USC AD Mike Bohn deems Trojans' quick turnaround under Lincoln Riley 'special'

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 26, 2022: USC head coach Lincoln Riley holds his daughter's hand as he leaves the field after the Trojans beat Notre Dame at the Coliseum on November 26, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC coach Lincoln Riley holds his daughter's hand as he leaves the field after the Trojans beat Notre Dame at the Coliseum on Saturday. (Gina Ferazzi /Los Angeles Times)

Late last November, the night before everything changed for USC football, Mike Bohn stared out over a sea of red, empty seats spread throughout the Coliseum. What few rows were filled that Saturday night belonged primarily to Brigham Young fans, all dressed in blue and white.

It was a depressing scene, at the end of a depressing 4-8 season for USC. But in the meantime, a more promising development was playing out on a TV in the athletic director’s box, where Oklahoma State had just ousted Oklahoma from conference-title contention, opening the door for a conversation with the coach Bohn coveted most for USC’s own opening.

Twelve hours later, Lincoln Riley agreed in principle to become USC’s next coach, setting into motion one of the most stunning single-season turnarounds in recent college football history.

Twelve months after that, with USC's first-ever bid to the College Football Playoff within reach, Bohn looked out over the same stadium during last Saturday’s win over Notre Dame in a state of awe. The stands were full. The Coliseum was rocking. The future for USC football seemed impossibly bright.

Even for the man who pulled it all off, it was hard to believe how much had changed in such a short amount of time.

“To see it all come together like that, last Saturday was really special,” Bohn said. “I mean, really, really special.”

Exactly one year since Riley’s hire, the athletic director sits on a couch in his office at Heritage Hall, heaping praise on his football coach, who has turned the Trojans from disastrous disappointment to 11-1 playoff contender, on the precipice of a Pac-12 title. Reflecting on that sudden transformation, there’s no shortage of colorful adjectives Bohn can string together over 20 minutes to describe his admiration for Riley after Year 1:

“The way he leads the program is just so beautiful.

“He’s just exceptional.

“Well beyond special.”

Who could blame Bohn for basking a bit in the afterglow after two years of turmoil leading up to that program-altering moment. USC’s athletic director had led the department through the pandemic and rebuilt its infrastructure in the process, facing plenty of criticism along the way. But his tenure at USC was bound to be defined by whomever he hired to replace Clay Helton. The pressure to deliver was staggering.

He still won’t divulge many of the meatier details of that fateful November night. But after speaking with Riley’s agent, Bohn said he went to sleep feeling optimistic. Albeit, guarded.

“Until things are final, they're never final,” Bohn said. “I've been a part of some unique searches in the past, and sometimes you have surprises. You always have to guard against developments that are outside of your control.”

But there would be no need for the contingency plans Bohn and his former chief of staff, Brandon Sosna, had prepared. A Zoom call with Bohn, as well as university President Carol Folt and board chair Rick Caruso, was held early the next morning. The final pitches were made, the last details drawn.

USC coach Lincoln Riley talks with his players on the sideline in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame.
USC coach Lincoln Riley talks with his players on the sideline in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame on Saturday at the Coliseum. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The next day, as USC introduced its new coach, Bohn boldly described the hire as “one of the biggest moves in the history of the game.”

“It sends a loud and powerful message to the college football world that this sleeping giant is wide awake,” he declared.

Looking back, Bohn admitted even he didn’t think USC would be awoken quite this quickly.

“Absolutely [this is what I had in mind],” Bohn said, with a smile, “but I’m not sure [I thought] Year One.”

That rapid rise, observed Bohn, is as much a product of the tone Riley has set behind the scenes. Every minor detail within the program is now treated intentionally. Bohn described a “contagious sense of everyone plowing together” within the entire athletic department, one he says was inspired by Riley.

“He is an elite master of pulling together all aspects of a college football operation to a point that I have rarely seen in this business,” Bohn said. “He’s got an incredible sense, in his gut and his heart, that never fails him associated with [making] decisions. I think that’s why he’s an elite coach and an elite leader.”

His debut season has definitely done wonders to ease the tension that once existed within USC’s frustrated fan base. Fans who once called for Bohn’s job are now eager to pat him on the back.

The tone around the Trojans is certainly different these days.

“There's a collective sense of pride,” Bohn said. “People are genuinely feeling good about [the program], and it's real. And I think that’s really an essential part of an elite program when you have everybody feeling that same way.”

Bohn won’t speculate much on what comes next. NFL suitors are certain to come calling for Riley soon enough. As USC prepares for the Pac-12 title game, its athletic director plans to live in the moment, like his coach.

But after seeing what could be accomplished in just one year, Bohn couldn’t be happier with where this story is headed.

“It'll be one that people will write about for a long, long time,” Bohn said, “and I think coaches are gonna try and figure out, well, how the heck did they do that?”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.