Lincoln Riley in elite class of college coaches after just 3 seasons

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 28: Head coach Lincoln Riley of the Oklahoma Sooners and head coach Ed Orgeron of the LSU Tigers shake hands after the LSU Tigers win the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl 28-63 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 28, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 28: Head coach Lincoln Riley of the Oklahoma Sooners and head coach Ed Orgeron of the LSU Tigers shake hands after the LSU Tigers win the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl 28-63 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 28, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Bob Stoops knew exactly what he was doing when he brought in Lincoln Riley as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator ahead of the 2015 season.

And the rest of the college football world is now realizing it.

Although the decision to hire Riley was not a difficult one for the longtime Sooner head coach, who had just completed his 16th season at Oklahoma, the decision that precipitated Riley’s appointment was so.

Josh Heupel, who Stoops recruited out of a community college in Utah and quarterbacked the Sooners to their seventh national championship in 2000, had been Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator for four seasons and had been an OU assistant coach for nine under Stoops.

The 2014 season was not a good one by Oklahoma standards. The Sooners finished at 8-5, in fourth place in the Big 12 and the offense had become stale and somewhat predictable. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was on campus, but he was not eligible until the next season because of NCAA transfer rules.

Stoops knew he needed to do something to refresh and energize the offense. That led to coaching staff changes, most notably the dismissal of Heupel, which Stoops noted at the time was one of the hardest decisions he has had to make as the Sooners head coach.

Stoops wanted to revitalize the Oklahoma passing game and get back to the style of offense that was so successful in the early part of his OU coaching era when Mike Leach was the offensive coordinator. The Sooner head coach had been following Riley’s emerging career and the recognition he was receiving as one of the bright, young offensive minds in college football.

Riley served several seasons as an assistant under Leach at Texas Tech. When Leach was fired as the Red Raiders’ head coach, Riley left to become offensive coordinator at East Carolina. His fifth and final season at East Carolina, Riley directed an offense that ranked third in the nation in passing offense and fifth in total offense.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

Stoops knew just the man he wanted as Oklahoma’s new offensive coordinator and he convinced Riley to come to Norman. Although he has not acknowledged such, I believe the Sooner head coach had an ulterior motive in mind when he went after Riley.

After two seasons as the OU offensive coordinator and with Mayfield as his on-field quarterback general, the Sooner offense took off and was transformed into one of the most prolific in college football. Oklahoma was 11-2 in Riley’s first two seasons on the Sooner coaching staff, and Stoops realized he had hit a bulls-eye in the hiring of the then-32-year-old assistant.

Stoops had been pondering his future for at least a couple of seasons, and he recognized that Riley was going to eventually become a college head coach. He was already coming up on short lists for some major coaching openings.

Most head-coaching replacements occur because things are not going well with the program. That was not the case at Oklahoma. The Sooners were on an upward trajectory and the team was loaded with returning starters and exceptional talent from a Big 12 championship squad. The timing was right and Riley was the right man to step in take over the well-oiled Sooner machine.

The rest is history. You couldn’t script a better start to a head-coaching career than what Riley has been able to accomplish in his three seasons in the role at Oklahoma. About the only thing the now 36-year-old Riley hasn’t achieved is win a national championship, but he has certainly been in position to do so in all three years, and that’s something that 99 percent of college coaches won’t ever be able to say.

The Sooners are 36-6 under Riley as a head coach, an .857 winning percentage. On that same journey:

  • Oklahoma has won three consecutive Big 12 championships (and five consecutive since Riley arrived in Norman),
  • Made three consecutive College Football Playoff appearances (and four in five seasons since Riley has been at OU),
  • Produced consecutive Heisman Trophy winners in 2017 and ’18 and the Heisman runner-up in 2019 (three different quarterbacks), and
  • The No. 1 overall NFL draft picks in 2018 and 2019, both now starting NFL QBs.

I don’t know any other coach, perhaps in the history of college football, who can make that claim after just three seasons as a head coach.

It’s no surprise then to learn that Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel. both of whom are staff writers for The Athletic, rank Riley in the top five on their 2020 lists of the 25 best coaches in college football. Mandel ranks the Oklahoma head coach No. 4; Feldman ranks Riley a spot lower, at No. 5.

Mandel’s top five active head coaches are: 1a, Nick Saban of Alabama; 1b, Dabo Swinney of Clemson; 3, Ed Ogeron of LSU; Riley, and 5, Kirby Smart of Georgia.

Feldman’s top five are; Saban, Swinney, Penn State’s James Franklin, Ogeron and Riley.

The one criticism that both writers have of Riley is his failure to get beyond the semifinal game in three straight trips to the College Football Playoff. Mandel, however, offers this disclaimer:

"“Riley’s critics may harp on the Sooners’ consecutive semifinal blowouts, but let’s keep things in perspective. No one below him on the list has even reached more than one semi.”"

As difficult as it was for Stoops to let his former player and coaching assistant Josh Heupel go (Heupel, by the way, is now a successful head coach at Central Florida), his decision to hire Lincoln Riley and subsequently turn the program over to him will perhaps go down as one of the most prescient decisions in the history of Oklahoma football.