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    USC coach Lincoln Riley misses practices with illness
    • October 25, 2023

    LOS ANGELES — After the lopsided loss at Notre Dame a few weeks ago, after USC’s undefeated slate was washed away with the morning rain in South Bend, Indiana, Lincoln Riley had a reminder for the public: his program was still undefeated in Pac-12 Conference play.

    After falling to Utah on Saturday night, after USC’s undefeated start to conference play vanished on a last-second field goal by the Utes, the reminder was repurposed and repackaged on Tuesday even in the head coach’s absence: they were 4-1 in conference play, wide receivers coach Dennis Simmons reminded the public, with “every opportunity to accomplish every goal that this team has set forth.”

    Every goal – except, realistically, a shot at a College Football Playoff berth. And a national championship.

    “I mean, you know 4-1 in conference, a lot of stuff we still can go get, so I think that’s – we’re just trying to stay positive,” senior linebacker Mason Cobb said Tuesday, earnest as ever. “That’s all we can do.”

    “I mean, what else is there to do?” Cobb added. “Complain, and not keep going, not keep pushing?”

    At 6-2 and reeling, USC is caught in a maelstrom of noise that’s worn at the foundation of goodwill Riley has built with fans, keeping going and keeping pushing in practice this week without the man who expounded on Saturday that his team at times had been “too focused on the outside things.”

    A spokesperson told reporters on Tuesday afternoon that Riley was missing his second straight practice due to illness, following an absence from his usual appearance on Monday night’s “Trojans Live” radio show, and was recovering under doctor’s orders. In his stead, Simmons is serving as the acting head coach, and offensive analyst Kliff Kingsbury – formerly the head coach of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals – was being instated as a “countable coach,” eligible under NCAA rules to coach during practice.

    It’s a nod to Riley’s relationship, first and foremost, with Simmons, which has developed over the course of two decades since they both started working together at Texas Tech under Mike Leach.

    “Dennis has always earned that trust,” former Texas Tech assistant head coach Ruffin McNeill said when asked about Simmons and Riley’s relationship.

    And players and coaches widely expressed Tuesday that not much had changed at practice in Riley’s absence, with Cobb noting Simmons had been “pretty vocal” and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch noting the opportunity for Kingsbury to work directly with quarterbacks. Cobb said he hadn’t heard from Riley but saw him Sunday, and Simmons said he’d talked with Riley and the coach was “doing better.”

    “At the end of the day, I know we all think that he is immortal, but I guess God shows us that he is human,” Simmons said of Riley. “When I got here, phone calls were made, conversations were had, and this is where we’re at.”

    Simmons reiterated multiple times Tuesday: this is Riley’s team.

    “It’s not like he’s gone forever,” Simmons said.

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    It’s unclear when Riley will return. Unclear, even, if he’ll be back in time to patrol the sidelines against Cal (3-4 overall, 1-3 Pac-12) on Saturday. And even if everything goes smoothly in practice, it’s an inconvenient time for a wounded program to physically be without its leader.

    “You can let the disappointment of not playing perfect, or you know, when you won by 20 and you didn’t win by 40, and all the outside noise that comes with that, like, it can get to you,” Riley said Saturday night. “And I think, at times, fair to say it’s got to this team.”

    The lightning rod for much of that noise has been Grinch, who has continued to keep the same analytical public demeanor even as calls for his job – overseeing a unit that ranks 104th of 130 FBS teams in yards surrendered per game – run rampant in the public sphere. And when asked about such pressure on Tuesday, Grinch responded with graceful accountability.

    “I think it’s part of the job description, right? You put coordinator next to your name, you’re supposed to coordinate,” Grinch said. “So there’s the accountability piece, and so that’s your job … it’s my responsibility to get better and help build this program. We’ve had X number of games in a two-year period of time, and it’s not where it needs to be yet.”

    He paused as if finished, then caught himself before another question could be asked.

    “And we admit that.”

    ​ Orange County Register