Riley Has Their Respect
It's hard to fathom how a 33-year-old could remain unchanged after being handed the reins to one of the nation's premier college football programs, but such appears to be the case with new Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley.
"He hasn't changed at all," said senior quarterback and two-time top-four Heisman Trophy vote-getter Baker Mayfield, who has spent more time with Riley than any OU player since Riley arrived in January 2015 as the Sooners' new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. "He's the same guy. He's a humble guy. He's knows exactly why he's here and how he got here. He's worked very, very hard. He's paid attention to people around him."
Mayfield smiled and shared the following example of how Riley has remained unchanged: "I think it took (senior wide receiver) Jeffery Mead razzing him for three weeks for him (Riley) to finally get a new car," Mayfield said.
Mead confirmed the story, saying he prodded Riley every three or four days about getting a new set of wheels. Mead said he didn't specify which car Riley should get, but did tell his new head coach, "'You're our boss, so I want you to drive something nice.' Coach Riley does not care (about material things)."
"He hasn't changed at all. He knows exactly why he's here and how he got here."
- Senior QB Baker Mayfield
Riley finally caved and swapped his Toyota 4Runner for a new Cadillac Escalade. "That's nice," Mead said approvingly.
Senior linebacker Emmanuel Beal nodded his approval and said, "Oh, yeah. That's a big-boy truck."
Affable senior fullback Dimitri Flowers is on a first-name basis with his new head coach. Actually, he's on a half-first-name basis, playfully referring to Riley as "Linc" while simultaneously propping himself up as "probably the second-best quarterback on the team." Riley's reaction to Flowers' quarterback proclamation? "He really didn't acknowledge it," Flowers admitted quietly.
Though there is an undeniable comfort zone that surrounds Riley, other players aren't quite as bold as Flowers — no matter how physically intimidating they are. "I call him 'Coach Riley,'" 6-foot-8, 345-pound junior offensive tackle Orlando Brown said. "I am not going to call him 'Linc.'"
Senior defensive end D.J. Ward said, "Maybe down the line I'll call him 'Linc,' or come up with another nickname. But for now, I'm sticking with 'Coach Riley.'"
Riley became the nation's youngest FBS head coach on June 7 and the 22nd head coach in OU history following the sudden retirement of 18-year coach Bob Stoops. Riley will follow in the massive footsteps of Stoops (190-48 overall record; .798 winning percentage), who captured a national championship in just his second season with the Sooners (2000). The Stoops era also produced 10 Big 12 Conference crowns, 14 seasons of 10-plus victories and a bowl appearance every year.
The Riley regime is fresh off its first week of practice, which consisted of six sessions from Monday through Saturday. Though it's a small sample size, players said Riley already has set an overriding tone of physicality and intensity.
"He's a fiery guy and he's always been a fiery guy," junior tight end Mark Andrews said, "but now we're seeing him instill that into everybody. He's a competitor and he wants us to be competitors and he doesn't expect anything less than that. Every day, we have to come out and compete. And if we don't, we know we're not going to play. That's just how it is now."
Riley was weaned on the opposite side of the ball as Stoops. Since his days as Texas Tech student assistant in 2003, Riley has served as an offensive assistant while Stoops remained on the defensive side from 1983-1998 at Iowa, Kent State, Kansas State and Florida before taking over at OU in December 1998.
"That's the thing," senior defensive back Steven Parker said of the seemingly unflappable Riley. "He's so cool, he's getting along with both sides of the ball. Everyone respects him as a coach and as a person. Coach Riley, he brings that intensity that we need to get off to a fast start. Just throughout camp, we've had so much competition. I can definitely say this is one of the most intense and most fun fall camps I've been a part of."
Flowers joked offensive players are somewhat jealous they now must share Riley with the rest of the team. "It's actually kind of cool (to see him yelling at other people), but at the same time, he's cheering on the defense when they make a good play," Flowers said. "We're like, 'No, you can't do that. You were here (with the offense) first. Remember that.' It's great to see him do all those things and it's really cool to see him taking on that different role."
Junior offensive lineman Dru Samia: "It kind of feels weird when Coach Riley tells the defense, 'Good job getting a pick or getting a fumble.' But it's cool. I'm glad that he's in the position that he's in. I think he's handled it super well."
Senior offensive lineman Erick Wren: "Yeah, we are jealous. He's our coach, but that just lets you know what type of guy he is. He's a stand-up guy. In my eyes, this is one of the best head coaches I've ever played for."
Mayfield joked of Riley, "He forgets about us (offensive players). We're the little people now." Mayfield immediately pleaded for reporters not to mention what he had just said. "Nah, just kidding," he said. "Don't actually put that in there."
Mayfield admitted sharing Riley with the entire team is a bit of an adjustment for offensive players. "It's a little different," Mayfield said. "We just have to be a little more responsible."
The Sooners' current level of talent, experience and leadership are among the many reasons Stoops felt this was an opportune time for Riley to drive an Escalade.
Riley said he now works "all three sides of the ball. If there's a special-teams period, I'm going to be there. Defensively, I'll pick my spots. It varies each day."
"He kind of stays in his lane when it comes to the defense," Parker said of Riley. "He checks in that we're doing our job."
"As a coach, I felt it the first time I walked in the door. I felt it when I came to interview here."
- Lincoln Riley
Riley has retained his role as quarterbacks coach while adding his new responsibilities of overseeing the defense, special teams, coaching staff, managers and office personnel. Riley has gone from managing roughly 50 people to approximately three times that many. "There's certainly more to keep track of," Riley admitted. "There's more things running through your head."
Has Riley been overwhelmed by it all? Certainly doesn't seem like it.
"Same guy. Same guy, for sure," senior linebacker/defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said. "We know everything he says is for a reason."
Riley passes credit unto others while explaining his velvet transition to head coach. "The people around me in the program have handled it so well," Riley said. "That's made it smooth on me. I've enjoyed kind of diving into the different parts of it. I love the Xs and Os and coaching in the field, but I enjoy all the other parts of it, too."
Riley assumed control of a national powerhouse without the benefit of running his own spring practice.
He has been submerged in work since replacing Stoops. In addition to acquainting himself with an entire roster rather than just leading offensive players, Riley also dove head-first into recruiting, hired new assistant head coach/defensive tackles coach Ruffin McNeill (his former boss at Texas Tech and East Carolina), granted a slew of media requests (which included Big 12 Media Days last month in Frisco, Texas), partook in Meet the Sooners Day with fans on Saturday at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, which was followed by the team's annual media day in the stadium.
Riley said his winning expectations remain unchanged as head coach. "I feel the same amount that I did as the OC," Riley said. "You feel that at this place. It's not really anything that needs to be said. As a coach, I felt it the first time I walked in the door. I felt it when I came to interview here."
Perhaps most impressive, players agree the attributes they appreciated about Riley as an assistant have remained unchanged as head coach.
Mayfield said he has kept the same sales pitch whenever discussing Riley. "That's the thing I've always said to recruits and to anybody else. 'The person you meet is the person you're going to get as a coach,'" Mayfield said. "That's the most special thing you can get because you can build a relationship with him and it will be there throughout all phases of life."
Flowers said, "He's absolutely the same (person), and that's one of the things that I appreciate about him. He's stayed true. Whether we've had success after the game, whether we lost the game, he's been the same person."
"I don't think anything's changed about him, but I think his greatest attribute is relating to the players," Samia said. "He's a young guy, but he's also one of the smartest people I've been around. He's able to relate to the players and still get the job done."
"The person you meet is the person you're going to get as a coach."
- Baker Mayfield
Ward describes Riley as "a great listener. Most people think you probably can't talk to your head coach, but you can say anything to Coach Riley. He'll hear you out."
Okoronkwo echoed Ward and particularly appreciates Riley's open-door policy. "He's ready to listen to you anytime, any problem you have," Okoronkwo said. "Even if there's not a problem, he's ready just to talk. His door is open."
"I like his swagger," Beal said. "That's his swag and no one's going to change it for him. He can take this step on his own. In the back of my mind, I always thought he would make a good head coach."
Parker said of Riley, "What I appreciate most is just the way he handles things. Basically, it's the same as Coach Stoops, but it's a little bit more hands-on."
Meanwhile, Wren's admiration for his new head coach is multi-faceted. "The way he goes about things is a great example of how to be a man in life," Wren said.