Lincoln Riley sat before a combination of eight University of Houston administrators and boosters at an undisclosed location in Dallas.
He was one of eight candidates interviewing to become the Cougars’ next head football coach.
“Lincoln’s name kept coming up,” then-Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek said of the meeting the morning of Dec. 5, 2016. “When Tom (Herman) left for Texas, Lincoln’s agent was one of the first people I called.”
Riley, 33 at the time, was one of the most sought-after coaches in college football that December. In his two years at Oklahoma as offensive coordinator, he had turned the Sooners from an identity-less offense into a juggernaut. A Texas native, Riley was seemingly a perfect fit at Houston — a program known for jumpstarting future head coaches’ careers like Kevin Sumlin, now at Arizona, and Herman, now at Texas.
In the days following Riley’s interview, reports circulated saying he “knocked it out of the park” and that their sources “would be surprised if they don't hire him.” It seemed Riley’s days in Norman might be numbered.
Instead, Riley chose to stay at Oklahoma where, six months later, he would be named head coach after Bob Stoops’ shocking retirement in June. As a result, on Dec. 9, Houston went with Major Applewhite who went 15-11 in two years, ending in his firing and leaving Dana Holgorsen to take over the program in 2019.
Three years later, as Riley and Oklahoma prepare to face Houston on Sunday night on national television to kick off another season with national title aspirations, this is the story behind Riley’s decision to stay with the Sooners — from a flu-ridden interview to a late-night meeting with OU athletic director Joe Castiglione that kept one of the hottest commodities in college football in Norman.
“We always anticipated he would be very successful,” Castiglione said this week, reflecting on a hire that has kept Oklahoma nationally prominent. “We weren't necessarily going to let him walk right out the door.”
Riley was sick that Monday morning. He had the flu, according to Yurachek.
This didn’t faze him. In fact, it made his performance in the interview that much more profound.
He was the second interviewee of the day. He was asked approximately 65 questions, Yurachek said. And he had no notes — a rarity in coaching interviews today.
Yurachek and the other seven administrators and boosters asked Riley everything from how to manage a budget, to compliance, to the type of players he recruits, to the style of offense he wanted to run.
When Riley left the room, Yurachek knew he was who he wanted.
“He quickly ascended to someone we knew we wanted to talk to again,” said Yurachek, now the athletic director at Arkansas. “He blew us away as a committee. He was so unbelievably polished and well-spoken about every aspect of being a head coach. He was wise beyond his years.”
But little did he know that Riley was not even considering the position anymore.
That Monday night, Yurachek called Riley to find out where he stood. He told him how impressed he was with his interview and that Houston was hoping to do another one soon. But he also wanted to gauge Riley’s interest before moving forward.
“I had a sinking feeling, doing enough of these interviews, that he wasn’t all in,” Yurachek said. “And that makes the interview even more impressive.”
According to Yurachek, Riley said he was no longer interested in the position and mentioned that Castiglione had visited his house the night before. Riley admitted he had done the interview as a courtesy, saying he planned to stay at Oklahoma. Riley himself has not talked publicly about the circumstances behind the entire event.
Yurachek was disappointed, but said he understood Riley’s reasoning. And when Riley was named Oklahoma’s head coach six months later on June 7, 2017, all the pieces of the puzzle started to come together.
“It all started to make sense,” Yurachek said. “I don’t know if that was always the plan. Maybe they had an inkling of some kind. Now that’s all speculative on my part, but it all made sense.”
Two days before Riley interviewed for the job, on Saturday, Dec. 3, Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State, 38-20, to claim its 10th Big 12 title.
Castiglione said he spoke with Riley multiple times that weekend, which is when he was informed Houston had expressed interest in the Sooners’ offensive play-caller. But Castiglione doesn’t recall exactly which night he visited Riley’s Norman home alone.
However, Castiglione does recall being in New York with Stoops during Riley’s Monday interview. He and Stoops were in town for the annual National Football Foundation Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, an event Castiglione attends nearly every year as a member of the board of directors. Both Castiglione and Stoops spent time on the phone talking to Riley.
“We were in close contact throughout the entire process,” Castiglione said. “All three of us were talking ... and Bob was especially helpful in talking about his past experiences.”
Stoops himself had been through similar situations in the late '90s. A rising defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier at Florida, Stoops had job offers from all over the country before accepting the one at OU. According to Castiglione, Stoops told Riley to be patient and to make the right choice for him and his family. That’s not to say Houston was the wrong choice, Stoops just didn’t want him to rush into any decision.
Castiglione echoed that same sentiment. When he went to Riley’s house to discuss his future at Oklahoma, he made sure it was a casual conversation, not trying to force Riley into anything he didn’t want to do.
“It wasn’t like he got in the car and I blocked the driveway or anything,” Castiglione said with a laugh. “If the actual elements were different, I guess you could say, don't put that past me. I might have done it. But it wasn't that kind of thing. It was very normal.”
The meeting clearly went well. Castiglione said it was not too long after that — sometime before the 2017 Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 — Riley informed him of his decision to stay at Oklahoma. This was confirmed May 11, 2017, when he signed a three-year contract worth $1.3 million per year.
Twenty-six days later, he was named the head coach.
In his new book, “No Excuses: The Making of a Head Coach,” Stoops writes that he told his wife, Carol, and their three kids the night before the 2016 Bedlam game — three days before Riley’s interview with Houston — that he planned to retire following the season. He later mentions in the book that, after the Sugar Bowl, he was back on the fence about retiring.
Around that time, Castiglione and then-OU President David Boren asked Stoops to look at naming Riley the head-coach-in-waiting before the 2017 season.
Stoops wrote, “I’m either the boss or not ... You can’t sort of be the head coach.”
“I don't know if Bob and I said this to each other, but sometimes we could just look at each other and know what each other's thinking,” Castiglione said. “And when we did put the offer together going forward, I think we both looked at each other as if to say, ‘Well, we'll be at this place again in the near future. At some point, he's going to take a head coaching job.’
“We knew he would be successful. And at whatever point coach Stoops decided to retire, we knew he'd be the one we want to hire to replace coach Stoops.”
Houston isn’t the only program that made a serious run at hiring Riley that December and the next spring, Castiglione recalls. Programs across the country were calling — some NFL teams, too. But Castiglione said, “Once he made a decision to stay at Oklahoma (in December), I don't think he seriously entertained anything else.”
Castiglione also knows it won’t be the last time he may have to make a late-night visit to Riley’s house, as more NFL teams express interest in the guru from Muleshoe.
But he isn’t worried. He knows that no matter what — whether Riley stays for the long haul or decides to eventually make the leap to the league — these types of things typically work out in his and Oklahoma’s favor.
“I really, really just believe that things work out the way they're supposed to,” Castiglione said. “And, in the end, you always focus on doing what's right and doing what's best. And then the chances of things working out for the best are greater. And I’d say things have worked out...
“Well, I’ll just leave it at that.”