Ever since Lincoln Riley took over as the Oklahoma Sooners head coach in 2017, there have been rumors of him taking the next step to the NFL. With the recent influx of young, offensive-minded coaches coming into the league, Riley’s name has become more prevalent in head coaching conversations. What makes him so sought after in NFL circles? Could this finally be the year that Riley takes the reigns of a professional football team? There will be enough open positions to go around at the end of this season, and Riley will likely be a leading candidate once again.
Riley’s history with football
Riley and football have been synonymous ever since he was a young man. His official career in the world of football began in West Texas, where he played as defensive end and quarterback at Muleshoe high school. In his junior year, Riley went down with a brutal injury to his throwing arm, an injury that changed the way he would be able to play football for years to come.
After throwing an interception, Riley chased down the defender, and the two went down hard.
“I cleaned him up pretty good,” Riley said. “But when I got up, I couldn’t feel my arm. It was all busted up. I was never the same thrower after that.”
That might have been the case, but in his senior year, he was still able to lead his team to the state semifinals.
Because of the injury, Riley had to develop a different way of throwing the ball. Instead of retiring from football, he persevered and decided to try to get a starting job in a college program. Staying in Texas, he became a walk-on for Texas Tech. It was during his time at Texas Tech where Riley was acquainted with a now-famous name in college football, Mike Leach.
Leach was implementing his air-raid offense at Texas Tech when Riley joined the team. Riley wasn’t even close to being the best QB in the locker room, but Leach brought him in because of high football I.Q.
“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.”
Leach has been known to work with smart football minds, and Riley was no different. The problem? He wasn’t quite capable of being a college quarterback. The competition at the time was also fierce, with current NFL head coach Kliff Kingsbury in the midst of a record-breaking 5000-yard senior season.
Instead of cutting Riley, Leach decided to make the rare decision to invite him to become a part of his coaching team. Riley became a student assistant, Leach’s right-hand man. It was with this Texas Tech team, at the young age of 19, that Riley got his first taste of coaching.
Quickly climbing the coaching ladder
Riley 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.
Leach and Riley formed a close bond, but unfortunately, it was Leach’s unexpected firing that catapulted Riley into a more prominent coaching role. Leach was let go for questionable reasons in 2009.
Defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill was named interim coach, where he quickly named Riley as his offensive coordinator. The team performed well in their bowl game, beating Michigan State 41-31. After the game, the entire coaching staff was let go, and Riley’s next adventure began.
McNeill was brought on as East Carolina’s head coach the next season, and he brought Riley with him. At 27 years old, Riley was now the offensive coordinator of a college football program. He spent five years as the OC for East Carolina.
In 2015, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops was looking to revitalize his struggling offense. According to Stoops, he fired up his computer and Googled the top offenses in the nation. That is how his and Riley’s paths crossed, a simple search online.
When Riley took over as offensive coordinator, he led the Sooners to the seventh-ranked offense in the country and the College Football Playoff in his first year. Two short years later, Stoops announced his retirement, and Riley became Oklahoma’s next head coach.
In his three seasons as head coach, Riley has led Oklahoma to an impressive 36-6 record. His accolades are equally as remarkable, with a Big 12 Coach of the Year award and three conference titles. What is even more impressive, is that Oklahoma has produced back to back Heisman winning quarterbacks and number one overall NFL Draft picks with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.
Riley’s offense could rejuvenate any NFL team
There are few pundits that question whether or not Riley could be successful at the next level. The 36-year-old is probably the most coveted head coach candidate right now by the NFL.
Riley has proven that he can take young, raw talent and turn them into first-round draft picks. Murray and Mayfield are both performing well in the NFL, with Murray putting together a potential Rookie of the Year campaign. This past season, Sooner’s QB Jalen Hurts came in second in overall Heisman votes, meaning Riley nearly produced three straight Heisman winning quarterbacks.
Riley would also continue the current NFL trend of bringing on young, offensive minds into head coaching roles. He would join the ranks of 33-year-old Sean McVay, 40-year-old Kliff Kingsbury, 38-year-old Brian Flores, and 36-year-old Zac Taylor.
The only knock on Riley and his time with Oklahoma has been their inability to perform once they get to the big stage. Once again this year, the Sooners were embarrassed in the College Football Playoff, losing to LSU 63-28.
Riley sought after and respected in a number of NFL circles
It isn’t a surprise that the young head coach is highly respected by NFL owners and coaches alike. In a recent interview, QB trainer Quincy Avery spoke highly of the offensive genius of Riley.
“Riley’s created offenses in the college game that have principles that people see they can bring to the NFL level. He’s given the NFL the vision that these quarterbacks can be successful maybe at a smaller size than before. It used to be such a condensed game, and no one thought you could take these Air Raid philosophies and apply them to NFL quarterbacks. But Riley’s incorporated pro reads and pro concepts.”
Recently, while doing his usual radio rounds, Dallas Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones continued to fan the flames of a Texas reunion for Riley.
“Well, I am impressed with [Riley],” he told 105.3FM the Fan before heaping praise on Rhule. “But, boy, I am impressed with Baylor’s [Matt] Rhule, too. Those are two outstanding coaches at the stadium this weekend. That’s just that. They’ve done great jobs.”
Jones was apparently enamored by Riley because of his impressive football mind. Something he put on full display while trying to recruit Jones’ grandson.
“The Joneses, Jerry and Stephen, already have formed a close relationship with Lincoln Riley going back to the recruitment of walk-on quarterback John Stephen, who is Jerry Jones’ grandson. Lincoln Riley took a home visit with the Joneses … That is the time they realized what a genius this guy was at offensive football and how they became smitten with him,” Ian Rapaport reported last month.
There are several NFL teams lining up to get a shot at landing Riley. However, the head coach has remained loyal to college football. When asked about becoming an NFL coach back in 2018, Riley had this to say.
“The truth is for me is I love Oklahoma. I love coaching here. I love college football,” he said in October 2018, via NFL.com. “I certainly don’t have that itch right now. I don’t know that I ever will, but I’m never going to be a guy that’s going to stand up here and say no way, no how with any of these things ever happen. I don’t know that, but I know right now I couldn’t care less about the NFL.”
His thoughts might have changed over the last year, but with Oklahoma once again coming agonizingly close to a National Championship, they might not have changed enough. After their loss to LSU, Riley seemed pretty adamant that his Sooners team would be back in the national spotlight soon enough.
“So I think we’ve made some great improvements with the program. I’m excited about where we’re heading defensively. I think we’ve just scratched the surface about how good we can get on that side. This program has championship DNA. We kind of find a way, and we’ll be back.”