It's been 222 months since the Oklahoma football program has had a head coach not named Bob Stoops. OU's all-time wins leader shocked the sports world last Wednesday when he announced he was retiring after an illustrious 18-year career that produced 10 Big 12 Conference championships, 37 first-team All-Americans, 83 NFL Draft picks, a 101-9 (.918) home record and a national title.
Stoops' replacement is 33-year-old Lincoln Riley, an offensive mastermind from the West Texas town of Muleshoe (population 4,975) who spent the last two seasons as OU's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Winner of the 2015 Frank Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant, Riley is the youngest head man among FBS programs, and his life has been a whirlwind since being named OU's 22nd head coach.
Somewhere among throngs of recruiting calls, on-campus recruiting visits, countless media interviews and player and staff meetings, Riley took time to knock out the following two-part Q&A that hits on a wide variety of topics.
Q: How would you describe your first several days as head coach?
A: They've been exciting, fun; a lot of new challenges. It seems like a million things are coming at you, but in an exciting way. All of it's been fun; the new responsibilities, the connecting with so many different people and seeing the impact you can have. It's been a lot, but I've really enjoyed it.
When did you first have a sense that Coach Stoops might actually retire and what was the process like for you leading up to your announcement as head coach on Wednesday?
It was not really long before. We had a lot of talks in the last two years about my preparation as a head coach, and he'd taken a lot of time to spend with me on that. But as far as when did I think it might be a possibility here right now? I don't know, roughly a week before it happened. Just a kind of conversation where you thought, ‘Well, maybe,' but certainly not sold on it by any stretch. But then the conversations got a little bit deeper and you could tell he was a little bit more serious about it. Then probably about a day before I knew it was pretty serious.
Once you found out Coach Stoops made up his mind to retire, were you surprised at how fast the rest of the process went for you?
Yeah, it went by fast. A lot of people always told me that if and when it happens, when it goes it goes. And it certainly did. I was in Joe Castiglione's office around 11 a.m. and we're having a team meeting to tell the players around 2:30 or whenever, and then we were having a press conference at 5:30. I mean within a span of six hours I went from finding out what was happening and that I was getting the job to talking to the team to having a press conference. And then I talked to about 20 or 30 recruits. So yeah, it's pretty amazing how much transpired in a short amount of time.
What was your message to the players when you first addressed them that day?
Just that I understand they were a little unsettled in the beginning like anyone would have been. They were emotional about Coach because he's been their head coach and brought in all of those guys. I told them what they could expect from me. I told them that I understood that I wasn't the head coach they decided to come here to play for and that I didn't feel like that should be forced upon them. If they want to trust me to be their head coach, that's their decision. That's not my right; I've got to earn that. So we had a good talk about it, kind of opened the air a little bit. It was great to just be me and the team and nobody else. I think that was really fitting. And their response and the way they handled it, I couldn't have been more proud of them.
What are your top couple of football priorities now that you're the head coach? What are you focusing on right now?
The main thing in the very beginning was the players. Everything I've tried to do in the beginning has revolved around what's best for them. And that'll never change. That's been a huge priority. The recruiting portion has also been an important priority, to connect with the commits and the guys we'd already been getting to know. That's been a lot of fun talking to them in this new role. And then I would say the staff; getting them all going in the direction we want to go, which in a lot of ways is very similar to what we've been doing. There have been a few changes and I'm sure there will continue to be a few. But just making sure they were all in alignment with what we wanted and understood the direction we wanted to go. When you've got great people like we do, all you have to do is give them direction and turn them loose to work. They've done a great job so far.
Speaking of recruiting, how do you view that aspect of your new job and in what areas of the country will you focus?
It's always been important to me and I've always enjoyed it. That's building your team right at the core. I've always enjoyed getting to the different places, meeting the different people; especially getting to have those special types of relationships with the parents and players. And it's honestly more fun when you've got an incredible product to sell and when you've got a great place to show these kids. I enjoy it and it will be a big part of what we do every day here.
We have an interesting recruiting model, because Oklahoma is a national brand. We get recruiting interest from players in just about every state of the country, and from some out of the country, too. We'll always focus first on the state of Oklahoma and then heavily in the state of Texas and in some of the neighboring states. But we know we're a national brand and you've seen over the last few years we've signed several kids from the East Coast and have always had a strong presence on the West Coast. And don't forget we got big Neville (Gallimore) from up there in Canada. So if great players and great people and great students have interest but are a little farther away, we're willing to go after them if we feel like they're the right ones.
What do you foresee as the biggest challenges you'll face as head coach that maybe you didn't have to worry about as offensive coordinator?
I think time management is going to be more key. I've got (administrative assistant) Julie (Watson) and everybody here to help me with that. Just managing my time and making sure I'm making the absolute most out of all of it is important because there are so many different responsibilities. And I think I have to do a great job of delegating, trusting people to do their jobs and to potentially take on more responsibilities than they've had before. I've got to be able to clearly define what we need done, and I've got to let them do their jobs.
At 33, you're the youngest FBS head coach. What does that say about you? And is age just a number?
I do agree with that adage. I do think it's about your experiences, who you've worked with and the things you've learned and taken in. And it's about your opportunities and making the most of them. A lot of people ask that question. If we're successful here it's not going to be because I was young or I was old. It's going to be because I was the right person for it. That's the way I try to look at it.
You said you're confident in your ability to serve in this role. From where does that confidence stem?
Here, first and foremost it stems from the people I'm around; the players and the entire staff. Knowing I've got people who have my back and they know I have theirs. We've got great leadership on this team and great players, a staff that's very loyal, very driven and ready to go to work.
If I got it from my experiences, the people who have helped shape me and guide me and mentor me. And then I've just always kind of felt that way. I've always worked hard and have never felt a false sense of confidence. It's always felt real. So I think just a combination of all those things.
What's your timetable for filling the opening on the coaching staff and what qualities are you looking for in that hire?
No exact timetable just because it is a unique time (of the year to hire someone). But the No. 1 thing I'm looking for is just somebody I can trust and somebody I feel like is going to fit in with what we've got going on here. Someone who fits in with our program, our state, our players and our staff, and who will bring great chemistry. And you're always looking for people you think will add something to greatly benefit the program. Honestly at this point right now I think that's more important than, ‘Well, we want this person just because they can coach this position.' To me that's only part of it, especially considering the timing.
What was your childhood like and what values did your parents instill that you carry with you today?
I had a great childhood, a great family. Grew up in a small West Texas town, kind of a very tight-knit town and a very tight-knit family. Yeah, I was taught a lot of things: honesty, integrity, the value of working hard, humility. Those were definitely a part of my background and were certainly things that were important to my parents and that they tried to instill in us. I wouldn't trade growing up in a small town like that for anything because I think it shaped me a lot, and a lot of my core beliefs started there.
How do you describe Muleshoe and what do you love about it?
The closeness of the community, the support and how everyone was kind of together. That was very evident, especially my later years in high school. It was a big sports town, a big football town. It was kind of like you see on “Friday Night Lights.” When we played out of town, everybody went (to the games) and nobody was left in town. It showed you what can happen when you have the power of everybody pushing in one direction. So yeah – good people, a great place to live. I still have a lot of family there and try to get back when I can.
How did you meet your wife, Caitlin?
We got to know each other a little bit in high school. She lived in another small town called Dimmitt about 45 minutes away. They were a rival athletics wise. Just because of proximity we kind of knew about each other through sports. Her granddad was a legendary high school basketball coach and her family was pretty well known in that area. I remember meeting her a few times in high school at basketball games and football games. Then we ended up connecting in college at Texas Tech, started dating there and she hasn't gotten rid of me yet.
Who's more excited about you being the head coach at OU – you or her?
We both are. It's always been a team effort the whole way through; it's got to be in this business. To me, it'd be tough to do it without a great partner. We've tried to enjoy it every step of the way, and she's certainly a big part of everything I do.