Lincoln Riley took the snap, dropped back and fired a pass to an open receiver—a good pass, snapped off over the top, tight spiral, right to the chest.
The guy blew it.
The ball bounced off his hands into the air, and a linebacker picked it off.
Riley chased him. This was a stupid thing to do—this was a scrimmage, the play worth nothing—but Riley was just 15 years old, a sophomore at Muleshoe High in West Texas. Some honest part of his young heart knew he should let the linebacker go, but he did what teenagers do, indulging his anger—buying the lie—and chasing the linebacker.
When Riley tackled him, it was more like a collision. The linebacker lowered his helmet, Riley hit him shoulder-first, and two competitors met at full force.
Only the linebacker could get up.
Riley tried, but his right arm wouldn’t cooperate. It didn’t feel hurt, but then he saw it. The linebacker’s helmet had hit his shoulder square, moving it far from where it should be. Dislocated. And Riley was torn apart.
On a Monday evening in August, Riley leaves Memorial Stadium through Gate 12 in a crimson team shirt, black shorts and gray running shoes. He’s headed for the Everest Building across the street. In June, he became Oklahoma’s new head coach and, at just 34 years old, the youngest major college football head coach in the country. Now his offense is getting loose before some light indoor drills.
When Riley enters the building, he sees Baker Mayfield, the team’s star Heisman Trophy finalist. He’s wearing slide sandals and socks.
Sometimes, he slips the slides off and throws just in socks.
“Hey,” Riley says. “Nice shoes.” No sarcasm—well, maybe a little—but no contempt in his voice, no disdain, just a thick Texas accent. “Try not to get stepped on.”
He makes his way around the field, from quarterbacks to running backs to receivers, fist-bumping here, shoulder-checking there, keeping things light. If he feels pressure replacing Bob Stoops, it doesn’t show now, nor did it this morning at the practice fields down the road, even when Stoops himself stopped by for a few minutes.
When practice begins that morning, “Milly Rock” fills the air with bass so thick you can feel it in your chest. Riley moves around the field in rhythm with the beat (more or less), bobbing his head and shoulders, a grin on his face.
For the next three hours, he’s constantly on the move, staying in the mix. It’s an uncharacteristically cool morning, in the 80s, but Riley still works up a sweat. His players talk about his “energy,” and Zay Jones—a Buffalo Bills wide receiver who played two seasons for Riley at East Carolina—says it most colorfully: “His aura and his personality are unmatched, and the level of energy he exuberates is unreal.”
Sometimes Riley is serious—yelling, critiquing, instructing, sounding like any other college coach. But those moments are rare compared to when he’s laughing, smiling, bouncing around.
Now, as Mayfield tosses footballs to running backs working on routes, Riley organizes receivers for release drills: going against one another to perfect the violent art of breaking free. They snatch their defender—by the forearm, the elbow, the whatever—and fling them out of the way so they can sprint past.
“All right, ready now,” Riley says, nodding at one of the receivers, telling him to take the offensive position. The receiver is big, maybe 6'5", with biceps thicker than you see on most wideouts.
“Ready,” Riley says. He lowers his head and looks up at the kid, his chin jutting out as he speaks. “And. Go.”
The receiver launches forward, snatches Riley’s right wrist and yanks it aside, sending Riley with it. Then the receiver is free.
Riley’s eyes squeeze shut, and his face twists in a clenched grimace.
A half-second later, Riley turns, going with his momentum and clapping and grinning, like the pain never happened, telling the kid he did well.
“I’ve never been one to just stand on the sidelines,” he’ll say later, sitting in his new office back across the street. “I like being in the mix.”
The new office is enormous—1,800 square feet—and it is extraordinary, designed for the man Lincoln Riley has replaced. A case displaying Stoops’ watches still sits in a corner. Leather couches and chairs form a meeting area in the center. A desk sits to the right when you walk in, another couch is to the left, and huge windows are straight ahead, letting sunlight pour in. There’s a cathedral sort of feel to the place, only with more dark wood and crimson. And flat screens: two of them, massive, one on each end.
Later, down the hall in his own office, assistant head coach Ruffin McNeill tells a story about Riley and pressure. They were big underdogs at East Carolina playing Virginia Tech one year, and VT was killing them with a relentless, devastating blitz—so Riley went deep. Tested their defensive backs. Forced them to make plays.
ECU pulled off the upset.
“That’s a small thing,” McNeill says, “but it’s a big thing. Everybody feared the pressure, but he didn’t. He took advantage of it.”
At first glance, that’s the cornerstone to Riley’s rise: viewing pressure as opportunity. Mike Leach made Riley his personal assistant at Texas Tech when Riley was just 19 years old, and receivers coach at 23, whereupon Riley coached Michael Crabtree to the Biletnikoff Award, given to the country’s best college wide receiver. At just 26 years old, he became the youngest offensive coordinator in the nation at East Carolina, under McNeill.
Dwayne Harris, a senior wide receiver there that year with the NFL in his sights, thought, This dude is only four years older than me, and he’s trying to teach us how to play football?
Harris finished their first game with seven catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns, and they won. “So then,” Harris says, “I was like, OK, I’m in.”
The Pirates set or matched 29 team records that season, and Harris indeed went pro and is now a wide receiver for the Giants.
Harris’s opinion now: “Lincoln Riley is a football genius.”
Riley spent five seasons at East Carolina before taking the job as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator two seasons ago. Those Pirates teams rank No. 1 through 5 for single-season passing yards in the ECU record book.
Last year, Oklahoma averaged 554 yards and 43.9 points per game. Riley’s offense seemed to exhaust defensive players and coaches alike—a spread air attack coupling with a relentless ground game, the pass setting up the run. It had not one but two Heisman finalists in Mayfield (nearly 4,000 yards and 40 TD passes, plus six rushing TDs) and receiver Dede Westbrook—who, with 17 TDs and more than 1,500 yards, also won the Biletnikoff—and the Sooners had two running backs rush for 1,000 yards.
To quote Mayfield: “Like, holy crap.”
Riley might even be an actual genius. His high school honors math teacher Debbie Conner has known him since he was five, and she laughs in loving disbelief that “all” Riley does is coach football. Starting his sophomore year, when his right arm was in a sling, he never took notes or did homework, and it didn’t matter. He’d look at the formulas she wrote on the board and listen as she taught, and then he knew how to find the answers to any problem. Sometimes he rewrote formulas to his liking. He aced every test. This went on through college algebra his senior year. Conner says, “He could cure cancer if he tried.”
As the quarterback at Muleshoe High, before Riley called for a snap, he could read the defense and change the play accordingly—better than many college quarterbacks his coach, David Wood, saw. “Hell, better than some guys in the NFL,” Wood says now with a laugh. “He would study film and see a defense one time, and it stuck.”
Since he was a college sophomore, Riley has been perfecting and rewriting football playbooks like those algebra equations from high school. “Coaching is about concepts,” McNeill says. “And he’s really good at having an answer. ‘OK, they’re doing this—we’re gonna do this.’ He does it really masterfully.”
Based on all this, Stoops’ decision to step down after 18 years as Oklahoma’s head coach—shocking as it was—seems plenty justified. “I was just ready to move on in life,” Stoops says now, “and when I look at our team and our staff and where everything is right now, there is no better time for the program. I saw that I could step aside, and Lincoln could step in, and almost nothing else would change, so I could leave without any guilt or concern.”
But there’s more to it. For all he can do with a playbook and a chalkboard, there’s something else about Riley that gives Stoops and so many other people so much confidence in him. There’s another concept in his masterful grasp, something bigger than the game on the receiving end of his re-engineering.
ECU athletic director Jeff Compher glimpsed it briefly in Greenville, North Carolina, and then again at the college football awards banquet after last season ended, when he saw Riley and Jones hug and tell each other how much they loved each other. Compher says, “I was just so impressed by how much Lincoln seemed to care.”
During team meetings, Lincoln Riley often will ask, “What can I do better for you guys?”
Sometimes it’s simple stuff, like better food in the locker room, which Riley indeed procures. But sometimes it’s also real football stuff—like senior defensive back Steven Parker saying he feels like they need to work on a certain formation or play more. Riley tells the defensive coordinator just that.
“I’ve never seen that before from anyone else,” Parker says. “And from him—all the time. There are a lot of things we can tell him that we couldn’t even tell Coach Stoops.”
Says Mayfield: “Dealing with all of us like that makes us feel respected, which in turn gives us more respect for him. And you’ll play a lot harder. … You don’t want to let him down.”
This holds true even on days they, well, struggle.
Last year against Texas, Mayfield started the game by throwing two interceptions. Riley could have barked at him, “but,” Mayfield says, “he understands that I don’t need any extra chewing.”
Riley pulled Mayfield aside and was calm and simple: “Put it behind you. Move on. Just do you.”
They won, 45-40.
“So many older-school coaches have certain ways that made them successful, and that’s the only way they’ll do it,” Mayfield says. “His ability to adapt to our personality and get the best out of our players has been huge.”
Lincoln Riley and Caitlin Riley—his wife, whom he met in high school; she was from Dimmitt, a rival town—have players over to their house frequently for dinner or just to hang out with them and their two daughters. The girls also regularly visit the office and practice. Part of this is because Riley is, in his own words, “an old soul,” a family man, wanting to see his girls as often as he can.
“But,” Caitlin says, “we also want the guys to see him as more than just a coach—as a human being. And we want them to know he sees them as human beings, too.”
He’ll text players, call them, stop them in the halls or on sidewalks around campus and just…catch up. And it’s the nature of the relationship, the things they talk about and how they talk about them. Parker says talking with Lincoln is “more than football, more than player-to-coach—like, man-to-man.”
Says McNeill, who has watched Lincoln coach since he was 19 years old: “He talks to the guys. Not at them.”
Says senior fullback Dimitri Flowers: “Other coaches are maybe just like drill sergeants, or father figures if they’re good. He’s more like an uncle.”
Says Caitlin, cutting to the heart of it: “Relationships are what make life important, not accolades.”
If all that sounds like it eats up a lot of time and energy—yeah, it does. “It’s almost like having a new puzzle each year, and you gotta make all the pieces fit,” Lincoln says. “You feel like you’re half football coach, half academic counselor, half Dr. Phil.”
He pauses for a moment, aware that what he’s starting to say sounds like an over-the-top recruiting pitch, then dives in anyway. “I just care about these guys almost as much as my own daughters,” he says. “I just don't know how else to say it. You spend so much time with them, depend on each other so much—how can you not care about them? I don't feel it in terms of success or winning or not—I don’t have to convince myself to feel that. I just can’t imagine doing my job if not.”
This—not the pressure to win or how to beat the big guys or what might happen if they don't—is what Lincoln Riley considers his greatest challenge as a new head coach: managing his time and keeping that connection with his players strong.
“I think in the past, it was kind of an unaccepted thing,” Riley says. “Coaches were more of the drill sergeant type. That was the status quo. But I think the players probably coulda used it then too.”
This makes it easier on Riley to care—“As a coach, you gotta be yourself”—but that really only means a different kind of difficult, because one of the best ways Riley connects with people, cares about people, is simple: by being honest.
“There are times,” Riley says, “that temptation is there to tell them what they want to hear, or to maybe try to give them some confidence. But at the end of the day, if what you’re telling them is not real, it’s not going to help anybody.”
Those are the hardest conversations for Riley. Two years ago, he had to tell Mayfield, then a walk-on, that he wasn’t the best guy for the starting job. It worked out for him. It doesn’t for everyone.
Lincoln Riley was the son of a quarterback who was the son of a quarterback, and he became the starting quarterback for Muleshoe High in his little West Texas hometown. Muleshoe is about 70 miles from Lubbock and Texas Tech, and Riley’s goal in life was to play for Leach in his Air Raid offense, then go to the NFL and win some Super Bowls.
He showed promise. He had size—about 6'2" with broad shoulders. He was athletic, also playing for the school basketball team. He could run. He was a good kid, raised to be decent and honest. (His senior year, Muleshoe beat a rival team, so Riley and some buddies graffitied the town’s water tower and lied about it when questioned—then Riley felt so bad he told everyone he did it.)
And Riley had a strong and accurate arm, with a professional, over-the-top release. He could fire sharp spirals as easily as a hunter could pull the trigger on his rifle.
But that fateful practice his sophomore year in high school—the interception by the linebacker, Riley’s angry pursuit of him—that changed everything.
The injury required surgery, which he put off until after the season, playing defense while wearing a sling.
After surgery, Riley’s overhand rifle became an awkward, side-arm heave, closer to a shot-put than a quarterback’s pass. He could throw a football better when he was 13. That’s how he played quarterback in a 3A Texas high school football division his junior and senior year—and even then he made all-state.
When he told Coach Wood that he was going to walk on at Texas Tech, Wood was honest with him: “Your arm is in no shape for big-time college football.”
Riley didn’t listen. With that blind fire it seems only the young can know, Riley convinced himself that his busted shoulder was another problem he could solve.
He walked on at Texas Tech, believing a Division I training staff and all its facilities could fix his arm and that he would be the player he believed he could be and that all his dreams would come true.
He made the team and acted as scout team quarterback his freshman season, impressing Leach with his easy grasp of concepts.
Then, late in the summer before Riley’s sophomore year, Leach called him into his office one Friday afternoon after workouts. The coach was direct and honest, too: Riley would never play for him.
There was nothing more anyone could do for his arm.
But, Leach continued, Riley could become a coach—he could be Leach’s personal assistant. His arm might be worse than when he was in middle school, but his mind for the game, Leach says now, was unlike anything he’s seen in a kid his age, maybe in anyone.
Riley argued, saying Leach had no idea what he was missing out on and that he would prove him wrong. Leach said to think about it. This wasn’t an offer most failing backup quarterbacks get.
Riley got in his truck and drove to Horseshoe Bay, where his family had a vacation cabin on Lake Lyndon B. Johnson. He spent the weekend there. “He was distraught,” Wood says.
Playing quarterback in major college football, conference championships, Super Bowls—he’d had these dreams all his life, and here life was, taking them and running the other way, like the linebacker in high school.
Why couldn’t he just let the linebacker go?
Floating around on a boat, Riley felt the full weight of his world crashing down around him. It was that inevitable, awful day every athlete fears coming far too soon, when the body can no longer do what the mind says it should.
What would have become of his life if Riley just let the linebacker go?
Riley told himself then the same thing he says now, facing this first season in this new job: This is a good opportunity to do some special things.
Riley drove back to Lubbock, found Leach and said he was ready to become a coach.
Saturday, Oklahoma played its season opener against UTEP, the Sooners’ first game with Riley as their head coach. Slide sandals be darned, Mayfield completed his first 16 passes—a Sooners record—and went 19-of-20 with three touchdowns and more than 300 yards. And he only played one half. Oklahoma won, 56-7.
This weekend, a big test: The No. 5 Sooners will visit Urban Meyer and No. 2 Ohio State.
Whatever happens, Riley will stay in the mix, in his players’ lives and on the field, dancing to their music and lining up against them, like that night not long before the season began.
Riley faced off against his receivers some two dozen times that night, a coach and his players engaging in one small act of football combat after another. That got players and coaches alike fired up. A dozen or so gathered around, their whoops and hollers echoing around the building.
Soon Riley was shaking his right arm and rubbing his shoulder. “Dang,” he said with an easy grin. “You really start to get that tinglin’ feeling after a while.”
Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes (out now from Dey Street). His writing has also appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform and more. He has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is BrandonSneed.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.