Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley Right to Spurn NFL to Build CFB Superpower
MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 29:  Head coach Lincoln Riley of the Oklahoma Sooners looks on prior to their College Football Playoff Semifinal against the Alabama Crimson Tide at the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There isn’t a hotter name on the coaching market than Lincoln Riley.

In only two seasons, he’s racked up accolades. Oklahoma has two Big 12 championships, two appearances in the College Football Playoff and two Heisman Trophy winners.

Short of winning a national title, Riley could hardly have a more appealing resume. The 35-year-old has built an offensive juggernaut on a high-efficiency system with remarkable production.

And the NFL wants him. Oh, does it covet Riley.

During the spring, someone from nearly all 32 NFL teams approached him to discuss Oklahoma’s offense. Then, they watched him turn Kyler Murray into a baseball-playing football star.

Rumors had him reuniting with former OU quarterback Baker Mayfield with the Cleveland Browns. The Green Bay Packers have a vacancy, a legend in Aaron Rodgers and a desperate need for a creative scheme. The Dallas Cowboys seemed to be a possibility until a late-season surge might’ve saved Jason Garrett.

Bleacher Report’s own Brad Gagnon called Riley the fourth-best candidate behind star coordinators Josh McDaniels and Vic Fangio and a two-time NFL Coach of the Year in Bruce Arians.

Perhaps a better time to pursue the pros awaits, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t seize the moment right now. Success is never guaranteed, and college football has a razor-thin margin for errorespecially compared to the 16-game NFL season.

Yet he’s wisely not going anywhere.

Financially speaking, Oklahoma can compete with most anything the NFL will offer. Riley recently agreed to a contract extension and a second raise in two years. In 2018, per USA Today, he earned $4.8 million. According to Oregon Live data gathering, a top-10 NFL salary is $5 million. The school isn’t short on resources to provide him.

Riley’s end of the bargain is supplying the on-field talent, and he’s done a tremendous job recruiting. The Sooners ranked eighth in 2017, ninth in 2018 and are seventh before the February signing periodeven without a defensive coordinator in place.

He’s adding this current class to a squad that has celebrated four straight Big 12 championships. Although the Sooners have rejoined the nation’s elite, they’ve done so without a string of top-tier defenses. The unit is practically a rebuild, and Riley’s teams are 24-4 anyway. Considering the offense’s excellence, OU would become a powerhouse if the defense could match what Gary Patterson has built at TCU.

At that level, Oklahoma would boast a degree of balance only Alabama and Clemson have displayed. Given that OU ranked 15th in yards allowed per play in 2015, that upside is possible even in a Big 12 that features wide-open offenses.

However, all of these accomplishments have no bearing on NFL success.

Those are necessary to get Riley in the door, but that’s all. It’s not like NFL coaches leave thriving teams as Bob Stoops did at Oklahoma in 2017 after an 11-2 season and Sugar Bowl win, handing Riley the keys to a Corvette. NFL vacancies are vacancies for a reason. If he doesn’t win, Riley can’t fall back on an impressive college football resume. Nobody will care.

In Norman, he’s already upgraded the Corvette to a Lamborghini.

Lincoln Riley has excelled in two years as Oklahoma's head coach.

Lincoln Riley has excelled in two years as Oklahoma’s head coach.Brandon Wade/Associated Press

Additionally, he’d be limited to one first-round pick and free agency each season. At Oklahoma, he can recruit any college-eligible prospect on the planet.

Nick Saban learned that the hard way, mustering a 15-17 record with the Miami Dolphins before returning to the college level. All he did was orchestrate the most successful decade in college football history at Alabama, dominating on the field and in recruiting.

Dabo Swinney is doing the same at Clemson, which has a national title among four straight College Football Playoff appearances. He’s never coached in the NFL and over the summer said he’s never put much thought into it, either.

No coach is closer to joining that duo than Riley.

From an outside perspective, the allure of the NFL could offer a guaranteed reunion with Mayfield or the realization of a dream of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Neither one appears to carry more weight than college football’s grandest stage.

Taking an NFL job is “not a burning desire of mine by any stretch right now,” Riley said Sunday following Oklahoma’s 45-34 loss to Alabama in the CFP semifinals, per Joe Mussatto of the Oklahoman. “Not even close. It doesn’t even compare to my burning desire to win a national championship here.”

Sure, it’s possible he’s simply saying the right things in public to coincide with immediate plans. Opposing coaches will take any negative rumor and use it to their recruiting advantage, and Riley cannot afford to let any doubt seep into the minds of Oklahoma’s recruits.

Yes, Riley recently left the NFL door cracked, acknowledging he can’t predict 10 years into the future. But 10 years ago, the college football world saw Alabama as a rising force, not a dynasty. Swinney was a first-year head coach, not a superstar football mind who returned Clemson to prominence.

Oklahoma can join them with Riley at the helm. As the Sooners thrive, the NFL will keep calling.

Riley has more than enough incentive to continue hanging up.


All recruiting information via 247Sports’ composite. Stats from NCAA.comcfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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