How coaching prodigy Lincoln Riley found the perfect launching pad at Oklahoma

In terms of pure shock value, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ retirement last week at age 56 ranks as the most jarring college football story in years.

Perhaps since we learned in early 2013 that Notre Dame star Manti Te’o’s girlfriend didn’t exist – but that carried no long-term consequence. You might have to dial back to Bobby Petrino’s fateful Harley-Davidson crash and firing at Arkansas in ’12, or Jim Tressel’s Memorial Day resignation at Ohio State in ‘11.

What the Stoops stunner produced was a chance for Oklahoma history to repeat itself, as it has again and again and again – with largely great results. It paved the way for the Sooners to hire a guy in his 30s with zero head-coaching experience.

For 33-year-old Lincoln Riley, it is a case of bright guy, right place, right time.

In a couple of years we should know whether it’s bright guy, right place, right time, right hire.

Over the past 70 years, Oklahoma has hired 10 football coaches. Nine of them had never been a college head coach before. Eight of them were in their 30s. Six of them were promoted from within.

“Anybody would look at that and think it’s absolutely part of the formula,” said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione. “It could be, if you’ve got the right person to put in the role.”

More often than not, Oklahoma found the right person.

Just 33 years old, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley is the youngest FBS head coach. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

During those 70 years, the program has won 76 percent of its games, seven national championships, 38 conference championships and five Heisman Trophies. So, yeah, it’s fair to say the formula has worked. Unproven head coaches and insular hires have their risks, but most of the time they have gotten it right – really right – at Oklahoma.

(The extreme outlier was Howard Schnellenberger, hired at age 60 with 17 years of head-coaching experience and a total Oklahoma outsider. He lasted one year, a colossally bad fit between great coach and great program.)

Riley checks all the traditional cream-and-crimson boxes: young, talented and an Oklahoma assistant. That’s how it was for Bud Wilkinson, promoted at age 31 and on his way to one of the greatest runs in the history of the sport. That’s how it was for Barry Switzer, promoted at 35 and destined to lead the Sooners to three national titles. Stoops was slightly different, coming to Norman from Florida, but he was 37 and a career assistant to that point.

And if Stoops stays off the sidelines, all three Oklahoma coaching greats will have one other thing in common: They spent their entire college head-coaching tenures in Norman. Wilkinson led the Sooners for 17 seasons, Switzer for 16 and Stoops for 18.

With that precedent, Oklahoma fans are free to dream of watching the next product of the Norman coaching assembly line win big from now until he’s in his 50s. The school certainly has a guy who comes with all the signs of being a superstar in the profession.

If a coaching thoroughbred can come from Muleshoe, Texas, Lincoln Riley is it.

Riley’s beautiful mind manifested itself early. He was an effortlessly successful student, and the Muleshoe folklore includes stories of young Lincoln devising complex plays in backyard football games.

“He was just so brilliant,” said Riley’s coach at Muleshoe High School, David Wood. “He was one of those kids who was kind of bored in school, in fact. He had a photographic memory – he would look at a problem on the board and solve it in his head. I remember making grade checks and his teachers got aggravated with him because he would never take notes or do homework, then ace the test.”

That carried over to football, where brainpower can be the most important attribute for a quarterback. Riley was able to breeze through gameplans and scouting reports the same way he cruised through math class.

“He’d watch film one time through, learn the defense we’re fixing to face and be ready,” Wood said.

Playing quarterback at Muleshoe High was a Riley family tradition. Lincoln’s grandfather, Claude, was a single-wing QB on the school’s undefeated 1938 team – a huge accomplishment in a small Dust Bowl town in north Texas, some 100 miles from Amarillo and hard by the New Mexico border. His father, Mike, ran the wishbone in the early 1970s. And then along came Lincoln, quarterbacking a pro-set attack.

The spread offense had not yet overtaken Texas high school football when Riley played in the early 2000s. Mastery of the spread would become Lincoln’s trademark, but he didn’t get his introduction to that offense until going to college at Texas Tech.

“Football was in his blood,” Wood said. “In this town, football was in a lot of kids’ blood, but he could make it his profession.”

Riley’s professional future began earlier than he anticipated. He turned down some smaller-school scholarship options to walk on at Texas Tech and play for one of the founding fathers of throw-it-everywhere spread football, Mike Leach. It didn’t take long for Riley (and Leach) to figure out that he thought the game far better than he played the game.

Leach likes to say he cut Riley and hired him at the same time – taking him off the quarterback depth chart and making him a student assistant coach working with receivers. Then he became a graduate assistant, and quickly moved into a full-time assistant role at the ripe old age of 23.

During Riley’s years on Tech’s staff, Wood took his entire Muleshoe staff to Lubbock to learn how to implement the spread offense. Wood says they only got about 10 minutes with Leach, so Riley stepped in and taught them everything they needed to know. Muleshoe went on to the win the Texas 2A state title in 2008.

Who will have the better first year as head coach: Texas’ Tom Herman or Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley? (Getty)

Tech became a top-25 fixture during the time Riley was an assistant, flirting with national title contention in 2008 while going 11-12. In 2009, Leach became ensnared in the Adam James/Craig James disciplinary fiasco that ultimately cost the head coach his job just days before the Red Raiders played Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl.

Defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill was thrust into the interim head coach role, and the 26-year-old Riley suddenly found himself replacing Leach as the play-caller for a bowl game against Michigan State.

This would prove to be Riley’s coaching coming-out party. Tech without Leach looked very much like Tech with Leach, hanging 41 points on the Spartans to pull off a satisfying victory after all the turmoil that led up to the game. Thrust into a pressure situation at an absurd age, Riley thrived.

“I wish I could have recorded Lincoln in that game, and how smooth and precise and prepared he was,” McNeill recalled last week. “He knew how to handle it all.”

The bowl victory helped McNeill get hired as the head coach at East Carolina. He then called Riley and offered him his offensive coordinator position (a favor Riley returned Wednesday by making McNeill his first hire at Oklahoma).

“He was ready,” McNeill said. “Everyone thought he was young, but I had no doubt. You know when you know.”

Any lingering doubts were erased when Riley’s up-tempo offense clicked immediately at East Carolina. Passing yardage rose more than 1,000 yards from the previous season, touchdown passes jumped from 15 to 39, and pass efficiency increased from 120.8 to 134.8.

Riley’s offense helped Shane Carden become the leading passer and Justin Hardy the leading receiver in East Carolina history. It also helped the architect become a hot property on the job market. He turned down a few jobs to stay with McNeill five seasons, but was strongly considering an offer from Mark Richt to go to Georgia after the 2014 season.

That’s when Oklahoma came sailing in and grabbed the play-calling wunderkind. It’s fair to wonder whether Richt would still be at Georgia – and Kirby Smart would now be at South Carolina – if that had played out differently.

Once in Norman, it took all of a couple months for Stoops and Castiglione to recognize the talent they had hired.

“Early in his time at Oklahoma, we talked about him as a future head coach,” Castiglione said. “Lincoln Riley had some very unique and special qualities for someone so young.

“Given the roles and responsibilities given to him at a very young age, you could see people trusted him a great deal. His tactical skill set was fantastic. He had a terrific ability to connect with student-athletes and assess prospective student-athletes. And he handles himself so well. I’ve watched him in some difficult situations during a game and he is Cool Hand Luke.

“It got us to thinking: This person is really wise beyond his years.”

Thus when Bob Stoops decided his OU run was done, there was no need to do anything the school hadn’t done so often and so successfully before – turn a Cadillac program over to a gifted young assistant.

“Stoops stepping down was the big surprise,” David Wood said. “What was not a surprise was giving the job to Lincoln.”

Consciously or not, Lincoln Riley had been preparing himself for that moment his entire life. Then opportunity met preparation – a school unafraid to hire young or hire from within turned to a coaching prodigy already on staff.

Bright guy, right place, right time. We’ll see if it’s the right hire.