Three years in, Lincoln Riley is his own man

On June 7, 2017, Bob Stoops shocked the world by retiring. But under Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma has been in good hands ever since
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Lincoln Riley shows Sooner Nation his appreciation after another win over Texas.

Lincoln Riley shows Sooner Nation his appreciation after another win over Texas.

Replacing Bob Stoops — three years ago Sunday, now — might have seemed a thankless if not impossible task.

Stoops won 190 games as head coach at Oklahoma from 1999-2016, more than anyone else, including the program’s seventh national championship in just his second year. Stoops lorded over the Big 12 Conference with nine championships in a 16-year span. And he paved his way to a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame without a lot of controversy, without much NCAA trouble.

Lincoln Riley had no compunction about being the guy that followed “The Guy.” In fact, Riley says he had a pretty good instruction manual when he stepped into his first head coaching job on June 7, 2017.

“First of all, if someone said it was Bob Stoops 2.0, I would take that as an ultimate compliment,” Riley said last week.

Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley after OU's win at Ohio State.

Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley after OU's win at Ohio State.

After a brief stint as a walk-on quarterback at Texas Tech, Riley went to work for Mike Leach and quickly made his name as an offensive wizard, first as a Tech assistant, then as coordinator at East Carolina, where he worked under former Leach aide Ruffin McNeill.

Stoops had had a rough couple of years — in recruiting, in the staff room, in public relations, and on the field — before he brought Riley in as offensive coordinator for the 2015 season. He had to fire long-time friend Jay Norvell and national title-winning quarterback Josh Heupel to do it, but the program needed a new direction.

After Riley stabilized the offense and recruiting picked up, Stoops decided Oklahoma was in a good place. It was time.

His sudden retirement in the middle of the summer shocked almost everyone. But anyone who follows Stoops closely was less surprised.

Multiple inside sources said Stoops — scandal-free for almost his entire tenure — had grown weary of defending his character after a year that included Joe Mixon, Frank Shannon and Dorial Green-Beckham. Stoops also found appealing the prospect of watching his twin sons play their high school football senior year. And, of course, there was the family’s history of heart disease, which claimed his father, Ron Stoops, in 1988 at the age of 54.

“Heck, I might have thought about (retiring) five years ago, at some point,” Stoops said in 2017.

As much as anything, the idea of Riley taking another head coaching job somewhere else motivated Stoops. Stoops knew Riley was ready for the big chair. He might as well sit in it at Oklahoma.

“I think all of it goes into your decision,” Stoops said. “There’s not any one thing or one part that pushes you over the edge. It’s really the combination of all these things.”

Bob Stoops, Lincoln Riley and Baker Mayfield celebrate a touchdown.

Bob Stoops, Lincoln Riley and Baker Mayfield celebrate a touchdown.

Riley acknowledges the path that was laid for him — before he ever got to Norman, and during his two years as Stoops’ offensive coordinator.

“There’s certainly a lot of parts of our program that, you’re exactly right, carried over in some form or fashion (from how) Bob ran his program for a long time,” Riley said. “There was obviously a whole lot that was right with it. And he’s certainly, of any individual person, if not the most, he’s right there at No. 2 as far as being influential on me, along with Donnie Duncan. So a lot of things we’ve done come from Bob.”

History likes Lincoln Riley. He has won more games in first three years (36) than any coach since Walter Camp (41) and George Woodruff (39). Those two, by the way, started their careers before Oklahoma had a program — before Oklahoma had a state, actually, 1890 and 1894, respectively.

Riley, 36, is the embodiment of today’s next-gen coach — young, successful, sure, but in touch with players at a different level. The changes inside the Oklahoma program have been subtle, but not always.

“There have been a few things that have changed,” Riley said last week. “I think some of it is myself (and) the staff’s the personality. Some of it is the times and the rules and what you’ve got to do has changed, and we’ve tried to adapt. I do think some of it’s that. Certainly on the recruiting, social media, kind of that entire world, I think you would have felt some of those changes whether I was the head coach or Bob was the head coach.”

Even in his three years as head coach, Riley has had to evolve. He was between a rock and a hard place knowing it was past time to move on from Mike Stoops as defensive coordinator but also obligated to Bob Stoops for both hiring Riley and pushing his promotion.

Loyalty is among the most powerful and enduring human virtues, but in the business of big-time college football, loyalty also can be a something of an albatross.

Three years in, Riley has shown that hiring and firing could be one of his strengths. He started this whole head coaching thing by bringing in his old mentor, McNeill.

Loyalty.

Now, about to begin his fourth season, Riley has replaced six members of Stoops' coaching staff and even hired his own strength coach.

“I think the beginning for me, mine was so different, especially with the staff piece, so much of the staff in place,” he said. “I think in the first year the only people I hired, I think, were Ruffin (McNeill) and I think Annie (Hanson). I think the majority of our staff was in place.

“I think as we’ve had staff changes through the years, you get a chance to kind of start to put together from a whole vision of what you really believe, which is kind of more what the traditional head coaching jobs are. Mine was obviously different. So I think just kind of getting an overall direction and having some key changes that have been really important for our program and having a choice there, I think, has probably been some of the biggest changes through the years.”

The first major change was letting go of Jerry Schmidt, the military-grade strength coach who was Stoops’ first hire when he got the job in December 1998. Schmidt went to Texas A&M, and Riley hired former Texas, Tennessee and Texas Tech strength coach Bennie Wylie to coordinate the players’ offseason strength and conditioning.

But without question, Riley’s biggest change was firing Mike Stoops and replacing him three months later with Alex Grinch. In just one season, Grinch took Oklahoma’s overall defensive rating from 114th nationally to 38th.

Of course, Riley’s hallmark continues to be offense.

Riley’s offenses have surpassed 500 yards of offense in 49 of the 68 games in which he’s called plays since 2015, a staggering 72 percent of the time. Next on that list: Clemson, at 55 percent, according to OU research.

“It’s one of those things,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said last season, “that somebody’s gonna be doing documentaries 50 years from now talking about his offense.”

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Life of Riley

Oklahoma’s NCAA rankings since 2015 (yards per game)

  • Offense
  • 2015: 7th (530.2)
  • 2016: 2nd (554.8)
  • 2017: 1st (579.6)
  • 2018: 1st (570.3)
  • 2019: 3rd (537.6)
  • Defense
  • 2015: 39th (364.5)
  • 2016: 82nd (432.0)
  • 2017: 67th (394.9)
  • 2018: 114th (453.8)
  • 2019: 38th (356.4)
Lincoln Riley signals in from his play sheet.

Lincoln Riley signals in from his play sheet.

That Riley has reached these levels with three different quarterbacks who had three different skill sets is no less remarkable. Two (Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray) won the Heisman Trophy and became No. 1 overall draft picks, the third (Jalen Hurts) was the Heisman runner-up and went in the second round of the NFL Draft.

“I’d say the biggest thing is he fits the scheme around the guy rather than the guy around the scheme,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said last season. “Not a lot of coaches do that because a lot of coaches know a scheme and (say), ‘I’ve seen this scheme work, and you have to fit this scheme.’

“So he’s done a nice job of understanding what the player’s good at and making sure that they cultivate the offense around that, and then understanding what the player’s not good at, what is their weakness, and then not exposing them to it.”

Said Riley, “We’ve been able to surround those quarterbacks each year with good players. We’ve been able to give them weapons, we’ve been able to give them offensive lines and equip them to play well. So it’s been a combination of all those things.”

But Riley is about more than just coaching quarterbacks and calling clever plays and putting up big numbers. As a head coach — as CEO of one of college football’s biggest money-makers — Riley has taken a more holistic approach to coaching that belies his youth.

“He has a great level of wisdom and compassion about him as a man,” said linebacker Kenneth Murray.

“He’s one of the most open-hearted kind of guys I know,” said receiver CeeDee Lamb.

Riley’s performance as a head coach this offseason has been just as impressive as anything he’s done from September to December. His level of leadership is uncommon — certainly for among coaches of his age and experience level.

While some coaches — older, more seasoned coaches — have been expressive about getting back to football and getting players trained in a controlled campus environment, Riley has shown patience and prudence during the Coronavirus pandemic. That's why OU is returning to voluntary offseason work no sooner than July 1.

And just in the past week, as the nation has erupted in racial tension and violence, Riley’s leadership has inspired his players and others.

“I definitely stand with my players,” Riley said. “… And it’s not just because they’re my players. It’s a fundamental belief. I was very fortunate to be raised in a household that taught me that, taught me that no one is better than anybody else because of the color of their skin. Been lucky enough to have been in locker rooms of sports teams all my life, so I’m fortunate to have grown up doing that and been raised in a household where that was emphasized.

“Honestly, if the players ask me to do something (with them in protest), that’s great. But that's something that I would do regardless if I was a football coach or not. It’s just a true fundamental belief that I have. Certainly, I stand with my players. I stand with an opportunity to help make this world a better place, however big or small that opportunity is.

“I don’t think that anything would be off the table, certainly, as far as a protest or as far as a call for equality and for the world to get better, which it needs to right now. As long as it’s done tastefully, it’s well thought-out, it’s done peacefully, there is certainly nothing off the table in that realm for me personally.”

Kenneth Murray explained last season that Riley's ability to connect with his players on an emotional level is not the norm. Somehow, Riley is able to think like a teenager. 

“I think that’s what makes him a really good coach, a really good head coach,” Murray said. “He’s able to see things from a level that maybe a 21-year-old kid (can’t) … and he’s able to guide us in the right direction, and he’s also able to be that compassionate person that’s there for us as a coach. You know, truly show some compassion and really care about his players. I think that’s what makes him such a great coach.”

Riley said last fall that openness and honesty is important, and should be a two-way street.

“I think our guys know where we stand on most things,” Riley said. “We’re pretty open with our players. On any subject. No problem admitting when we’re wrong. No problem letting them know where they stand. What we’re thinking. So I think there’s a level of respect there from both sides, and … we want to be on the same page. We want to always be able to communicate with our guys. That’s always been our approach, and I think that’s just who we are.”

Lincoln Riley and the Sooners celebrate their fifth straight Big 12 championship.

Lincoln Riley and the Sooners celebrate their fifth straight Big 12 championship.

Consider the landscape around Riley. Since his sudden promotion in 2017, half of the Big 12’s 10 programs have changed coaches. He turns 37 in October, but in the Big 12, only Gary Patterson, Mike Gundy and Matt Campbell (by one year) have coached more games.

Riley made $275,000 his final year at East Carolina. Stoops hired him to call plays at $500,000. After one year, Riley got a raise to $900,000, then jumped to $1.3 million — Stoops’ first million-dollar coordinator.

When he replaced Stoops, Riley’s salary more than doubled to $3.1 million. That jumped to $4.8 million, then $5 million, and in January 2019 he got a raise and extension that puts him at $6 million. His contract also includes clauses of a $200,000 raise every February and a $700,000 stay bonus every June.

That’s a meteoric rise. But Riley is widely considered one of college football’s best coaches. Last month, CBS Sports ranked Riley third nationally behind Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, who have combined to win eight of the last 17 national championships.

In the eyes of Sooner Nation, Riley can take one more step — winning that elusive national title. For all his accolades, for all his offensive genius, for all his Heisman statues, Riley is 0-3 in the College Football Playoff as a head coach, and two of those losses weren’t close.

Riley knows the standard at Oklahoma. It's why he took the job, why he's embraced the role, and maybe why he hasn't left for the NFL yet.

Riley tried to sum up how he’s evolved in the three years since David Boren, Joe Castiglione and Bob Stoops handed him the reins of the Sooner Schooner.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I would say, I think me personally, not as much surprises me anymore. I’ve tried to become a better communicator with our guys. I’ve tried to be — I think each year you have to challenge yourself to find ways to get better. I still feel very challenged each and every day. I still feel challenged every single year.

“This year’s obviously been a little different — no shortage of that right now. But yeah, I felt like I’ve grown in a lot of areas, but still, like I’ve said many times, still feel like I’ve got a ways to go.”

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