Big 12

New Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley impressed this insider years ago

The timing of the conversation is a bit sketchy, so many years later. But the message remains crystal clear and rings louder today than it did when it was first delivered.

The discussion centered on Lincoln Riley, a little-known Texas Tech wide receivers coach at the time. Riley, 33, triggered nationwide Google searches Wednesday when he became the new head football coach at Oklahoma on the same day that predecessor Bob Stoops, 56, announced his immediate retirement.

Way back when, Gil Brandt didn’t need a Google search to enlighten me about the bright future he envisioned for Riley. Brandt, a analyst and former Dallas Cowboys’ director of player personnel (1960-88), simply told me that Riley, in his estimation, projected as “the next great young coach in college football.” He rattled on, in great detail, about how impressed he’d been when watching Riley in action at Tech practices and in their conversations that followed.

I filed away the information, wondering if I’d ever need it, because Riley was about 26 at the time and serving on the staff of then-Tech coach Mike Leach. It’s not every day that a 26-year-old, former quarterback from Muleshoe High School morphs into college football’s next big thing in the coaching world.

As Riley’s career has blossomed, culminating with Wednesday’s upgrade to the big chair at Oklahoma, I often reflect on the day Brandt extolled the virtues of a player who cut short his college career after one season because he realized he’d make a bigger impact as a coach. Riley spent three seasons as a Tech student assistant (2003-05) before Leach upgraded him to a full-time position (2006-09). It was during that stretch, year unknown, when Brandt’s comments caused me to take a closer look at Riley.

Riley grabbed my full attention during his lone performance as Tech’s offensive play-caller, helping secure a 41-31 victory over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl shortly after Leach’s ouster in December 2009. He followed with five strong seasons as offensive coordinator at East Carolina before moving to Oklahoma in 2015.

During his two seasons at OU, Sooners’ quarterbacks have posted the highest quarterback rating in the country with a combined mark of 179.8. Oklahoma has won the last two Big 12 titles and should be favored to make it three in a row in Riley’s debut season as the successor to Stoops, who walks away with the school record for career wins (190), one national championship (2000) and a gaudy winning percentage of .798 (190-48).

Justifiably, most of Wednesday’s accolades were heaped on Stoops, winner of 10 Big 12 titles during his 18 seasons in Norman, Okla. In a statement, former Texas coach Mack Brown, now an ESPN college football analyst, said Stoops “will be remembered as a Sooner legend.”

No doubt. But as the plaudits flowed Wednesday for Stoops, I found myself reflecting more on a solitary voice from yesteryear who assured me that Lincoln Riley could handle the role he accepted Wednesday.

We’ll soon learn if Brandt, 84, knocked this one out of the park as cleanly as he did several of his under-the-radar draft picks during the Cowboys’ glory years. 

Jimmy Burch: 817-390-7760, @Jimmy_Burch