FRISCO, Texas – Age ain’t nothin’ but a number. That’s been said and sang for ages. But when you’ve been in charge of one of college football’s premier programs for about six weeks and your birthday is Sept. 5, 1983 … it matters.
Lincoln Riley, age 33, became Oklahoma’s coach on June 7 when Bob Stoops gobsmacked college football by announcing his sudden retirement. Mike Norvell of Memphis and Mike Sanford Jr. of Western Kentucky are each at the ripe old age of 35.
The Big 12 football media days kicked off Monday at The Star, Jerry World Jr., and the new OU coach was, well, the star. It was his debut on his biggest stage to date. The 20 minutes in front of the bright lights on the main stage for questions plus about six hours total answering reporters’ questions as easy as he diagrams plays and formulates game plans.
A decade of fast rising through the coaching ranks put him in position to convince the OU administration he was ready to take over The Big Office.
Riley has displayed a five-star social media game, wrote a story for The Players Tribune and has kicked butt on the recruiting trail. He described the last six weeks as a whirlwind, but he’s been creating the havoc as much as being victimized by the high winds.
Several coaches praised his hiring of Ruffin McNeil. The former East Carolina coach hired Riley as offensive coordinator and the two had coached together at Texas Tech. Bringing in a long-time friend and mentor was considered a savvy move.
As the season opener nears, Riley will learn more and more that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He plans to continue being the Sooners’ play caller.
“I think he’s just got to find that happy medium,” said Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who still runs the Red Raiders’ offense. “I’m going into year five and still, I think,searching for that, how to be successful in all those ther aspects of being a head coach and still be the best play-caller I can be.”
Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen and Kansas’ David Beaty have all abdicated play calling duties. Beaty made the move after last season, hiring Doug Meacham from TCU to run the Jayhawks’ offense.
“It’s more difficult only because there’s not enough time in the day,” said Beaty, who at age 33 had just become a high school head coach. “Lincoln is one of the finest offensive minds in the country. I don’t blame him for continuing to call plays.”
In his first two seasons in Norman, Oklahoma finished seventh and second in total offense. Senior quarterback Baker Mayfield is excited that his final season will be Riley’s first season in charge of the program.
“We’ve had two different kinds of offenses in his two years,” Mayfield said. “College football, every season, you have to adjust to the players you have. It’s been fun to watch him do that and it’s why he’s such a great coach.
“He’s young but he doesn’t coach his age. He’s already been through a lot, seen a lot. He’s young but he’s got a lot of experience.”
Iowa State’s Matt Campbell was 32 when he took over as coach at Toledo but comparing that to Riley becoming coach at Oklahoma is like saying 2 plus 2 is similar to E=mc2.
“Everybody wanted to ask and make a big deal about your age,” Campbell said during a break-out interview session. “Most of that, though, is people wondering, ‘OK, this guy is young, how long is going to be here?’ You look at Lincoln’s pedigree, who he’s been around, who he has for mentors, those are things you can lean on. I had that and when you’re first starting out it’s crucial.”
When Stoops stepped away from the OU job, he was the longest-tenured coach in the FBS (one day on the job longer than Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz) and had spent more time coaching the Sooners than anyone. Stoops was 38 when he was hired away from his post as Florida’s defensive coordinator to replace John Blake, one of the worst coaching hires in the sport’s history.
“I’m facing the same questions about hiring a coach Lincoln’s age that I faced when we hired Bob,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “People questioned hiring a first-time coach that Bob’s age was. But when people are ready, they’re ready.
“He demonstrated a variety of skills in two years and he has had experiences far more diverse than a lot of other coaches. It’s funny, but about after Lincoln had been with us for about six months, Bob and I had discussions talking about Lincoln and how he had the skill set to be a great head coach.”
Riley will turn 34 the week that Oklahoma will play at Ohio State in a season-defining game. It will also be a knee-jerk referendum – win and Riley will be hailed as the greatest/youngest coach ever; lose and it will be, “Told you so, see, he’s not ready for the bright lights, big stage.”
To any college kid in his early 20s, anyone 30 or over is a candidate for AARP. In two seasons in the program, Riley not only gained the confidence of Stoops, the coaching staff and the administration, he has convinced the players he’s ready.
“You can point to his age, you can point to anything, but I will tell you right now, I will put my life on the line for that guy at any point in time in anything,” Oklahoma cornerback Jordan Thomas told Big12Diehards.com. “Even though he’s 30-who-cares years old, either way, we know that in his mind and his schemes and the way he approaches things, he’s a veteran to us.”
At last year’s media days, Stoops, then 55, hinted that he might coach another 10 seasons. In less than a year, though, the coach with the most wins in school history decided to hand the keys to a head coaching neophyte.
No one, not even Castiglione, was certain Stoops would become an iconic coach. Castiglione approved Riley’s promotion. Once again, no one is sure. By the time he turns 40, we’ll all know.
“The expectations are there to win, like they always are at Oklahoma,” Riley said. “That’s something that I enjoy. That’s why you come to play and coach at Oklahoma is to win and to win big. If you don’t enjoy that sense of pressure and those expectations, then it’s probably not the place for you.”