NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Texas Tech walk-on quarterback Lincoln Riley wasn’t quite good enough to play, but coach Mike Leach saw something special in him.
Leach liked Riley’s humility, intelligence, inquisitive nature, determination and people skills, so he cut him and offered him a student assistant position before the 2003 season. Leach quickly found that his instincts were correct.
“I really felt like he picked up our offense really quickly, assimilated stuff really well,” said Leach, now Washington State’s coach. “Some coaches did what they were told. Riley understood, then asked additional questions and sought answers.”
Those qualities have helped Riley climb the coaching ladder. He was a receivers coach at Tech, then offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at East Carolina. Oklahoma hired him as offensive coordinator in 2015, and that year, he won the Broyles Award for the nation’s best assistant coach.
Just three months ago, he was named Oklahoma’s head coach after Bob Stoops abruptly stepped down.
Riley has taken it all in stride. The Sooners rolled past UTEP 56-7 in Riley’s debut as head coach . On Saturday, just days after his 34th birthday, he’ll take the No. 5 Sooners on the road to face No. 2 Ohio State.
Throughout the buildup to this moment, Riley has been asked repeatedly about his age.
“All that other stuff doesn’t matter right now,” he said. “It’s about going and preparing. We’re going to play a great football team in a great environment, so the attention doesn’t need to be on me. It needs to be on our players because they’re going to be the ones that decide this thing.”
There’s no reason to think Riley won’t succeed. In two years as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator, he led some of the nation’s most potent offenses. He coached two Heisman Trophy finalists in quarterback Baker Mayfield and receiver Dede Westbrook, helped the Sooners win two Big 12 titles and helped the team reach the College Football Playoff in 2015.
As Riley excelled, he watched and learned as Stoops wrapped up one of the great careers in college football history . He dreamed of the day he’d fill a similar role, and though it came sooner than expected, he felt ready.
“There’s not one part of this that I felt unprepared for,” Riley said. “I felt good, and a lot of that has been the people around me giving me support, delegating more here and there. I think the people around me have been a big part of that, but not for one second have I felt unprepared.”
Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said the prospect of Riley eventually being the head coach crossed his mind long before Stoops stepped down.
“In Lincoln’s case, he’s far more prepared than maybe some that are 43, just by the nature of the special opportunities that came to him very early, at a very early age,” Castiglione said.
One of Riley’s first moves as head coach was to hire Ruffin McNeill as an assistant. When McNeill left Texas Tech’s staff to become head coach at East Carolina, Riley went along.
McNeill remembers the early days with Riley at Tech well.
“At 19, I remember him coming and being a student assistant and not getting his dime,” McNeill said. “He worked like he was full time. Then I remember when he became a GA (graduate assistant), it was the same mentality with Lincoln. Then he became full-time and it was the same mentality.”
Leach said Riley immediately tested the limits of what the already potent Air Raid offense could do. He liked the way Riley saw things and quickly trusted him.
“Sometimes, there’s just simple little things that you miss, that a guy that hasn’t thought much about how it’s supposed to go by the book or whatever — he can see something right away,” Leach said. “Lincoln was pretty good at all of that. A real big common sense guy. Sometimes, common sense is a little better than how football’s always been or how it’s supposed to be and how it was in the good old days.”
Riley’s first major opportunity came when McNeill was interim coach at Texas Tech and Riley took over as offensive coordinator for the 2010 Alamo Bowl. McNeill recalls how calm Riley was while calling plays that night when Tech gained 579 yards in a 41-31 win over Michigan State.
“I heard him on the phone,” McNeill said. “I wish I could have recorded him that night. It was smooth.”
That’s how the transition from Stoops has been, too. The players have had no issues adjusting to Riley’s new role.
“He knows why he’s here, and he’s worked very hard and he’s paid attention to the people around him,” Mayfield said. “It’s not just his own experiences, but he’s learned from Leach, from Ruffin at ECU and from coach Stoops. He watched all those guys and took notes and paid attention to all of them. He hasn’t changed at all, and that’s the best thing about him.”