By Alaa Abdeldaiem | @Abdeldaiem_Alaa
Sports Capital Journalism Program
LOS ANGELES –– For a few seconds during his career debut as his team’s head coach, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley simply stood on the sidelines, waiting for the game to continue after the University of Texas at El Paso was called for a holding on third down in the second quarter.
Riley had become familiar with his role. After Bob Stoops stepped down following 18 years as the Sooners’ head coach in June, Riley immediately grabbed hold of the reins, making the changes he felt were vital before the start of the season three months later.
And by all accounts according to co-offensive coordinator Cale Gundy, Riley did it well, building trust with his players early on and investing his efforts on the practice field.
“You’ve got to come in and prove to your guys that I have something we can all benefit from, and it was an easy transition,” Gundy told reporters in a press conference Friday. “That’s what I saw him doing every single day.”
But it wasn’t until Sept. 2––during the team’s season-opener, in that second quarter after a holding call––that Riley realized he was waiting for no reason. No one else was going to decline the penalty for him.
He was the team’s head coach, and this was his call to make.
“I remember I was just standing there and everybody was looking at me,” Riley said Saturday. “And I realized, yeah, I’m the one that has to decline this.”
Some would argue Riley hasn’t missed a beat since. As the Football Bowl Subdivision’s youngest head coach at 34, Riley has directed his Sooners to a 12-1 record and a third-straight Big 12 title. He became just the fifth coach in Football Bowl Subdivision history with no previous head coaching experience at a four-year college to win at least 12 games in his debut season.
And as the Sooners prepare to face Georgia in Monday’s Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual, Riley has the chance to become just the third person to win a national championship in his first year as head coach and the youngest to do it.
The other two that have achieved the feat? Michigan’s Bennie Oosterbaan in 1948 (at 42) and Miami’s Larry Coker in 2001 (at 53).
All of this after Riley was unsure whether coaching was meant to be a part of his future.
“In high school, I felt like I wanted this game to probably be a part of my life, but I don’t know that you ever know until you actually do it,” Riley said. “You think you know, but probably until I started as a student assistant at Texas Tech after I got done playing, and then I got a taste of it, I didn’t.”
The second he did, Riley said, he was hooked. So much so that Riley never considered setting aside a Plan B.
“Good thing this one worked out,” Riley said of his head coaching job.
Riley believes it did in part because of Oklahoma’s willingness to trust in him despite his youth.
Riley caught Stoops’ eye during his five-year stint as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at East Carolina from 2010-2014. In Jan. 2015, Riley joined the Sooners as the team’s offensive coordinator.
Since the start of that 2015 campaign, Oklahoma has ranked first nationally in passing efficiency rating (188.6), completion percentage (69.5), points per game (44.1) and total offense (556.1). The Sooners have posted a 34-5 record since Riley arrived and a 25-2 record in Big 12 play, a mark that’s tied for third-best nationally with Ohio State.
Part of that success is thanks to timing. With a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in Baker Mayfield under center, Riley believes he’s fortunate to have found himself at the helm when he did.
“We all work hard and put a lot into this, but at the same time, I think he and I and really everybody in this program realize how fortunate we are that we kind of all ended up here together and have a chance to do something,” Riley said. “We’ve already done a lot that’s very special and will have a chance to do even more.”
Mayfield believes his coach doesn’t give himself enough credit, though.
While Riley is surrounded by what Mayfield called “talented guys” and “talented coaches,” the Sooners quarterback sees Riley’s efforts as a large contributor to the team’s playoff position.
“When it comes down to it, that’s him,” Mayfield told reporters Saturday. “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.”
Still, Riley avoids getting comfortable with his position. Doing so would only lead to trouble. The records, the trophies, the success––none of it will change how Riley will approach Monday’s game. How he’ll preach focus to his team, getting them locked in.
How he’ll remember that he’s the team head coach, and that the calls will be his to make.
“Even after this coaching change, even after the Iowa State loss, we still fully expected to be here,” Riley said. “I still feel an immense pressure to do my job the very best I can for our team, just like I did the day I got the job. I don’t think that will ever go away.”