Why Lincoln Riley is resisting the NFL’s overtures
New Dallas Cowboys hire Mike McCarthy aside, the trend for new NFL head coach appointments seem to be either a standout offensive or defensive coordinator. Or a disciple of a legendary NFL coaching tree. Yet one man constantly linked with the next big job is neither of those. And currently unlikely to say yes if they ask him.
Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur all hail from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree. They lead the Rams, 49ers and Packers respectively. Bill O’Brien (Texans), Mike Vrabel (Titans), Matt Patricia (Lions), Brian Flores (Dolphins) and new Giants coach Joe Judge all worked for Bill Belichick in New England. All impressed in previous roles as specialist position coaches in the NFL.
Lincoln Riley, the Oklahoma Sooners’ head coach, does not come from an NFL coaching tree. In fact he has no NFL experience.
So why is he so highly sought after?
Following in the illustrious footsteps of Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops, Riley has built a superb reputation in Norman. The Sooners have won three consecutive Big 12 titles during his tenure. His Air Raid offense is fun to watch. His insistence on a strong running game opens the field for explosive receivers to catch passes from star quarterbacks. Quarterbacks who have all moved to the next level under his focused tutelage.
NFL teams’ postseason chances often live or die on the capability of their quarterbacks. It’s the reason why 15 of the last 20 number one overall draft picks have played under center. Three have come from Oklahoma, of which Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray have been guided by Riley. Both won Heisman Trophies playing for him. His quarterback last year was the highly gifted Jalen Hurts, overshadowed by Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama, whose career was resurrected in Norman. Hurts led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff final. And finished as runner-up to Joe Burrow both in this game and for the Heisman before moving to the Eagles.
For an NFL team in need of someone to inspire their quarterback and kick start their offense, the Oklahoma head coach is therefore an appealing prospect. He was unsurprisingly linked to a reunion with Baker Mayfield in Cleveland when the Browns’ top job came up. It is highly likely the team with the top pick in next year’s draft will need a quarterback. And also highly likely they will select Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence with that pick. The prospect of Riley developing Trevor Lawrence would be too good for a struggling team to pass up.
While he doesn’t have league experience, Riley does share traits with some of the more impressive figures in the game. His photographic memory is on a par with Sean McVay. Tested on his weekly radio show where he is quizzed on a specific play in a specific game, always able to recall the outcome in detail. His insistence on detail, once asking his team to run the same play over and over for an entire day to get it right. Which is reminiscent of the great Vince Lombardi’s power sweep play that the great Packers teams of the 60s ran to perfection. He is a student of the late, great 49ers and Stanford coach Bill Walsh, who created the West Coast offense. Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur are building contenders in San Francisco and Green Bay using offensive innovation and high attention to detail, two of Riley’s key attributes.
At 37, he would be one of the youngest coaches in the league. But Riley has been coaching since he was 19. He was s walk-on at Texas Tech where he was one of the backup quarterbacks to Kliff Kingsbury. Coach Mike Leach (now at Mississippi State), spotted his potential and made him his assistant. Before becoming receivers coach in a potent Air Raid offense.
East Carolina hired him to be their offensive coordinator. And he spent five seasons honing a high-octane attack before taking the reigns of the Oklahoma offense in 2015. Here, he has innovated and adapted the Air Raid offense. A solid running game allowing play action opportunity and highlight reel performances from the likes of Mayfield, Murray and new Dallas Cowboy CeeDee Lamb. It’s not hard to see why he’s in demand from NFL teams. The Cowboys tried to woo the impressive Texan in the summer to replace Jason Garrett, but he turned them down.
Why would he leave Oklahoma?
Having signed a new $6.5m a year contract last year, Riley has repeatedly stated his desire to stay in Norman and build something special. Switzer and Stoops have impressive legacies as Sooners coaches, and he will want to be remembered in similar fashion. Three playoff appearances in three years have yet to result in a title. Last year’s 63-28 humbling by LSU in the final showed there is work to do. Riley wants to win national championships at Oklahoma. And build the kind of dynasties Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney have at Alabama and Clemson.
Spencer Rattler is leading his offense this year and his 4 TD passes in the 48-0 rout of Missouri State last week shows Riley has another gem on his hands. Rattler is his recruit and he will have time to develop him into a future star. Oklahoma have also secured the commitment of Caleb Williams. One of the top high school quarterbacks for the 2021 season, to develop and succeed Rattler should he depart for the NFL in two years’ time.
Bruce Arians is the original Quarterback Whisperer. He even wrote a book on it. Arians is currently mentoring a pretty decent prospect in Tom Brady. The National Football League may not see Lincoln Riley for a few years yet. He has unfinished business with the Sooners. Don’t be surprised, though, if he doesn’t appear at the helm of a struggling NFL team at some point. Ready to begin a new phase of his career as the next Quarterback Whisperer.
photo credit: kusports.com/AP Sue Ogrocki