NORMAN — Lincoln Riley’s understated demeanor belies his intense competitive streak.
His humble upbringing in Muleshoe, Texas, hides his devotion to perfection and his football sophistication.
Wednesday was about Bob Stoops, or should have been. The man retired from a hall of fame coaching career, suddenly and unexpectedly, and deserved every last admiration thrown his way.
But rather than a formal retirement ceremony — a gold watch and cardigan sweater and a dingy side office and a frenetic deer-in-the-headlights look from the Oklahoma president and athletic director — Wednesday also became a coronation of sorts for the new head coach, a man whom David Boren and Joe Castiglione and Sooner Nation hope is simply next in line among Oklahoma’s amazing pantheon of legendary college football coaches: 33-year-old Lincoln Riley.
What a monumental task it is that Riley takes on.
“When I think of Lincoln Riley, and I observe him in action, I can only, in many ways, have memories of Bob Stoops at the same age and same position in his career,” Boren said. “I see so many similarities.”
“Oh, good looking,” Stoops deadpanned.
“Being able to relate to players,” Stoops said. “The intensity, the details. Just his game management, those things. And then I think there’s just a leadership quality you recognize when players are really listening to a guy and really taking to heart what he’s saying. And then go out and demonstrate it. I just felt his leadership in a lot of those areas was evident to me.”
Mike Stoops knows a thing or two about offensive coordinators. As OU’s defensive coordinator for 11 of his brother’s 18 seasons, he’s matched wits every day in practice with some of college football’s top offensive minds, from Mike Leach to Mark Mangino to Chuck Long to Riley.
“He reminds you a lot of Mike,” Mike Stoops said. “They bring that unique confidence in moving the football. That’s all they know, is to move the ball. And they all bring it, and they’re not scared of the situation. You can see that. From a defensive perspective, you can find out real quick what this person’s able to do, and it didn’t shock me what he’s able to do his first two years.
“We were still young on the offensive line his first year, and to be able to move the ball like they did was, I thought, unique. He knows if he’s outmatched somewhere how he has to adjust the game. And those are all very unique talents of a guy that young.
“So he’s well beyond his years in just his ability, his confidence. His ability to relate to players in this era of football that we’re in is critical, and I think he’s gonna bring a young, enthusiastic style to our team.”
Riley is a dynamic recruiter and a young 33 (now the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the second-youngest coach in OU history behind 31-year-old Bud Wilkinson), so players gravitate to him. He played and worked under Leach at Texas Tech (he was a walk-on and Leach cut him, but then offered him a job), so his mind is innately tuned to the finer points of offensive play-calling.
“He’s been through it,” said quarterback Baker Mayfield. “I think, in this day and age, for a young mind like that to talk to the guys and be able to somewhat relate that he’s been through the process around the same time — he just always makes the effort to try to get to know somebody. He knows all the offensive guys very, very well. He already made it very clear to the defensive guys that he’s going to try to get to know the ones that he doesn’t know on a personal level — the ones that just got here — he’s going to make that effort. He does that because he cares.”
Riley has been a Sooner for only two seasons, but he was offensive coordinator at East Carolina under Ruffin McNeill for five seasons, and he worked under Leach at Texas Tech for seven seasons. His offenses have been some of college football’s most prolific.
“I told the guys after that coach Riley is the perfect man for the job,” Mayfield said. “He’ s a great guy, great family man and he knows what he’s doing when it comes to football. He’s a great leader. He’s helped me out more than I’ve ever deserved. He’s such a great coach and he relates to players on a different level and that’s true. He’s going to be a great head coach and always will be. I’m excited that I do get one year with him as a head coach and in his first year.”
Mayfield, Stoops, Boren and everyone else said Wednesday that the transition will be “seamless” because in those two short years, Riley has become something of an extension of Stoops.
“There’s just so many things he was able to pass on to me over the last couple years — and will continue to do so — that made me really feel at ease with this,” Riley said. “I think of all the head coaches I’ve worked for, I think I’m most similar to him. I think I’m more aligned with him as far as overall thought process, philosophies.
“But, at the same time, I know that part of this job is to be yourself. You’ve got to take the lessons you’ve learned from great people and certainly apply those, but you’ve also got to be yourself. If you don’t, then it won’t work. We’ve had some great conversations over the past few days … but since the day I came to work for him, we’ve been in sync.
“It’s worked great together when you look at the results, and I’m thrilled that (Stoops is) gonna be around here where I can pick his brain when I need it. I promise you he’ll get a phone call or two from me.”
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.