5 things that have defined Lincoln Riley's 5 years at Oklahoma

Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley is all smiles as he holds his daughter, Sloan, after the Sooners’ game against Baylor, Dec. 7, 2019, at the Big 12 Championship at AT&T Stadium in Dallas.

NORMAN — Time has flown since Bob Stoops reached out to a young, East Carolina offensive coordinator to interview for an open position at Oklahoma. 

OU hired Lincoln Riley a little more than five years ago, on Jan. 15, 2015. This spring marked half a decade since he became the Sooners’ quarterback coach and offensive braintrust.

Here are five things that have defined Riley’s five years in Norman.

1. Running on Air: It was Oct. 10, 2015. Texas beat OU 24-17 in the Cotton Bowl and the Sooners ran the ball 37 times for 67 yards.

Riley’s adjustment period in the Air Raid offense is worth recalling. With better offensive line and backfield talent than he’d ever had, he took time creating the right mixture at OU.

He figured it out quickly.

Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon ran for 36 and 24 yards, respectively, against the Longhorns that year. They helped OU rush for 232 yards the following game, a 55-0 rout at Kansas State, and OU would average 222 rushing yards per game for the season.

Mixon and Perine combined for 5,543 yards and 56 touchdowns from scrimmage in 2015 and 2016.

In Riley’s tenure, the lowest OU has finished nationally in rushing was 27th in 2017.

2. The promotion: June 7, 2017 brought Stoops’ abrupt retirement, catching the sports world off guard.

Stoops’ decision and Riley’s promotion to head coach came as one rapid sequence. There was no time for the public to debate a successor, and had there been, Riley’s name likely would have been atop all the lists anyway.

The 2015 Broyles Award winner for nation’s best assistant coach, a proven offensive whiz and tireless recruiter, Riley was the right choice.

Even at 33 years old at the time — the youngest active FBS head coach — he was an old soul who some said had begun to talk like Stoops.

He has won like Stoops too, compiling a 36-6 (.857) record.

3. The debut: Except for a strong defense, Riley had every tool needed for success at his disposal in 2017.

With Baker Mayfield at quarterback and plenty of weapons around him, the Sooners shocked No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus early in the year and reached the College Football Playoff, enduring a heartbreaking double-overtime loss to Georgia.

OU was a popular national championship pick. When CeeDee Lamb was drafted in April, he was the ninth player from the 2017 offense to reach the NFL.

“It was obviously a really good group,” Riley said recently. “Kind of a combination of guys from everywhere. That first group that we had two years to develop. It’s a great group for us. Skill sets aren’t always going to be the same, but you had impact players at each position and on top of that high-character guys who played well together. Because of that you had a historically good offense.”

There was more at work than people realized. Riley was also nurturing Kyler Murray behind Mayfield at quarterback, and the results would be explosive.

Mayfield and Murray won back-to-back Heismans and were both selected No. 1 overall in the draft. It padded OU’s brand as an offensive factory and Riley’s reputation as a quarterback coach extraordinaire.

4. The hardest decision: Riley has done a lot of things correctly in three seasons. Handling Mike Stoops’ dismissal in 2018, then keeping OU on track for the CFP, was arguably his toughest task.

Stoops’ brother had hired and helped promote Riley, and Riley seemingly did everything in his power to give Stoops a chance to turn around OU’s defense. But the loss to Georgia had been pinned on poor defense, and a similar bottom-out performance against Texas the next year was the last straw.

Stoops was let go the next day.

Riley was a mixture of emotional and thoughtful when meeting reporters for the first time following that decision. It clearly had been a difficult choice not only to make, but to sort through in the aftermath.

The results on the field were similar. Using an interim coordinator in Ruffin McNeill, OU fought its way back to the playoff. The extra victories in that time helped build Murray’s Heisman case and may have even made OU’s defensive coordinator position look more attractive to top candidates.

5. His own program: By last offseason, there were few inheritances left in the coffer for Riley.

Bob Stoops was branching out of retirement to the XFL. Mayfield and Murray were long gone. Even long-time strength coordinator, Jerry Schmidt, had left the program a year earlier.

Riley had the canvas all to himself. He could hire his own defensive coordinator, which he did, in Ohio State’s Alex Grinch. And he could court a transfer quarterback or start a young freshman in Spencer Rattler in 2019.

Riley chose the former, bringing in the most high-profile transfer of all-time in Jalen Hurts.

Those choices worked.

OU’s defense, while not impenetrable, made great strides under Grinch. And Hurts showed improvement from his time at Alabama, plenty enough to get the Sooners back onto the playoff stage.

The Sooners still smart from the first-round blues — they have not made it into the national championship game in the playoff era and Riley is 0-3 in bowl games as head coach.

But he has kept the brand relevant. Only a few foes — the Southeastern Conference powers and Clemson — are operating at a higher level.

At some point in a post-pandemic world, when football will look vastly different initially, Riley will get more chances to define his OU career. 

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