By John Rohde
When Lincoln Riley looked at his cell phone and saw it was Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops calling, he quickly answered.
“When that name pops up on your phone, you answer that call,” Riley explained with a smile.
When Stoops later offered Riley the job as OU’s new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, Riley answered even more quickly.
“It took me probably about one second,” Riley said of deciding to accept.
In hiring the 31-year-old Riley, Stoops has gone full-circle since taking over the Sooners 16 seasons ago.
When that name (Bob Stoops) pops up on your phone, you answer that call.
- Lincoln Riley
Stoops hired innovative 37-year-old Mike Leach as his first offensive coordinator at OU to help resurrect a sputtering program. Leach was a protégé of longtime coach Hal Mumme, one of the originators of the “air raid offense.” With the slumping Sooners once again in need of offensive guidance, Stoops now has turned to one of Leach’s protégés in Riley, who had his introductory interview session with media Saturday afternoon.
“I had a direction I wanted to go,” Stoops said of his hiring process. “I felt through the last several years we kind of gravitated away from where we started here and that was in a Mumme/Leach type system in what we’re doing and how we’re moving the football. We had some success with it through the years and just little by little here in the last several years we’ve kind of slowly drifted away from it. I had a goal in mind to get back to running that type of system and I felt I got the absolute best guy to do it. He is a guy that has come up through it, understands it inside and out, and has had success running it.”
Stoops said hiring Riley was priority No. 1.
“Absolutely. Getting Lincoln in here first as our coordinator was our primary goal,” Stoops said. “Trusting him and us communicating on where we go from there. Definitely wanted to get this piece set.”
(Stoops had no updates on his searches for a new receivers coach and cornerbacks coach.)
Ironically, Riley replaces former Sooners quarterback Josh Heupel, who helped bring immediate success to the Stoops era. Recruited by Leach out of Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, Heupel joined the OU program as a junior in 1999 and led the Sooners to the national title in 2000, when he finished second in Heisman Trophy balloting.
Leach became Texas Tech head coach after the 1999 season and soon thereafter a walk-on quarterback named Lincoln Riley joined the program. “I probably never talked to him (Leach) for more than five minutes,” Riley recalled.
It was Leach who convinced a 23-year-old Riley to coach outside receivers for the Red Raiders. “He was probably the only head coach in the country crazy enough to do that,” Riley said. “I always assumed I would be a high school coach. That’s what my mind was set on. … I wanted to be a coach, but with Mike you never know where he’s going to be coming from.”
“Oh, they know,” interjected Stoops, drawing laughter from veteran reporters who crossed paths with the eccentric Leach while he was at OU and Texas Tech.
“He (Leach) brought me in there that summer day and spent something like two hours with me just selling me on the idea, and probably talked to me about a lot of other subjects that had nothing to do with it,” Riley said.
At age 26, Riley became the nation’s youngest FBS coordinator when he was hired as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at East Carolina, which had hired fellow Texas Tech assistant Ruffin McNeill as head coach in 2010.
Not coincidentally, offenses directed by Riley during his five seasons with the Pirates own the top five single-season passing totals in ECU history. He also coached the top four seasons in total offense at the school.
Stoops said he spoke to several coaches about considering Riley. In addition to Mumme and Leach, Stoops spoke to Texas A&M coach and former OU assistant Kevin Sumlin, former longtime Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt and also McNeill.
“When I asked Ruffin to talk to Lincoln, he was selling him to me,” Stoops said. “I said, ‘Ruffin, I’ve read all about him.’ That’s the kind of guy that Ruffin is. He felt like that was a better opportunity for him and he was all for it.”
Stoops said Brandt telephoned him shortly before Riley walked into his office. “He (Brandt) didn’t know he (Riley) was coming,” Stoops said. “He said, ‘Bob, there’s a guy you really need to research and look into and check out.’ I said, ‘Gil, he’s going to walk in my office in five minutes.’ He (Brandt) loved that.”
This past season, East Carolina ranked No. 3 nationally in passing offense (371.9 yards-per-game) and total first downs (378), No. 5 in total offense (533.0) and tied for No. 22 in scoring offense (35.8 points). Riley’s offense also featured back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons by Vintavious Cooper in 2012 and 2013.
Unlike Leach’s non-stop air attack, Riley’s offensive scheme is an up-tempo spread attack that features more of a running game, which should complement OU’s young and talented backfield of Samaje Perine (1,713 yards rushing; 6.5 yards-per-carry; 21 touchdowns last season), Alex Ross (595 yards; 6.8 ypg; 4 TDs), Keith Ford (392 yards; 5.5 ypg; 5 TDs) and Joe Mixon, who is anticipated to join that group in 2015.
“I am very aware, as Lincoln is, of the quality of running backs we have here,” Stoops said. “That will not be a problem. … As bright as Lincoln is, he’ll find ways to take advantage of the great running backs that we have and tailor our offense to the personnel that we have.”
As bright as Lincoln is, he’ll find ways to take advantage of the great running backs that we have and tailor our offense to the personnel that we have.
Riley said: “I love the personnel we have here from what I have been able to see early. I know we have a lot of good players and we are going to continue to bring in a lot of really good players. We’re going to take a lot of pride in doing what our guys do well and making sure that our best players touch the ball and that we put our guys in position to make as many plays as they can.”
Prior to hiring Riley, Stoops said the quarterback position is wide open heading into the 2015 season. Transfer and former Texas Tech walk-on Baker Mayfield, who will be a junior, will compete with incumbent redshirt junior Trevor Knight and redshirt sophomore Cody Thomas.
“We tried like heck to get him at East Carolina,” Riley said of Mayfield. “He’s a very good player. We’re going to be very blessed with that quarterback crew. I’ve heard people on the outside say that’s a question mark. To me, we’ve got three guys in that room that have started in major-college football. There’s plenty to work with in that group. … We have what we need in that room to be successful.”
Other than standout senior Sterling Shepard (51 catches; 970 receiving yards; 19.0 yards-per-catch; 5 touchdowns), the Sooners need more production at wide receiver. The offensive line lost three standout seniors in Daryl Williams, Tyrus Thompson and Adam Shead.
However, Riley is optimistic he can work with the talent he’ll inherit.
“I think that’s one of the beautiful things in this offense, is that it can become whatever we need it to become,” Riley said. “We’ll go recruit certain players for certain positions certainly and look at different skill sets, but at the same time I don’t think that we need a lot of specific things to make it work. Growing up and learning this from Mike Leach and (West Virginia coach) Dana Holgorsen and all of those guys I was able to work with at Texas Tech as I was learning, one thing I always appreciated was how open-minded they were. I think sometimes coaches can be a little too rigid with what they’re looking for. I think that can limit you because if the personnel doesn’t fit exactly what you’re looking for you’ve got a little bit of disconnect there.”
After making some opening remarks, Stoops deferred all questions to Riley, but there were times Stoops couldn’t resist interjecting further confidence in his new hire.“Again, he’s a guy that comes up through a tree that I have had a lot of success with and really believe in,” Stoops said of Riley, “and I believe he is the perfect guy to move forward in the direction we want to go.”
|About John Rohde|
|John Rohde is a respected name on the Oklahoma sports scene and will provide regular features for SoonerSports.com. Voted Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year five times, Rohde has covered OU football and basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder, OKC/New Orleans Hornets, Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, the Final Four, Masters and PGA Tour. He spent over 26 years for The Oklahoman, serving as a columnist and beat writer. He can be heard on 107.7 The Franchise, the flagship station for OU Athletics weekdays from 5:30-9 a.m.|