How USC’s changing NIL approach will impact football recruiting under Lincoln Riley

LOS ANGELES — It’s been an interesting couple of years in the NIL space at USC. There have been starts and stops, and a reluctance from the university to have a collective led to there being three NIL outfits at one time. Now, there’s a new athletic director at USC in Jen Cohen amid various rule changes across college sports.

On Tuesday, Lincoln Riley said NIL has taken “some massive, massive jumps here in the last several months.” Over the weekend, a program source indicated that USC’s main donor collective House of Victory’s budget had grown three times more than what it was last year.

More dramatically, though, a shift in philosophy in on the way. There’s been a lot of risk aversion from USC’s administration regarding NIL in past years. That is the result of lingering effects from the Reggie Bush scandal that culminated with heavy NCAA sanctions against the program.

So USC never fully threw itself into NIL in terms of using it with high school athletes. But after recent court rulings have prevented the NCAA from enforcing NIL rules, House of Victory will now be able to speak with high school athletes and engage them in NIL opportunities before they enroll.

To gain a better understanding of the shift in philosophy and what it all means, The Athletic spoke to Spencer Harris, House of Victory’s executive director, about the changes that are coming and how things ended up here.

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House of Victory can speak to high school prospects and help them with NIL opportunities now. Can you walk me through everything that led to this point? Obviously, the Tennessee court case had a big impact.

Correct. So I think starting with Tennessee and the court case with the NCAA and that court granting the injunction — essentially allowing Tennessee and their collective to proceed and not face any NCAA penalty — once that result came out, the NCAA and guidance from the conferences from the Big Ten from what we’ve been told to the schools was: Essentially, we’re not going to look into any third-party collective operation and how they choose to support anybody. Current athletes, high school athletes, transfer prospects.

Now, the schools are still tied to NCAA guidance in the NIL space. But as a third-party entity outside the university, House of Victory has the freedom to support or do really anything that we choose that fits our overall organizational mission, which is to support USC athletics in the NIL space. And we can operate without the NCAA interfering.

Anyone who’s followed NIL developments at USC the past few years will be like, “Whoa, this is a dramatic shift.” What were those conversations like with university administration and the athletic department leading up to this change?

I would say it’s still ongoing. This is a major shift for everybody. From our first year of operation, now going into our second year, all of our messaging, planning, budgeting has been about focusing on the current athletes at USC. Now we have the opportunity to add this element, which is obviously very, very important to the overall big picture of both the recruiting and from our standpoint how we operate. So the conversations with USC athletics, admin, compliance and the coaches, they’re still ongoing. We still need to kind of figure out what’s the best strategy to meet their goals. That’s why we exist. It’s to help them meet their goals of building the most competitive team possible and using NIL to support their recruiting and retention efforts.

We’ve had some really strong conversations and are going to continue to meet and strategize and make sure however we choose to operate makes the most sense for the athletic program.



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In a hypothetical where the football program is recruiting five-star John Doe, what would that have looked like last recruiting cycle and what could it potentially look like during this current recruiting cycle?

Last recruiting cycle, football can have conversations with John Doe about the potential of NIL or what House of Victory has done with the current athletes on their team but could not really take it any steps further than that. And House of Victory couldn’t really have any communication with John Doe until he stepped foot on campus as a student-athlete and was enrolled and already officially a part of USC.

Now, USC can have those same conversations with John Doe and talk about what House of Victory has done and what their NIL program looks like as a whole. And House of Victory can separately meet with John Doe on his visit. If he’s in Los Angeles, we can go sit down with John Doe if we choose that’s what is needed and we can offer John Doe an NIL opportunity to join House of Victory and promote House of Victory for as long as we want or for as much as we want (if) it makes sense from a strategic standpoint.

What restrictions do you guys face now — if any at all?

I think the restrictions that are still in place are the ones tied to the university themselves, and what the coaches and USC as a whole can and can’t do.

But from a House of Victory perspective, the decisions that we make internally for our organization, that’s completely on us.

There still has to be some sort of discipline and balance in regard to how to allocate resources between the current roster and high school kids right?

Of course. I think that’s a major strategic decision we have to work through with our executive board and how we allocate our funds and how we fundraise overall. It’s just something that is brand new and kind of just hit us over these last couple weeks. We’re in the process of working through all that.

Have you guys had any conversations with recruits yet?

Still being worked through.

House of Victory’s football budget is significantly bigger this year than it was a year ago. What sparked that?

Two things: One is last year was our first year of existence. We launched in April and that first year was really a catch-up overall from where USC NIL was previously to where we felt it needed to go. And it takes time, relationships and trust to be able to fundraise at a high level and work through some of the operational kinks of what it takes. It doesn’t just happen overnight. Just like any other organization, there’s things we have to work through and learn. But most importantly, it comes down to trust and alignment. That’s really what we focused on. We had some goals from a fundraising perspective and we hit those goals and we were able to support the team but we knew there was a lot of progress that needed to be made.

I think the second part of this shift in capacity has to do with leadership at USC and Jen Cohen stepping into her role as athletic director and really streamlining communication and understanding of how important this space is and being able to effectively communicate that to people up and down the university and obviously the donor base as well. You’ve seen her on Ryan Abraham’s podcast talking about House of Victory. That’s just a very small example of how important it is to her and the athletic department’s success for us to be successful and have the capacity to be able to support the athletes at USC. So the alignment with the university through her leadership and helping drive some of those fundraising initiatives is absolutely vital to why Lincoln alluded to us making monstrous leaps from where we were previously.



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So what will be the main things House of Victory will have to navigate as things change more and more?

Just continued evolution of college athletics and the rules. I don’t think this change is done. I think this kind of an initial step to more and more support for athletes, whether that’s through the collectives or the university themselves. How the universities can be more involved through this space, I think that’s just more of a major piece of this that is going to continue to change and we’ll adapt with it.

And I think the high school aspect is a brand-new element to it and we have to learn the resource allocation, fundraising and how to continue to raise the bar and elevate what we do to make sure that we’re competitive because every other school and collective is going to continue to elevate as well, and we have to try to be the best and figure out what works, what works for our donor base and how we can continue to support at a high level.

(Photo: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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