Lincoln Riley is 36 years old.
What he's accomplished (and is accomplishing) as Oklahoma's head coach isn't normal.
Generally, coaches aren't fronting national powerhouses by their mid-thirties. They're not churning out Heisman contender after Heisman contender. They're not spearheading an abject offensive renaissance, nor are they claiming conference championships year in and year out. They're certainly not making annual appearances in the College Football Playoff.
Lincoln Riley already has a biography. He's making more money than all but eight FBS head coaches, and he's consistently the subject of rumors and speculation on the NFL coaching carousel.
How did this all happen to a high school hero from Muleshoe, Texas? Well, on Friday, we got to see exactly why.
Granted, Riley has a brilliant football mind. But that's not the primary reason that he's so admired, so respected, and so successful.
It all starts with his outstanding, humble character.
Riley didn't have to organize a demonstration with his entire program. No one would have chastised him if he'd simply posted a sympathetic tweet and let his players respond to this week's events at their discretion. But he didn't just join his team in a show of solidarity.
He unashamedly took the lead.
When the Sooners marched across their practice field and onto the University of Oklahoma's campus, it was Riley at the front of the procession, arm in arm with Creed Humphrey and Chanse Sylvie. It was Riley who stood in front of his congregation of players in the university's Unity Garden. It was Riley who wiped back tears before he somberly addressed those who had gathered. It was Riley who called upon assistant coach Dennis Simmons to pray aloud for reconciliation and peace.
Riley isn't flamboyant, brash or domineering. As a matter of fact, he's very much an oddity among college head coaches. He's become notorious for his soft-spoken, matter-of-fact personality.
But when push comes to shove, Riley is a leader, and that leadership extends far beyond the football field.
Whether or not you agree with the premise of the march, two things are undeniable here. First, the current climate around the country grieves many of the players in the Oklahoma locker room. And secondly, Riley doesn't just stand behind his players. He stands with them.
Public statements on social issues are a dime a dozen, especially for individuals in positions of power. It's become almost commonplace to see boilerplate expressions of commiseration via Twitter or via press releases. And there's nothing wrong with those expressions.
However, it's all too easy to say something behind the comfort and security of a computer keyboard or phone screen. To demonstrate that same sentiment is another matter altogether.
"It's been a lot of buildup to this," Riley acknowledged. "We don't have all the answers. But the problems out there are real. We can't come up with a better solution than unity."
And when dozens upon dozens of black-clad Sooners stood together in the Unity Garden, the message was loud and clear: Riley's program is a brotherhood.
When asked why he became visibly emotional at the demonstration, Riley indicated that it was something he simply couldn't help.
"If you'd sat in on those conversations, you would have been [emotional] too," he said. "It's tough... When you care about the people around you that much and you see them hurting, it's hard not to be that way."
That is the reason players love Riley. That's the reason why there's nary a whisper of internal conflict within the locker room, and it's why he continues to strike gold on the recruiting trail. If you're hesitant to believe that his leadership in this circumstance went unnoticed outside the Sooner State, let Caleb Williams provide a rejoinder to that notion.
Riley's march alongside his players was reminiscent of Bob Stoops' similar gesture in 2015, after Oklahoma's horrific SAE incident. Stoops was the steady hand on the tiller for eighteen years at Oklahoma, and when he stepped down in 2017 to hand the reins to Riley, it obviously prompted plenty of questions about Riley's readiness. After all, the then-33-year-old was the youngest head coach in the FBS, and had never before held a head coaching position at any level. Could this baby-faced arriviste handle the pressure and responsibility attached to his new role?
Not much more than three years later, Riley hasn't just handled it. He's manhandled it. There's no such question that he hasn't demonstrably answered in resounding fashion. There's no tough situation that he hasn't navigated with class and grace. And if a single soul within the program has any remotely negative opinion of Riley, that opinion hasn't seen the light of day.
Oh, and just to reiterate: the guy is 36 years old. His legend is only just beginning to grow. Just don't ask him to comment on it, because he has far too much humility to reckon with the leviathan that he's becoming in the college football landscape.
It's not about him, and he's never made it about him. That's perhaps his most commendable quality.
He's already the face of his generation in the coaching ranks, but as one generation gives way to the next, it may not be long before Riley is regarded as the premier coach in college football. If one thing has become clear in 2020, it's that the increasing influence of culture and society in the world of sports necessitates a new kind of leader, a leader whose character transcends the boundaries of athletic competition. And if there exists a flawless manifestation of that particular individual, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better prototype than Riley.
Is is fair or safe to call Lincoln Riley the coach of the future? You decide. But one thing is rather certain: in this day and age, there's no other coach in the country that Oklahoma would rather have at the helm of their program.
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