The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

OU coach Riley hasn't forgotten Muleshoe roots

 

Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Max Faulkner

Oklahoma University head football coach Lincoln Riley raises the Big 12 Championship trophy after the Sooners beat TCU 41-17 in the conference title game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas last December. Riley is a Muleshoe native who played quarterback and defensive end for the Mules football team in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

On a recent late-night broadcast of ESPN's Sports Center, anchor Neil Everett said, "When it comes to college football coaches, there's Nick Saban and there's everyone else."

Muleshoe, Texas might see it a little differently.

Not that the folks of Muleshoe don't respect Saban and what he's done for the Alabama Crimson Tide. It's just that they have their own homegrown hero — Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley.

For Riley's part, Muleshoe was good to him, providing the setting for a solid upbringing, a town where a boy who would someday lead one of the nation's most famous college football programs could learn lessons that shaped him.

"It was a great place to grow up," Riley said on Wednesday afternoon during a telephone interview with The Eastern New Mexico News. "Small town, very tight-knit community. Great, great people. Honest, hard-working people. A lot of the values I hope I still carry today were carried from my parents and people in that town.

"The value of hard work - I think the community has always been built on that. And I think the value of honesty from my parents and in the community, those were things that people expected of you and took pride in. ... I would put those at the top of the list."

Riley played quarterback and defensive end for Muleshoe High School before graduating in 2002. As a junior in 2000 he helped the Mules reach the state semifinals, where they lost to Forney at the Dallas Cowboys' old home — Texas Stadium in Irving.

While at Muleshoe High, Riley learned under the tutelage of David Wood, who just retired last month after 23 years coaching the Mules.

"I think I took things from him and a lot of my coaches. You're shaped by your experiences," Riley said. "We had great success there throughout our years. Muleshoe football went from one of the worst programs in the state to one of the best. It was kind of fun to be there at the beginning."

Wood always saw the mind of a coach when Riley was one of his players.

"Oh, no doubt," Wood said Thursday night. "He was a coach on the field for us. He just knew the game. When he'd watch film he'd just remember defenses and what not. ... He just had natural instincts."

Though Riley had a coach's mind, Wood never saw him going into that profession, thinking that mind might be too good for coaching.

"I thought he was more in the realm of NASA or something like that," Wood said. "He had great math skills, intelligence and a photographic memory, stuff that you just don't see."

Did Riley envision himself as a future coach?

"That's a good question," he said. "I guess probably once I started to think about going to college, I enjoyed the game so much in high school that I felt it would be part of my life some way, some how. But I don't know that I would've gone this way without having the great experience back home."

Riley played briefly for Texas Tech, but spent more time there coaching than playing. Following the 2009 season, he left his position as the Red Raiders wide receivers coach to become offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at East Carolina under head coach Ruffin McNeill. In 2014, assistant head coach was added to Riley's titles.

The next year he was hired on at Oklahoma as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under the nationally-renowned Bob Stoops.

"Getting to work for one of the most legendary coaches this school has ever had, and a great guy on top of that, it was fun for me to sit back and watch him work while I grew as a young coach," Riley said.

Two years into that gig, Riley found himself promoted to head coach when Stoops unexpectedly retired in June of 2017. 33 years old, due to turn 34 early in the Sooners' season, and Riley was atop one of the greatest college football peaks there is.

Yet, with the aplomb of a seasoned coaching veteran, he guided Oklahoma to a Big 12 championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. It didn't hurt that Riley had the services of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who won the Heisman Trophy in December.

The Sooners lost their CFP semifinal to Georgia, 54-48 in double overtime at the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, but Riley had led them to a 12-2 record — 8-1 against Big 12 teams — in just his first season as Stoops' replacement.

Riley already has plenty of quality head-coaching experience behind him, plus a hefty new contract approved by the school last month. He's certainly more comfortable in his job than he was a year ago at this time.

"Yeah, I think that's fair to say," he said. "Each year presents new challenges, but there are parts of the job and all the things that come with it that I'm a little more settled in with for sure."

One asset he had last year that he is without this season is Mayfield, who was selected No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Browns in last April's NFL Draft. Riley, though, doesn't see his biggest 2018 task as replacing a Heisman winner.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Max Faulkner

Oklahoma football head coach Lincoln Riley hugs quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) after the Sooners won the Big 12 title last December in Arlington, Texas.

"It's just this year's team," he said. "Last year's team had a lot of success and that was great. Things always change year to year in college football and that's one of the things we enjoy. We have to put things together, do it again. That's part of the challenge you look forward to tackling."

And perhaps, 2018 will bring another run to the College Football Playoff. Maybe even a national title.

"We'll see," Riley said. "I think we've got enough to do some great things, but a lot's gotta happen between now and then. I think you always have a chance at Oklahoma, but a lot of things have got to go well."

No matter how Riley and the Sooners fare, the 105-year-old town of Muleshoe will be proud of him.

"It's quite an accolade to say I was able to be a part of his life," Wood said. "To see him grow and develop into what he's become, it's pretty remarkable."

 

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