2016 Purdue Football Coaching Search Favorites: #6 Lincoln Riley
Candidate Tier #2 (Just because he’s got no coaching experience. He's Tier 1 in Aneesh's heart.)
Overall Rank: #6
Who Is He?
Lincoln Riley is the 33 year old whiz-kid, second-year Offensive Coordinator of the Oklahoma Sooners. Riley was a walk-on quarterback for 2002’s Texas Tech Red Raiders, coached by Mike Leach and playing behind the devilishly handsome Kliff Kingsbury. Riley spent one year in pads, and the rest as an assistant to Coach Leach learning every aspect of the air-raid offense.
Riley was Ruffin McNeill’s Offensive Coordinator (and Associate Head Coach) at East Carolina for five seasons, culminating in several weeks in the AP Top 25 in 2014. Riley replaced Josh Heupel in 2015 as Bob Stoops’ OC at Oklahoma, to much fanfare from the Soner faithful.
The Sooners finished 2015 with an S&P rank of #4, 40.2 points per game (#14 in the country), 322.8 (#14) passing yards per game, 202.7 (#37) rushing yards per game, and Riley walked away with the Broyles Award. Seems like a pretty good first year on the job.
Why would he be successful at Purdue?
Riley is a brilliant young offensive mind, and has been identified for years as a potential head coach. That’s saying something, since I’m pretty sure he got his Driver’s License in like 2011.
At East Carolina, Riley crafted an offense that peaked in 2015 at 533 yards per game (5th nationally), with nearly 63% of the plays coming from the passing game (372 passing yards per game, 3rd in the country). McNeill and Riley developed ECU into an offense identical to Texas Tech’s under Leach, and cemented Riley alongside Kingsbury (and, until recently, Kevin Sumlin) as college football’s air-raid hotshots.
Though Riley’s offense is rooted in the Air-Raid system, he leans pretty heavily on a creative rushing attack to free up the powerful passing game. As NewsOK pointed out this week, Oklahoma’s offense under Riley has more resemblance to Dana Holgerson’s West Virginia offense than East Carolina or Texas Tech’s traditional pass-heavy scheme, instantly giving OU one of the more versatile systems in the country.
Riley’s offenses at Oklahoma have also shown their fair share of trick plays, catching their opponents off-guard every single time. In OU’s game this season against Houston, Riley called a Baker Mayfield-to-Dede Westbrook-to-Dimitri Flowers double pass, which seems like a pretty ballsy thing to do while down 16 to a Top 5 team and came *inches* away from being converted. Riley also drew up one of the coolest plays of 2015: a double-reverse flea-flicker versus Iowa State that went 75 yards for an uncontested touchdown. Apparently OU practices trick plays “once or twice per day”, and is ready for anything on gamedays. This dude really might be an offensive savant.
With trick plays, gameplans tailored around available talent, and an even 50/50 split on rushing and passing attempts, Oklahoma with Riley’s offense has consistently been placed in position to contend for Big 12 (and National) titles.
And, as 2016 is showing, former Oklahoma offensive coordinators can make for very successful head coaches in the state of Indiana. Purdue fans resistant to that thought might want to spend a few more minutes watching IU on Saturdays, as Kevin Wilson has finally paired his nuclear offense with an actual, live, breathing defense. The Hoosiers might drop triple digits on our Boilers, making the young offensive-minded Riley even more attractive of a candidate.
Why could he flop at Purdue?
He’s 33, and hasn’t been the lead recruiter at any of his assistant coaching stops. There’s plenty of risk in hiring someone so young, and being their first head coaching job, but it’s a home-run swing that a school like Purdue should take.
The downside to Riley, or anybody with questionable recruiting chops, is this:
In four years, Purdue could be in the exact same predicament it’s in right now. Years of losing, no progress towards building a winning culture, and the talent cupboard left barren after nearly a decade of missing on prospects.
Riley could be a massive success anywhere he goes, and we here at Boiled Sports heartily endorse his candidacy for the Purdue job this fall. But there’s a real downside that might scare away Power 5 schools.
Would he come to Purdue?
Probably not, but he’d better get a phone call from AD Mike Bobinski. Riley could be the best young coach in the country, and a soft schedule in the Big Ten West could make for a quick turnaround for Riley. He’s on a clear trajectory to be a head coach someday, and has been frequently mentioned as a coach-in-waiting for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma.
But I’ve always been skeptical of the Stoops Successor thing. For one, it looks like schools will soon be lining up in to have Lincoln Riley lead their football programs. For another, Bob Stoops is only 56 years old, has been coaching Oklahoma since he was 39, and should be the coach of Oklahoma until he decides to retire.
But stranger things have happened in college sports, and Stoops might want to start a new challenge before he turns 60. Opportunities to coach Florida, Notre Dame, LSU, USC, or even the NFL will almost certainly come knocking soon, testing Stoops’ decision to remain at OU. If the Board of Trustees in Norman hear even the faintest whispers that Stoops is considering his options, Riley would be the obvious replacement.
Riley has been adamant that he’s “not in a hurry to leave” Oklahoma, but eventually an opportunity will roll around that will sweep Riley into the world of head coaching. Purdue absolutely does not fall into that realm, but (as I’ve repeated before) coaching in the Big Ten West would give Riley an extremely easy schedule to contend for a Power 5 title.
If I had any money (I don’t), I’d put it on Riley going elsewhere. But if he wants to be a head coach, wants an easy schedule, wants a stepping-stone job to prove his chops at the top of the food chain…well, never say never.
And, for those of you still with doubts that Riley is ready to be a head coach, Bruce Feldman urges you to take this quote of his to heart:
For those of you basketball fans, the resemblance to Brad Stevens’ coaching approach is uncanny. Stevens, by the way, was only 31 when he got the nod as Butler’s head coach, and seems to be doing pretty well for himself right now. Riley is a star, and Purdue would be unbelievably lucky to land him in West Lafayette.