Shortly before Lincoln Riley took the podium to make his first Big 12 media day address as the Oklahoma football coach, the new face of the Sooners’ program received a reality check from the league’s commissioner.
Bob Bowlsby paid homage to Riley’s predecessor, Bob Stoops, the man who has been the face of Big 12 football for the past 18 seasons. During that time, Stoops won 10 championships and a school-record 190 games before abruptly turning over the program to Riley last month.
“The Big 12 is poorer for not having Bob Stoops any longer as a head coach in our league,” Bowlsby said. “He has been a real leader among our coaches. He’s been very innovative.”
Riley, 33, hopes to grow into that same role … eventually. But as the nation’s youngest FBS head football coach, he knows that will not be an overnight process. Not even if he wins a Big 12 championship in his debut season, which the Sooners are picked to do.
Riley mixed enough Stoops-isms into Monday’s news conference at The Star that one reporter pointed out the similarities seemed a bit eerie. Riley laughed, saying he hopes to carry on “a lot of things” he learned from Stoops over the past two seasons as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator without coming across as “Bob Stoops 2.0.”
At the top of the list: Stoops’ penchant for producing Big 12 titles and adding to the school’s legacy of national championships. The total sits at seven, with the last delivered by Stoops in 2000. Roughly seven weeks before he begins calling the shots in the team’s Sept. 2 opener against UTEP, Riley shrugged off the pressure of delivering No. 8.
“That’s why you come to play and coach at Oklahoma is to win and win big,” Riley said. “It’s always been like that. If you don’t enjoy that sense of pressure and those expectations, then it’s probably not the place for you. That’s something I enjoy.”
The former quarterback at Muleshoe High School will have 3.1 million reasons to embrace the pressure of his gig, based on the five-year deal he signed to become Stoops’ successor. It’s an extremely generous deal for a coach with an 0-0 career record, matching the salary of Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
But it comes with no guarantees. Riley’s second game will be a road contest at Ohio State, which dusted Oklahoma 45-24 in Norman, Okla., last season. Even with Stoops still at the helm, that matchup would have projected as an “L” for the Sooners to most college football observers.
Stoops, of course, had a proven record for getting teams to rebound after setbacks. He never lost more than two consecutive games and last lost back-to-back games in 2003.
Can Riley get a team to rebound that efficiently? That’s the quality that separates the great young coaches, like Stoops in 1999, from the up-and-comers who burn out quickly when placed in water too deep for them. Recent examples include Brady Hoke (Michigan), Lane Kiffin (USC), Mark Helfrich (Oregon) and Charlie Strong (Texas).
Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, the man who hired Stoops in 1998, said Riley reminds him “a lot” of his predecessor, namely his demeanor around players. Now, he’s hoping the bottom line matches as well. Stoops, like Riley, had never been a head coach before working at OU.
“He’s very sure of what he wants and needs but he’s willing to consider other perspectives. It’s not ‘my way or else,’ ” Castiglione said. “He’ll put his vision out for others. But he wants them to take ownership and feel important to the process. Bob was the very same way.”
Like TCU football coach Gary Patterson, a former defensive coordinator who still calls the Horned Frogs’ defensive signals, Riley plans to remain the Sooners’ offensive play-caller as well as the final decision-maker for the team. That combination has proven problematic for Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who conceded Monday that his job is on the line as the Red Raiders seek to rebound from last year’s 5-7 record.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, as a young coach, struggled with balancing the needs of the entire program before deferring play-calling duties to others. OSU has thrived since that development.
For this season, Kingsbury said Riley is wise to continue running the offense because of his relationship with quarterback Baker Mayfield, a third-year starter and Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I don’t think it would probably be smart for him to hand it over to anybody else at this point with the relationship they have,” said Kingsbury, who pointed to his own experience as a cautionary tale.
“I’m going into Year Five and still searching for how to be successful in all those other aspects of being a head coach and still be the best play-caller I can be,” Kingsbury said.
Riley, at this point, is a promising young coach. But he’s no Bob Stoops. At least not yet.