USC paid nearly $20 million in 2022 to bring Lincoln Riley to L.A.

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His hire, in late November 2021, was heralded as a monumental moment for USC and its struggling football program. But actually landing Lincoln Riley, one of the brightest young minds in college football, did not come cheap.

USC shelled out $19.7 million in reportable compensation to Riley between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023, according to a federal tax return filed by the university and obtained by The Times. Of that nearly $20 million, USC paid its new coach $10.042 million in base pay and benefits for the 2022 season.

At the time, that number made Riley one of just four coaches in all of college football earning eight figures in salary and benefits. The other three — Alabama’s Nick Saban, Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney — had all won at least two national championships. Three other coaches — Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Texas’ Steve Sarkisian and Alabama’s Kalen DeBoer — have since crossed the $10-million threshold.

It’s unclear how much Riley’s pay has risen in the seasons since his first. The federal tax return, which covers only the fiscal year 2022, is the first public disclosure of Riley’s compensation since he left Oklahoma for USC at the end of the 2021 season. At Oklahoma, he was already one of the highest-paid coaches in college football at $7.812 million per year.

The remaining $9.616 million paid to Riley by USC during the 2022 fiscal year was listed in tax form only as “other related compensation.” But at least half of that figure, according to USC’s filing, paid for Riley’s $4.5-million buyout at Oklahoma.

USC was not immediately able to provide any further details about what qualified as “other related compensation.”

The price to hire Riley in 2022 is steeper when you consider he wasn’t the only head football coach USC had to pay that football season. The university also paid its previous coach, Clay Helton, $3.987 million in severance in 2022, even as he coached the entire season thousands of miles away at Georgia Southern.

Helton’s salary to not coach at USC was more than Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham or Arizona’s Jedd Fisch made in salary last season. Altogether, paying Riley to come to USC and Helton to leave cost the university nearly $24 million in 2022.

That wasn’t the only position at which USC was paying a premium. As part of the deal in hiring Riley, the university paid up for his preferred defensive coordinator, Alex Grinch, to join him in L.A.

Upon his arrival, Grinch was one of the highest-paid assistant coaches in college football.

The defensive coordinator received just over $2 million in salary and benefits in his first season at USC, as well as $2.3 million in “other reportable compensation.” Part of that $2.3 million, according to the tax form, included a $1.08-million buyout paid to Oklahoma by USC as part of Grinch’s move to L.A.

Among college assistant football coaches in 2022, according to USA Today’s salary database, only Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken crossed the $2-million threshold.

The $4-million investment in Grinch in 2022 didn’t pay quite the same dividends as Riley. He was fired with two games left in the 2023 season after two dismal campaigns leading USC’s defense.

USC paid buyouts so that two other assistants coaches could join Riley. The school paid a $140,000 buyout for outside linebackers coach Roy Manning, as well as $25,000 for inside linebackers coach Brian Odom, each of whom no longer works at USC.

But those are small fees compared with what USC paid its football coaches in Riley’s first season, which ended just short of a trip to the College Football Playoff semifinals. Among Riley, Helton and Grinch, the university paid a total of $28 million in 2022.

Only one of those coaches was still employed by the university in 2024.

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