Oklahoma football replaced longtime head coach Bob Stoops in June with 33-year-old Lincoln Riley. He instantly became the youngest coach in the FBS.
Don’t tell his players that.
“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 said in a phone interview. “I have the utmost confidence for him in his maturity level.”
He is not alone. Stoops mentioned in his final press conference that having Riley in place made his decision to retire much easier. Athletic director Joe Castiglione expressed the utmost confidence in his abilities.
It’s a meteoric rise for a man who was a student assistant at Texas Tech barely more than a decade ago.
Oklahoma hired Riley in 2015 from East Carolina. The results were instantaneous. OU went from 8-5 to the College Football Playoff in one season, largely spurred by the improvements on offense.
The Sooners improved from 464.7 yards and 36.4 points per game in 2014 to 530.2 yards and 43.5 points per game in 2015. More importantly, Riley’s maturity was immediate as the future of the program.
But regardless, going from the most iconic coach in Big 12 history to a coach with two years of Power Five experience as a coordinator requires a leap of faith.
“You can hear it in the way he talks,” Thomas said. “There are things around him that you can just feel, that make you know he’s the man for the job.
“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.”
The biggest difference between Stoops and Riley after a month has been the level of team input. Riley has been willing to listing to his players.
“He’s been really hearing what we want, what changes we want to make to better the team,” defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said. “He’s been really open.”
Riley also created a player panel to get feedback from the roster. He includes a couple of veterans, but also tries to rotate as many players as possible at different times.
“It makes it feel like more of all of our team instead of just a coaches’ team, where they just do what they think is best,” Thomas said. “We have a coach who wants to get some input from us and do the best that he can to implement it.”
With 16 starters returning, the Sooners have plenty of experience on the roster. It was an ideal time to get feedback from a bevy of standout players.
Riley has a major tradition to continue at Oklahoma. The program went 11-2 each of the last two seasons. Stoops won 10 Big 12 championships and lost only nine home games during an 18-year career. It won’t be easy as the Sooners travel to Ohio State on Sept. 9 after a 45-24 home loss to the Buckeyes last season.
“We’re trying to keep things running as smooth as possible,” Okoronkwo said. “He’s a great coach, he’s a great motivator and we’re ready to play for him. His age and experience doesn’t make a difference.”