Oklahoma football: Lincoln Riley’s first 3 years the best Sooner coaching start ever

NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 28: Quarterback Baker Mayfield
NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 28: Quarterback Baker Mayfield /

June 8 marks the three-year anniversary of Lincoln Riley being named the 22nd head coach in Oklahoma football history.

light. Related Story. Will Lincoln Riley become next Sooner coach to join the 100-win club?

After 18 largely successful seasons in that role, Bob Stoops’ decision in the late spring of 2017 to step aside caught many people by surprise, but the Sooners’ winningest head coach knew that the circumstances couldn’t have been more ideal.

With two seasons already under his belt as the team’s offensive coordinator, Riley was not a new face and his innovative approach and impact on Oklahoma’s offensive performance served as instant validation that he was absolutely the best man to bring in for the job.

To Stoops’ credit, he knew exactly what he was doing when he was able to persuade the then 31-year-old Riley to leave East Carolina, where he had been the offensive coordinator for five seasons, and come to Oklahoma. Riley was widely considered one of the brightest young offensive minds in the college game and someone who was on a fast track to be a head coach at a Division I program within a few years.

Stoops knew that the Oklahoma offense had become a little stale and sluggish under former Sooner quarterback and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. Stoops made the difficult decision to relieve his longtime assistant and former pupil of his duties following the 2014 season, and the search for Heupel’s replacement led directly to Riley.

By the way, the move turned out to be a positive one for Heupel, as well, who later became head coach at Utah State and is now in charge of the football program at Central Florida.

With Baker Mayfield as the new starting quarterback and with a host of talented offensive weapons at his disposal, the Sooners did more than thrive, they exploded offensively under Riley’s Air Raid system.

The Oklahoma offense went from good to great in just one season under Riley, especially in the passing game, which was exactly what Stoops was looking for. Between 2014 and 2015, the Sooners went from 23rd in the nation in total offense, averaging 464 yards per game, to seventh in the country, averaging 530 yards per contest. And the passing yards improved by over 150 per game (204 ypg in 2014 to 353 in 2015), going from 83rd among NCAA FBS teams to No. 7.

The Sooners finished in the top 10 nationally in total offense, passing offense and scoring offense in both 2015 and 2016. And they were able to do that while still averaging over 200 yards per game on the ground. That overall offensive balance made Oklahoma more unpredictable and difficult to defend.

And the offensive production has continued to get better with Riley as head coach, including producing two Heisman-winning quarterbacks and a Heisman runner-up in three successive seasons. Under Riley, Oklahoma has become the new “Quarterback U” of college football. And we all know how important the quarterback position is for success at every level of the sport.

In his first three seasons as head coach Riley’s teams have won 36 of 42 games, the best three-year start in terms of wins in Oklahoma history, and finished second, first and third, respectively, nationally in total offense.

Stoops acknowledged later that he had been contemplating retiring for a couple of seasons. He believed Riley was a first-line, head-coaching prospect when he brought him in, and that belief got even stronger seeing him in action as a member of the Sooner coaching staff. He also knew it wouldn’t be long before the right opportunity would come along and Riley would be gone to begin a new chapter in his coaching career. Why couldn’t Oklahoma be that opportunity? Stoops thought.

You could say, although he probably wouldn’t ever own up to it, that this was all part of Stoops’ master plan when he brought Riley on board. The icing on the cake was that Stoops was leaving the cupboard full in terms of Oklahoma’s returning talent and the team’s championship prospects for the next several seasons.

Most college head-coaching changes occur when the program is at a low point and struggling to find its way out. This was the complete opposite, and Riley has taken the handoff and run with it, resulting in a totally seamless transition, just as Stoops had envisioned it.

Next. Four things Lincoln Riley has done that Bob Stoops didn't. dark

Oh, and by the way, did we mention  that Oklahoma has won three consecutive Big 12 championships and been to the College Football Playoff three straight years with Riley in charge.

About all Lincoln Riley has failed to do since he was elevated to the head coach’s role is win a College Football Playoff game and, of course, an eighth Oklahoma national title. Something tells me he will be checking both of those off his list sometime very soon.

Wouldn’t that be a tremendous fourth anniversary present.