- Lincoln Riley is a star in the making. But so is Tom Herman.
- There’s a huge difference between the journeys each took to get here. And is it possible that Herman’s a better coach than Riley? Or every bit as good? The equal? The question is worth posing because of the beds they inherited.
- Both are creative offensive minds. Riley calls the plays. So does Herman although it’s sort of cloaked in mystery. Riley unleashes as prolific a scoring machine as there is. Herman hates field goals and throws touchdown passes to offensive tackles.
Lincoln Riley’s on the Most Wanted List.
Every single one of them.
If any NFL or high-level college vacancy comes open, the Oklahoma coach inevitably shows up on the list. The Washington Redskins is the latest opening, and yes, Riley’s name popped up as usual. Not immediately. It took at least five or 10 minutes before Riley was mentioned as a possible successor to the ousted Jay Gruden.
And deservedly so.
He’s been in the Sooners’ chair for only two-plus seasons, and Riley’s name has cropped up as a potential fit for every job from the Cleveland Browns, where his former pupil Baker Mayfield presides, to the Dallas Cowboys, his long-time favorite team.
“I think the Dallas Cowboys would intrigue him,” said former Sooners great Dusty Dvoracek. “He grew up as a Cowboys fan, so that’s probably his childhood dream. But right now, the NFL makes no sense. He’s got one of the best 10 jobs in college football.”
Lincoln Riley is a star in the making.
But so is Tom Herman.
That much seems apparent. Both coaches have positioned their teams atop the Big 12 where they belong as they head into Saturday’s showdown in the Cotton Bowl. Riley, of course, has already cemented his spot as one of the best young coaches in all of college football. Everything he touches is offensive gold. Two years, two College Football Playoff berths, two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, too many offensive stats to list. He’s 29-4 with losses only to Alabama, Georgia in double overtime, Iowa State by seven and Texas by three.
Herman is recasting Texas as the college powerhouse it was under Darrell Royal, Fred Akers and Mack Brown. His Longhorns won 10 games a year ago, including an impressive butt-kicking of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, and reached the Big 12 title game. He’s 21-11 at Texas but has won 14 of his last 17 games and has the CFP in his sights.
In this space anyway, the two coaches are 1 and 1A.
That said, there’s a huge difference between the journeys each took to get here. And is it possible that Herman’s a better coach than Riley? Or every bit as good? The equal?
The question is worth posing because of the beds they inherited.
Riley’s couldn’t have been any warmer because Bob Stoops left the coziest bed there was, leaving his successor a full-fledged Heisman candidate and another waiting in the wings. In Riley’s first year, he began with Baker Mayfield calling the shots, wide receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb, tight end Mark Andrews and four offensive linemen who would all get drafted in the first four rounds after the 2018 season.
Herman? He basically started from scratch. Maybe below scratch.
Riley, 36, started with a strong nucleus that had already won big and an intact staff. Herman, 44, began with a fractured team that had lost to Kansas and kept no one from the previous staff.
Riley opened his head coaching career with the remnants of Bob Stoops teams that had gone 22-4 and won consecutive Big 12 titles. Mayfield completed 16 straight passes and OU blew out UTEP. Herman started his with what was left from Charlie Strong’s mess and began against, uh, Maryland. Not so good. He rinsed and repeated to start 2018.
But they share a number of similarities as well. In fact, Herman said that before they became rivals, they “talked a lot of shop” with each other.
Both are creative offensive minds. Riley calls the plays. So does Herman although it’s sort of cloaked in mystery. Riley unleashes as prolific a scoring machine as there is. Herman hates field goals and throws touchdown passes to offensive tackles.
Both come off as intense but care deeply for their players. Both paid their dues as offensive coordinators at powerhouses, Riley at OU and Herman at Ohio State. Herman cut his head coaching teeth at Houston. Houston wanted to hire Riley away from OU after Herman left, but Riley was told he’d succeed Stoops in short order, which he did.
Riley’s beaten Herman twice. Herman’s beaten Riley once. And Stoops once as well. Riley’s clearly had better material, but Herman is rapidly closing the gap with back-to-back top three national recruiting classes.
If they’re not competing on equal terms yet, they soon will be.
I asked Herman to contrast him and his OU counterpart. They appear to be cut from the same cloth.
“He’s been able to stay thin for three years,” Herman cracked on Monday. “I haven’t done as good a job.”
Herman’s quick with the quip. Not sure Riley’s had a quip yet.
On Tuesday, his players totally endorsed their head coach.
Center Zach Shackelford and quarterback Sam Ehlinger both mentioned Herman’s incessant attention to detail as the foremost quality that separates Herman from others. Has anyone forgotten the famous hydration charts? The Horns always watch their pees and q’s.
“The mindset is elite,” Ehlinger said.
“His attention to detail is superb,” Shackelford said. “You don’t really see that many head coaches pay attention to all the little things. He knows everything that goes on.”
Samuel Cosmi, who scored his first touchdown on the lateral from Ehlinger against West Virginia, raved about Herman and said his head coach is “not afraid to call certain plays like that, especially in the fourth quarter. He puts a lot of trust in us.”
Unlike some head coaches who specialize on offense, Herman stays involved on the defensive side. He sticks his head in Todd Orlando’s defensive meetings during the week and in their huddles on game day.
Herman sees the same in Riley. “I admire his creativity offensively and his ability to stay so involved in the offense,” Herman said, “yet still tackle the requirements of being a head coach in a premier program in the country.”
Which means paying attention to the defense, too. Herman’s done a much better job of that than Riley although neither team has an elite defense.
“He’ll come in and give us his two cents,” defensive end Malcolm Roach said.
“He’s like coach Orlando,” said safety Brandon Jones, “but an offensive guru.”
Just like Riley. Herman may be one who is finally getting his due. Even if it’s past due.