Meet Lincoln Riley, Fast-Rising Mastermind of East Carolina's High-Octane Attack

Viv Bernstein@@viv_bernsteinSpecial to Bleacher ReportJanuary 2, 2015

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Editor's Note: According to ESPN, Lincoln Riley has been hired to be Offensive Coordinator for the Oklahoma Sooners.  GREENVILLE, N.C. — A six-inch surgical scar offers a permanent reminder of the helmet that smashed into Lincoln Riley’s right shoulder when he was a high school quarterback in a rustic, remote place called Muleshoe, a Friday Night Lights kind of football town in the west Texas panhandle.

Riley once thought he could be a big-time college quarterback. And who knows, had it all worked out just right, he might already be the most famous person to come out of Muleshoe since Lee Horsley, an actor who starred in the TV series Matt Houston in the 1980s.

But Riley said he wasn’t quite the same quarterback after that hit, and the major football programs never did come calling with scholarship offers. He passed on what he considered lesser opportunities in the Ivy League and elsewhere and instead took his diminished talents to Lubbock, about an hour southeast of Muleshoe, hoping to make the Texas Tech roster as a walk-on in 2002. Riley wanted to coach high school football someday and was intrigued by Mike Leach’s high-scoring spread offense.

Unfortunately for Riley, Leach was less than intrigued with the quarterback.

"He threw it sidearm, and he couldn’t throw it very far," Leach said of Riley, "sort of pushed the ball, and so I wasn’t interested in playing him at quarterback."

But Leach certainly recognized talent when he saw it: coaching talent. He was impressed that Riley had learned the entire playbook in a few days. So Leach did Riley a favor: He cut him from the team in spring practice before Riley ever played a competitive down of college football.

And then Leach gave Riley the break of his life.

Mike Leach spotted Riley's coaching talent early on at Texas Tech.
Mike Leach spotted Riley's coaching talent early on at Texas Tech.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Leach offered a job assisting him on the coaching staff. Riley actually had to think about it before accepting—he thought Leach would give him at least a shot to compete as a third-stringer. But Riley came to his senses quickly enough and took the first step on a path that has led him to become one of the top young college coaching prospects in the country.

If you follow the SEC, you may already know Riley was on the short list of contenders to become the next offensive coordinator at Kentucky before West Virginia’s Shannon Dawson was hired. But if you don’t know Riley’s name yet, maybe you have heard of the high-powered offense he runs at East Carolina (8-4).

That’s the team ranked No. 3 in the country in passing at 367 yards per game and tied for fifth in total offense (533 yards per game) going into the Birmingham Bowl on Saturday against Florida’s ninth-ranked defense.

This will be a showcase game for East Carolina and the supposedly lesser American Athletic Conference against a once-storied SEC opponent. And a showcase for Riley, 31, the offensive coordinator and mastermind of East Carolina’s potent spread offense.

How potent? Ask North Carolina. Well, maybe you better not. East Carolina humiliated the Tar Heels, piling up 789 yards of offense in a 70-41 victory on Sept. 20.

No, those aren’t typos. The only team to produce more yards in a game all season was Washington State, which collected 812 against California. The coach at Washington State? Leach, Riley’s mentor, who has been running the spread offense for years.

It’s the kind of head-turning production that gets an offensive coordinator noticed. His connection to Leach and the spread offense doesn’t hurt, either.

East Carolina features a dangerous spread attack under offensive coordinator Riley.
East Carolina features a dangerous spread attack under offensive coordinator Riley.Courtesy of East Carolina athletics department

“Lincoln certainly has the pedigree, wrote one Power Five athletic director who was asked about Riley’s emergence as a coaching prospect.

By now, it isn’t a question of whether Riley will get a chance to move up to a Power Five conference and eventually into a head coaching job. It seems only a matter of when and where.

A year ago, Riley’s name reportedly came up in job searches at Texas, Notre Dame and North Carolina. This year, it was Kentucky.

“I like Lincoln, said ESPN analyst Anthony Becht, who worked two East Carolina games this season, including the North Carolina blowout. “I think he’s done an outstanding job.

“I think it suits him well right now to be an offensive coordinator, and I think he’s a good enough play-caller where he could go anywhere and be productive at being an offensive coordinator. … And if you can grow, get that experience, maybe one day become a head coach.”

Riley knows that is where he is headed. But he is also careful.

“I told myself that if I’m lucky enough to get opportunities, I don’t want to jump at the first one, he said in mid-December as he sat in his small office next to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on the East Carolina campus. “It’s not a deal where I’m looking to leave. If there’s something that’s life-changing, there’s something you’ve got to look at.”

To understand why he is going places, you have to understand where Riley began.

Riley and East Carolina face Florida in the Birmingham Bowl.
Riley and East Carolina face Florida in the Birmingham Bowl.Courtesty of East Carolina athletics department

“He was like, literally, my right-hand guy, said Leach, who remains a close adviser to Riley. “He was in all of my meetings. He and I together would watch and break down film. Even though he was a young guy, he was smart and insightful. We’d watch film, we’d break down opponents, put the script together, put practice together, the whole thing. He’s just a brilliant guy. And still is. He’s one of those guys who will think of stuff before you think of it.”

When a position came open on the Texas Tech staff, Leach hired Riley as a receivers coach—raising more than a few eyebrows around Lubbock.

Riley was just 23 years old at the time.

“He was probably the youngest full-time coach in America at the time—if not, then one of them, Leach said. “And everybody’s like, ‘Well, what are you doing?’”

Leach calls it one of the best hires he has ever made. And Riley had to be thinking pretty highly of himself, too, after the start he had with the Red Raiders. His star receiver, Michael Crabtree, opened his career with 17 touchdown receptions in his first six games as a freshman.

“And I’m just sitting there thinking, all these guys think this is hard; this is easy, Riley said with a laugh. “My guy’s catching three touchdowns every game. I’m the greatest receivers coach who ever walked on the planet.”

That was until Crabtree challenged the young assistant one day late that season before a game at Baylor. Riley said Crabtree had broken a relatively minor team rule, and as punishment he ordered Crabtree to roll around in a sandpit at the training facility. No sweaty football player in full pads likes to roll around in sand.

Including Crabtree.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to roll in the sand,’ Riley recalled. “And I fired back at him with probably a couple of choice words and said, ‘Yes you are.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ I said, ‘Well, fine, if you don’t roll in the sand, you’re not playing. We’re not taking you to Waco.’ He said, ‘Fine.’”

Michael Crabtree was Lincoln Riley's most prominent pupil at Texas Tech.
Michael Crabtree was Lincoln Riley's most prominent pupil at Texas Tech.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Riley stormed off the field and went back to his office. Then he peeked out his window and looked over at the sandpit. There was Crabtree, rolling around.

“It showed you’ve got to—especially with guys like that, especially me being a young coach at the time—they’ve got to know where the line is, and you’ve got to defend that line, Riley said.

Crabtree won his first of two Biletnikoff awards as the top college receiver that season, while Riley began to establish himself as one of the top offensive minds on the team.

“He was just years ahead as far as his ability to be a coach, Leach said. “He was kind of a natural that way.

“He was an honest guy with great integrity and in this business there’s a snake or two slithering around. He was just very smart, clear-minded, great at communicating with players.”

Leach wasn’t the only one who noticed the potential of the young coach. In December, 2009, Leach faced national criticism for his handling of an injured player and was fired shortly before Texas Tech was to face Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl. Ruffin McNeill, the Texas Tech defensive coordinator at the time, was made interim head coach for the game.

With Leach gone, McNeill needed someone to call plays during the bowl game. He made Riley, all of 26 years old, his offensive coordinator.

“I like guys who came up through the ranks, cause they understand the how and the whats and (are) not afraid to get elbows and knees dirty, McNeill said. “Then I watched how he performed, how he worked. When he became a full-time coach, I recruited with him a lot, so I knew how he worked there. During the bowl practices, a lot of times if Mike was not there, Linc would call (plays) in practice.

“So when I found out that day, it was no hesitation it was going to be Lincoln.”

After Texas Tech won the game 41-31, McNeill interviewed for the head coaching job. His plan was to make Riley the offensive coordinator. But Texas Tech instead hired Tommy Tuberville. McNeill and Riley were suddenly jobless and about to go their separate ways.

That was until East Carolina, McNeill’s alma mater, offered him the head coaching position. Among the first calls he made was to Riley.

Lincoln Riley followed Ruffin McNeill from Texas Tech to East Carolina.
Lincoln Riley followed Ruffin McNeill from Texas Tech to East Carolina.Courtesy of East Carolina athletics department

“Are you coming?” McNeill asked.

Here’s how little Riley knew about the Pirates when he said yes: “I didn’t even know at the time what city East Carolina was in, he said.

It didn’t matter. At 26, Riley was an offensive coordinator at an FBS program.

“Age has never been a problem for me, McNeill, 56, said. “I’m old enough for everyone.”

It wasn’t age that had Dwayne Harris looking sideways at his new OC when they first met in 2010. Harris was a receiver at East Carolina and already a pro prospect. He didn’t know a whole lot about the guy who would run the offense in his senior season.

"When I first met Linc, I was like, 'Is this the guy who’s going to be calling the plays?'" Harris recalled. "What does he know about football? I’m like, 'Has this guy ever played football before?' Looking at Linc, he’s real skinny, looks like he’s really uncoordinated, looks like he doesn’t know how to do anything. But he’s smart, though. That was one thing. He’s real smart when it comes to calling plays."

Under Riley’s spread offense, Harris set team records with 101 receptions and 1,123 yards receiving that season. When he was done, Harris was drafted in the sixth round by the Dallas Cowboys. He is now a return specialist.

Justin Hardy, a hidden gem, has flourished in Riley's offense.
Justin Hardy, a hidden gem, has flourished in Riley's offense.USA TODAY Sports

Both of those records have since been broken at East Carolina by Justin Hardy, a receiver who, along with senior quarterback Shane Carden, have come to exemplify what Riley has built at East Carolina. Hardy was an overlooked prospect from nearby Vanceboro, North Carolina, who had no Division I offers to play despite a massive pair of hands and impressive game tape that was somehow ignored by the top programs in the state.

"That was my taste of (how) the recruiting out here is different," Riley said. "It’s not saturated; there’s definitely more hidden gems. If you do your homework, you will find some people that other people have missed or not even seen. That was my first taste of that. If Justin Hardy with his tape was in Dallas-Fort Worth, he has 20 offers. In North Carolina, he had zero."

Without even a scholarship to offer, Riley convinced Hardy to walk on as a freshman. And then he gave Hardy some advice.

He told Hardy to be like Mike—Crabtree, that is.

"I watched a lot of film on Crabtree when [Riley] first got here, learned the things he did," Hardy said. "Just seeing what he did, why he was so successful at Texas Tech and try to carry it over here."

Hardy earned a scholarship the following year and now owns just about every receiving record at ECU. Against Tulane earlier this season, Hardy passed Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles to become the all-time leading receiver among FBS programs. Hardy goes into his final game for the Pirates with 376 receptions for 4,381 yards.

Carden, a Houston product who was ignored by major Division I programs, has set the ECU single-season and career records for most passing yards with 11,564. He also has a school-record 84 touchdown passes.

Riley and Carden steer an offense ranked among the nation's best.
Riley and Carden steer an offense ranked among the nation's best.Courtesy of East Carolina athletics department

On the way to rewriting all of those records at East Carolina, Riley’s offense has helped raise the profile of a program that is perennially overshadowed by the ACC behemoths that dominate the sports landscape in North Carolina.

Among the milestones along the way: A 55-31 victory at North Carolina in 2013, a 28-21 win at then-No. 17 Virginia Tech this past September and that 70-41 shellacking of the Tar Heels a week after beating the Hokies.

The Pirates were ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2008, rising as high as No. 18 in October before falling out in the second half of the season.

The Birmingham Bowl will offer one more chance to add to the East Carolina record books for Carden, Hardy and Riley. After that? Hardy—the prospect nobody else wanted—is likely to go in the second or third round of the NFL draft. Carden is a third- or fourth-round prospect.

That leaves Riley. How soon before he follows the others out the door and into the spotlight as a head coach or offensive coordinator at a more high-profile program? He isn’t saying.

"I want to be a head coach one day, but I don’t know if I’m necessarily in a hurry to be one," he said. "That’s a career goal for me at some point. The key is—the thing that’s been stressed to me—making the right move is important, but avoiding making the wrong move, that’s the biggest thing.

“And making sure that if I move on at some point, that it’s in a situation that’s as good as I’ve had here.”


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