Lincoln Riley knows what he’s up against, and embraces it

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 10: Head coach Bob Stoops of the Oklahoma Sooners looks on as Baker Mayfield
DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 10: Head coach Bob Stoops of the Oklahoma Sooners looks on as Baker Mayfield /

The expectations for new Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley are the same they have been for the 21 head coaches who have preceded him: win and be revered; lose and be reviled.

Riley is not new to college coaching nor to Oklahoma football. For the past two seasons he has served as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator under Bob Stoops, and he held the same position at East Carolina for five seasons before that, but this will be his first season wearing the head-coach’s hat on the sidelines, and to do so at a program like Oklahoma carries with it heavy accountability, high expectations and very limited tolerance for the alternative.

Most first-time head coaches at the college level get their starts at struggling programs and, if successful there, may get the opportunity to work their way up the food chain. Stepping into the head coach’s job for the first time at a school with as much success historically as the Sooners have enjoyed in football is virtually unheard of…except at Oklahoma.

Riley takes over for a coach who may well go down as the best of all-time at a program that has featured such legendary college coaches as Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer. Both Wilkinson and Switzer won three national championships apiece. Stoops won one and played for three others and also won 10 conference championships. Stoops’ 190 career wins at Oklahoma is the most of any Sooner football coach.

Most new head coaches are given some time and a short grace period to get their system in place and put their name on the program. I’m not sure Riley will be afforded the same luxury.

First of all the system is already in place, and he has been an active part of it for two seasons. More importantly, though, Stoops handed over a program that is in tip-top shape, with

  • all of the assistant coaches returning;
  • one of the best quarterbacks in the country and a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist at the offensive controls;
  • playing behind the best offensive line in the Big 12 and perhaps in the country,
  • and the favorite of most experts to capture a third consecutive conference championship.

On top of that, the Sooners’ 2017 recruiting class was ranked in the nation’s top 10, supplying the program’s lifeline with a steady flow of top talent.

“We’ve had a consistent history of it going well. We don’t worry too much about the outside opinion.” –OU head coach Lincoln Riley

So all the particulars are in place for Riley to succeed, but the new Sooner head coach is keenly aware that he still has to go out and earn it.

Riley acknowledges that he will have some nerves before the season-opening game on Saturday against the UTEP (the University of Texas-El Paso), but it really shouldn’t be any different than any other year, he says.

He recognizes that the Sooners have had an extraordinary run under Bob Stoops. In the last 17 seasons (since 2000), no head coach in college football has won more games than Stoops), but he is also confident that the program will continue to perform at a high level.

“It’s not something I worry about,” Riley told Oklahoma City Oklahoman sports columnist Berry Trammel on the practice field last week. “I don’t think about it much. I’ve been given a great setup here, and it we do it the right way, we’re going to have a chance to win big,

“We’re confident in the way we do things,” the Sooner head coach said. “We’ve had a consistent history of it going well. We don’t worry too much about the outside opinion.”

It is not unprecedented for a head coach to follow a fan favorite and coaching legend and do well on his own, but historically the success rate has been far, far fewer than the number of disappointments.

Riley not only is in his first head-coaching assignment, he is also the youngest head coach in the country, at 33 (he will be 34 on Sept. 5). Will his young age and inexperience as head master of one of the country’s elite football brands prevent him from being successful.

Absolutely not. His two previous seasons at OU have shown that Riley has built strong relationships within the program and is well respected and has earned the trust of the players and coaches alike. That is a critical component and step one for success as a head coach.

There is precedent for young, first-time head coaches doing well at Oklahoma. Wilkinson was 30 and an assistant for one season under OU head coach Jim Tatum in 1946 before being named head coach of the Sooners the following season.

Switzer had been on the Sooner staff for six seasons before he was elevated to head coach in 1973, at the age of 35, replacing Chuck Fairbanks.

Stoops was 38 when he was named head coach at Oklahoma in 1999 after 14 seasons as an assistant at four other schools.

On Saturday afternoon, Lincoln Riley will run out of the tunnel at the south end of Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, accompanied by his team, ready to rumble in his first official game as the 22nd head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners.

He will have the full support of another sellout Oklahoma crowd, the first in the Riley era, and a Sooner Nation that wants nothing but continued success for and with their new head coach.