College football's wunderkind: 12 incredible facts about Lincoln Riley's rise as a head coach
So much of Lincoln Riley’s football past is framed through a lens of what he couldn’t do. As a high school sophomore quarterback, Riley busted up his shoulder in a scrimmage and the subsequent surgery forced him to through sidearm for his hometown school in Muleshoe, Texas, well before Pat Mahomes made it cool. Riley was never quite the same thrower after the injury. A walk-on in a loaded Texas Tech quarterback room in the early 2000s and a player Tech’s inside receivers coach at the time said was “awful,” Riley was cut from the team in order to bring him back on as a student assistant.
Then-Tech head coach Mike Leach, as the story has been told and retold during Riley’s meteoric rise through the coaching ranks, wanted to keep him around.
The reason why also serves to explain what has allowed Riley to enjoy so much success so early in his career: his vision. “Riley had a brain that wouldn’t stop. He sees things once and remembers it,” his high school coach, David Wood, told ESPN for an enterprise piece on Riley in 2019. “I thought he might end up working at NASA.”
Instead, he’s the head coach at USC, tasked with restoring one of college football’s most powerful brands to prominence. Riley is a 40-under-40 guy given what he’s already accomplished in the coaching world. He’s won conference titles, coached in College Football Playoffs, ushered through multiple Heisman Trophy winners and finalists, been talked about virtually every offseason for NFL coaching opportunities, and already elevated the profile of another college football blue blood.
So, in honor of that off-kilter quarterback from Muleshoe, here are 12 facts (his high school number) about Riley’s career since.
1. A Power Five head coach at the age of 33
Riley was named to his first offensive coordinator position when he was just 26 years old. Ahead of the 2010 season, Riley moved from his previous role as an assistant on Texas Tech’s staff to become the OC at East Carolina. In 2015, he moved to the P5 level and took over as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator. In 2017, at the age of 33, he was named the head coach at Oklahoma, becoming the youngest head coach of an FBS college football program.
Today, he’s the fourth-youngest coach at a P5 school. Interestingly, three of the four hail from the Pac-12. Oregon’s Dan Lanning is the youngest at the P5 level at just 35 years old, followed by Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz (38, born in April), Washington State’s Jake Dickert (38, born in August), and Riley (38, born in September).
2. Immediate and unprecedented success
When Oklahoma won 12 games Riley’s first year in charge, it didn’t just earn the new head coach a Big 12 championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff—which seem like plenty in a first year—but it also earned Riley a bit of history.
With a 12-2 record, Riley became just the fifth head coach in Bowl Subdivision history to enter without any prior head coaching experience and win at least 12 games at a four-year college in their debut season.
Riley followed that up with two more 12-2 seasons in 2018 and 2019, a 9-2 campaign in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, and an 11-2 mark in 2021. As Oklahoma claimed Big 12 titles in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, Riley became the first coach in FBS history to win outright conference titles in each of their first four seasons as a head coach.
3. Winning is contagious
In each of his first five seasons as a head coach, Riley hasn’t lost more than two games at any point. He is the only active FBS head coach who can say that. (Ohio State’s Ryan Day is 38-4 in three full seasons, so he’s TBD.) Among active head coaches with at least five years experience at the FBS level, only Jimbo Fisher (then at Florida State) produced more wins in his first five seasons than Riley did. Fisher won 58 to Riley’s 55 through his first five seasons, but even he had two seasons to start off his tenure with four losses each.
Nick Saban went 34-24-1 in his first five seasons as a head coach. Chip Kelly went 49-16 in his first five college seasons. Stanford’s David Shaw had a five-loss season and a three-loss season in his first five years. Even Kirby Smart at Georgia had multiple seasons in his first five years on the job with more than two losses.
The knock on Riley has been that he won with someone else’s talent, or that he inherited a Ferrari and all he had to do was not crash it. There’s some truth to that. Riley’s predecessor at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops, left the program in strong shape. Riley is 55-10 in his first five seasons as an FBS coach, though, with all five years coming at the P5 level. That’s not nothing.
He’s one of only 12 FBS coaches in college football history to go through his first five years as a coach without losing more than two games in a single season. The rest of the list: Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Fielding Yost, Barry Switzer, Bud Wilkinson, Bob Neyland, Frank Thomas, Henry Williams, Gil Dobie, Dan McGugin, Jumbo Stiehm, and John Wilce.
Pretty good list to be on.
4. Riley against his peers
Riley has faced 31 other head coaches in five years. He has a winning record against 26 of them. He’s 1-1 against Dave Aranda. He’s 1-2 against Kansas State’s Chris Klieman. He’s 0-1 against Kirby Smart, Nick Saban, and Ed Orgeron. Riley has only lost to five coaches in the regular season: Matt Campbell, Tom Herman, Dave Aranda, Mike Gundy, and Chris Klieman.
He has faced 16 coaches multiple times. He has a winning record against 14 of them. Only two coaches have beaten Riley more than once: Matt Campbell at Iowa State and Chris Klieman at Kansas State.
Against coaches who have at least 100 career wins, Riley is 16-2.
5. Riley against top teams
In just his second game as a head man, Riley had to lead his team to Columbus, Ohio, to battle the Ohio State Buckeyes. Urban Meyer, then the coach, had a team that was coming off an embarrassing loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal the year prior and was hopeful to start the new year on the front foot. Instead, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield was planting a flag at midfield after the Sooners dispatched the second-ranked Buckeyes 31-16. Riley’s offense was infallible in the second half. The passing game torched an Ohio State secondary littered with future NFL players.
That was Riley’s first big-game test, and he’s been strong ever since.
Against the AP Top 25, Riley holds a 16-6 record.
For reference, USC is 6-11 over the same time frame. (To get to 16 wins over ranked teams, you would have to count all the way back to 2012. USC is 16-21 in games since.)
6. Driven by offensive excellence
Over the last five years, FBS teams have averaged 29.0 points per game.
During that time, Riley’s offense at Oklahoma has averaged 43.6 points per game. No FBS program has averaged more.
He’s enjoyed season averages at or above 40 points in four of his five years as a head coach. (Riley’s group averaged 39.1 points a game in 2021.) His team has been one of only six FBS programs to have multiple seasons with a 40-points-per-game average over the same timeframe, and one of only three to do it at least four times.
And if the knock on Riley’s offense is that he did it against Big 12 competition, logic would dictate other Big 12 schools would have similarly potent offenses. Six of the Big 12’s other nine programs averaged 30 points a game or less over the same five-year period. The second-highest-scoring offense in the league averaged eight points fewer than Riley’s offense. Sure, Riley hasn’t been facing elite defenses week in and week out for his career (though they played six top-50 and four top-25 scoring defenses last season), but…
7. He’s done it against strong defenses all the same
During the regular season, Oklahoma has played one more game against a top-50 defense in the last five years than Alabama. In those games (61 total), Riley has faced 24 teams that closed their respective seasons top-50 in scoring defense. Alabama has seen 23 such defenses in the same number of games. Which isn’t to necessarily knock the quality of competition Alabama faces, just to highlight the fact conventional wisdom—“Riley has done more against lesser competition”—isn’t completely accurate.
Ohio State, the only other team that has averaged 40 a game in the last five years, plays in the league most assume is home to college football’s best defenses from top to bottom. That narrative is particularly true of Big Ten East teams. And yet the Buckeyes have only faced three more top-50 defenses in a combined five years than what Riley has in the regular season.
In 65 career games as a head coach, Riley’s offenses have been held under that 29-points-per-game average only nine times.
8. He’s also done it with constant change at the most important spot
Lincoln Riley has never had a quarterback lead his team in pass attempts two years in a row.
In 2017, Riley’s offense was led by Baker Mayfield. In 2018, it was Kyler Murray at the controls. In 2019, it was Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts running the show. In 2020, the offense was turned over to freshman phenom Spencer Rattler. In 2021, Rattler was replaced by Caleb Williams.
At the most important spot on the field, Riley has coached with zero continuity. And the quarterbacks he has mentored have had markedly different skillsets. Mayfield was a classic and fearless gunslinger, looking to push the ball downfield with confidence in his receivers. Murray was undersized and electric as a runner in space, with quickness in everything his defining characteristic and a better ability to read the field in front of him than Mayfield. Hurts was an extremely limited passer and required Riley to restructure his attack, but he had a championship pedigree and a grittiness about him. Then Rattler took over and Riley had a quarterback who threw the ball with ease and the flick of a wrist but possessed virtually zero experience at the college level. Rattler wasn’t playing horribly when he was replaced by Williams last season, but the latter injected an explosiveness into the OU offense that wasn’t there with Rattler.
“He’s given the NFL the vision that these quarterbacks can be successful maybe at a smaller size than before,” QB coach Quincy Avery told The Ringer in 2019. “It used to be such a condensed game, and no one thought you could take these Air Raid philosophies and apply them to NFL quarterbacks. But Riley’s incorporated pro reads and pro concepts.”
9. His quarterbacks have still done pretty well
Mayfield won a Heisman Trophy in 2017 after throwing for 4,627 yards and 43 touchdowns in Riley’s offense. He finished second nationally that season in passing yards and passing touchdowns while leading the country in completion rate (70.5%) and yards per play (11.5).
Murray won a Heisman Trophy in 2018 after throwing for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns. He finished third nationally that season in passing yards and passing touchdowns while leading the country in yards per play (11.6).
The duo became the first pair of quarterbacks in college football history to win a Heisman Trophy in back-to-back seasons at the same school. Riley is only the sixth coach in college football history to coach Heisman Trophy winners in back-to-back seasons.
Ducky Pond led Yale’s Larry Kelley (defensive end) and Clint Frank to Heismans in 1936 and 1937. Red Blaik led Army’s Doc Blanchard (fullback) and Glenn Davis (halfback) to Heismans in 1945 and 1946. Woody Hayes coached Archie Griffin (halfback) to back-to-back wins in 1974 and 1975. Pete Carroll coached Matt Leinart (quarterback) and Reggie Bush (halfback) to Heismans in 2004 and 2005 and no matter what the NCAA says Reggie deserves that Heisman. Then Nick Saban coached DeVonta Smith and Bryce Young to Heisman wins in 2020 and 2021.
Two different quarterbacks in back-to-back years. That feels special.
But Riley has also seen two other players he’s coached end as Heisman finalists as well. Jalen Hurts finished a distant second in voting in 2019 to LSU’s Joe Burrow. Any other year and maybe Hurts has a shot. When Riley was the offensive coordinator for the Sooners in 2016, wideout Dede Westbrook finished fourth in voting after posting 80 catches for 1,524 yards and 17 touchdowns.
10. Riley’s offense isn’t just about featuring the quarterback, though
A run-leaning Air Raid attack is a bit of an oxymoron, and yet it’s the way Riley’s system is designed to operate.
In 2015, when Riley was coordinating the Oklahoma offense, his group scored just 17 points during an Oct. 10 loss at the Cotton Bowl to Texas. Oklahoma ran the ball 37 times that day. It was at 33 the week prior and 33 in the opener. The following week, the Sooners demolished Kansas State 55-0 on the road. In each of the next two weeks, OU lit up the scoreboard for 125 combined points. What changed? Riley decided it was time to fully lean on his ground game.
Against K-State, OU ran it 52 times for 232 rushing yards and threw it 32 times. Against Texas Tech the following week, one OU back ran for 201 yards and four scores on 23 carries and another back ran for 154 yards and two scores on 16 carries. A week later, a third OU back topped 100 yards on the ground.
Riley’s coaching mentor, Mike Leach, left Texas Tech in 2009 and didn’t return to college football until 2012 with the Washington State Cougars. In 2020, he left Pullman to become the head coach at Washington State. Eleven seasons, three different schools, and a passing attack that led the country in attempts per game nine times out of 11. In every year, Leach’s offenses averaged more than 50 pass attempts a game. In the two seasons his teams weren’t No. 1, they were No. 2 (2009) and No. 3 (2016).
That was the coaching environment Riley was raised in. And yet as a head coach, he has run rates at or above 51% in four of his five seasons—52% (2017), 54% (2018), 56% (2019), and 51% (2020). Riley’s style is uniquely his own.
11. A new-age recruiter
In 2010, Oklahoma signed the fifth-best class in the country, per the 247 Composite. It wouldn’t crack the top-10 again until the 2017 class, which finished eighth. The 2018 class ranked ninth nationally. The 2019 class ranked sixth nationally. The 2021 class, featuring Caleb Williams and Mario Williams, two players who have since followed Riley from Oklahoma to USC, ranked 10th. Riley was in the running for another top-10 class during the 2022 cycle had he stayed where he was, and at the time of his departure, he had the top-ranked class for the 2023 cycle. If you factor transfer commitments into the calculus for the 2022 group, Riley signed another top-10 class in his first cycle with the Trojans.
The “worst” recruiting class Riley has put together as a head coach ranked 13th nationally.
12. A small, but eclectic club
In 2015, Riley won the Frank Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the country. A relatively new honor in college football, the Broyles Award was first given out in 1996. In the years since, eight guys have won the distinction and then gone on to win either a conference or national Coach of the Year honor as a head coach—David Cutcliffe, Ralph Friedgen, Mark Mangino, Gene Chizik, Kirby Smart, Gus Malzahn, Tom Herman, and Riley.
If the Broyles Award was having an “alumni dinner,” that’s the table you’d want to sit at.