It’s not totally obvious, the thoughts that have run through Lincoln Riley’s head over the past week.
It was, however, pretty obvious Monday that of the challenges and responsibilities Riley has faced in his first season as Oklahoma’s football coach, none were more overwhelming than having to sanction his redshirt senior quarterback on senior day.
No one expected tears, but maybe they should have.
Riley became emotional when explaining what Baker Mayfield has meant to him personally. He needed half a minute to arrange himself.
That evening, Mayfield essentially did the same thing while addressing the punishment he’d been given following his sideline antics against Kansas a week ago. Mayfield won’t start or serve as a captain on senior day, which hurts him, he said. He teared up over that.
And he wiped his eyes, too, for Riley, whom he called a father figure.
It was easy to take a cynical route, to wonder why two grown men fought to pull themselves together over what will basically amount to a few Mayfield-less series on Saturday against West Virginia. For a moment, it seemed bizarre that Mayfield’s sideshow against Kansas had come this far.
Only, this wasn’t about one game. It was about 37 of them, the ones in which Mayfield and Riley spent bonding over the last two-plus years, which changed both their lives forever.
They owe the world to each other.
Riley came to OU as offensive coordinator in 2015, immediately charged with helping oversee a heated quarterback battle between Mayfield, Trevor Knight and Cody Thomas. Mayfield won fair and square and did it in a way that didn’t scrape team chemistry, but instead built it.
Mayfield’s development has skyrocketed since then. His passing yards per game tracked from 284.6 in 2015, to 305 in ‘16, to 346.9 now. Mayfield is still inching toward the best version of himself as a player, and has Riley’s developmental ability to thank for that.
As far as Riley’s concerned, Mayfield is largely the reason OU is 32-5 since 2015, and the linchpin holding the Sooners together in Riley’s first season succeeding OU’s winningest coach of all time.
The rookie head coach has handled this season with poise and command. Many coaches could’ve found ways to let this ship sink. Riley didn’t, but he’s had help. It came from his quarterback.
Riley and Mayfield have a bond as members of the unofficial Texas high school football fraternity. Both walked on to be quarterbacks at Texas Tech, experiments that ultimately failed but still managed to serve as launchpads to a better life.
One guy, Mayfield, is an emotional firecracker and the other, Riley, has become an expert at lighting the fuse without anyone getting hurt, though some could challenge that theory after last week.
Still, they are yin and yang, coffee and cream. They are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a sharp mind to compliment a quick and reckless pistol-slinger.
Riley was right when he said many of us can’t understand their relationship fully. You’d have to be a sock in the locker room, or a shadow on the wall in Riley’s grandiose office when the two converse in private to know just how much their blood runs together.
But they offered a glimpse into that room this week, and it gives a whole new meaning to what Mayfield’s final home game at Owen Field on Saturday will be like. He and Riley have helped write a new chapter in OU football history.
It has pushed them together ever so close.
“He’s a guy that’s … He’s like a father figure to me,” Mayfield said through watery eyes Monday. “I’m far away from my family and he’s that person for me here. He knows me as good as anybody in the world. It’s a special relationship. We’ve been through a lot together, ups and downs. This won’t be the highlight of our journey and it won’t be the end of it either.”
A few hours earlier, his coach struggled to cap his press conference’s opening statement, trying to express this thought on Mayfield.
“No matter how long I go coaching, whatever the rest of my career ends up being like, I don’t know that I’ll ever have a player that’s as special to me as he is,” Riley said, before pausing for 30 seconds. “We’ve been through a lot together. He’s a tremendous teammate. He’s the best football player in America. He has a great heart that a lot of people don’t get a chance to see like I do.
“I’m proud as hell to be his coach.”