Sports

College Football’s ‘Great Man Theory’ Gets a New Test at U.S.C.

College football’s allegiance to its version of the great man theory, to the idea that a single coach can prove transformative, has always been a matter of convenience. But rarely have the sport’s fickle feelings about it been so apparent as these past few days.

Lure a 38-year-old football wunderkind and crow, as Southern California did Sunday when it announced Lincoln Riley as its seventh coach since 2001, about “a testament to the strength of our brand” and a multimillion-dollar dash of gridiron hope. Lose that wunderkind and insist, as Oklahoma did upon Riley’s departurethat a program that had freshly stumbled into turmoil “isn’t defined by any one individual.”

The decision by Riley, who tutored two Heisman Trophy winners during five masterful seasons atop Oklahoma and was making more than $7 million a year there, to leave for the dented Porsche of a program that is U.S.C. is about far more than a coach’s whims or any reservations he might have harbored about competing in the Southeastern Conference, which Oklahoma will join in the coming years.

His choice was also a glaring indicator of a particularly feverish marketplace fueled by seemingly endless supplies of football money around brand-name schools, often public institutions, and the urgency to win now. The impatience is not a new phenomenon — every SEC coach’s return for the 2019 season counted as a marvel — but this year, especially, the bazaar that forever bustles with supposed one-man remedies for mediocrity swung into open action early.

“You have a shortage of elite coaches right now, or at least people who are viewed as elite coaches, whether that’s by fan bases of one particular school or the media,” said Ross Bjork, the athletic director at Texas A&M University, which recently extended Coach Jimbo Fisher’s contract and increased his salary to at least $9 million a year starting in January.

“If you can land somebody like U.S.C. did, you have to take your shot for sure,” Bjork added in an interview on Monday. “I think that proven coaches are hard to come by these days.”

Some of the men lately deemed stale, of course, were soaring not long ago.

Louisiana State ousted Ed Orgeron, who led the Tigers to a national championship in the 2019 season, and agreed to pay him almost $17 million. (On Saturday, in Orgeron’s final game, L.S.U. edged Fisher’s 15th-ranked A&M team.) Dan Mullen steered Florida into premier bowl games in each of the three seasons he completed, but he is now collecting $12 million to do something besides coach the Gators. Gary Patterson won 181 games, including a Rose Bowl, across all or part of 22 seasons at Texas Christian before an abrupt exit on Halloween.

By then, U.S.C., a private university, had fired Clay Helton, the seventh-year coach who had brought his teams to three Pac-12 championship games and commanded a buyout estimated to be worth at least $10 million. And so the Trojans, after years of trying out starry names like Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, are looking to Riley to rekindle the kind of magic that just one recent U.S.C. impresario, Pete Carroll, ultimately conjured.

There is reason for measured optimism. Although Riley inherited an Oklahoma that Bob Stoops had rebuilt, his five years in charge yielded a 55-10 record, three College Football Playoff berths, four Big 12 titles and a series of offenses that flummoxed and humiliated one defense after another.

“Lincoln is the rarest combination of extraordinary person and elite football coach,” Mike Bohn, U.S.C.’s athletic director, said. “His successes and offensive accolades as a head coach the past five years are astonishing. Lincoln will recruit relentlessly, develop his players on and off the field, and implement a strong culture in which the program will operate with the highest level of integrity and professionalism.”

Despite the myriad messes, disasters, indignities and misfires that have befallen U.S.C. since its last protracted turn of unquestioned relevance in the early 2000s, there were no pleas for patience, no words of caution.

“This is for our current players, our former players, our alumni, our fans, and our entire university community,” Bohn said. “Our time is now.”

Possibly. But Bohn’s move, and Riley’s, is not without risks; there are perils to turning a school into a site to test the great man notion.

Oklahoma is enduring that, and swallowing hard, now. The deifying worked well enough when Stoops, a self-described “program guy,” ruled Norman. (The irony seemed lost on Oklahoma when, in the same statement in which its leaders repeatedly declared that the football program’s success was not concentrated in a single person, it said Stoops would return and coach the Sooners in their bowl game.)

But the departure of Riley, who, even as the head coach, was still calling plays for Oklahoma, provoked a recruiting bloodletting. The sterling quarterback prospect Malachi Nelson, for instance, pulled back from his commitment to Oklahoma, which he had decided to attend, he said, because of “the stability in the coaching staff.” Other top recruits also promptly fled, and the transfer portal could easily warp parts of Oklahoma’s existing roster.

The Sooners will be aggressive in their search. They must be because they are not alone.

L.S.U. still needs a coach. Louisiana, which lost Billy Napier to Florida, is looking for someone to lead it in the resurgent Sun Belt Conference. Virginia Tech is still headhunting. So is Duke.

The list goes on. The boosters are ready, and the bazaar is open.

Maybe the next great coach looms to alter a program’s course.

By the standards these days, we’ll know sooner than not.

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