There were so many great moments during championship weekend. Beyond teams like Washington, UCF, Oklahoma, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Fresno State capturing their conference titles, it was the moments within them at made it so special. Jalen Hurts coming on for Alabama after all those games on the bench just to lead them to victory like old times. Dwayne Haskins making his signature game the most important one yet. Fresno State winning in dramatic fashion in overtime on the road. There were those and so many more.
With those moments and championships come storylines, and though we’ll have plenty to talk about over bowl season, there is one in particular that I kept focusing on as the weekend went by.
Has Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley passed his test for the NFL?
Oklahoma will go into the College Football Playoff with a record of 12-1. Their only loss of the season was to Texas, a loss that they avenged by beating the Longhorns in the Big 12 Title game. That title was Oklahoma’s fourth-straight Big 12 conference tile, and Riley has been there for all of them. For the first two seasons, it was as the team’s offensive coordinator under head coach Bob Stoops. For the last two, it has been as the head coach.
But those details in themselves in how Riley got to that point are important.
Stoops comes from the Bill Synder coaching tree, one of the most famous coaching trees in all of college football. He was the head coach of Oklahoma from 1999-2016. While there, he rooted for himself a strong coaching tree, and the fruits of that tree have a strong presence in college football today. Mike Leach, Kevin Sumlin, Bo Pelini, Mike Stoops, Brent Venebles and Josh Heupel are just a few names that have grown under the Stoops tree. It’s safe to say that Stoops has quite the eye for talent when it comes to finding guys who know how to coach. It’s no surprise that Riley has succeeded as well.
With that in mind, an element that I find very interesting in the Lincoln Riley saga is that after 17 years of coaching the Sooners, when Oklahoma moved on from Stoops, it wasn’t in a way that opened up this wide, ground-zero coaching hire to find the next big-name coach to step in. The job was Riley’s to have, and that was made known when Stoops later admitted that part of the deal of him stepping down would be that Riley would be his successor — and that was over his own brother, who was on staff as the defensive coordinator.
One of the winningest head coaches in our era, a guy who knows how to pick coaches, saying that he’ll only go if Riley was the guy moving forward. That carries weight.
Part of what makes Riley such a home run of a coach is about how he deals with his players. Riley was fortunate enough to have a future Heisman trophy winner and future No. 1 overall pick, Baker Mayfield, as his quarterback for his first year as head coach. But don’t get it twisted, they needed each other, and anytime a prideful guy like Mayfield admits that, you know he means it.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just because of me. Oklahoma has had a lot of talented guys. He’s had talented coaches around him. But when it comes down to it, that’s him. He’s climbed the coaching ranks because of how special he is and how well he adapts to his players and the people around him. It’s not the guys that make him, it’s how he adapts to the players around him,” Mayfield said.
And not only that, the ability to connect at such a level and coach at such a level with quarterbacks in particular is truly what may separate Riley a part from other potential NFL head coach candidates, and a way that he may have already passed the NFL’s tests in just two seasons.
The NFL’s passing game is exploding. We were told pre-draft that guys like Patrick Mahomes would have to change his quarterback style when he got to the league, but here we are and his numbers this season resemble that of Big 12 play when he was at Texas Tech. We also know that at least 28 NFL teams have come to Riley to chat about offense this year. Some conversations have surely been more in-depth than others, but the point there is that the NFL not only notices, but hold Riley’s opinions on offense to high regard.
What Riley has been able to do in back-to-back seasons with Mayfield and now Kyler Murray has been spectacular. Last year Oklahoma was the No. 3 scoring offense in the nation with 45 points per game. This year they’re No. 1 with just under 50. Riley has remained as unpredictable and as unstoppable as advertised, and longevity with creativity is the hardest thing a coach can do. Even with the talent that Oklahoma has, Riley has passed such a test.
Riley has the coaching back ground. He has the thumbs up from some of the best coaches in the country. He’s coached two quarterbacks to Heisman trophy-like stats, and has made the College Football Playoff two years in a row with two conference titles to boot. His brand of football is ripe for the NFL, and the NFL knows it.
Riley has said before that the reason he got into this profession is not only the competition and the competitiveness with a team, but also the connection he gets to have with young men; shaping their lives and making them better people as much as better football players. He won’t get that same kind of feeling in the pros, at least not as much. Maybe that’s the difference.
There is weight to Riley enjoying where he is so much that even when the NFL comes calling with a big pay raise over the next month that he could hold off on making the jump.
But if you ask me, the background, the relationships, the style and the success, Riley has passed his NFL consideration test.
As NFL teams begin to fire their head coaches throughout the month of December, it will just be more lists that Riley’s name will be near the top of as a candidate for.