Through two decades of friendship, Dennis Simmons felt he had a pretty good beat on Lincoln Riley. They met at Texas Tech when Riley was 19 and transitioning from quarterback to coach-in-training, supported each other through weddings and the early stages of fatherhood, and, after Riley took over for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, he eventually named Simmons his associate head coach.
And yet, Simmons was not remotely prepared for the phone call he got from Riley on a Sunday in late November, just hours after the Sooners lost to in-state rival Oklahoma State in Stillwater.
“Not gonna lie, extremely shocked,” Simmons said.
USC? Like, for real?
“I need you there,” Simmons recalled Riley saying.
“What time and where?” Simmons responded.
“The relationship, friendship and brotherhood that Lincoln and I share,” Simmons explained, “is a very strong bond.”
Early the next morning, Simmons left his wife and two kids in Norman and boarded USC’s private plane with Riley, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie and director of operations Clarke Stroud to embark on a grand adventure.
The four former Sooners staff members, quickly labeled as traitors by the Oklahoma fan base, accompanied Riley that Monday to his introductory news conference. They did not speak then, but two months later, a day after the Trojans welcomed 13 new transfers into the program, USC made Simmons, Grinch, and seven other assistants available to discuss their backgrounds, philosophies and motivations for joining Riley in L.A.
Grinch got the same call from Riley as Simmons and also did not hesitate.
“You have the opportunity to be under elite leadership,” says Grinch, who will remain Riley’s defensive coordinator at USC. “As an assistant coach, that’s very rare in this business.”
Grinch and Simmons, who will serve as assistant head coach and outside receivers coach, respectively, later welcomed former Oklahoma assistants Brian Odom (inside linebackers coach and associate head coach for defense) and Roy Manning (outside linebackers and nickel cornerbacks) to the staff. Odom and Manning share a deep loyalty to Grinch, having worked under him at Washington State and Oklahoma.
“There’s a lot of familiarity in that room, especially with us three,” Odom said.
For Manning, the choice to come to USC seemed a little unnatural. As a linebacker at Michigan, he had lost to the Trojans in the 2004 Rose Bowl. As an assistant coach, he had battled against USC at Washington State and UCLA.
“I was a hater, man,” Manning said.
It’s been a short amount of time, but he already feels he had a lot of things wrong about USC.
“The thought is, when I’ve been at other places, USC, you’re in this major market, this hustle and bustle, a mess of a city,” Manning said. “But then you get here, and it’s really pretty neat, how this campus sits near downtown, but it’s not a downtown feel. [You assume students are] hopping on buses, using public transport, but they’re doing quite the opposite. It’s skateboards and scooters. I’ve been pleasantly surprised.”
Four USC assistants will be working under Riley for the first time, including defensive backs coach Donte Williams, who served as the Trojans’ interim head coach in 2021.
Williams did not want to talk Thursday about his time leading the program, saying, “the past is the past.” Grinch said that retaining previous staff members is an advantage “only if they’re good enough,” and Williams made the cut.
Josh Henson (offensive coordinator and offensive line coach), Shaun Nua (defensive line coach) and Kiel McDonald (running backs coach) all left prominent programs on an upward trajectory (Texas A&M, Michigan and Utah, respectively) for USC.
When Henson saw that Oklahoma offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh was not coming with Riley, he reached out to Grinch to make his interest known.
“I’ve heard what kind of man Coach Riley is, the character he has, the way he runs his program, the culture he builds, and I wanted to come be a part of that,” Henson said. “It’s fun to be in the room with him getting into his mind about offense. Combine that with 76-degree weather, I’m in.”
Last season, Nua coached Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson to a Heisman Trophy runner-up finish and tutored edge rusher David Ojabo toward a first-round projection. But his West Coast roots as a native of American Samoa were hard to deny, especially once he spoke with Riley.
“Talk to Coach Riley for five minutes and you want to do everything he does,” Nua said. “Not saying it was easy to leave Michigan. But Coach Riley and USC made it easy.”
The opportunity was so appealing for McDonald that he went through the awkwardness of leaving Pac-12 South rival Utah for the Trojans.
“We’ve all grown up watching USC and who they are and what they can accomplish, the heights they’ve gone to,” McDonald said, “and I just want to be a part of the staff that hopefully brings that back.”
The final two assistant coaches, Dave Nichol (inside wide receivers coach and associate head coach for offense) and Zach Hanson (tight ends coach), have connections to Riley.
Nichol was on Riley’s offensive staff at East Carolina.
Hanson’s wife, Annie, was a key member of Riley’s Oklahoma recruiting staff. When Riley asked Annie to join him at USC, he told her she could bring Zach (the offensive line coach at Tulsa) with her this time.
“Lincoln Riley gives you a call and asks you to be a part of that staff,” Zach Hanson said, “it takes you about 10 seconds.”