Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley on Scholarships for Walk-Ons: 'It's a Big, Big Deal'

Non-scholarship athletes have many of the same opportunities and responsibilities, so when the Sooners can award one with a full scholarship, it's "always a fun moment."
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One of Lincoln Riley’s favorite things about being head coach at Oklahoma is the moment when he gets to announced that a walk-on player has been awarded a scholarship.

For Riley — himself a walk-on for one year at Texas Tech, a Mike Leach quarterback with big dreams coming out of Muleshoe, TX — those moments are as good as it gets.

“For a lot of the kids, it’s almost like validation,” Riley said. “It’s a sign (that) ‘They really do believe in me and want to invest in me.’ For anybody that’s ever been a walk-on, it’s a goal out there, kind of something out there that you’re chasing, along with trying to make a squad, or trying to win a job on special teams, or win a job on offense (or) defense, or earn the respect of the team or coaches. Whatever it is. That’s a goal for every walk-on that’s ever played.”

Riley handed out two scholarships recently, one to wide receiver Drake Stoops and one to quarterback Colt Atkinson.

Stoops’ announcement happened in semi-public, minutes after the Red / White Game. Atkinson’s was a little less visible and came a few days later.

In-state tuition and fees at OU run between $9,000 to $11,000 a year. For out-of-state residents, it’s around $25,000. Room and board can run in the neighborhood of $10,000 a year.

The money can be life-changing for some families footing the higher ed bill. And not only do they not have to pay, but the student-athlete receives the monthly scholarship checks. And since 2015, scholarship student-athletes now also get cost-of-attendance stipends in addition to their scholarships. At OU, that amount started at about $4,600 a year.

“The differences are, obviously for these families, the check to live every month and the opportunity to pay for school and room and board’s a big, big deal for a lot of people,” Riley said. “So that’s a big thing for a lot of these kids and families.

The cynic says Drake Stoops wasn’t having a hard time making ends meet in college. His dad’s last salary as head coach at Oklahoma was about $5 million. Bob Stoops made nearly $50 million during his last 10 seasons in the big chair, according to USA Today, and his mom became something of a national cosmetics magnate before she retired.

But for a local kid who literally grew up on OU football and has delivered big plays in games — including the go-ahead overtime touchdown against Texas — receiving a scholarship was, like Riley said, validation.

“I know it meant a great deal to him,: Riley said. “And you’re right, there’s occasionally families that are fortunate and well off, and maybe the monetary aspect of it is not a big deal. But it was a big, big deal to that kid, no question. And honestly, I told him I really should have put him on before — and I would have had this whole scholarship situation been a little bit more clear with all these rules changing.

“So I was a little hesitant to do it because in a normal situation, I would have put him on many months before, based on his contributions here. But no, it was. I actually had my exit meeting with him the other day and we talked about it, and it’s a big, big deal to kids, and it should be. You earn a scholarship at a place like Oklahoma — not many guys are able to do that. So it’s a big, big deal.”

It was big for Atkinson, too.

“That was a real exciting thing,” Riley said. “His dad’s a high school coach in the DFW area, so I knew he and the family were proud. Those are great ones to do. And it’s fun to see the guys that really bust their tail and do everything they can to earn it.

“So it’s always a fun moment. One of the best things we’re able to do. And we’ve had some really, really great ones over the years that have earned it. We always try to keep a couple in the bank, just to be ready. Because we want our walk-on program to be healthy here. We want players to know if they don’t get the scholarship they want, they can come to a place like this, they can get an opportunity. If they do well, they’re going to be considered to be put on a scholarship. So it’s important for us to have those available for those guys when they pop up.”