back.”

The last two assistant coaches, Dave Nichol (inside wide receivers coach and associate head coach for offense) and Zach Hanson (tight ends coach), have ties to Riley.

Nichol was on Riley’s offensive team at East Carolina.

Hanson’s wife, Annie, was a key member of Riley’s Oklahoma recruiting staff. When Riley asked Annie to join him at USC, he told her she could bring Zach (the offensive line coach at Tulsa) with her this time.

“Lincoln Riley calls you and asks you to be on this staff,” Zach Hanson said, “it takes you about 10 seconds.”

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