Inside the training complex named after head coach John McKay on USC's campus, there's a whiteboard that has become more than just the backdrop of a classroom. Earlier this year, as players came together to begin spring ball for a team that looked completely different than the season prior, the whiteboard served as a catch-all for what USC players and coaches believed needed to change for a program that had just gone 4-8 to have any semblance of success.
"We all talked about creating a standard when we got here," linebacker Shane Lee, who transferred from Alabama and became a team captain, said of what writing on the whiteboard signified. "That set the tone for everything we do. It's been the foundation for our success."
While Lee said that what is written on the board can be summed up by one phrase at the bottom that Riley has coined and has even found its way onto some T-shirts -- "Win the inner battles" -- what's on the board has been almost secondary to the fact that players actually executed it. As Lee put it, it's something they have been able to refer back to throughout what has been a dreamlike season.
It has been just over a year since the hire of Riley sparked a new beginning for USC, and though the outlook for the program seemed to go from bleak to bright overnight, perhaps no one outside the McKay Center expected success at USC to come this quickly. The Trojans completed an 11-1 regular season with a chance to not only win a Pac-12 title on Friday night against the only team that beat them this season, but also to give the program its first College Football Playoff appearance.
"I can't say yes, I knew this was going to happen, but at the same time, I don't believe in putting limits on what you can accomplish, especially if you get the right people in the building," Riley said. "I told you what our expectations were from Day 1. A lot of people thought I was crazy, and that's fine. People within the walls knew what we were about and had a sense of what we were building."
Riley's arrival had its gravitational pull, bringing talented transfers from all corners of the country and keeping players at USC who wanted to have their careers reignited. But in a sport where much is made of the power of coaches, the Trojans' success this season required a collective mindset that had been missing, one that could not be engineered by a single coach. For Lee, it can be summed up by a whiteboard, but for quarterback Caleb Williams, it is rooted in a phrase he has been repeating all season.
"Good teams are led by coaches," Williams said again this week. "But great teams are led by players. ... That was one of the main things we focused on when we got here -- our players leading."
Nobody led USC last season. And while the rapid turnaround the program has experienced can be traced back to the hire of Riley and his moves since, what has transpired over the past 12 months to bring USC back into national relevancy has been a product of a shared confidence that originated not from a single hire or addition, but from a holistic approach and a trust in a roster that has been mended together more than it has been built.