NORMAN — When Lincoln Riley walked into the OU-Tulsa Schusterman Center last week, it marked one of his final firsts as Oklahoma’s football coach.
He was still a week from his one-year anniversary as head coach, but minutes before he would address fans at the Sooner Caravan pep rally for the first time in his newish role, it felt like Riley had already turned the page on his inaugural 365 days.
In 2017, when former OU coach Bob Stoops made the Caravan trip, Riley was still afforded freedoms that come with not being Sooner chief executive officer. He was resting comfortably, watching the OU’s men’s golf team surge toward the national title.
“Sitting on my back patio, living and dying [with everything],” Riley said. “I was yelling at Brad Dalke when he hit that chip too far, and then I was cheering like any other fan when he made the putt.
“I was sitting in my back yard.”
Those sit-downs are fewer for head coaches, as Riley has learned. The high-stress, high-paying job affords little time for spending actual cash, even when one inherits a team equipped with talent, experience and the nation’s best player in quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Riley appears to be a natural. His first recruiting class is shaping up to be a smash, ranked No. 2 nationally, according to major recruiting services. He has optimal freedom for flexing his offensive principles, which have captured attention from both college and pro football experts.
He also has learned you never know what problems might walk through the door.
“I felt like there would be some of that, but I think you don’t realize that day-to-day, you’ve got a couple hundred people, considering players and all the employees working in the program,” Riley said. “There’s always gonna be a leak somewhere. There’s always something you have to be doing or always some type of issue.
“You have to have people that you trust to help you handle it, but you also have to be able to grasp it and to set the direction. That part of it never ends. And then there’s the whole coaching football on top of that.”
Riley has earned a passing grade on the coaching part. OU went 12-2 last season, won its third straight Big 12 championship and was a play or two shy in a double-overtime Rose Bowl loss to Georgia from reaching the national title game. Sooner fans would have gladly accepted that the day Stoops retired.
There were hiccups, too. During a recent question-and-answer with OU’s athletic department, Riley lamented how he handled the team’s focus in the days after winning at then-No. 2 Ohio State in September. The Sooners struggled with lowly Baylor two weeks later, then were subpar in a stunning home loss to Iowa State.
Riley also has had to answer for calling a squib kickoff in the final six seconds of the Rose Bowl’s first half, which ideally would’ve eliminated a long Georgia return, but instead, set up a momentum-swinging 55-yard Georgia field goal when Austin Seibert’s kick bounced into a Georgia player prematurely.
Otherwise, jabs against Riley’s rookie debut have mostly been reserved for disgruntled corners of sports bars and the Internet.
The big preseason 2017 question was how Riley would assemble OU’s skill players, most of whom were talented, but all new to larger roles. The Sooners led the nation in total offense from scrimmage (579.6 yards per game).
OU’s poorest unit under Riley’s watch was special teams, which ranked among the nation’s worst. So, he hired special teams expert Shane Beamer away from Georgia. He has also hired two former head coaches — Ruffin McNeill and Bob Diaco — to join the staff, navigated several legal issues with players, and even suspended Mayfield when the brash QB’s antics crossed the line during a game at Kansas.
OU athletic director Joe Castiglione enjoys watching postgame press conferences to see how coaches handle themselves. Before Riley was promoted, Castiglione spied on the young coach at the podium and liked what he saw. OU issued Riley a $400,000 raise last May when he was still offensive coordinator, hoping to keep him in Norman.
Had Riley flown away, it’s likely he still would have been OU’s top choice following the Stoops era:
“We thought someday there was the possibility he might be a coach somewhere else, but he’d be a person we’d be very interested in bringing back here,” Castiglione said.
Riley probably stands to receive another raise soon.
But he faces the challenge of continuity — the ability to stack good seasons on top of one another. OU has enough remaining talent to win the Big 12, but Mayfield is gone, along with a stable of emotional leaders in Orlando Brown, Steven Parker and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.
“It’s my fourth year here [total] and without a doubt it will be the least-experienced team,” Riley said.
He insists he is not a veteran yet.
“You never get comfortable coaching at a place like this,” Riley said. “But you do get more settled in with the challenges that come up and all that’s on your plate. I’ve gotten a lot better as this year has gone on. I most certainly learned a lot and still have plenty to learn. It’s been fun. I’m excited about where it’s going.”
The Lincoln Riley file
Seasons as OU: 3
Seasons as head coach: 1
Big 12 titles: 1
Biggest win: Sept. 9, 2017, at No. 2 Ohio State (31-16)
Worst loss: Oct. 7, 2017, vs. Iowa State (38-31)
Current contract: $3.1 million annually, five years through 2022
Salary from private funds: $1.775 million
Base pay: $325,000
Pay for OU appearances/speaking: $500,000
Stay benefit (earned every June 1): $500,000
Known bonuses earned in 2017: $75,000 (for reaching the College Football Playoff); $75,000 (winning the Big 12 championship)