The story of Lincoln Riley’s big rise starts in little Muleshoe, Texas

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MULESHOE, Texas — Speaking over the phone Friday morning, new USC football coach Lincoln Riley is discussing his adjustment to Los Angeles so far and laughs when asked about his current living arrangement.

“Yeah, hotel right now,” he says. “…. It’s been hectic. I’ll be excited for the dust to settle a little bit where we can get a chance to get to know this place and obviously find a place to live and just kind of really get settled in as members of the community.”

Just a few days into his Trojans tenure, Riley was already on the road recruiting, with stops from Las Vegas to Georgia to Texas. He got back to Los Angeles last Sunday for a big on-campus recruiting event and has been working this week to settle into his new surroundings and meet his team.

“We were out of state a lot the first week trying to get all that recruiting done. This week’s been mostly here locally, obviously doing some recruiting, but spending a lot of time here within the facility, especially with the current players,” he says. “That’s been important to be able to connect with them, spend some time with them, start to be able to evaluate the roster.”

It has now been two weeks since Riley shocked the college football world — and even those who have known him his whole life — by leaving Oklahoma after posting a 55-10 record, four Big 12 championships, three College Football Playoff appearances and two Heisman Trophy winners over five seasons as head coach, to take on the job of rebuilding USC football.

It wasn’t just surprising that one of the most respected rising stars in the profession left one blue-blood program for another but that he did so for Los Angeles, after spending most of his life and career relatively close to home — and in decidedly different settings — in West Texas and Oklahoma.

As Riley noted, he hasn’t had all that much time to get his bearings in L.A. yet, especially considering the conversations with USC about taking the job happened quickly and without an in-person visit to campus.

“The campus is different than I imagined, in a positive way. The campus is amazing. I had this notion in my mind that the Coliseum was going to be way off campus and it’s not. Just some things you maybe thought of because it’s in a big city and really the feel here on campus and around that is not that — it’s a cool little community,” Riley says. “I would just say as strong as I felt about it obviously to take this job and accept it, I would say everything I’ve seen up to this point confirms that or even makes me feel stronger about it. It’s the right place.”

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Outside of the USC and Oklahoma fan bases, which have reacted to Riley’s move to the West Coast with wholly different but equally intense sentiments, the news has probably created the most buzz within a small town in West Texas, right on the edge of New Mexico, that raised Riley and set him on this path in the first place.

Muleshoe, Texas, is a town of just over 5,000 people with one stoplight and expansive farmland surrounding it from every side. Dairy, cotton and other agricultural industries drive the local economy, which like many towns and cities across the country has been impacted by the pandemic and the resulting toll on small businesses.

As its proud citizens will say, though, Muleshoe is a tight-knit community that supports one another, that has a strong investment in its school system and raising its next generation … and that cares deeply about football.

So, yes, in this small town 85 miles southwest of Amarillo and 68 miles northwest of Lubbock, USC’s coaching hire has been a big deal.

“There was a lot of conversation — a lot of conversation,” says Stacy Conner, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Muleshoe. “… We had dinner with friends [that] Sunday night and that was the first thing that came up — ‘Did you all see?'”

“It was a shock to us,” says Alice Liles, who was Riley’s English teacher his 11th grade year at Muleshoe High School.

But not in the way it was in Norman, Okla. No, Muleshoe will always feel a strong attachment to Riley, because no matter how far he gets from his roots geographically there’s a deeper connection shared by both the town and its most famous native son that has always transcended college football loyalties.

“A lot of people will tell you we’re fans of our school and wherever Lincoln is, so come next fall at Leal’s [Mexican restaurant] you may see some USC shirts that you’ve never seen before. It wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Conner says.

Speaking on the phone Friday with a reporter who had made the trek to Muleshoe, Riley said, “Tell everybody I said hello.”

He might not get back as often now as he used to, since his parents Mike and Marilyn moved to Lubbock and his grandparents passed away in recent years, but wherever Riley’s career has taken him, his story can’t truly be told without starting here.

“I used to get back a couple times a year. … I probably won’t be through there quite as much as I used to be without family ties there, but it will obviously always be home,” he says.

Before the call ends, as Riley has to get back to work Friday preparing for a pivotal weekend hosting recruits just days before the early signing period, he’s asked if he has any recommendations for a first-time visitor.

“Definitely go eat at Leal’s — don’t miss that,” he says.

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