By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Managing Editor
In his first two years as head coach at Oklahoma University, Lincoln Riley has led the Sooners to their 11th and 12th Big 12 titles and a pair of College Football Playoff berths. He was also named the 2018 Co-Big 12 Coach of the Year.
Riley recently joined FNF Coaches for an exclusive interview.
You were a walk-on quarterback at Texas Tech in 2003 before becoming a student-coach on Mike Leach’s staff. Did you always dream of being a coach during your playing career?
“No, I think like most kids, I dreamed of playing in the NFL and felt I could play football forever. As it got toward the end of my career, I thought I’d have an interest in coaching. Once I was done, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything that outside of the game of football. I found myself in a great situation where I could learn about the college game, recruiting, and all that goes into this.”
You’ve been the play-caller for the highest-scoring offense in college football since 2015. How did you develop that ability? Does it come easy to you?
“Oh man, it’s definitely not easy. There’s no part of this that’s easy. First, I’ll say I’ve been lucky to have been around and learn from a lot of great coaches and people. We’ve had a lot of good minds in the room and good people who are all on the same page. I can’t begin to explain how critical that is to success. It’s never one person, it certainly hasn’t been here. It takes good players, and I’ve had a lot of good players. We’ve always had a clear picture in mind of what we wanted to do offensively. We haven’t gotten too far outside of our beliefs. But we have had the creativity and flexibility to adapt to the talent we have each year when teams try to stop us. We always have a clear vision of who we are and what we want to do.”
What is your process for putting together a game plan?
“It’s a very similar process each week. We tend to look at our team first, look at the things we feel we can do well. If you don’t have a grasp of what you can and can’t do, game-planning is a waste. Once we have a beat on that, game-planning starts very broad. We’ll watch games and cut-ups of the other team to get a feel for who they are. Then we’ll look for situations when we might be able to attack. It’s important to empower all of the coaches in the room. If you hire the right people and get the right people in the room, you can split up responsibility for game-planning and opponent evaluation. Then, we get the ideas flowing. At some point, we do have one central voice. But we want to use all of the talent we have in the coaches’ room just like we want to use all of the talent we have on the field.”
So many coaches want to play fast now. What advice would you give a coach who is trying to find ways to call plays more efficiently?
“The best thing we’ve always found is to reevaluate ourselves each year. Find things that slow you down and are unnecessary and eliminate them. It’s amazing how many times we’ll go back on a play call or protection call or adjustment and find a word that’s unused or a signal we can do without. Those little things add up when you’re trying to make things faster and more efficient. My advice is to keep trimming the fat.”
You’ve had back-to-back Heisman winners, so you know something about managing star players. How do you prevent star players from getting inflated egos?
“It’s about the culture you create within the program. If you allow guys to do that, then it’s going to happen. We want guys to have individual goals. We want them to have aspirations of winning individual awards, becoming draft picks, all that. But it has to happen within the team concept.”
Is there any technology that you’ve discovered in the last couple of years that you couldn’t live without?
“One tool we’ve used that’s been really beneficial to us is the telestrator screen. It’s no different from what you see on TV. In meetings, it’s another way to be able to quickly and easily make a point.”
This month’s edition focuses on the relationship between coaches and officials. What is your approach to officials?
“It’s not an easy job with all of the rule changes in the last several years. That’s made their jobs much harder. For me, it’s never personal. I’ve yelled at officials, and they’ve yelled at me. We make mistakes as coaches, and they make mistakes as officials.”
Have you discovered any team-building activities that have helped your players develop camaraderie?
“For us, what’s awesome is spending time together without our phones in hand. Everyone’s engaged. We give them opportunities to create moments when they can be together without phones or distractions, situations where all they have is each other.”
AGE IS JUST A NUMBER
The Football Bowl Subdivision’s youngest head coach (33) at the time of his hiring, Riley holds the OU record for most wins (24-4 record) by a head coach in his first two seasons. No one has won more games in his first two seasons as a college head coach since 1892 and ’93.
“It’s never been something that’s bothered me that much,” Riley said of managing more experienced staff members. “In previous years, when I got asked about my age, that was really the only time I thought about it.”
Riley caught the eye of former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops during a five-year stint as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at East Carolina from 2010-14.
“My focus was always to do the best job I could do for that team, whether it was as a graduate assistant, position coach or offensive coordinator. I wanted to be prepared and do the best job I could do. Through that hard work and preparation, I gained confidence that I could do the job. If you believe in yourself and what you’re putting in front of the guys, they’ll believe it too. You also have to understand the other coaches in the room with you are darn good coaches. One of the great ways to manage a room and make it as efficient as possible is to give guys responsibility, listen and give feedback.”