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How Lincoln Riley learned to become a head coach after Mike Leach's firing

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Oklahoma anxious to avenge last season's loss to Ohio State (0:50)

Kirk Herbstreit is anticipating the heavyweight QB showdown when the Sooners and Buckeyes meet at 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC. (0:50)

NORMAN, Okla. -- Not long after the Red Raiders arrived in San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl against Michigan State in 2009, Lincoln Riley was about to head to a previously scheduled team meeting when the stunning news dropped.

Mike Leach -- Riley's mentor, who had daringly brought him on to the Texas Tech coaching staff in his early 20s -- had been suspended from the bowl for alleged mistreatment of wide receiver Adam James. Two days later, Leach would be fired.

While Riley was still reeling, newly appointed interim coach Ruffin McNeill grabbed Riley just before the meeting and pulled him aside.

"You're going to call the game," McNeill told Riley, then just 26 years old.

"It was so unexpected," Riley recalled. "The shock of it took a bit. But the flip side of it, I was excited to call plays.

"And for a guy that didn't have much experience with it, confident about it."

This weekend, Riley will face another bellwether test in another new role.

This time, as the youngest FBS head coach, the 34-year-old Riley will take the Sooners to Ohio State for a monumental clash that will not only have major playoff implications but will set the tone for the Riley era at Oklahoma.

Inside Ohio Stadium, the odds will be stacked against Riley and his Sooners, who are better than a touchdown underdog. Just last season, Ohio State obliterated Oklahoma by three touchdowns in Norman. Riley too will be squaring off against one of college football's coaching greats in Urban Meyer, who is 62-6 at Ohio State.

Yet eight years ago, the odds were also against Riley. And against another Big Ten opponent, after a tumultuous week, Riley didn't just hold his own. He shined, in a performance that helped launch his remarkable rise through the coaching ranks -- all the way to the top job at Oklahoma.

"One of the sharpest minds I've ever been around," said McNeill, who, after the Alamo Bowl, tabbed Riley to call plays for him at East Carolina. Riley returned the favor this summer, hiring his longtime confidante to fill the vacancy on Oklahoma's staff following Bob Stoops' retirement.

"Lincoln was ready for this [Oklahoma] job."

When his moment arrived in San Antonio, he was ready then, as well.

Riley's coaching career began in 2002, with the end of his playing one. Shortly after walking on to Texas Tech as a quarterback, Leach told Riley he had no future as a player. But he might have a big one as a coach.

"Mike saw something in him," said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, then an assistant at Texas Tech "He sucked as a player but had a great mind. Mike said, 'Do yourself a favor and hang up the cleats and start coaching. It might pay off for you eventually.' "

As a student assistant, then a graduate assistant and finally a wide receivers coach by age 23, Riley became Leach's right hand, soaking in the intricacies of the Air Raid while priming his play-calling chops.

"In the later years, he gave me a lot of responsibility when he wasn't there," Riley said of Leach, who despite being the head coach, had always called the offensive plays. "He let me do those things when he had something keeping him from practice. I had a lot of leeway as far as helping him put together a script. And Mike has always leaned on whoever is up in the [press] box as far as advice (where Riley was stationed). Bouncing ideas back and forth, as far what plays to call in a situation."

Though Leach had transformed the Red Raiders into a perennial powerhouse offensively, which culminated with an 11-win season in 2008, the Texas Tech administration turned on him late in the 2009 season.

"It was a wild week," Riley said. "But once I got past the initial shock of it and got all the badness of the week with the media everywhere -- just a helter-skelter week -- once I got past all that, I was really thrilled about the opportunity."

In the wake of Leach's dismissal, it seemed as if the team might fall into irrevocable turmoil. But behind the scenes, the calming influences of McNeill, Riley and offensive assistant Sonny Cumbie, now TCU's offensive coordinator, kept the players concentrated on Michigan State.

"We knew exactly what we were there to do, and Lincoln was an integral part the whole time," said Taylor Potts, the quarterback for that Texas Tech squad. "He and Sonny really kept us focused and calm and really honed in on the details of what we'd been working on the past month. Lincoln had been around the program long enough to know how the itinerary worked, and he maintained the routine and regimen leading up to the game.

"He was calm, cool and collected."

Riley, however, wasn't afraid to put his own stamp on the game plan. And one particular wrinkle proved to be a difference-maker.

On screen plays, instead of having the running back step toward the line of scrimmage, then filter out toward the sideline, Riley instructed the backs to immediately flare out instead.

"He wanted the running backs to get the ball in their hands so they could move and run, instead of getting caught up in a high-traffic area," Potts said. "It was a subtle, easy change, but Michigan State had never seen that before from us.

"We ran it six or seven times and gained like 150 yards on that play alone. Those guys couldn't stop it."

The Spartans had trouble stopping much else that night, including Riley's opening drive. In nine plays, the Red Raiders zoomed down the field to take a quick 7-0.

"After that, the nerves and all that settled pretty good," Riley said, "and we got into a nice rhythm."

The Red Raiders kept humming, rolling up 265 yards through two quarters to take a 20-14 lead into halftime.

"He didn't miss a step," McNeill said. "The play-calling was excellent."

As the game wore on, McNeill's faith in Riley only grew.

With Texas Tech clinging to a field goal lead late in the fourth quarter, McNeill twice gave Riley the nod to go for it on fourth down in an attempt to ice the game, even though Potts had left the game because of an injury.

"[McNeill] had a lot of confidence in us as coaches, in me as a play-caller and in our players even in that situation to get it done," Riley said. "It was awesome."

Both times the Red Raiders converted. And one play after the second fourth-down conversion, running back Baron Batch dashed in 13 yards for the clinching touchdown.

"We found ourselves in a chaotic environment in San Antonio, but in that game, the way Lincoln handled himself as a voice of calm and reason, and the way he led and ran that offense ... that was so valuable for us," Potts said.

From the Alamo Bowl, Riley's career took off.

By his fourth season at East Carolina, the Pirates ranked eighth nationally in scoring. Then in two years under Stoops at Oklahoma, he whipped an attack that had been sputtering into one that ranked No. 4, then No. 3 in the country.

Now, he's about to lead the Sooners into one of the biggest nonconference bouts in school history.

"He's been great about blocking out everything else," quarterback Oklahoma Baker Mayfield said. "Just been emphasizing that we need to be focused, and do our jobs."

Riley did the job in San Antonio. Now, he'll be looking to do the same in Columbus.

"I just don't see a scenario where Lincoln is not really successful for Oklahoma," Potts said. "He's going to do great -- just like he's done in the past."