USC’s Lincoln Riley was 4th-highest paid college football coach in 2022

USC’s Lincoln Riley was 4th-highest paid college football coach in 2022

LOS ANGELES — Upon Lincoln Riley’s arrival at USC in November 2021, the trumpets of the student band welcoming him to a terrace overlooking the Coliseum, one of the football coach’s first statements of this new era was to note the unity of the group of constituents who had brought him there.

“They were completely in sync,” Riley said then, speaking of USC President Carol Folt, the Board of Trustees and more, “about what they felt what USC football could be, what they felt like that we needed to do to make up the gap. And they were totally united on doing anything and everything possible to help get us to that point.”

And “everything possible,” it’s perfectly clear, meant backing up the truck to bring Riley aboard.

USC paid Riley $10 million in a combination of base salary and benefits in the 2022 calendar year, according to its newly released tax forms obtained via university request by the Southern California News Group. That figure made Riley the fourth-highest-paid coach in college football in 2022, behind Alabama’s Nick Saban, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Georgia’s Kirby Smart, judging by reported compensation within USA Today’s coaching-salaries database.

That’s not all. Riley was paid $19.7 million by the university in total that 2022-23 fiscal year, thanks to an additional $9.6 million in what IRS form 990 labels “other reportable compensation.” The document clarifies that part of that taxable amount went toward Riley’s buyout at Oklahoma, which The Oklahoman reported was $4.5 million.

First reported by the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, the document is the first look inside the head coach’s much-discussed contract at USC, which places him squarely alongside some of the luminaries of college football. It’s unclear what Riley’s salary was in 2023 and what it will be in subsequent years, as tax records only become available a year after the previous fiscal year has been completed. Saban, Swinney and Smart, however, all saw their salaries jump from 2022 to 2023; given the commonality in how coaching contracts are structured, it’s highly likely that Riley’s base pay has only increased since.

He was hailed as a savior at USC in his first season in 2022, accelerating USC’s rebuild to a stunning 11-3 season. But USC stumbled in 2023, in a well-documented 8-5 finish. And the clear reality of USC’s investment into Riley, in addition to other financial commitments detailed in the tax forms, only intensifies the importance of continued progress in the program’s foray into the Big Ten Conference.

Consider this: USC’s second-, third- and fourth-highest paid employees in 2022 – then-defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, men’s basketball coach Andy Enfield and ex-football coach Clay Helton – are no longer with the university.

Grinch, in particular, was paid nearly $2 million in base salary in 2022, and was given an additional $2.3 million in “other reportable compensation,” in part tied to his buyout from Oklahoma. That solidifies him as one of the highest-paid assistant coaches in the nation in his tenure at USC, which ended in an unceremonious midseason firing after a couple years of shaky defenses under Riley.

Meanwhile, Helton, who was fired a couple games into 2021 amid a highly scrutinized seven-year tenure at USC, made nearly $4 million off his contract buyout in 2022. In other words: Helton was paid nearly double not to coach at USC than Willie Fritz was paid to coach Tulane in 2022, the program that knocked USC off 46-45 in the Cotton Bowl. Helton was paid more not to coach at USC than Folt ($3.7 million) was paid to run the entire school in 2022.

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Between Grinch and Helton, USC committed more than $8 million in 2022 – in addition to the nearly $20 million it paid Riley – to two coaches who are no longer employed at the university. In due time, if the program reaches the heights on “the climb” Riley references, those funds will have been well spent in the eyes of USC fans for glory restored at the Coliseum.

But the climb, no matter the destination, has come at a steep cost.

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