ARLINGTON, Texas — As pastel confetti rained down around him, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley beamed with pride. Inside one of the newest, most innovative stadiums in all of football, the youngest, most energizing coach in the conference hoisted the Big 12 Championship in his first year at the helm of a program.
As he held the trophy high for the thousands of Sooner faithfuls who made the trip to see, Riley picked up right where former coach and legend Bob Stoops left off.
Riley has proven to be the right choice for the Sooners, despite some questioning him based on his age and inexperience as a head coach. He's shown everyone just how capable he is throughout Oklahoma's one-loss regular season. When faced with big games like Ohio State, Bedlam and now the Big 12 Championship, Riley rose to the occasion.
"I think when you get to (big games) you can't be scared to go win them," Riley said. "You can't worry about what's on the line. You don't ever want to play not to lose. You want to play to win, and this program has that mentality, and I felt that from the day I walked in here."
The mentality Riley mentioned is the same mentality his players see in him. It's a desire to outwork and outplay everyone who steps in Oklahoma's path, but above all else, it's a desire to win. The vibe the young coach has brought to the locker room in Norman has energized the Sooners, and the results have been telling.
"He comes to practice every day ready to go," sophomore receiver Mykel Jones said. "We can just tell he has that 'it' factor about him. He's ready to go at all times."
In his first year at the helm, Riley has helped OU become the top offense in the nation. The Sooners won all but one game despite having one of the toughest schedules in the Big 12. And now, he's led his team into the Big 12 Championship and came out with a dominant 41-17 win over TCU.
"I feel like that's amazing," sophomore tackle Du'Vonta Lampkin said. "Not too many coaches can say that. He deserves it."
In a way, the Big 12 Championship was the perfect way to end Riley's season ahead of a potential playoff berth. With his mentor Stoops looking on, the Sooners played arguably their most complete game of the season numbers-wise, which is something Riley's been searching for. One of his favorite phrases to use is "complementary football" when discussing how he wants his team to play. Saturday, he saw that.
Heisman frontrunner and senior quarterback Baker Mayfield played well, per usual, but his numbers weren't as breathtaking as some of his other performances. The offense put up 461 total yards — 243 passing and 218 rushing — but the defense also accounted for a touchdown, and multiple three-and-outs in the second half. It showed a glimpse of what Riley has been looking for — a game in which no group carries the other the entire game.
With Saturday's win, Riley became just the fifth coach in FBS history with no previous head coaching experience at a four-year university to win 12 games in his first season.
"It tells a lot about him. How much time, how much love, how much passion he puts into this game and how much time he dedicates to us," Parnell Motley said. "Lincoln Riley's a great coach, and it was great to start his legacy with his first Big 12 win."