Oklahoma football: Lincoln Riley has proved to be right stuff for Sooners

Dec 7, 2019; Arlington, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooner head coach Lincoln Riley on the sidelines during the game against the Baylor Bears in the 2019 Big 12 Championship Game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 7, 2019; Arlington, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooner head coach Lincoln Riley on the sidelines during the game against the Baylor Bears in the 2019 Big 12 Championship Game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

Oklahoma football has had a long history of elite-level success.

If you look at the top teams in the game every season, the one thing that pops out at you is that the cast of characters doesn’t change all that much. The order may change, but many of the same teams remain.

The best teams don’t get that way on talent alone, they’re also blessed with outstanding head coaches, who are the ones ultimately responsible for the team’s success on the field and for putting together the coaching staff responsible for recruiting and developing the players once they get there.

In the 2000s, for example, Oklahoma has finished in the top 25 in the Associated Press college football poll 19 times in the past 21 years. The Sooners have finished in the top ten 15 times and in the top five eight times.

What’s more, only two FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) teams have a better winning percentage than Oklahoma since the 2000 season.  According to the college football staff at 247Sports, only Ohio State (224-43, .838) and Boise State (224-45, .832) have a better winning percentage than the Sooners over that time span, but Oklahoma’s 228 wins leads all major college teams.

The list of Oklahoma head coaches is a relatively short one given that the Sooners have been playing varsity football for 126 years.

There have been two architects of the Sooners’ success over the past two decades: Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley. And there was absolutely no drop off in the success achieved by the Oklahoma football program in the transition.

Riley is the 22nd head coach at Oklahoma, a list that includes such coaching legends as Bud Wilkinson (1947-63) and Barry Switzer (1973-88).

When OU hired Bob Stoops in 1999, the then 39-year-old Ohio native had been a defensive coordinator for 10 seasons but had never been a college head coach. Over the next 18 seasons, he won 190 games and became the winningest coach in the Sooners’ storied football history.

The decision by relatively new athletic director Joe Castiglione to bring in Stoops to revive an OU program that had lost its way over the previous decade turned out to be one of the best hiring decisions in the lofty history of Sooner football.

Stoops announced his retirement in 2017 after 18 highly successful seasons. Two seasons before that, he had hired a young college assistant coach who was on a rising trajectory in the college football world and was considered one of the game’s brightest young offensive minds to be the Sooners’ offensive coordinator. That young coach was 31-year-old Lincoln Riley.

Stoops had a game plan when he brought Riley in in 2015

When Stoops retired, he recommended Riley for the job, and the Oklahoma administration followed Stoops’ lead and elevated Riley to the head coach’s position. It has proved to be a very astute move.

Like Stoops before him, it was Riley’s first assignment as a head coach, and he was succeeding a Sooner coaching legend in one of the prestige jobs in college football.

It wasn’t as if, however, Stoops had left the cupboard bare when he stepped down. Riley inherited a program that was loaded with talent, especially on offense, and one he had become very familiar with in his two previous seasons in Norman. The quarterback in Riley’s first season as the Sooners’ head coach was Baker Mayfield, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy in the 2017 season.

Riley has won 45 games and lost nine in his four seasons as Oklahoma head coach and appears well on his way to becoming the fifth member of the coveted Century Club of OU football coaches who have reached the 100-win level. Oklahoma is the only school that can boast four head coaches who each won more than 100 games.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

As the youngest FBS head coach, the 33-year-old Riley led the Sooners to a 12-2 record in his first season and an appearance as the No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff. OU has been to two other College Football Playoffs under Riley in his four seasons at the helm.

Riley won 36 games in his first three seasons, the most of any Sooner head coach in his first three seasons on the job, and he added nine more in the COVID-impacted 2020 season. His 45 total wins in the last four years ranks among the best in the game over that time.

And we can’t overlook the fact that Riley also produced two Heisman-winning quarterbacks and a Heisman runner-up during that time, and he has another highly regarded Heisman contender under his wing in quarterback Spencer Rattler.

Given his rocket-like success since assuming the head-coaching reigns at OU, it’s probably not a surprise to find Riley’s name among the top-five head coaches today in college football.

Every year, The Athletic ranks the top-25 head coaches in college football. A few days ago, Athletic writers Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel posted their individual lists of the top-25 head coaches. Riley is No. 4 on both lists.

Feldman’s top five for 2021 are Alabama’s Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney of Clemson, Brian Kelly of Notre Dame, Riley and James Franklin of Penn State. Mandel’s list was slightly different: Saban and Swinney tied at No. 1, LSU’s Ed Orgeron, Riley and Kirby Smart of Georgia.

And this is not the first year that Riley has been ranked among the best five college coaches in America. He was also No. 4 a year ago in The Athletic’s annual coaches’ ranking. That’s saying a lot, considering his relatively short time heading the Sooner program.

Athlon Sports also produces a ranking of college football head coaches. In Stoops’ final season at OU, in 2016, Athlon ranked him as the nation’s fifth best college coach.

The following year, Riley’s inaugural season as head coach, Athlon ranked the OU first-year coach 63rd among the 130 FBS head coaches. To put that into perspective, Kirby Smart, who was beginning his second season at Georgia, was ranked 65th.

Riley’s rise in the college football world has been meteoric, and deservedly so. He is considered the best quarterback coach in college football. The record in that regard speaks for itself. He also is the architect of one of the most explosive offenses in the college game.

Last season the Oklahoma offense ranked 11th among FBS teams. In his first three seasons as head coach, however, the Sooners ranked No. 1 twice in total offense (2017 and 2018) and No. 3 (2019). As long as Riley is at Oklahoma, you can expect the Sooners to have one of the top offenses in college football.

All of that naturally has caught the attention of NFL owners and general managers, and Riley’s name has come up a number of times on short lists of NFL teams looking for head coaches and offensive coordinators.

Riley has given no indication that the NFL could be in his future plans, but if his success trajectory continues, so too will his NFL suiters. Keeping Riley on the sidelines in Norman may be the biggest challenge for AD Joe Castiglione and Oklahoma football looking to the future.