Last week, I turned 33. That’s pertinent information because today, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley won the Frank Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top college football assistant.
Lincoln Riley is 32. Jeez, I’m a slacker.
— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) December 8, 2015
Though Riley is the award’s youngest recipient in its 19-year history, he’s not necessarily a wunderkind. His former Texas Tech teammate, Kliff Kingsbury, was a finalist for the Broyles Award at the same age and made his head coaching debut a few weeks after turning 34.
Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck and newly named Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell were born in 1980 and 1979, respectively. Coincidentally, the two share a Nov. 29 birthday with Your Humble Blogger. Each climbed through the coaching ranks as young assistants to become successful head coaches in their early 30s.
Lincoln Riley isn’t the sport’s Doogie Howser. There are assistants throughout college football who grew up on Sega Genesis, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Squeezits. But Riley stands out with how profoundly he’s impacted the game at his young age.
Oklahoma transformed virtually instantaneously under Riley’s watch. The 2014 Sooner offense managed 36.4 points per game under Jay Norvell and Josh Heupel’s co-coordinated regime, an impressive number when presented without context.
However, the Sooners were toothless against top-flight competition like Baylor and Clemson, which limited Oklahoma to a combined 20 points in lopsided losses. This was an offense that ESPN’s Trent Dilfer railed against as “a joke,” and which featured wide receivers he classified as “brutal.”
While Dilfer’s take required oven mitts, the main ingredient had merit. Oklahoma’s offense in the early 2010s just wasn’t as consistent nor as fluid as the versions overseen by Kevin Sumlin and Kevin Wilson in the decade prior. While going from Sam Bradford to Landry Jones and Trevor Knight might explain some of the issues facing the Sooners under Heupel and Norvell, I can’t envision the tandem wringing from Paul Thompson the kind of season he had in 2006 after a one-year layoff from playing quarterback.
Likewise, I can’t help but wonder where Oklahoma would be in 2015 with someone other than Lincoln Riley at the controls. Would Baker Mayfield have Heisman-worthy statistics? Would the Sooners be the nation’s third-most prolific scoring offense? Would Sterling Shepard be one of college football’s best receivers, or would Trent Dilfer disparage him as “brutal?”
There’s no speculation necessary with Riley at controls, and it’s not a mere byproduct of the talent he inherited in his first year. Riley left East Carolina in 2014 having coordinated the best offenses in program history. Wide receiver Justin Hardy set NCAA records under Riley’s watch, and quarterback Shane Carden — once an unheralded recruit — became one of the nation’s most prolific passers.
When Riley first picked up the air-raid principles that are now the cornerstone of his play-calling, he truly was a wunderkind. I don’t feel like a slacker compared to the 32-year-old Lincoln Riley; I know I was a slacker when I compare myself at 20 to him at the same age.
While I labored over Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and made plans for the weekend’s party, Riley became a member of Mike Leach’s staff. Riley’s had 12 years in the coaching ranks to cultivate his own take on the air-raid, which played out in Oklahoma’s run to the Big 12 title this season.
Multiple wide-receiver formations, a mobile quarterback with the green-light to run and power accents, evidenced in Samaje Perine’s 1,291 yards and 15 touchdowns. At 32, Lincoln Riley’s perfected an offense that devotees of most any offensive philosophy can appreciate.
Oklahoma’s offense isn’t just aesthetically pleasing. It’s functional enough that it could produce a national championship. At 32, I couldn’t win a national championship on NCAA Football‘s most difficult setting.