Lincoln Riley looked down, trying to rein in his emotions.
For 38 seconds he stood at the podium, three of the most important men at the University of Oklahoma — and countless OU supporters both inside and outside the room — looking on in rapt attention Wednesday as the room fell silent moments after his introduction as the Sooners’ 22nd head football coach.
Finally, the 33-year-old looked up. His eyes shone with tears.
The emotions that overcame Riley were those of a man who realized the significance of the individual moment as well as the job he inherits running one of college football’s most storied programs. Riley was named Oklahoma head football coach Bob Stoops’ successor after the living legend and soon-to-be hall of famer, who has guided Oklahoma to 18 bowl games and 10 conference titles in his 18 seasons, suddenly announced his retirement on Wednesday afternoon. Coming off a 10-2 season and a Sugar Bowl victory, Stoops still knows how to win, but he said he chose to hand the program over to Riley — to “pass the baton.” It’s rare for programs to transition seamlessly between coaches, and even rarer for the transition to be between a head coach of 18 years and an assistant 23 years his junior.
Riley has big shoes to fill, and he knows it. The bar for Oklahoma football coaches is a high one, with Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Stoops setting the precedent. Despite Riley being in such a rare position, someone else has been there before. In 2009, long-serving Oregon coach Mike Bellotti handed off the Ducks’ program to offensive wizard Chip Kelly, who then faced similar pressures and expectations that Riley faces today.
The key to coming after a long-tenured and highly successful head coach? Being yourself, Bellotti told The Daily on Wednesday.
“I think that what Lincoln needs to do is Lincoln Riley needs to be Lincoln Riley,” said Bellotti, who now works for ESPN. “He’s got there by being himself and by believing in certain things.”
In every job he’s had, Riley has been considered young for the position. From his time at Texas Tech moving from a graduate assistant to inside receivers coach to suddenly being tasked with calling plays in the 2010 Alamo Bowl after former coach Mike Leach’s firing, Riley has been on a coaching fast track.
From the time he joined Leach’s staff as an unpaid assistant, Leach knew there was something special about Riley.
“I thought he would (become a good coach),” Leach told The Daily on Wednesday. “He’s a smart guy, eager to learn, and willing to use common sense and independent thinking along the way.”
By 26, Riley was the offensive coordinator for East Carolina — a position he would keep for five years before recruited by Stoops in 2014. Riley accepted the assistant coaching position at OU — one of the most prestigious football schools in the country — at 31.
Now 33, Riley has become the youngest coach in the FBS. Just this May he got a three-year contract extension as OU angled to keep him anchored after nearly losing him to Houston last offseason. Like Stoops in 1998, Riley has accepted the position at a young age, with a young family. Like Stoops, Riley sees Oklahoma as a place where he can stay and succeed.
OU President David Boren said he couldn’t help but realize the parallels between today and the day Stoops was named head coach.
“When I think of Lincoln Riley and I observe him in action, I can only in many ways have memories of Bob Stoops at the same age and position in his career, and I see so many similarities,” Boren said.
Stoops retirement — which he said came after about 10 days of considering the move — was a shock to all, including Boren and athletic director Joe Castiglione. Before the shock wore off, though, they were in action. There would be no coaching search. Riley was their man.
In part, Riley’s abilities were one of the reasons Stoops chose to retire when he did. He said he feels like Riley is a perfect fit, which helped him feel ready to step away from the program.
“I didn’t want to miss the right opportunity to step away and pass this baton to Lincoln Riley and keep this all just going in a great direction,” Stoops said.
Castiglione agreed, saying the process was best summed up in one way: It was the right guy at the right time. The stars aligned.