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Original Issue


The wunderkind behind the nation's top offense, Sooners coach LINCOLN RILEY is already a legend in the making. But will he stick around in Norman?

FACING NATIONAL reporters for the first time as Oklahoma's head coach at the 2017 Big 12 media days, Lincoln Riley spent 45 minutes getting peppered with questions about whether he could simultaneously handle the duties of being Oklahoma's coach and offensive play-caller. Riley, then 33, had replaced the retiring Bob Stoops a little more than a month earlier after two seasons as the Sooners' offensive coordinator. He answered every query that day in Dallas diplomatically. But when his session ended, he turned to a group of more familiar faces and said, "Seems to be working out O.K. for Jimbo Fisher."

By name-checking the then Florida State coach and offensive play-caller who won a national title in '13, Riley made his position clear: Many people may be skeptical, but I know what I can do.

Two conference titles, two playoff berths and two Heisman Trophy--winning QBs later, it seems silly that anyone doubted whether Riley—who just four years ago was East Carolina's offensive coordinator—could juggle both roles. Now, with his offense threatening the FBS yards-per-play record of 8.6 set by the 2006 Hawaii offense—Oklahoma averages 8.8—the better question is what can't Riley do? He'll be on the short lists of NFL teams seeking a coach, but he could also stay put, get a raise and become an OU legend.

When NFL teams had success in 2017 mimicking offensive concepts similar to what the Sooners run, pro coaches streamed to Norman to pick Riley's brain. How did Baker Mayfield always find an open receiver? How did OU marry a smashmouth run game with a passing attack that had Air Raid roots? This year Riley adapted the offense to take advantage of the elite speed of QB Kyler Murray, and Murray went on to win the Heisman.

Riley's name already came up when the Browns fired Hue Jackson in October. Would Riley consider a reunion with Mayfield in Cleveland? The NFL is intriguing to him, but he loves his current job. Barry Switzer, the former Sooners and Dallas Cowboys coach, tweeted that he'd give Riley the same advice he gave Stoops when NFL teams came calling: "More coaches would want the job you just left than one you just took." Switzer's point: If it isn't the perfect NFL job, then it's not worth giving up an elite college job Riley could excel at for 20 years or more.

Athletic director Joe Castiglione has intimated that the Sooners will make sure Riley, who makes $4.8 million a year, is paid fairly relative to his peers. That means he could soon earn what Dabo Swinney makes at Clemson (about $6.8 million a year) or what Fisher now gets at Texas A&M ($7.5 million). Riley will have work to do in Norman after the playoff, though. He must find a defensive coordinator who can make that unit match the success of the offense. Riley also must retool his attack for a third starting QB in three years. Could he help that guy win the Heisman, too, and lead the Sooners to the playoff again?

Recent results show it's unwise to doubt him.