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Dean's Blog: Playoff Bound Sooners Have A Lot Riding On Riley Job Opportunity

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OU first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley is reportedly a candidate for two vacant head coaching jobs as his Sooners bask in the glow of earning a spot in the College Football Playoff and soon begin game preparations for their National Championship Semifinal.

ESPN’s Chris Low reports South Carolina plans to visit with Riley about its opening. And South Carolina’s 247Sports.com site indicate Riley and Auburn DC Will Muschamp are “believed to be among the top candidates” to replace Steve Spurrier. And multiple reports have Riley high on the list of candidates at Memphis, where former Sooner quarterback Justin Fuente recently decided to leave as head coach to take over the program at Virginia Tech.

If Riley were to leave OU, the most pressing question would be the timing: would he leave immediately and not coordinate the Sooners in the playoff? Would he try to do double-duty, which has been met with mixed results? Or, would he not report on the new job until after the playoffs?

It has become common for coaches to leave immediately for their high-paying jobs to begin putting together a staff and organize recruiting efforts. However, with Riley’s role so clearly valuable to OU’s pursuit of a national championship, there’s a chance Riley would decide to remain with the Sooners throughout the playoffs while also beginning the critical organizational duties with his new job. 

Some coaches have stuck around to work double-time during the weeks preceding the postseason game(s). Coincidentally, it was Mark Richt who unsuccessfully continued to work for Bobby Bowden at Florida State as offensive coordinator, while beginning work at his new job after being named Georgia’s head coach in December, 2002. It was Bob Stoops and the Sooners who shut out Richt’s Seminole offense in the 2001 Orange Bowl and saw Oklahoma win the BCS National Championship game 13-2. Chris Weinke had just won the Heisman, but he and Richt’s explosive offense managed just 27 rush yards, 301 total yards, and were 1-of-15 on third down while punting ten times. Oklahoma’s defense was dominant. But clearly, with its offensive coordinator working two jobs, FSU was in total disarray. OU can’t afford that.  

Riley makes just $500,000 at Oklahoma and would be in line for a major jump in salary should he stay. I’ve maintained for a while that Riley would become a short-list candidate to succeed Bob Stoops, whenever the 17-year Sooner coach decides to step down. With a set of twin boys in their sophomore seasons at Norman North, it’s hard to fathom Stoops making a move before two more full seasons at the minimum-- and maybe many more. Plus, this young, energetic and talented team -- along with new young blood on his coaching staff  -- have helped make 2015 as enjoyable a year as Stoops has had since that second season when they won the 2000 title. He has lots of quality players returning; recruiting has improved, and the future of recruiting is awfully bright with the prospect of this season ending with Stoops’ second, and OU’s eighth national title.

But to win his second, you can bet Stoops would need a 24/7 committed Lincoln Riley. And I suspect that if Riley were to take one of these jobs, Stoops would ask and expect Riley to work through the playoff. As talented as he is and with as much experience as he has, it’d be asking a lot to expect Cale Gundy to organize a game plan and call plays against someone like Alabama, with an offense that Riley brought in last spring.

A year ago, Ohio State OC Tom Herman took the Houston job but successfully coached Buckeyes’ offense as they won the national title. But that’s Houston, and they were much more likely to accept a quality coach needing them to wait, whereas a South Carolina would probably tell Riley to go fly a kite if he told them he’d accept their job but couldn’t do much until after the playoffs.

Coincidentally, Alabama DC Kirby Smart is set to become the next head coach at his alma mater, Georgia, where the heretofore mentioned Richt coached until being run out three days ago. In this fast-paced world of college coaching, Richt has reportedly just accepted the head job at his alma mater, Miami. But back to Smart. There’s gotta be a good chance Smart leaves Bama before the playoffs which would certainly hurt them to some degree. I’m hearing OC Lane Kiffin might join Smart on the move as well, although the timing of his move is unknown. But unlike at OU, Smart has a head coach who can take his place in the meeting room. Nick Saban is a defensive wizard, and while Smart’s departure would impact the Tide negatively to some degree, the brilliance of Saban could soften the blow. And that would not be the case with Stoops if he were to lose Riley.

Would Riley leave? SEC jobs like South Carolina don’t come along often. Riley was at East Carolina before moving to OU so he’s familiar with the people, the area, the high school football, and SC. And I’m told they’ll offer in the $2.5 million range – a tidy little $2-mill bump on his current deal. On principal, you stay. But if you’re Riley, your stock is higher than it’s ever been; and may ever be. He’s got a lot of returning players but he loses a dynamic receiver who is close to irreplaceable in Sterling Shepard. The biggest reason to stay is betting on the come. On becoming the next head coach of the Sooners.

I believe if Stoops were to stay another 2-4 years, Riley would be in prime position to become the next coach at Oklahoma. I’ve said that for months and have had multiple conversations with people close to the program about the idea. Some may disagree. But I don’t understand the logic. Riley’s extremely popular with the players, administration and most anyone with whom he comes in touch. He’s very smart but doesn’t act like. He’s quick to take the blame, even when it’s obvious he’s not the real problem. He just gets it.

Riley can draw up plays with the best of them. More importantly, he’s a great communicator. Gary Gibbs was a brilliant X and O guy, but not a good communicator. Riley does both. And those guys are rare. His guys would run through a brick wall for him. They’ve become very attached in a short period of time. And very effective.

The “Coach In Waiting” trend doesn’t seem to have worked well for most. However, it did at Florida State where Jimbo Fisher waited till Bobby Bowden stepped down, and has won a national title and successfully made the transition and seen the program make a significant improvement. One idea is to consider making Riley OU’s Coach in Waiting, although there are lots of potential  complications in going that way. All I know is if I’m Bob Stoops and AD Joe Castiglione I’m trying to think of every possible way to avoid losing Riley; and more significantly, losing him prior to OU’s first appearance in the College Football Playoff.

The bottom line is: Riley may not be offered the South Carolina job and I don’t think he’d automatically jump at a Memphis offer. But if the Gamecocks make an offer, it’d be hard to see Riley turn it down. In that case, my guess is Stoops would want Riley to coach through the playoff, but that SC would prefer not. At that point, Riley would have a very difficult decision. But in the end, if Riley is the next coach at South Carolina, it seems like Oklahoma is vulnerable to suffering what would be a devastating blow. A Lincoln Riley-less Sooner offense in the playoff would be swimmin’ up a fast moving stream. With cold water. Deep, too.

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