His name has been near the top of numerous wish lists, but if Lincoln Riley ever does seriously consider leaving Oklahoma for the NFL, Jim Mora Jr. would be more than happy to share some advice.
“I’d say, ‘Hey listen. You've got a great thing going,” Mora said. “ ‘The grass is not always greener.’ “
Mora, son of longtime Saints and Colts coach Jim Mora, is now an analyst for ESPN and Sports Illustrated. He was an NFL head coach himself for three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons (2004-06) and one season (2009) with the Seattle Seahawks.
Then from 2012-17, Mora was head coach at UCLA.
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“I went the reverse,” he told SI Sooners. “I was in the NFL and then I came back to college. And it really opened my heart. I really loved it, and it made me a better person, it made me a better coach, made me a better father — all those things. Because now I was dealing with moms and dads instead of, you know, wives and agents. And it was a big deal.”
Having turned Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray from undersized high school recruits into Heisman Trophy winners was impressive. But getting them both ready enough to be taken No. 1 in the NFL Draft — and then seeing their respective stars rise in Cleveland and Phoenix — will keep Riley’s name atop any list of future NFL head coaching candidates. Another example: Jalen Hurts lost his job at Alabama, but then beat out Carson Wentz in Philadelphia largely because of the one-year polish he got from Riley at OU.
"I was dealing with moms and dads instead of, you know, wives and agents."
— Jim Mora on coaching in college versus the NFL
“I think he’s a transformative coach,” Mora said. “I think he’s the new breed.”
Kliff Kingsbury didn’t win enough to keep his job at Texas Tech — his alma mater — but he landed a sweet NFL gig with the Cardinals. Sean McVay took the Rams to the Super Bowl at age 33 — the youngest ever to do it — with a heavy focus on offensive play calling. The Browns made the playoffs last year for the first time in two decades with 37-year-old offensive whiz Kevin Stefanski at the helm.
The NFL obviously is not leery of college coaches. Youth and inexperience is no longer a big deterrent. And offense, it seems, rules the day.
Lincoln Riley? Check, check and check.
Still, Mora suggests Riley choose wisely.
“I think he’s a transformative coach. I think he’s the new breed.”
— Jim Mora on Lincoln Riley
“You know, everyone thinks the NFL is the pinnacle — and it is, it's the greatest competition, in my opinion, in any sport on earth. But it's a business, and it's cutthroat and it's different.
“The football part of the game is the same, you know, what takes place between the lines on game day is the same. … But it’s the off-the-field stuff that's so different. You know, you're dealing with grown men. You're dealing with financial aspects you're not dealing with in college.”
The newest college-to-pros example will be worth keeping an eye on, Mora said.
Urban Meyer just took over the Jacksonville Jaguars at age 56. He won 187 games and three national championships in 17 seasons at four schools. His quarterback run-heavy version of the spread-option offense doesn’t immediately spring to mind as an effective NFL offense, but then again, the NFL is currently in the midst of a significant offensive evolution.
“I think we're gonna learn some things from Urban Meyer this year,” Mora said. “I think Urban — he talks. He will talk, he will tell you how he feels, and, you know, he already made a comment about how he thinks free agency should be more like recruiting. Which is, you know, it's an interesting statement. It's a naive statement. But it's how he feels, and it's how he views the world, and I kind of respect that about Urban, is that he will say what he thinks.”
Riley’s own strengths as a college head coach would certainly benefit an NFL franchise, Mora said.
“He's always learning. He's always projecting forward,” Mora said. “He's always creating new trends or studying other people that are doing good things and trying to adapt them into his scheme.
“I think he does a great job of putting his players in position to have success, and I think that's what any great offensive coordinator does, is they check their ego at the door a little bit and they say, ‘I love these schemes and I'm the smart guy, but what can I do to help my players have success?’ Because their players having success means his team can have success.”
And Riley’s warm, friendly, West Texas persona belies a razor-sharp intelligence that he keeps mostly to himself.
“He's not ever going to project as the smartest guy in the room,” Mora said. “He's always wanting to learn. And that humbleness has served him very, very well.”
Riley grew up with a passion for the Dallas Cowboys, and he has a close relationship with Jerry and Stephen Jones. No big deal. Riley often expresses a deep love for all things OU, of course. It’s the school that gave him his first head coaching job. It’s the school he became a big-time offensive coordinator. It’s the school that will pay him $8 million for the coming season.
“He's always creating new trends or studying other people that are doing good things and trying to adapt them into his scheme."
— Jim Mora on Riley's strengths
But if he ever saw an opportunity to leave, maybe it would to answer that ringing curiosity in the back of his mind by someday taking over in Dallas.
“I think Urban kind of gives Lincoln Riley a little bit of blueprint for, you know, ‘Do I head that way someday? Or do I stay here in Norman and become one of the great coaches in Oklahoma history?’
“I hope he doesn't leave. I hope he continues to build his legacy there — you know, right alongside the other great coaches that they've had there.”