How Lincoln Riley became football's unlikeliest QB guru

First Baker, then Kyler: Is Lincoln Riley the QB whisperer? (1:52)

Lincoln Riley's Oklahoma program has produced two straight Heisman winners and No. 1 draft picks. Now, Jalen Hurts arrives with big shoes to fill. (1:52)

Lincoln Riley's voice drips with contempt. The 35-year-old Oklahoma Sooners coach is describing a failed play -- from 1999. It's not surprising that he can remember the details. His high school coach swears that Riley has a photographic memory, says he could watch film once and predict what the opposing team was going to do, on offense and on defense.

But this play? Heck, it didn't even count. It was a slant pass late in a scrimmage, intended only to set up an easy TD for a senior wide receiver who didn't play much. And though the ball was on the money, a perfect spiral, it sailed right through the receiver's hands. "That's why the guy didn't play," Riley says, squinting at the memory. Even worse: The deflection floated straight to an opposing linebacker, who picked it off and sprinted back upfield. Now the QB was really pissed off. Here we go, he thought, throwing an interception because we're trying to get this kid a touchdown.

That quarterback was Riley himself, at the time a sophomore at Muleshoe High School. The Mules were playing Palo Duro at Dick Bivins Stadium in Amarillo, Texas. And even though it was a scrimmage, and the play meaningless, none of that mattered in the moment to the 15-year-old QB with a competitive streak. Riley, who also played defensive end, chased the linebacker down the sideline until he caught him, then tackled him.

"I cleaned him up pretty good," Riley says. They both went down hard. But when Riley tried to get up, he couldn't feel his right arm. It was dislocated. "All busted up."

Surgery didn't heal the shoulder completely. And though Riley managed the Mules' offense well enough throwing sidearm to lead Muleshoe to the state semifinals as a senior, "I was never the same thrower after that," he says.

Twenty years later, Riley recalls this story from a leather couch framed by three giant Gothic arches in the middle of an ornate office the size of a hotel lobby. At either end of the couch, on wood tables, rest the two most recent Heisman Trophies, awarded to Riley's past two quarterbacks. Kyler Murray's is on his right, Baker Mayfield's to his left.

Mind you, Riley's not pulling an Uncle Rico, ruing what might have been if he could only fling that ol' pigskin around like he used to. He's marveling at how there's no way he'd be on this couch, in this office, between these Heismans, if he hadn't been "lucky" enough to destroy his shoulder, give up on his dreams and start chasing a different one.

And, so far, it is like a dream. Those end-table Heismans stand as twin monuments to his first two seasons as the Sooners' coach, among the most successful debuts in college football history: two years, two Big 12 titles, two College Football Playoff appearances, two Heismans, two quarterbacks picked first in the NFL draft in Mayfield and Murray.

Ever since Riley arrived in Norman, Oklahoma, everything has seemingly broken his way. He took over a storied program from Bob Stoops, the school's winningest coach, and inherited a roster of blue-chip recruits.

He has lived a charmed football life. He's been lucky and he's been good. But now, as his Sooners prepare for a season of great expectations, there's one question that looms largest: How long can his good fortune last?

IN 2002, LINCOLN RILEY still desperately wanted to be a college quarterback -- but that old busted-up arm limited his options. He could try to chase a starting job at a smaller school like West Texas A&M and hope a college staff could help him regain his throwing form. He could blaze a trail from Muleshoe (population: 5,000) to the Ivy League, where he had offers. Or he could try to walk on at Texas Tech, the big-time program 65 miles down U.S. 84 from home.

Two years earlier, Mike Leach had brought a high-scoring spread offense to Lubbock and renounced three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football. His teams immediately began averaging upward of 50 pass attempts per game, leading the nation.

Leach's offense -- the Air Raid, which he'd learned as an assistant under Hal Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan -- was a deceptively simple, high-scoring scheme built on repetition. Leach didn't much care who the opponent was or what type of defense it ran. He called the same plays regardless and asked his QBs to air it out and get the ball to the right player. Forget the Ivies. This was the kind of enlightenment Riley sought.

Riley walked on at Tech -- and made the team. Aiding Riley's cause: Leach values smarts in his QBs as much as he does physical attributes. "Riley had a brain that wouldn't stop. He sees things once and remembers it," says David Wood, his high school coach. "I thought he might end up working at NASA."

Still, the quarterback room that year was crowded: Kliff Kingsbury, who threw for more than 5,000 yards as a senior in 2002 and set seven NCAA records in his three years as a starter at Tech, was the test pilot of the Air Raid in Lubbock, proving it could fly. Also in that room: B.J. Symons, who would set the NCAA passing record with 5,833 yards in 2003, and Sonny Cumbie and Cody Hodges, who would each pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season as Red Raiders starters.

One other problem for Riley: "He was awful," says Houston coach Dana Holgorsen, Tech's inside receivers coach in 2002. "It was so bad that me and [outside receivers coach] Sonny Dykes called an intervention with Leach. We said, 'What are you doing? Team morale is low because you're giving this kid reps. Our receivers are running routes knowing there's zero chance the ball is gonna get to them.'"

Leach argued that while Riley didn't have the arm the other QBs did, he had a high football IQ. "As a player, he asked questions all the time," Dykes, now the SMU coach, says of Riley. "He probably wasn't a good enough player to ask all those questions, but it never bothered anybody because he was so eager."

And so it was that Leach asked Riley to hang up his pads and become a student assistant, his right-hand man. Riley recoiled at first. He could have kept rehabbing, stuck around and become the third-string quarterback his sophomore year.

But after he mulled it over for a day or two, Riley saw the opportunity for what it was. He accepted it, became an ex-player -- and, at 19, joined an FBS staff. He would spend the next seven years on the Red Raiders' sideline, graduating to graduate assistant in 2006 before becoming the youngest full-time assistant in the country, according to Leach, when he was named receivers coach in 2007, earning a rep along the way as an innovator.

"A lot of assistants are just conveyor-belt guys, and whatever you tell them, they'll keep punching out license plates," Leach says. "But [Riley] could figure out how to get the license plates out quicker and more efficiently."

By 2006, that staff (and roster) had been filled with future coaching stars: Kingsbury, Holgorsen, Dykes, North Texas head coach Seth Littrell, USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, TCU offensive coordinator Cumbie. There was just one more problem: No one was getting jobs elsewhere. Leach was unconventional on and off the field, with game-plan meetings that started at midnight, quarterbacks throwing the ball all over the place. Rival athletic directors weren't sure his success could be replicated -- or didn't have the guts to try.

Then, in the wake of another bit of misfortune, came Riley's second lucky break. Leach was fired in December 2009 -- a week before the Alamo Bowl -- after being accused of mistreating receiver Adam James after a concussion.

Defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill was named interim coach for the bowl game. McNeill says it took "about 30 seconds, if that long" to name Riley his offensive coordinator. And in the most watched bowl game in ESPN history at the time (Leach's firing drawing an audience of rubberneckers), Tech beat Michigan State 41-31, with Riley calling all the offensive plays for the Red Raiders. Afterward, when the entire staff was fired, East Carolina hired McNeill as head coach. He brought Riley and entrusted him with full control of his offense.

Just like that, at 27 years old, Riley was an offensive coordinator. And a few years later, when Stoops decided his Oklahoma offense needed a jolt, he fired up his computer, looked up the top offenses in the country and alighted upon East Carolina. "I started researching him," Stoops says, "and realized just how far down the road Lincoln was with Mike."

And if his team hadn't been among the top 15 offenses that week ... well, who knows?

"It's crazy," Riley says now. "If any one out of a hundred things had been different, then it probably changes the course of the whole thing."

When Stoops hired Riley in January 2015, his red-dirt Air Raid education proved the football equivalent of a musical prodigy going to Juilliard. Muleshoe to Norman is a flat five-hour drive by car but an even bigger leap on the coaching ladder. Riley was an instant success as offensive coordinator at OU, so much so that one day in June 2017 Stoops decided to hand over the whole dang thing to Riley and abruptly step aside. Riley's introductory news conference as head coach was so hastily announced that his parents didn't have time to make the trip from Muleshoe to Norman.

Stoops, mind you, didn't hang it up to get out of Dodge. He says he simply believed in Riley and thought the kid who grew up a Longhorns fan should become the coach at Oklahoma before someone else got to him first.

And now, two years later, Riley -- fresh off the record-setting seasons by Mayfield and Murray -- has become the most coveted coach in football.

Since Riley's arrival in 2015, Oklahoma is 33-3 in the Big 12 (with four conference titles) and 46-8 overall, trailing only Alabama (55-4), Clemson (55-4) and Ohio State (48-6) in that span. He has routinely batted away questions about interest from the NFL, specifically the Dallas Cowboys, and landed a five-year contract extension in January, bumping his annual salary at OU to $6 million.

It's good to be Lincoln Riley. At least it has been so far.

Only now Riley faces arguably his greatest challenge: trying to mold a national championship team around his most-unlikely-next-great-QB.

THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP game in 2018 was not the best day for Jalen Hurts. After Georgia held him to 21 yards passing and zero points in the first half of that game, Hurts lost his starting QB job at Alabama to Tua Tagovailoa. Eleven months later, though, Riley made a point of praising Hurts before OU's College Football Playoff matchup against the Crimson Tide, saying he "could not be more impressed" with how Hurts handled his benching and subsequent season as a backup, calling himself "a big fan of the kid" from afar.

It was hardly a random compliment -- perhaps even akin to tipping his hand.

A few weeks later, when Hurts announced that he intended to transfer, Riley began recruiting him in earnest. The courtship was frantic -- Hurts also visited Maryland and Miami and drew interest from Auburn, Ohio State and Florida State -- and was consummated during a furtive eight-hour visit to Norman, coupled with "a lot of phone time," Riley says. "There were a lot of long conversations, trying to get to know each other."

The courting of a college transfer is football's version of speed dating. And in running that gauntlet, Riley at the very least will have to prove he can build a championship offense around a QB demoted by the Crimson Tide.

The doubters will have their arguments: For one, Hurts lacks the deep-ball touch Mayfield and Murray had; in 28 games as Alabama's starter, he completed just 33 percent of throws of 20 or more yards, despite a surrounding cast of NFL talent. And according to ESPN's new PlayStation Player Impact Rating, which evaluates a player against an average replacement, Murray was worth 22 points per game last season and Hurts was worth just six, presuming the same playing time. (Oklahoma won five games by 10 or fewer points in 2018.)

And while Riley's two previous QBs both came to Norman as transfers -- Mayfield and Murray each spent three seasons with Riley -- Hurts will also have had all of 7½ months to learn Riley's offense before the Sooners' Sept. 1 season opener.

On the other hand -- well, there are many fingers on the other hand.

Start with Riley's offense, which might not be as ill-suited to Hurts as it first seems. Riley's version of the Air Raid layers in run schemes to use the wealth of talent the Sooners attract on the offensive line and at running back. "Now he has a quarterback who's built like a running back," Kingsbury says. "I could see them calling more runs, schematic things, play-action. Riley will find a way to let [Hurts] make plays with his feet."

As for Hurts' perceived failures at Alabama? Let's just say that Riley and Hurts' former coach, 67-year-old Nick Saban, have strikingly different styles. (Hurts shares stories about Saban "every now and then," Riley says. "We've had some funny conversations.") Says Kingsbury: "Lincoln has a way of seeing it from the quarterback's perspective. He gives his quarterbacks free rein, goal line to goal line. There aren't many coaches who are willing to do that."

Meanwhile, Hurts arrives in Norman more accomplished than any other QB Riley has coached. Mayfield began as a walk-on. Murray threw just five TDs and seven interceptions in a tumultuous freshman season at Texas A&M before transferring. Hurts has a 14-2 record against ranked teams and was SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman.

"It's not like starting with a blank slate," Riley says of Hurts. "This guy's played a lot of football. He's got the qualities to do everything we want to do in our offense."

GRANTED, SOME BELIEVE the same could be said of Austin Kendall, who, after signing with Oklahoma in 2015 and riding the bench behind Mayfield and Murray, was the Sooners' presumptive next man up at QB until Hurts arrived. Kendall, in turn, transferred to West Virginia and was granted a waiver by OU for immediate eligibility. He's been named the Mountaineers' starting quarterback and could start when West Virginia visits the Sooners on Oct. 19.

But no matter who's calling the signals, the standard Riley will have to better is the one he set for himself, coaching two Heisman winners and No. 1 draft picks -- even though his teams have come up short in the games that matter most. Under Riley, OU has been good enough to win just about every game except the ones against Alabama and Georgia. Losing in the playoff again would be a plateau. Missing the playoff altogether would be a major step back.

Rest assured, that is not in Riley's plans. At the Big 12 media day in July, a reporter asked him: "You lost [Murray] and four NFL offensive linemen. I assume your offense is going to dip. ... Can the defense pick up the slack?" Riley leveled his gaze: "We don't plan on the offense dipping. And we definitely expect our defense to be better."

Later in a media scrum, someone else pressed Riley on the Heisman question: Can he win -- and finally beat Alabama and Georgia -- without the country's best quarterback?

Again, here came that squint, and a hint of contempt. That 15-year-old QB with a competitive streak? He has merely been replaced by a 35-year-old coach with the same. And once again, Lincoln Riley had the last word.

"We've lost the Heisman Trophy winner and done it before," Riley said, leveling his gaze again. "I think we have a pretty good handle on it."

Sam Khan Jr. contributed to this report.