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Lincoln Riley Is the Coach of the Future and the End Point of a Revolution


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With the controversial Jalen Hurts selection, I thought this article would be of interest and perhaps provide some context:



Lincoln Riley Is the Coach of the Future and the End Point of a Revolution

The Oklahoma coach is an innovator, an archetype, and the guy seemingly every team wants to hire. How did he get here? And what does he mean for the sport?

By Michael Weinreb Dec 13, 2019, 6:30am EST
BackBack in 2002, in a dusty corner of the Texas panhandle, a quarterback named Lincoln Riley and a coach named Mike Leach sat down for a conversation that would become a defining moment for the trajectory of football as we know it. This took place on Texas Tech University’s campus in Lubbock, a town that’s perhaps best known for being situated hundreds of miles from pretty much anything resembling a city. Odd ideas have room to incubate in places like this, and Leach, who was quickly developing a reputation as the strangest and most iconoclastic figure in college football, was driving many of those ideas himself.

That fall, Leach’s team won games by scores of 48-47 and lost games by scores of 51-48. His starting quarterback, Kliff Kingsbury, threw for 510 yards in the course of a single afternoon and was on his way to setting the NCAA record for passing yards in a single season. All around Texas, high school offenses had begun to pick up on the principles Leach embraced; teams that used to throw the ball 70 times in a season were eclipsing that total over the course of a couple of weeks. "Fall of ’98, I remember my high school switched to the spread,” says former Tech quarterback Cody Hodges, who grew up in Hereford, a speck of a town on the panhandle. "We were the first team in the area that started throwing the ball like that.”

Leach’s offense was the spread on steroids. By the end of the 2002 season, Kingsbury was regularly throwing 60 or 70 times in a game. The idea that football would forever be defined by conservatism, by the grinding gears of running and defense and pile-ups and clouds of dust, was fundamentally being challenged. And it was being challenged in the very state where football mattered more than anywhere else.

Leach and his equally quirky mentor, Hal Mumme—who first experimented with this system at a Texas high school in the 1980s—dubbed their creation the Air Raid. But for Mumme, the Air Raid, which has now become part of the mainstream at every level of football, has never been just an offensive system. It’s always been a philosophy.

Which leads us back to that conversation between Leach and Riley 17 years ago. Knowing what we now do about both men, it’s safe to presume that Leach, a stream-of-consciousness gabber, did most of the talking. As the author Michael Lewis once wrote, Leach speaks almost entirely in parentheses. Riley, on the other hand, is soft-spoken, and so intelligent that many of his friends in his tiny hometown of Muleshoe, Texas, assumed that he’d one day become a rocket scientist. Riley was also a terrible college quarterback. Much of his arm strength had been sapped by a freak high school injury, and, after he walked on at Tech in 2002, it was clear that he wasn’t going to cut it as a passer. Even Leach’s own assistants kept asking why this guy was getting reps in practice.

So Leach asked Riley, "How would you feel about becoming a coach? Not someday. Not eventually. But right now.”

This was, in itself, a wild idea. Players don’t normally become full-time coaches while they’re still undergraduates. But Leach didn’t care. The whole doctrine behind the Air Raid is to blow up the status quo, and Leach wanted people around him who were innovative enough to set off explosions. He saw something in Riley that suggested he could: the way he absorbed schemes, the way he processed information. And though Riley resisted at first, thinking maybe he could still make it as a quarterback at some other college, he soon succumbed to Leach’s pitch.

"He didn’t have to sit there and scream and yell and be something that he was not. That wasn’t his approach. He’s cool and collected. He’s an intellectual thinker.” —Eric Morris, head coach at the University of the Incarnate Word and former Texas Tech receiver

Over those first few seasons, from 2003 to 2005, most of the people who worked with Riley had no idea what was going on in his head. On a staff replete with big personalities and offbeat ideas, he mostly just lingered in the background, a volunteer student assistant who had been singled out by his coach for reasons his peers didn’t entirely comprehend. He was the guy who fetched Leach’s coffee. He got teased and table-topped during practice by the wide receivers he was supposed to be coaching. But over time, Riley kept moving up the ladder. When Leach was fired in the midst of a scandal in 2009, Riley—who’d graduated from Tech in 2006 and become a wide receivers coach—served as the Red Raiders’ offensive coordinator for the Alamo Bowl at the age of 26. The next season, he became the offensive coordinator at East Carolina.

It didn’t matter that he lacked the outward quirkiness or bravado of his colleagues on the Texas Tech staff, like Leach or the hot-tempered Dana Holgorsen. Riley slowly became proof that the Air Raid was a philosophy, and all you needed to deploy that philosophy was a surfeit of creativity.

"That whole time, I think he was putting together his ideas about how he could make his mark,” says one of those former Tech receivers, Eric Morris, who is now the head coach at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. "Me knowing him as the young guy and the coffee guy, he could never have that crazy personality. I think he knew his place. He didn’t have to sit there and scream and yell and be something that he was not. That wasn’t his approach. He’s cool and collected. He’s an intellectual thinker.”

If you follow football at all, you probably know how this turned out. Riley, who’s still only 36, is in his third season as the head coach at Oklahoma. Already, he’s molded three very different quarterbacks—Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts—into either Heisman Trophy winners or finalists by shifting fundamental elements of his offense to fit their specific strengths; this year, by embracing the wishbone rushing offense, one of the spiritual influences for the Air Raid, he’s transformed Hurts into one of the most thrilling dual-threat quarterbacks in the U.S. He’s also led all three of his Sooners teams to the College Football Playoff; Oklahoma slipped in as the no. 4 seed this season and will face top-ranked LSU in the Peach Bowl. Riley has become the most prominent college-level ambassador for the Air Raid philosophy as it continues to trickle upward into the NFL. And his name is everywhere, floated as a target for virtually every major opening, including the holy grail of Texas coaching jobs: the Dallas Cowboys.

Part of the reason Riley has become the new face of the Air Raid is because he’s the only Leach disciple who coaches at an A-list program. But maybe there’s also a reason for that: Riley is one of the few Air Raid disciples who is not defined by his quirky persona. In fact, you might argue that for the Air Raid movement to go fully mainstream, it needed a more presentable face. Someone who, unlike Leach (now the coach at Washington State), does not go off on long conversational tangents about frontier history, dating etiquette, and mascot brawls; someone who, unlike Holgorsen (now the coach at the University of Houston), does not consistently appear to have just awakened from sleeping under a bridge in his Corvette; someone who, unlike Mumme (now coaching in the XFL), was not given to a serial restlessness in his career. Maybe even someone who, unlike Kingsbury (now the coach of the Arizona Cardinals, whose quarterback is Kyler Murray), isn’t as defined by his handsomeness as much as his record.

What the Air Raid needed was someone who seemed relatively … normal. Someone who could continually challenge the conservatism of football’s status quo while appearing, on the outside, to be a pretty regular dude. In a number of ways, Riley embodies the archetypal head coach of the future—a young and cerebral play-caller who’s also helped reshape the notion of who a high-level quarterback can be. He embodies nearly every major coaching trend of the moment while also setting the template for what’s next. He’s the end-product of an Air Raid revolution that’s been several decades in the making: an iconoclast in an overtly bland package.

TheThe Air Raid ethos that Hal Mumme passed down to Mike Leach, and that Leach eventually passed on to Lincoln Riley, did not develop in a vacuum. In the early- to mid-1980s, football was emerging from a midcentury period when guys like Vince Lombardi and Woody Hayes had reduced the game to a battle of wills. During that era, passing was considered an unnecessary risk. But coaches like BYU’s LaVell Edwards and the 49ers’ Bill Walsh had begun placing a greater emphasis on it, just as the NFL was relaxing its rules to encourage more passing. After Edwards jolted college football’s staid firmament by capturing a national title in 1984, Mumme went to visit him. And he asked Edwards a simple question.

"Coach,” he said, "how did you do this?”

Edwards gave an answer that came to define Mumme’s Air Raid doctrine. He said that as BYU’s profile grew, as the Cougars won that national title and were able to recruit better players, they "resisted the temptation to become conservative.” This became a mantra for Mumme, as he coached at Kentucky, New Mexico State, and a handful of other places in his nomadic career. Unlike Edwards, though, Mumme and Leach never really had to defend their approaches in higher-profile positions, because they tended to settle in spots that existed on the fringes of college football; even now, at Washington State, Leach largely relies on average recruiting classes to produce above-average teams. By staying out of the mainstream, he’s afforded the freedom to keep on experimenting.

For Riley, it’s been a different story. He’s the first Leach-Mumme disciple to become the head coach at a school with the size and stature of Oklahoma; when he took over for longtime Sooners coach Bob Stoops in the summer of 2017, he was 34, the youngest major-conference college head coach in the country. And it’s not exactly an accident that he landed in Norman. As far back as the early 1900s, when a coach named Bennie Owen revolutionized the passing game on the dusty plains, and carrying through the wishbone-era of Barry Switzer in the 1970s and ’80s, Oklahoma has relied on unconventional ideas to gain an advantage over its hulking neighbor to the south, the University of Texas.

Stoops took the first big leap of faith in the Air Raid in 1999, when he hired Leach as his offensive coordinator. The goal was to revitalize a program that had been slumping for nearly a decade since Switzer walked away. Through his recruiting efforts in Texas, Stoops had seen firsthand how the game was changing: how seven-on-seven drills and specialization and wide-open offensive systems were altering the way high-school athletes played and wanted to play. Nobody wanted to grind it out anymore. Instead, they were looking to open things up, like Leach and Mumme had done at Kentucky with a prolific quarterback named Tim Couch. "That’s why I hired Mike,” Stoops says. "I knew we could do this, and do it well. And it wasn’t really being done anywhere else.”

The way Stoops figured, you could adapt the central tenets of the Air Raid, apply it with superior athletes, and then slowly incorporate the running game over time. Still, Stoops came from a defensive background, and over his tenure his offenses ebbed and flowed depending on the abilities of his offensive coordinator. Eventually other Big 12 schools began to catch on to the idea—and catch up, particularly when Leach left Oklahoma to take the Texas Tech job after the Sooners won the national title in 2000. This shift may have seemed like something of a fun-house-mirror iteration of football, in part because the people proliferating it were not exactly part of the old guard. But it worked, and nearly every team in the conference embraced it. Slowly, we became accustomed to scores like 52-45. This wasn’t just a gratuitous trend.

After Stoops fired his co–offensive coordinators, Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell, in 2015 following a disappointing 8-5 season, he went looking for a replacement. Early in his search, he checked the national statistics and saw that East Carolina had just finished near the top of the nation in passing. East Carolina’s offensive coordinator, of course, was Lincoln Riley. Stoops asked around to folks like Leach and Mumme, and they told Stoops to hire this guy before someone else did. Riley was only 31 years old, but what did that matter? The kid had been getting an education in the Air Raid for a decade, ever since Leach had persuaded him to quit playing football and start coaching it.

The Air Raid playbook is deliberately simple, emphasizing quick reads and easy throws and encouraging quarterbacks to make their own decisions at the line of scrimmage. As long as a QB could explain why they’d audibled out of a play, coaches like Leach and Mumme were generally fine with it.

"I think Lincoln’s got courage. He isn’t afraid to think outside the box.” —Air Raid creator Hal Mumme

Riley got a head start by learning all of those principles before he even had his college diploma. And while serving as an understudy to Leach during the coach’s meandering film sessions, he figured out how to put his own stamp on this offense. By the time Stoops brought Riley in at age 31, he’d already absorbed so much. "He had a lot of responsibility at a young age,” Stoops says.

The Air Raid served as an open-source software that fertile minds like Riley could use as a base to develop their own ideas. As long as you’re innovating, building, and creating, Mumme says, it can be stretched in a thousand different directions. If you retreat into a shell of conservatism, that’s when it stops working. "I think Lincoln’s got courage,” Mumme says. "He isn’t afraid to think outside the box.”

That’s what Mumme has admired most about Riley’s first three years as Oklahoma’s head coach. It would have been easy for a young, first-time coach to shrivel up and get tentative on such a big stage, but Riley hasn’t done that. Along with Kingsbury, the Rams’ Sean McVay, and a generation of 40-and-under play-callers, he’s set the blueprint for a trendy new breed of coach. Within this philosophical framework, age matters little. Ideas matter more. And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that of all of those coaches, Riley may have the best ideas of all.

AskAsk people who have studied Oklahoma’s offense about how Riley has advanced his version of the Air Raid, and the first thing they’ll talk about is how effectively he’s incorporated the running game. Take one look at the running backs Oklahoma is able to recruit and produce, and it’s kind of a no-brainer. As ballsy as the Air Raid philosophy is, even Leach has admitted that he’d run the ball more if he had the level of talent to do so at Washington State.

Yet perhaps what’s been most impressive about Riley’s three years with three different quarterbacks is that he hasn’t wed himself to any single strategy. Every coach wants to adapt their offense to their talent. That holds true in the Air Raid, Mumme says, where, "if we had a great tight end, we’d find a way to get it the tight end.” But the tweaks that Riley has made have unlocked versions of his quarterbacks that have surprised even the jaded subculture of NFL scouts. And the fact that all three of those quarterbacks transferred from other schools to play for Oklahoma shows that Riley is aggressive enough to chase what he wants in this era of college football, when the transfer portal is a central method of shaping programs.

"Riley’s created offenses in the college game that have principles that people see they can bring to the NFL level. He’s given the NFL the vision that these quarterbacks can be successful maybe at a smaller size than before.” —private quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery

Those transfers were the undersized but fearless Mayfield, who was dissatisfied playing for Kingsbury at Texas Tech; the stunningly quick and also undersized Murray, who left Texas A&M to play for Oklahoma; and Hurts, who transferred out of Alabama with the presumption that his skill set would never be on par with that of Tua Tagovailoa, who famously took his job in the middle of a national championship game. While Mayfield excelled by taking aggressive shots downfield and Murray flourished by creating in space, the 6-foot-2 Hurts has thrived off more power runs. Both Mayfield and Murray threw for more than 40 touchdowns in their final seasons and were selected as no. 1 overall picks, even though they’re two of the smallest quarterbacks in the modern history of the NFL. While Hurts may not go in the first round this spring, his draft stock has steadily risen as he’s scored 51 total touchdowns this season. The notion that a quarterback has to fit a mold or play a specific style if they want to make it as a pro no longer seems to apply now that Riley has proved otherwise for three years in a row. That’s another reason why Riley is so desired by NFL teams: He appears more ideologically adaptable than mavericks who emerged from college football in the past, like Chip Kelly and Steve Spurrier.

The three quarterbacks Riley has built around over his first three years "are all so different,” says private quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery, who has worked with high-profile prospects like Deshaun Watson. "Riley’s created offenses in the college game that have principles that people see they can bring to the NFL level. He’s given the NFL the vision that these quarterbacks can be successful maybe at a smaller size than before. It used to be such a condensed game, and no one thought you could take these Air Raid philosophies and apply them to NFL quarterbacks. But Riley’s incorporated pro reads and pro concepts.”

It wasn’t all Riley’s doing, but his success appears to have helped free up the NFL to embrace what colleges and high schools have been trending toward for decades. It likely inspired the Cardinals to hire Kingsbury even after he went 35-40 over six seasons at Texas Tech. It helped brand other Tech products from that era—like Morris, at Incarnate Word, and Graham Harrell, the offensive coordinator at USC—as rising stars in the profession. It altered the prototype of the quarterback, the geometry of the passing game, and the archetype of the crusty, conservative head coach.

While Stoops insists he saw all of this coming when he hired Leach 20 years ago, Mumme admits that the Air Raid’s evolution from an indie experiment into a mainstream idea still blows his mind. When he was in his early 30s and coaching at Copperas Cove High School in Texas, his goal was simple: Make the game more enjoyable, so that all the kids who weren’t going out for football would want to play. Now, he looks around at schools in Texas and all over the South and sees the end product of a generation of change. "They’ve done an outstanding job of building on that idea,” he says. "Let’s throw it around, have some fun.”

Of course, who knows how long it’ll stay this way? Football is cyclical, and the sport’s long-term outlook is murky for reasons that extend beyond the field. And Riley’s future? That’s an equally complex proposition, given that he could pick and choose almost any college or pro job that he wants. For now, the vast majority of that speculation centers on the Cowboys, so much so that Riley is viewed as one of the Vegas favorites to accept the job if current coach Jason Garrett is fired. But if Cleveland decides to let go of head coach Freddie Kitchens, Riley would no doubt be viewed as a possible successor there too, given his relationship with Mayfield. Morris, the coach at Incarnate Word, says he’s never really spoken to Riley about coaching in the NFL; he has no idea what Riley’s long-term plans are, or if he even has an end goal. Sometimes, he wonders whether the guy might just spend a decade at Oklahoma and then step away in his 40s to focus on hunting and fishing.

Regardless of what happens next, Mumme feels Riley has helped the Air Raid gain widespread validation. Football has always been a contradiction, a fundamentally conservative sport that yearns for radical ideas to drag it headlong into the future. That’s why, over the course of a generation, the Air Raid ballooned from oddball notion into revolution: It happened along at just the right time, led by just the right group of misfits and outsiders. Riley has been key in turning these progressive ideas—that quarterback height is overrated, that a coach’s age doesn’t dictate his wisdom, that risk-taking is essential to the sport—into common-sense logic. It almost doesn’t matter where he goes, Mumme says, as long as he follows the Air Raid’s metaphysical principle: Don’t ever become anything resembling normal. If Riley continues to push boundaries, then there’s reason to believe that the revolution is here to stay.


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