One week before his Wednesday retirement, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops spoke at a Sooner Caravan event in Tulsa, addressing the three-year contract extension signed recently by his young offensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley.
“This guy intends to be here a long time,” Stoops said, “and we’re going to do all we can to make sure that he does [stay.]”
No one knew, apparently, just how far Stoops would go to keep his word.
When the dust settles in the wake of Stoops’ stunning retirement announcement, Riley will stand charged to lead a powerhouse program nurtured over 18 seasons by Stoops -- and Riley will be surrounded by a remaining staff that includes Stoops’ brother, Mike Stoops, as defensive coordinator in addition to longtime assistant and former OU quarterback Cale Gundy.
At 33, the youngest head coach in FBS by almost two years, is Riley ready?
Maybe we’ll find out on Sept. 9, when Oklahoma, which owns the longest winning streak in the nation at 10 games, visits Ohio State. Or perhaps it will take months longer to learn about Riley’s coaching chops.
What we know already is that he has put together a solid pedigree in a short amount of time. Riley’s connections to OU date to 1999, when Mike Leach revitalized the OU offense in his one season under Stoops. Leach left after the '99 season -- Oklahoma rolled to Stoops’ only national title in the 2000 season/postseason -- for Texas Tech, where Riley walked on in 2002 out of Muleshoe (Texas) High School. But later, Leach cut Riley.
“I cut him from playing,” Leach told ESPN.com on Wednesday, “and I was kind of hoping to hire him the same day.”
A day later, according to Leach, Riley returned for an assistant's job. By 2007, Leach had promoted the 23-year-old Riley to wide receivers coach. He went on to mentor Michael Crabtree and Danny Amendola at Texas Tech and served as interim offensive coordinator in the Red Raiders’ Alamo Bowl win over Michigan State after the 2009 season, earning an offer to work as offensive coordinator at East Carolina in 2010.
Stoops hired Riley in 2015, The Sooners made the College Football Playoff that season and Riley won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach.
Last year, his top receiver, Dede Westbrook, won the Biletnikoff Award. Riley’s ultimate star pupil, OU quarterback Baker Mayfield, finished third and fourth the past two seasons in the Heisman Trophy voting. And will return this season, certainly easing the transition.
So is Riley ready?
“You’re never ready,” Leach said. “It’s kind of like getting married. You kind of learn a lot along the way and adjust as you go.”
Stoops was 38 when he coached his first game at Oklahoma. Barry Switzer, who won three national championships with the Sooners, was 35 when he took over. Legendary coach Bud Wilkinson was 31.
In December, before Riley signed the extension that would have paid him $1.3 million per year through 2019, Stoops compared the young coach to himself as a defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier at Florida nearly 20 years ago.
“I think it’s very fair to say he’ll be on the radar for other top teams and schools,” Stoops said of Riley six months ago, “maybe much like I was to [Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione], being at Florida and having success there.
“Even though I wasn’t a head coach, he gave me a chance here.”
And now, Riley’s chance is here.