Oklahoma football: Lincoln Riley had good Sooner teams, but far from the greatest
Lincoln Riley won 55 games in five seasons as head coach of the Oklahoma football Sooners ant took three teams to the College Football Playoff.
An average of 10.5 wins over five seasons equated to a winning percentage of .846, the highest of any of the 22 Oklahoma head coaches who preceded him.
Riley, without a doubt, had some very good Oklahoma teams, but they were far from the greatest Sooner teams of all-time. Unfortunately, what Riley’s OU teams may most be remembered for, despite all the individual and team accomplishments, is losing in the opening round three consecutive years in the College Football Playoff.
Bud Wilkinson won 11 games just twice in 17 seasons at Oklahoma (Riley had three 12-win seasons in just five), but the head coach credited with putting Oklahoma football on the national map also produced three undefeated seasons and nine with one loss or less. He won the school’s first three national championships in football, including back-to-back titles in 1955 and ’56.
Oklahoma still holds the NCAA record for the longest winning streak in college football history, an incredible 47 straight games achieved over nearly five seasons and during Wilkinson’s time on the sidelines. That is a record, — much like Cy Young’s 511 pitching wins and Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in Major League Baseball — that may stand the test of time and never be broken.
Riley won four consecutive Big 12 championships and two more as an OU assistant under Bob Stoops. Compare that with 13 consecutive conference titles won by Wilkinson’s Sooner teams from 1947 through 1959. For a dozen straight years between 1947, his first season as the Oklahoma head coach, and 1958, the 31-year-old Wilkinson did not lose a single conference game. His first loss to a conference opponent came in year 13 in his OU tenure (not counting his one season as an assistant in 1946), in his 79th game as head coach.
Ten times, Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams finished fifth or higher in the final Associated Press poll.
Wilkinson produced some truly great Oklahoma teams, most of which, at least during the time, were better than any of the Sooner teams under Riley.
But those weren’t the only great OU teams of the past. Barry Switzer had his share, as well. Switzer is Oklahoma’s second winningest head coach, both in terms of wins (157 in 16 seasons) and winning percentage (.837).
Like Wilkinson, Switzer delivered three national championships (1974, 1975 and 1985). He won 12 Big Eight championships, including eight consecutive in his first eight seasons as the Sooner’s head coach. Twice Switzer’s OU teams went undefeated for the season and eight times the Sooners’ went undefeated in conference play.
Nine times in 16 seasons under Switzer, Oklahoma finished in the top three in the Associated Press rankings.
Bob Stoops produced just one national championship season, which came in his second year leading the Sooners, but his Oklahoma teams won 10 Big 12 titles, three more than any other team in the conference. He won 11 or more games 12 times and 10 or more 14 times, and was Big 12 Coach of the Year six different times.
Two Sooner players (Jason White and Sam Bradford) won the Heisman Trophy during Stoops’ coaching reign, matching the two who won college football’s biggest individual prize during Riley’s time on the OU sidelines. But in truth, the two Heisman winners under Riley (Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray) came to Oklahoma while Stoops was head coach.
Getting back to Riley, who was well on his way to becoming the fifth Oklahoma head coach to win at least 100 games, he had a fantastic run in the relatively short time he was at OU, and he won a lot of games. But let’s be honest, the team Riley took over in 2017 in his first full season as a head coach, was a national championship-caliber team loaded with talent. The Sooners were coming off an 11-2 season and a two-touchdown Sugar Bowl win over Auburn, the third best team in the SEC that season.
While most new head coaches take over when teams are at a low point, Riley had success handed to him from the start. And he’d probably be quick to admit that. For this first couple of seasons, Riley was basically winning with players that were recruited under Stoops.
Since the end of World War II, no college team has won more games than Oklahoma (683). Seventy-two percent of those victories, or 492, have been delivered by Sooner teams coached by Wilkinson, Switzer and Stoops. I’d venture to say that the 10 or 15 best teams in OU football history would fall under one of those three great coaches.
Lincoln Riley produced some very good but not great Oklahoma teams. The Riley era of Oklahoma football is over. Now it’s Brent Venables’ turn to carve out his place in the illustrious history of Sooner football.