Second-year Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley is quickly approaching a pivotal point in his career. Sooner than later, he's going to be a head coach.
Riley, just 32 years old, is one of the fastest-rising assistants in college football today. In his first year with the Sooners, Riley orchestrated an offense that scored 43.5 points per game, ranking fourth nationally. Quarterback Baker Mayfield just missed the Heisman finalist cut and the Sooners made a College Football Playoff appearance.
Yet his stock can get even higher in 2016.
The weapons will be there at Riley's disposal once again. Mayfield returns as a preseason Heisman candidate, as do running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. In all, the Sooners bring back seven of 11 starters from a year ago plus several key backups. It's generally believed Oklahoma will be preseason Big 12 title favorites.
What this amounts to is that come next November and December, don't be surprised if Riley's name gains serious traction in the head coaching rumor mill (he was previously connected to the South Carolina job last year, according to 247Sports' JC Shurburtt).
But what could make Riley's career trajectory more interesting is if Oklahoma and head coach Bob Stoops have any thoughts at all about making Riley Stoops' successor as a head coach-in-waiting.
Riley has certainly earned head coaching consideration given his success to date. Before taking over Oklahoma's offense, Riley put together top-25 scoring efforts at East Carolina. His resume speaks for itself.
A successful coach-in-waiting transition requires perfect timing, though, and Oklahoma isn't there yet with Riley and Stoops.
The track record for coaches-in-waiting is a mixed bag. There are instances in which it worked (Oregon) and examples of when it created awkward, disastrous situations (Florida State, West Virginia). When everyone's on the same page, though, it can ensure consistency and longevity. And Riley would be a good candidate.
After all, Stoops will be entering his 18th season with Oklahoma. That kind of longevity at a single program is rare, and when viewed by itself without context, it seems like an appropriate time period for a change.
However, equally as impressive has been Stoops' ability to reinvent himself and the program time and time again over that span.
Part of that process has been hiring quality assistants. For all the great things Stoops has done in Norman, one underrated quality has been his ability to find offensive coordinators and then get them promoted elsewhere.
Mike Leach (Texas Tech, Washington State), Mark Mangino (Kansas), Kevin Sumlin (Houston, Texas A&M) and Kevin Wilson (Indiana) make up a full coaching tree of former offensive coordinators who have served under Stoops before being hired away.
"I’m all for my coaches becoming head coaches,” Stoops said last year, via the Dallas Morning News.
By hiring Riley and shuffling various assistant coach responsibilities last offseason, Stoops reinvented himself again.
What this showed is that Stoops isn't finished by any means. Plus, he's only 55 years old. That's the same age as Texas coach Charlie Strong and only slightly older than Florida coach Jim McElwain and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. Theoretically, Stoops could coach another 10-15 years—at least—if he wanted to, given his acumen for adapting with the times.
Would Riley want to wait around for a day that may not come in the immediate future? Absolutely not, and he shouldn't want to. Nearly every assistant has dreams of becoming a head coach, and Riley is no different. If he gets the right opportunity for a promotion, he should (and will) take it, as Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman wrote in December:
Sure, something better could come along in a year or two for Riley. Heck, he would be a prime candidate at OU if Stoops decided to leave coaching sometime in the next few years. I know the Sooner brass loves Riley and was very impressed with him long before the cavalcade of victories that has reinvigorated OU football.
But something better might not come along, also. These jobs aren’t in abundance. Great years when an assistant coach is really hot, aren’t in abundance. If Riley sits tight, he might be the next coach at Texas. He also might be the next coach at Texas State. You never know.
Again, timing is everything.
Plus, if there's any uncertainty at all, a coach-in-waiting job only creates a need that doesn't actually exist—unless Stoops privately feels his days at Oklahoma are coming to an end.
Otherwise, the only way an immediate promotion for Riley would be in play is if Stoops were let go, which at this stage in his career would fall under the veil of "mutually agreeing to part ways." After last season's success, can anyone really see that happening?
Riley would, however, be a good option to become Oklahoma's coach some day. He's young, fits the culture for offensive-minded football and knows the Big 12 landscape both on the field and on the recruiting trail. (The latter category cannot be emphasized enough. Oklahoma's 2016 class consisted of just six recruits from Big 12 states, three of which came from Texas.)
And if Riley is successful as a head coach elsewhere, then Oklahoma knows he has the chops to win. The coaching industry, as wide and vast as it is, maintains a small-community vibe. Paths cross again and again all the time.
In the meantime, Riley and Stoops have a good relationship going. Stoops is still winning at a high level, and Riley is further proving himself as potential head coach material. There's no need to tamper with a formula that clearly works.
Who knows—Riley may find his way back to Norman in a bigger role at a later point anyway.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.
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