NORMAN — When he was an assistant coach at Texas Tech, or even when he was offensive coordinator at East Carolina, Lincoln Riley couldn’t have possibly dreamed up this scenario.
Hired by Bob Stoops as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma? Sure. Two years directing a record-setting Sooner offense? Totally realistic.
Being promoted to head coach prior to his third season in Norman? Concocting a winning game plan at Ohio State? Devising a 62-point outburst in Stillwater? Dominating TCU twice to win the program’s third consecutive Big 12 championship? Tutoring OU’s sixth Heisman Trophy winner?
Locking down a spot in the College Football Playoff?
Pure fantasy. Can’t happen. The stuff dreams are made of — not reality.
And yet, here we are. The No. 2-ranked Sooners have impossibly accomplished all those things during Riley’s first season. The youngest major college football coach in the country has taken the baton from Stoops and somehow picked up the tempo.
Has Riley ever taken a moment to step back and take stock of his amazing path?
“There will be time for it,” Riley said. “I don’t much right now because I know if I spend 30 minutes doing that, that’s 30 minutes I could be doing something to help this program continue to go forward, or spending time with my family and my girls. I don’t have 30 minutes to spare right now. When this thing’s all over will probably be a better time to certainly reflect on it.”
Not that Riley won’t acknowledge his special achievements. He understands where he is and what he’s done.
“You want to stay in the moment and do your best,” he said. “You also want to appreciate the great things that are happening with this program, and having a chance to be in the middle of that, it’s been a great thrill. I’ve enjoyed every second of it, I really have, but I know right now, we’ve got things to do. This team right now needs me to stay focused on the task at hand.”
The task at hand is to beat Georgia in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. The SEC champion Bulldogs (12-1) are favored by 2 points, but it was the Sooners (12-1) who opened as a 2-point favorite back on Dec. 3.
Leave Pasadena with a victory, and Oklahoma is on its way to the national championship game in Atlanta on Jan. 8.
When the time comes, it actually will be easy for Riley to comprehend the depths of his first season as a head coach. He got a good grasp of his place in the world during his two seasons at Stoops’ offensive coordinator. Now, after the Sooners’ inaugural season in their fancy new facility, all Riley needs to do is glance around his office or explore the grounds.
The program’s history washes over him. Legends are everywhere. Just ask Stoops: that heritage left behind by some of the game’s greatest figures both comforts and motivates the sitting head coach.
Having already been to Atlanta once this year for the College Football Awards, and having been to New York alongside quarterback Baker Mayfield on Mayfield’s Heisman Trophy tour, Riley got an even greater taste of the history, of his place among the legends, and now he wants more.
First up, he said, will be getting to better know OU’s past Heisman winners. Last week, for example, he had 2003 winner Jason White in to speak to the Sooner quarterbacks.
“I think it’s important being in this job,” Riley said. “Those guys are important to this university and important to this program. It’s a big deal. That’s one of those things that I want to do more of. I haven’t had much time with the timing of all this happening in June. There’s certainly some things like that that I want to do more of once the season’s over.”
Think about it: In his first year as head coach, Riley’s star student cleared himself a place in Heisman Park alongside the visages of White, Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, Billy Sims and Sam Bradford. Corny as it sounds, those statues will stand forever as a monument to gridiron greatness.
No matter how the rest of Riley’s career goes, his name will be permanently etched on the base of Mayfield’s statue.
“It’s really cool,” Riley said. “Not that you take it for granted, but that’s kind of every day around here, a little bit. … There’s history all over this place. Guys like that, kind of running around, there’s always someone like that each and every day, around our office and around our practice field. That’s one of the many things that make this place unique.”
Now, Riley and the Sooners have made their way to California. The team reconvened in Los Angeles on Tuesday, and final preparations are being made for the Rose Bowl. There is little debate that the Bulldogs are the most talented opponent OU has faced all season.
Riley clearly grasps the challenge ahead of him, but it seems he also can appreciate the Sooners’ journey.
“One, you’re in the national semifinal getting ready to play a great Georgia team,” Riley said. “Two, you’re getting ready to play one of the most historic bowl games, one of the best venues in college football, and probably the one — honestly, just personally for me — I was kind of deep down hoping that some year we’d get a chance to play in. That’s always been the one, that kind of looking from afar, that I haven’t gotten a chance to be a part of yet that I was always hoping to get a chance to be in.
“So it’s going to be a great setting. Georgia’s a tremendous football team. Clearly, when you get to this point, everybody’s pretty good.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. 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. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.