'Nothing much surprises' OU's Riley anymore

Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley cheers with his players and coaches during the game against Baylor for the Big 12 Conference championship  Dec. 7, 2019, in Arlington, Texas.

NORMAN, Okla. — When Lincoln Riley walked into the east suite above Owen Field three years ago, it was considered a peaceful, smooth transition of power.

Bob Stoops resigned as Oklahoma’s head coach and Riley was promoted in the same day. It surprised the sports world — perhaps shook it a little — but the right tools were in place for successful seasons to follow.

Since that handoff, Riley has learned to expect the unexpected.

His three-year anniversary as head coach arrived this past Sunday, three months into a worldwide pandemic. College athletes will soon be allowed compensation for their name, image and likeness. He’s helping players use their platforms responsibly to be relevant in the anti-racist dialogue taking place in America.

OU played what’s believed to be it’s first nighttime spring game in school history last season, a last-minute change due to weather. And that is small compared to the last three months.

“I think me, personally, nothing much surprises me anymore,” Riley said.

Though he had two eventual Heisman Trophy quarterbacks at his disposal at the time he took over, simultaneously, Riley had to fix a Sooner defense that was sliding. That meant dismissing defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, a painful task.

Keeping things stable in 2018, when the Sooners still managed to reach the College Football Playoff, wasn’t easy. Neither was ushering in Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts and giving him a crash course on the Air Raid offense.

Though his hire has looked seamless, Riley’s job has not been easy. The past few months have been especially difficult. Few could have imagined the circumstances when Riley became the youngest FBS head coach at 33.

“One thing I’ve found, it’s like playing golf: the second you think you’ve got it figured out, then you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment,” Riley said. “There’s just always a challenge with this.”

He has maintained the status quo at OU, winning games and producing good offenses. He’s 36-6 (.857) in three seasons and hasn’t missed a College Football Playoff yet.

Stoops stepped down because he felt like Riley was the right guy in place, and turned out to be correct.

“[Bob Stoops] certainly, of any individual person, if not the most he’s right there at No. 2 as far as being influential on me as well as [former OU athletic director] Donnie Duncan,” Riley said. “A lot of things we’ve done come from Bob.”

Riley is still grateful for the setup that was in place, he said, and has capitalized on core values learned from Stoops. If someone told him on June 7, 2017, that his era would be Bob Stoops 2.0: “I would take that as an ultimate compliment,” Riley said.

Their differences are visible. Riley is largely credited with taking OU into the new age of recruiting with a digital-minded strategy and coaching staff that has embraced social media platforms like no Sooner coach before him.

However: “I think you would have felt some of those changes whether I was the head coach or Bob was the head coach,” Riley said.

And he's still figuring things out.

“I think each year you have to challenge yourself to find ways to get better,” Riley said. “I still feel challenged each and every day, each and every year. This year’s obviously been a little different, no shortage of that right now. But yeah, I felt like I’ve grown in a lot of areas but like I’ve said many times feel like I’ve still got a ways to go.”

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Palmateer is sports editor for The Norman Transcript, a CNHI LLC publication.

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