NORMAN — During a half-hour conversation with the Tulsa World on Friday, Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley discussed topics ranging from Tiger Woods to the OU presidency to the 2010 University of Tulsa-East Carolina football classic.
I know you are busy actually living this experience, but do you ever step back and examine everything that happened here over the last two years? It’s been pretty epic.
Riley: “The locker room after a championship game. Individual moments with some of the guys. Baker (Mayfield) and Kyler (Murray), as they’ve had their awards or their (NFL draft) deals. I try to enjoy those because you don’t get those moments back. Outside of those moments, though, we just stay busy and focused on today.”
Who is your all-time favorite athlete?
Riley: “Tiger. Probably because I’ve watched him for so long. I loved Michael Jordan and Troy Aikman, but I’ve been able to watch Tiger Woods for 20-something years. I was 13 (when Woods won the 1997 Masters), and I remember watching every shot of it.”
You’ve had five months to get to know and observe new OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Six weeks before preseason camp begins, what is your message about Grinch and the defense?
Riley: “I think there’s momentum. There’s hope. There’s energy. We’ve got a lot of (veteran defensive players) – guys who’ve been a part of good teams. They want to be the strength of this team. And then you’ve got some really talented newcomers who are excited about our direction, too. You can feel the momentum of the change. Alex and the defensive staff have done a nice job of building that momentum. You can see it starting to come together.”
Speed and strength are the basic necessities for a football athlete, but isn’t belief at least 51 percent of being successful?
Riley: “It’s probably more than 51 percent. It’s such a mental game. It’s the only way you can explain why there are elite players at every level who are not really physically gifted. That’s the only way you can explain how a guy like Tom Brady – a guy with (average athleticism) – might be the best football player ever. It’s amazing. Belief is everything. It’s our job to instill that, and Alex and our defensive coaches are doing a good job with that.”
OU has a long list of talented targets in the passing game. To have gone from Mark Andrews to Grant Calcaterra and now Austin Stogner – I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better succession of tight ends.
Riley: “It’s an exciting group. One of the more experienced groups we’ve had. It will be a really, really competitive room. The tight end position has become a bigger part of our offense and a bigger focus point in recruiting. What you can do with those guys is unique. It makes us tougher to defend.”
Talking with Jalen Hurts is like conversing with a 30-year-old guy. Smart, clever, mature. Is he that way all the time?
Riley: “He’s still a kid, but certainly on the more mature side. He’s a deep kid, but he’s still a kid. He’s becoming one of the guys here. He’s getting more comfortable and settled.”
Bob Stoops had one University of Oklahoma president for 18 seasons. Lincoln Riley has had three presidents in two years. Have you gotten to know interim President Joe Harroz Jr. and what has he said to you about OU football?
Riley: “I’ve gotten to know him a little bit through the years. I haven’t spent much time with him since (the Jim Gallogly-Harroz) transition. I know (Harroz) has a good big-picture vision for athletics, and specifically for (football) and what it means to this school. The deal with the presidents – some might say it’s not ideal, but there’s a lot of change happening. I’m excited about Joe. I think he’ll do a great job.”
Even if there is movement at the presidential level of the university, you still have the consistency of Joe Castiglione as your athletic director. Joe would seem to be the ultimate buffer between upheaval in the president’s office and what you’re trying to accomplish in football.
Riley: “No question. That solidifies and steadies everything.”
Do you actually handle all of your social-media activity? Are you surprised at how Twitter has evolved and how essential it has become?
Riley: “I do it all. All of that has exploded so much. It has changed the world. It’s undeniable. It’s so powerful in so many ways. I knew it could be a tool. Even though we are getting older, you want to connect to (athletes) in certain age groups. You have to adapt.”
When you tweet the sideways-glancing eyeballs, your Twitter followers lose their minds. It has become your Twitter signature and your way of letting OU fans know that something important is about to pop.
Riley: “I used (the eyeballs emoji) when I was (an) assistant. It got a few more eyeballs on it when I became the head coach. We’ve had fun with it. It’s taken on a life of its own.”
When you are on a treadmill or driving, who is your go-to music artist?
Riley: “Probably Jay Z or Eminem. (Staff members) provide all of the music recommendations you could ever ask for.”
When you were 26 and a Texas Tech assistant, Mike Leach was dismissed. As the interim coach, Ruffin McNeill gave the Alamo Bowl play-calling assignment to you. When the Red Raiders got 579 yards and beat Michigan State, did you start to realize what your destiny would look like?
Riley: “My first reaction was ‘oh, (bleep),’ and then pretty quickly after the initial shock, it was ‘yeah!’ In college football, when your boss is fired, about 95 percent of the time it also means that you are fired. Calling plays – I wanted to do it and I was ready to do it. The rest of it – the (uncertainty in regard to employment) and how it might affect your family – it complicated things.”
No matter how many seasons, games or offensive possessions go into a coach’s career body of work, that Alamo Bowl was a big night for you.
Riley: “It was huge. You felt it. On some level, you weren’t sure whether Ruffin would get the (Texas Tech) job. If you lost the game, you damn sure knew he wouldn’t. So, we were coaching for our jobs a little bit.”
You wound up as Ruffin McNeill’s offensive coordinator at East Carolina. In your first game there, you beat Tulsa 51-49 in one of the best games I’ve seen in this entire decade.
Riley: “My first game at ECU. The very first game I called after that Alamo Bowl. Phenomenal game. We hit a (33-yard) Hail Mary to win it. That Tulsa team had Charles Clay and (G.J.) Kinne. They were really good.”
Get your All-World Awards tickets for the June 22 event celebrating high school athletics at allworldawards.com.