THE MODERATOR: We’re now joined by Coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma. Coach, welcome. Your thoughts about the upcoming season.
LINCOLN RILEY: Great to be here. A couple months ago, didn’t obviously think I would be here doing this at this time. It’s been probably best described as a whirlwind since June the 7th. Tough to describe kind of all the emotions that went into that day and that decision and still a little bit of a dream for me.
But such a unique situation. Normally, when there’s a change in the head coaching position, so much else has changed as well as far as bringing in a new staff a lot of times, getting to know players, starting to develop those relationships. What made this so unique, I think, was the continuity that was kept with the decision. It’s made it definitely a lot easier on me when I think about all I’ve done in the last month.
But not having to hire ten new coaches, not having to get to know new players and develop those relationships, people within the program, support staff, we felt like there was so much good going on with Oklahoma football that I think Coach said it best. He didn’t want to derail that. He wanted to continue that.
He was very, very good to me in the last several years, helped me to feel as prepared, I think, as you could for this position and being a first-time head coach. Spent a lot of time with him, especially this last year, going over as many different things of a program as you could imagine, and he knew eventually that I did want to be a head coach and was so gracious with his time and knowledge. Certainly look forward to using him as a resource, as somebody that I can visit with, bounce things off of here in the future. So he’s just been tremendous.
Our players, I appreciate them so much for the — just the way they handled this. I told them in our first meeting, you know, they signed up to come play for a different head coach. I wasn’t the guy that came in and recruited them, and I don’t feel like that they should have to accept me just because now I’m the head coach. I feel like that’s something that I should have to earn, and I told them that I would give them every ounce I have to get that done.
Our staff has just been tremendous, again, in the way they’ve handled it. They’ve been 100 percent with me and for this program from the beginning, and then able to add a guy I know very well and this league knows very well in Ruffin McNeill, I think has just enhanced us.
Thrilled going into the season. I feel like we have a very, very strong team coming back with some new exciting young players that we’re excited to infuse our team with. Obviously, a very, very demanding schedule that you get every year in the Big 12, and another demanding nonconference schedule just like we play at OU every single year that we’re really looking forward to.
Probably the thing I’m most excited about with our team is our overall team leadership. I was telling a couple of guys earlier that I felt like there was really 10 or 12 guys we could have brought to this Media Day day today. It’s interesting because a the leaders are really spread throughout the team. Usually, my experience is you have one group that was stronger in leadership than the other, one side of the ball than the other, but it’s really spread out through this team. Guys that are very mature. We’ve got a lot of guys that have played a lot of ball and played very quality ball. We’ve got some experienced players back at key positions, obviously with Baker at quarterback, with all of our offensive line returning; in fact, all of our top eight offensive linemen returning.
We’re going to be very experienced in the secondary with Steven, Jordan Thomas, Jordan Parker, and we have, I think, one of the deepest linebacking corps in the country, headed up by Ogbo, by Caleb Kelly, by Emmanuel Beal. So really very excited about this team, very excited to be here, and for the start of the season. With that, we’ll get started.
Q. Lincoln, before the Texas game last year, your biggest games were not necessarily Baker’s best games, but Texas and beyond, he really seemed to play better in those marquee type of games. Two questions. How important is his play in big games for you guys this season? And do you sense that he maybe has turned a corner in his play in those big games?
LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, I think so. I think, any time you play against great competition, the standard is going to be higher. We played in some pretty big games our first year against Oklahoma State and winning the Big 12 championship, Baylor on the road that year, that he played very well in too. You’re going to have a little hit-and-miss when you’re playing great opponents.
There’s no doubt, I think he’s gotten more comfortable as a quarterback within our system, more comfortable as a quarterback with our current players, and obviously having great quarterback play in big time games is always such a huge part of it. So, yeah, we’re thrilled about his progress. I think he really took some strides this spring. We’ve really tried to focus on, not only with him but with our whole team, on ways we can improve kind of this process right now so that we play better early in the season.
We felt like the last two years that, at the end of the season, we were playing as good as anybody else in the country. We’ve got to do a better job so we hit our stride a little bit earlier, him included.
Q. Hi, Coach. Having lost both Perine and Mixon to the NFL, what are your thoughts on your current running back situation, and who do you think is going to be stepping up this year?
LINCOLN RILEY: No question. On one hand, you lose two great players, guys that were incredibly productive in this league, and I think will both have long NFL careers, but maybe one position, maybe more than any at the University of Oklahoma, over the history that it’s always been able to reload is that position.
We’ve got kind of a unique group. Rodney Anderson comes to mind. Obviously, he’s missed the last two years because of injuries, but he’s had to fight through a ton. He’s a great, great worker. He stacks up there physically as good as anybody we’ve had at that position, including Joe and Samaje. We know he’s got to prove it on the field. Abdul Adams played some for us as a third back last year, played well when he did. Had a great spring, was one of our most-improved players. I think he’ll do well in the mix, as well as Marcelius Sutton, a junior college player we signed, went through spring ball with us. He’s a little bit smaller, got a little bit of explosiveness to him.
And the two freshmen we signed, Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks. These are guys that you know if a freshman is going to be ready, but you pop on the tape of those guys, and you see what we’ve seen physically and you see some hints they may be.
We’re going to have an open mind about it. It’s as wide open as it can be. We’ll play the best guy whether it’s one guy getting most of the carries, two guys like last year, or even as much as three or four.
Q. Lincoln, what were the biggest lessons you learned under Bob Stoops? And also, do you anticipate using his counsel as the season wears on?
LINCOLN RILEY: I’ll definitely use his counsel. I think, both with Bob and with Coach Switzer, you’ve got two guys there that have done it as high level as anybody has done it, obviously both at Oklahoma, and guys that are ready and willing at any point, which I’m thankful for.
I’ve learned a lot from him. One of the most impressive things to me was he always had a great sense, I thought, for the pulse of the team, which I think is so important for the head coach. You’re going to have decisions that come up that you’ve got to make that could go either way. You’ve got to have an understanding of where the team is and what’s best for the team in that current situation.
I thought there were times when, even as a staff, we didn’t totally agree with him, but now looking back on it, he just had a unique sense of that. It’s a little difficult to explain, but in the moment, you could really see it. So had some great conversations with him about that and kind of how he developed that and kept tabs on it. He was, in my opinion, one of the best to ever do it.
Q. Filling in for Bob as a head coach is one thing, but do you also feel the added pressure of the impact that he had on the conference, as the Big 12 as a whole? Do you feel that pressure as well?
LINCOLN RILEY: Not really, just because I know, if we do our job well, just like has been done at Oklahoma over the past several years, that will be a positive for this conference. I think that’s something where you’ve got to take care of the small things, and hopefully we can have that impact. We’ve just in the last two years been in the top five and been in the playoff once, and honestly, we’re one game away nonconference-wise from almost being in it again last year. So I think, if we continue to do a good job on our part, it will be great for Oklahoma and great for the Big 12.
Q. I just wanted to ask, after Coach Stoops stepped down, there seems to be hesitation with recruiting whenever head coaches leave. With you, it seemed to actually pick things up over the past couple weeks and months. Outside of the program’s tradition and some familiarity with you as an offensive coordinator, what sort of things have you been able to do to tell recruits to keep them interested and enthusiastic about the program?
LINCOLN RILEY: Well, it’s a great program to sell. It’s the best thing about selling something is, if you’ve got something really good to sell, it’s a great start.
I don’t know that it’s anything really different. We had some guys that we thought were close anyways, and I think they recognized the continuity, like I talked about in the opening statement, with the staff and the program and the direction we’re going. Been able to start to develop relationships with guys on both sides of the ball, so when we had the head coaching change, it’s not like I was the new guy where they did not know me. The same point I made about our current players. There was already that sense of familiarity.
And then our staff has just done a great job. We’ve got a little bit of momentum with it. I think our brand-new football facility has been a big part of it, being able to get some guys in there and see that I’m going to walk in here and train and have my locker room and all that in the best football facility in the country. So I think all those combined have given us a ton of momentum.
Q. Lincoln, when Bob took over, the program wasn’t really in a good spot. Now you’re taking over a program that’s obviously in a really good spot, back-to-back Big 12 championships, obviously the playoff two years ago. How much can that help you sustain that success, the state of the program right now?
LINCOLN RILEY: Coaches have always had differing thoughts on that, right? Would you rather take over the one that’s struggling so maybe the standards are a little bit lower or the one that’s better? I’ve always envisioned it being more like this. Of course you get the pressure with it. Of course, the expectations are there to win, like they always are at Oklahoma. But that’s something that I enjoy and something that our staff enjoys, our players. That’s why you come to play and coach at Oklahoma is to win and to win big. It’s always been like that. If you don’t enjoy that sense of pressure and those expectations, then it’s probably not the place for you.
So I understand the good and bad with it, but there’s pressure and expectations, but I also see opportunity — you know, opportunity to continue to win championships, to chase National Championships, and to do it in the right way. So I see a great opportunity that I’m thrilled to be a part of.
Q. Your brother Garrett is also very young for the position he’s in at Kansas. What do you attribute that to? Did you guys talk football around the dinner table as long as you can remember? Or you just have the right brains? Or what do you think it is?
LINCOLN RILEY: He would say that he has the right brains probably. Yeah, we grew up in a football family. My dad, my grandfather, they were all quarterbacks at our high school. So football was always a big part of our lives even though there wasn’t a coaching influence from our parents or grandparents.
I don’t know exactly what you attribute it to. I mean, I was lucky to get a start young enough at Texas Tech and then help — you know, I had some people that helped open some doors for me to get me that opportunity. And then I was able to do the same thing for him as a player, and he’s taken it and ran with it and done a great job in his own right.
So I think we’ve both worked hard and grew up in a great family for it, but also we’ve been fortunate to have some early opportunities.
Q. You talked about the continuity from Stoops into now, especially with the players, but has the addition of Ruffin McNeill really helped solidify probably about as comfortable as a first-year head coaching job could be?
LINCOLN RILEY: Definitely. I mean, with our history together, how could it not be? In all the years together at Texas Tech, the five years together at East Carolina, the different experiences that we went through together as fellow assistant coaches and then he becomes the defensive coordinator at Tech. And then the situation goes down to Alamo Bowl, he gets thrust in the head coaching position and me into the offensive coordinator position just a couple of days before the game. He gets his first head job. I go with him to East Carolina, all the different things you go through there.
So we have a ton of history, a lot of trust built up. And then I think it just fit too within our staff and that he and Mike get along together great and have very similar philosophies in a lot of ways. And I have always felt like the defensive line is one of the most critical, if not the most critical position in football. So to be able to pair him up with Calvin Thibodeaux and form what we believe is one of the best D-line combinations in the country, it just made sense on so many levels. To add a coach of his caliber was perfect.
Q. Coach, you guys had Sterling Shepard before, then you have Dee Dee Westbrook. Is there a guy that you think could be that caliber of receiver, or how do you replace those kinds of guys?
LINCOLN RILEY: You know, we had to answer that question a lot last year, and Dee Dee was obviously able to have a great year, really get on a run through the Big 12 schedule. You know, it will be interesting. I think we can replace the production. Will we replace it with one player? I don’t know. If we do, that’s great. If we don’t, if it’s a little bit more spread out, that’s fine too. I do think, looking at our receiving corps, that I would be more deep and a little bit more talented than we’ve been across the board than the previous two years that I’ve been there.
We’ve got some guys, kind of like Dee Dee was as a junior, that are right on the verge, Jeff Mead, Mark Andrews, Nick Basquine, those guys that have made some plays that are right on the verge, and then some new exciting players, along with the transfer player Jeff Badet, that we think are — we’ve got the right guys in there. Just got to get them in the right spot and just kind of see how they grow.
Q. Based on some of the things you’re saying, you sound like Stoops, and it freaks me out a little bit. How do you take the things that you learned from him, that you’ve gotten from him, the way he did things, and then try to be your own man?
LINCOLN RILEY: That’s probably the biggest and, in my opinion, best piece of coaching advice that I’ve gotten since this has happened. That will be one of my challenges is to find a way to still be myself but not discount all the lessons from him and the other guys that I’ve worked for and with over the past several years.
I think it’s a little bit easier, and I think he and I are very similar. I told somebody earlier, had I left and taken a head coach somewhere else, I would have carried a lot of things that he does with me just because I think he’s really good, and I think it’s kind of proven the test of time. His sustained success is — you know, there’s very few that have anything that even close to compare to the kind of career he had at Oklahoma.
But that’s something I’m comfortable with. I’m comfortable with myself and being myself. I don’t have an ego in this, and say, well, I’ve got to change things just because I’m the head coach, and I don’t want to seem like I’m just trying to be Bob Stoops 2.0 or whatever you want to call it. I want to use the things I think are right, and if there’s a few things I think fit my personality better or can help us as a team, then I’m certainly not going to hesitate to do those either.
Q. You talked about putting your staff together. How much on your radar has been the kind of trend among some teams in this conference and in some others to have really a whole lot of, obviously, assistant coaches, but a whole lot of other kinds of analysts, coaches, et cetera? How have you dealt with that trend?
LINCOLN RILEY: Sure, great question. Probably somewhere in the middle. I know there’s some temptation to think the more people that you bring in, the better, more people, more hours, more work gets done. But I think — at the same time, I think there’s two issues. One, I think, if everybody’s not completely and wholly invested, you can maybe have a little bit of diminished returns. And I think you’ve got to create an environment where everybody’s got something to do and what they do is important and everybody can work together well.
And I think there’s also, the more people you bring in, the bigger chance there is of having somebody that’s not all in, not as invested, and I think that can hurt a staff, hurt a team faster than anything. I think, hopefully, we’ve found a good mix of enough analysts and off-the-field positions to help us get done what we need to get done, but I never want to have guys just to have them. I want it to be because we know they’re totally invested in our program and in our student-athletes and just as much invested in wins and losses and graduations and player development and all those things as I am and every other person in the program is.