Jennifer Cohen must ensure Lincoln Riley transforms USC football

As Jennifer Cohen laid out her initial vision for the USC athletic department Monday afternoon at her introductory news conference, dozens of Trojans coaches and staff members put aside their practice and game preparation to hear what she had to say and offer their support.

But the person who most needs to believe in Cohen for her to have a successful tenure as USC’s athletic director wasn’t in the room.

Lincoln Riley had a fine excuse to be absent. The Trojans kick off their season Saturday against San José State at the Coliseum. USC president Carol Folt said her goal was to have a new athletic director in place by that special day, and she got it done. Cohen starts Tuesday morning, taking over a department that is still recovering from more than a decade of disappointing leadership, and that’s putting it kindly.

It isn’t a big deal that Riley didn’t attend. Cohen said she met the second-year USC football coach earlier Monday morning. Perhaps it felt surprising not to see the school’s most recognizable face — other than maybe his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback — because the “alignment” between Folt, former athletic director Mike Bohn and their star coach was given so much emphasis on the triumphant day Riley was introduced and each day thereafter.

After every game last season, it was Folt and Bohn together waiting to congratulate Riley as he walked off the field at the Coliseum. Assuming that tradition continues this fall, it will be Cohen by Folt’s side.

Riley’s hiring remains one of the most significant moments of Folt’s tenure as USC’s leader, and keeping him happy in Los Angeles should be Cohen’s top priority. If it isn’t, someone find her a school historian, pronto.

When USC football is winning big, everybody is happy. Big mistakes — like the hiring of Bohn despite the behavioral issues that lived in his past — become little hiccups.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams talks to coach Lincoln Riley during the Cotton Bowl in January.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams talks to coach Lincoln Riley during the Cotton Bowl in January.

(Sam Hodde / Associated Press)

Bohn made a tremendous football coaching hire that has stoked the fires within the Trojans legions and lifted USC back to the precipice of greatness, which is why the tenor around his abrupt resignation among diehards has mostly amounted to, “So what if he didn’t treat some employees with respect? My fall Saturdays in 2022 were actually fun again.”

Bohn will be remembered as a winning hire by many Trojans simply because he was in charge when Riley hopped a private jet from Oklahoma to Southern California.

It’s Cohen’s job to get Riley over the hump, consistently winning Big Ten titles and contending for national championships. That’s it.

If there are troubles with the transition to the Big Ten, just point to the football trophy case. If Andy Enfield’s basketball program doesn’t follow through on the hype this year, just remind fans the football spring game is fast approaching and to order those season tickets.

This being USC, who the heck knows what unforeseen drama is coming Cohen’s way. But if the Trojans are truly back in college football’s top rung, her Q-rating will be safe.

Riley left an Oklahoma athletic department that was the definition of a well-oiled machine under longtime director Joe Castiglione to come to USC where Bohn and his chief of staff Brandon Sosna were just starting to push the Trojans’ resource base into the new millennium. USC football was so understaffed when Bohn arrived that he didn’t find it fair to evaluate Clay Helton until they’d put more in place around him.

Riley is calculated about everything. He has a high standard for the people he works with. He told me last month at Pac-12 Media Day that he found out about Bohn’s resignation like the rest of us.

“I found out about 15 minutes before you did or before the rest of the world did,” he said. “It was totally out of left field.”

Having a new boss within 18 months, especially under those circumstances, could not have been what Riley foresaw when he moved his young family across the country. He had already lost the impressive Sosna, the athletic department’s point man on football who headed the process that landed Riley, to a job with the Detroit Lions.

I asked Riley about the search for the new athletic director.

“Listen,” Riley said, “this position, I don’t know what it was like a few years ago when they went through a search, whoever the next athletic director is will be walking into a pretty good situation.”

What Riley didn’t say — and possibly doesn’t even fully realize — is he’s the reason for that. Cohen starts on Day 1 with one of the top young football coaches in the sport, not just college football. But his desirability ramps up the pressure, too. The moment Riley doesn’t see the department’s trajectory on the same path as his own is the moment some NFL owner could potentially sway him to make another bold career move.

“The elite coaches that we have here are a driver for me,” Cohen said. “These coaches are tireless. They show up every day trying to be the best. I’m excited to serve them. I like being around other people who want to be the best.”

She and Riley should work quite well together then.

Cohen is taking over at the right time, too. USC has announced ambitious plans for a state-of-the-art football facility, and, luckily, Cohen’s specialty at Washington has long been fundraising.

At USC, it always comes back to this: If Cohen gives Riley what he needs, USC donors will gladly give her what she needs.