Mike Leach says he didn’t necessarily see a Lincoln Riley-Sonny Cumbie head coaching showdown in the future when Riley and Cumbie were in his quarterback room in 2002, nor when they were both assistants under him at Texas Tech.
Leach said Wednesday he thought Cumbie had a future playing the game, while he knew Riley would be a good coach.
“I just felt like Lincoln had a really good mind for the game,” Leach said, “and I asked him to stay in and be a coach, be a student assistant.”
On Saturday in Norman, Riley hosts his old teammate and staffmate when Cumbie — elevated from offensive coordinator to interim head coach this week after Matt Wells was fired — brings their alma mater to Oklahoma.
“Interim’s an awkward position to kind of be as a coach,” Leach told SI Sooners on the Southeastern Conference coaches call. “I mean, yeah, he’s on the staff. But when they fire a head coach, it puts the whole thing in disarray. So, you know, it's kind of tough to judge a guy in that situation.”
Cumbie became emotional and had to hold back tears as he talked about taking the reins at Tech after athletic director Kirby Hocutt told him and the coaching staff that he had decided to fire Wells. Cumbie said this week he’s not looking at the last five weeks of the regular season as a temporary fix for the next guy.
“We’re not looking at it as just bridging the gap,” he said. “We're looking at as a challenge and to love our players well, and to lead our players well, and I think it's an opportunity for us as coaches to show them leadership that is different than what they may expect to see.”
Riley, 38, hails from Muleshoe, TX, while Cumbie, 40, is from Snyder, 156 miles directly southeast on U.S. Highway 84. Lubbock sits almost directly in between.
Cumbie walked on at Tech in 2000 when Leach arrived following his one season as Bob Stoops’ offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. Cumbie was behind returning starter Kliff Kingsbury and backup B.J. Symons.
Riley walked on in 2002, but his college playing career lasted just one season.
“Lincoln didn't play a lot,” Leach said. “Sonny was a starter for a year.”
In 2003, Riley became a student assistant, and in 2004, Cumbie replaced the graduated Symons as Leach’s next great, record-setting quarterback. As a senior, Cumbie threw for 4,742 yards and 32 touchdowns, completed 65.6 percent of his passes (421-of-642) and was intercepted 18 times.
Riley, meanwhile, became a Leach assistant.
“They definitely knew each other,” Leach said Wednesday. “I don't think they hung out much, really. I mean, I'm sure they respect each other.”
That much was clear from their press conference comments this week.
“I’m excited for a good friend in Sonny Cumbie,” Riley said. “I’ve known him for a long time. In some ways, we kind of grew up together at Texas Tech in this business.”
“Coach Riley is a phenomenal coach,” Cumbie said. “Coach (Bill) Bedenbaugh is an unbelievable offensive line coach. Coach (Dennis) Simmons has done a great job with their receivers. (Both were on staff at Tech.) There's those familiar faces. I guess we should just (acknowledge) we're both from Snyder and Muleshoe. And that's kind of neat. But you know, at the end of the day, it's kind of a unique situation.”
After college, Cumbie went on to play various levels of minor league professional football before returning to Texas Tech as a coach in 2009 and worked as a graduate assistant alongside Riley under Leach. He helped quarterbacks like Taylor Potts, Steven Sheffield and Seth Doege for two years, then after Leach was fired, Tommy Tuberville came in and promoted Cumbie to assistant coach, taking over Riley’s spot as Tech’s inside receivers coach after Riley went to East Carolina. Later, when Kingsbury replaced Tuberville, the only coach he retained was his old teammate, Cumbie.
Cumbie and Riley were on staff when Leach was let go at the end of the 2010 regular season, and they both recall how the staff and the entire team came together to beat Michigan State 41-31 in the Alamo Bowl under interim coach Ruffin McNeill. Riley was promoted to offensive coordinator for that game, and the Red Raiders racked up 579 yards total offense. The following year he followed McNeill to ECU, and he’s been fast-tracked to stardom ever since.
Cumbie, meanwhile, was elevated to co-offensive coordinator in 2013, held the same post at TCU from 2014-16, became Gary Patterson’s offensive coordinator in 2017-20 (he even turned down the OC job at Texas after Patterson reportedly made him the highest paid offensive assistant in the nation), and joined Wells’ Texas Tech staff last December.
Both coaches said they were sad about Wells’ firing and said their reunion Saturday is under “less than ideal circumstances.” Still, they’ll be pros about it.
“I can remember getting my first opportunity to call plays under less than ideal circumstances many years ago,” Riley said. “Ironically, Sonny was part of our staff when that happened.”
“Those are the things I remember,” Cumbie said, “is the character and the fiber of the guys that you lead and that you're in the in the bunker with.”
Said Riley, “I know he’ll do a great job leading that program through a tough situation. I’m excited for Sonny, personally, and his opportunity. We look forward to Saturday and getting a chance to compete against those guys.”
Hocutt may have already identified his top candidates, but he also said Cumbie is not being ruled out.
“We all look at it as it's a five-week job interview,” Cumbie said. “And so we're gonna do the best we can and whether it's here or maybe somewhere else, it's our responsibility, first and foremost, to lead these kids really well. And that's what we're gonna do. And then we'll worry about everything else whenever that comes."
Whether it was one year as Leach's starting quarterback or a co-OC spot on Patterson's staff or an interim head coach at his alma mater, Cumbie always seems to stay ready.
“Anytime an opportunity comes your way,” Cumbie said, “you have to be ready to grab it.”