NORMAN — Oklahoma’s game at Texas Tech this week is a homecoming for Lincoln Riley.
Riley makes his first return as head coach to the school where he walked on as a skinny quarterback out of Muleshoe, Texas, and the school where he got his first college football job as a Texas Tech graduate assistant under Mike Leach.
It’ll be a special night.
“You enjoy ones like this,” Riley said. “There’s a storyline behind it, some history behind it, two good teams going at it and a good atmosphere, Saturday night on ABC — it’s what it’s all about.”
Riley’s initial return to Lubbock came two years ago in OU’s 66-59 victory as Bob Stoops’ offensive coordinator. In that game, OU’s Baker Mayfield (545 passing yards, seven TD passes) and Tech’s Patrick Mahomes (734 yards, seven total TDs) combined for an NCAA record 1,383 yards total offense (819 by Mahomes) and the teams combined for an NCAA record 1,708 yards of offense — 854 by each team.
On Monday, Riley recounted his emotions stepping into Jones AT&T Stadium two years ago.
“Yeah, it was really unique,” he said. “It was one of the more unique feelings I’ve ever had in a game. Just coming in that other tunnel, and so much history there and so many good memories there. It was unique. And then on top of it, the game was one of the wildest ones ever. There were some mixed emotions for sure and probably will be in this one as well.”
Riley didn’t play a whole lot at Texas Tech under Mike Leach — Leach encouraged him early to hang up the pads and get into coaching — but he did graduate a Red Raider in 2006. By then, Riley had already coached three seasons as a Tech student assistant. He got the full-time gig in 2006, then took over the wide receivers in 2007 (he coached Michael Crabtree to the Biletnikoff Award as America’s top wideout) and instructed Red Raider inside receivers in 2008 and 2009.
That’s when former Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill got the head coaching job at his own alma mater, East Carolina, and hired a 26-year-old Riley to coordinate the Pirates’ offense. Riley and McNeill worked together for five seasons in Greenville, N.C., before Riley took over Stoops’ offense at OU in 2015.
When Riley took over for Stoops in 2017 and needed a defensive assistant, he called McNeill. Three weeks ago, Riley made McNeill his defensive coordinator.
Now, McNeill also makes his first return to Lubbock. Riley this week described their relationship.
“Yeah, it’s evolved a lot over the years,” Riley said. “It was more, you know, father-son like the early years at Texas Tech. I joke with him now and say grandfather, grandkid, but he doesn’t like that. Then as I got older, working with him and for him at ECU, we continued to be close.
“Yeah, it’s just a relationship built on trust, long history having gone through a lot of ups, a couple tough moments together too. So there’s a lot of history, a lot of trust, know what each other’s thinking quite a bit. Got the ability to kind of play off each other. It’s one of those where it wouldn’t be the same if we hadn’t spent all this time together, for sure.”
Riley isn’t the only former Red Raider quarterback who has an appreciation for Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator. Listen to how Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury described his old team’s linebackers coach.
“Just an incredible man, incredible leader, kind of a father figure to all of us,” Kingsbury said. “Always made you feel like you were 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Always had time for you, always remembered your story, who you were, what you were about. One of my favorite people in this world. Always been a huge fan of coach Ruff.
“I think he just has that aura, that persona, that he attracts people, attracts young people. You want to be around him, you want to get to know him. Then when he does need to get mean and get mad, you know, the whole room stops and everybody straightens up and listens. He has that magic about him.”
Mike Leach got Stoops started off in 1999, then took the head coaching job in Lubbock. Leach hired McNeill to coach Tech linebackers in 2000, and from 2003-06 McNeill was assistant head coach and special teams coordinator. In 2007, McNeill took over defensive tackles and at midseason was promoted to defensive coordinator — only minutes after Mike Gundy’s infamous “I’m a man! I’m 40” rant following Oklahoma State’s crazy victory over Tech in Stillwater. McNeill filled in for Leach as Tech’s interim head coach at the end of the 2009 season, when Leach was fired.
The next season, McNeill was head coach at East Carolina, and, after coaching the Red Raiders for 10 years, he hasn’t had a game in Lubbock since.
“I’ve got some good friends (there),” McNeill said Saturday night. “My pastor back there, Pastor Ford, I’m still very close to him. … Kliff (Kingsbury) and the staff, they’ve done a great job. A lot of guys on that staff, I’ve coached. That’s one of the longest places — besides, I’m praying, that Norman is — that we’ve lived as a family.”
Oklahoma’s players know well the bond between Riley and McNeill. Those emotions should run high on Saturday.
“Coach Ruff tells me all the time how Coach Linc is one of his best friends, stuff like that,” said linebacker Kenneth Murray. “And just how much he admires the way that he operates things and does stuff like that. Coach Ruff tells me stuff about that all the time. Coach Linc tells me stuff about how Ruff is one of his best friends, too. Those guys, they have a great relationship and it’s fun playing for both of them.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.