Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley has shined in his first year as a head coach, leading the Sooners to a Big 12 title game and potentially a spot in the College Football Playoff. Part of Riley's success can be attributed to his ability to keep his team focused despite the distractions surrounding them.
From facing the fallout of senior quarterback Baker Mayfield's crotch grab in the game against Kansas to trying to keep his team focused ahead of their final regular season game, Riley has faced arguably the hardest week of his head coaching career. And he's managed it in impressive fashion.
From the moment Riley stepped off the field in Lawrence, Kansas, and discovered what Mayfield had done to the moment he put his quarterback in the game against West Virginia, he acted decisively.
Riley and Mayfield led the Sooners to a 59-31 win over West Virginia Saturday night, but it was much more than a game. For the first time in three years, Mayfield didn't start. He wasn't a captain. On senior day, Riley enforced the punishment Mayfield had to face for his behavior against Kansas.
"Our guys handled that well," Riley said of the buzz surrounding Mayfield's actions. "Our players handled it well. We got past it on Monday, and I don't think it was a distraction..."
On Monday, Riley announced Mayfield's punishment in a no-nonsene manner. The Heisman frontrunner would face punishment the same as any other player on the team. Then, Riley's eyes brimmed with tears. Despite his response, which some saw as strict and others as lax, Riley is still an emotional coach who cares deeply about his players. None more than Mayfield.
"I don't know that I'll ever have a player as special to me as he is," Riley said on Monday. "...I'm proud as hell to be his coach."
After handing down Mayfield's punishment, Riley was left to deal with the media circus surrounding the event. Part of that came down to helping his team focus and block out the distractions coming at the team from all angles. Everyone had questions: Were they ok with what Mayfield did? How would this effect the West Virginia game?
The players were able to put it out of their heads, Riley said, because they were confident in sophomore quarterback Kyler Murray. But for junior offensive lineman Orlando Brown, it was more about trusting Riley and understanding the mutual respect between him and his players.
"We know what he expects, he shows us what he expects from us," Brown said.
On Saturday, Riley was faced with yet another challenge. The Sooners' game against West Virginia has been chippy the past few years, but things got even more heated this time around. Oklahoma saw four straight plays that ended in skirmishes — one ended in the ejection of junior right guard Dru Samia.
Samia walked off the field after getting into it with a West Virginia player and eventually throwing a punch. It wasn't long before Riley was standing in front of the junior, hand on his jersey, yelling at him. Clearly, that wasn't what Riley expected of his players.
After Samia's ejection and one of Riley's first displays of anger all year, the Sooners settled down. The game became relatively quiet, absent of the tenacity on the Oklahoma side.
As Riley gets further along in coaching, there's no doubt he'll be met with more adversity. This week, though, he's proven he's capable of steering a team through a challenging time.
"The guy he is, he's so special," Mayfield said. "I'm thankful for him, and I know everyone in this program is as well."