Brandon Sneed sat down to discuss his latest book Sooner: The Making of a Football Coach, which documents Lincoln Riley’s rise from West Texas to the University of Oklahoma. We start out talking of Riley’s coaching journey, but quickly get in to stories about cowboy humorists, the best place to tailgate in Greenville, North Carolina, and how a one-time OU assistant in the 70s helped bring Riley to Norman.
The interview took place on August 31st 2020, and has the usual edits for clarity and readability.
Adam: The book starts at the beginning of the 2017 season, right at the beginning. When I started reading this, I thought man, 2017 feels like a long time ago. For many reasons. Thinking about coronavirus, and the team protests just in the last four or five days. There have been a lot of changes.
Adam: It took me a second to think “who was the quarterback at OU at that time?”, because there’s been a lot of other changes just with OU since then, which you go into in the book. But just doing that kind of double-take, like, “Oh, it was Baker Mayfield”, made me think of how there’s been a lot of stuff going on with Riley in just the last few years. That speaks to just the speed of his career overall, which is obviously the theme of the book. And it crystallizes it right there in my mind with that first thought.
Editor’s Note: At this time Adam realizes he should probably be asking some questions, instead of just talking about what he’d read. It is a Q&A after all.
Adam: Now you jumped back in the book after that, and go in to Riley’s growing up in Muleshoe, TX. Did you put the Will Rogers story in there as a good reference for us Okies to gobble up?
Brandon: No, it wasn’t intentional in that way, I just thought it was really interesting that he had gone through there (Muleshoe). I remember watching some Will Rogers stuff as a kid and I just thought it was really cool that he had written what he’d written about the place. He had this cool resonance with Lincoln being this guy who turns out to have a lot of ability to see things that other people maybe don’t see right away.
So that was kind of resonated with me as far as like, Will Rogers talking about this being a place where you can see anything in the world up ahead of you. I love that.
Adam: With the part on Muleshoe, I got really into the discussion on Lincoln’s high school playing days. I really liked the detail of some of his games, like the semifinal appearance in Texas Stadium. Did you watch some game tape?
Brandon: Yeah, it’s on Youtube. I don’t remember how I stumbled across. I just saw it and I was like, Oh, this is cool, so I watched it and took a bunch of notes on it. And yeah, that was fun to watch though.
Adam: I’m kind of speaking as an observer of OU football, a fan. And I knew he was an athlete and of course the quarterback in school, but it sounds like he was a pretty good one, and played multiple positions. You mentioned he made some first second teams, and was an all-conference punter.
Brandon: That was really interesting to me, and that’s something that I never had a chance to ask him much about, but he had some legitimate renown as a punter in West Texas football. He was just a great athlete for his high school and he played basketball as well. He played both ways on the football team as a lot of kids do in high school football.
But he was just a leader. His coaches talk about noticing him, even in middle school. He was one of the bigger kids at the time and just had some real athleticism and a hunger to learn and get better, and he was just smart and knew how the game worked. He was one of those guys that knew how to be a leader too, without telling anybody to follow him. They just did it. You know, that’s just kind of always been the way he was.
Adam: His freshman or sophomore year, he had the injury to his throwing shoulder. You think it had an effect on his trajectory, at least for his playing career. Was he going to have a shot, in your view, at a D1 level of playing?
Brandon: I think he would have had a shot. don’t think he was a preternaturally gifted quarterback, the way he is a preternaturally gifted coach though. Who knows, it’s the way that he shows he’s really good at learning and growing, so I could be wrong about that, because he’s a great leader, and he’s a smart guy. It’s just impossible to say. He was just too young when he got hurt to really be able to tell, but that said, people would have said the same thing about Baker Mayfield. You just never know with people, I mean, as smart as Lincoln is and as good as he is at learning, it is entirely possible, but that’s just my gut reaction is I think he’s a way better coach than he ever would have been as a football player.
Adam: You talked about getting hurt, and adapting, and overcoming it. It’s a thread that you continue on in the book. I thought another great theme in the book is the influence of mentors and the connections that Riley has, starting in high school and moving on. The biggest that OU fans will know of course is Mike Leach, and with Riley making the attempt as a walk-on, and then converting into an assistant as a student. There’s a passage in the book talking about when he’s a walk on and Leach calls him to the office to say while he appreciates his mind, obviously he’s not going to work out as a quarterback and that Riley should join as his personal assistant. Leach had some comments about how he reflected on his own path to coaching and how he saw this as an opportunity for a young, 18, 19 year old Riley to skip over all these hardships of being a GA and living in dorms, etc, and taking years out of Riley’s career progress. Do you think Leach really knew just to what extent of just how greatly that did move him along in terms of Riley’s path to where he is now?
Brandon: I think he did kind of see it. You can’t ever predict the specifics of that, but he saw greatness in him and that’s why he offered a 19 year old kid a job that he’s not going to give to just anyone He wasn’t just giving him a student assistant job, Riley was Mike Leach’s right hand man for a hundred hours a week. Mike Leach doesn’t waste his time on just anybody. He saw something. It was just a kind of a gamble that Mike Leach took and like he said in the book, he took comfort in the fact that ‘if it wasn’t working out, I could just fire him’.
Adam: Laughs That sounds exactly like what Leach would say.
Brandon: That’s pretty much how he said it. He saw something in him. Yeah, Lincoln didn’t have the arm to do what he needed to do as a quarterback, but he had everything else. He knew how the offense worked, he figured that out pretty quickly, he knew where the ball was supposed to go and why it was supposed to go in there. He just, he couldn’t get it there, which was a physical thing.
I think Leach just saw a unique mind. I mean, that’s why he told him, ‘you’re not gonna play quarterback for me’. I think that you could be a good coach though. And Leach thought he was giving Lincoln, you know, this great gift by offering that. And Lincoln’s reaction is first to argue with him, and try to convince him to play. As a true competitor, of course. And then he asked to go take a weekend to go think about it, which again, Mike Leach, is like, are you kidding me?
But Leach also got it, because he said he himself could be hard to convince of things too, sometimes. So you know, I think he just saw a lot of great potential. And obviously he was right.
Adam: The book continues with his time at Tech. I Remember the Adam and Craig James issue and how it led to Leach’s dismissal, but I wasn’t aware of Riley being stuck in the middle of that, with him being the position coach, but also how he and Ruffin McNeill took on the interim coaching duties at that bowl game after Leach was removed, which later leads to their jobs at ECU. I remember watching that bowl game and hearing the discussion of how the interim OC was 25 or 26, but not remembering until reading the book that it was Riley. If we go back and watch that game, are they talking about Lincoln Riley any? Would it be interesting for fans to go back and try and look that one up?
Brandon: There was certainly talk about him. It certainly didn’t go unnoticed that he’s 25 years old and the acting offensive coordinator for a bowl game.
The book takes us to a chapter titled Greenville. One of my original questions for you was going to be, being that you are from North Carolina, what was your motivation to put together a book like this. I’m not the most geographically oriented guy nor am I up on all my American Athletic Conference football school locations. So I will admit that it took a while for me for Greenville to click, as you’re in Greenville and so is ECU.
Brandon: I was a student at ECU when he was an offensive coordinator there. I was going to those games as a student. I grew up in Greenville and so I was pretty familiar with Pirate football, which had always been something the town always really got hyped about, but they were also never consistently very good. I mean, that sounds harsh, but they just, you have the Tar Heels right up the road, and Wake Forest and NC State. Wake Forest, maybe not as much, but especially Carolina and State. They tend to attract a lot more football talent naturally to them over the years, at least that was my impression growing up.
So ECU has struggled to get, I think the best way to put it is it struggles to get the kind of talent that reflects the passion that its fans have for it. There’s always a ton of passion in Greenville for Pirate football, and the team, it’ll have these moments where it beat teams they have no business beating and they look freaking great. And then they go play a more mid level team and they just struggle. So they were always just kind of up and down like that.
ECU had had some success right before Lincoln and Ruffin McNeill got there, and had won a couple of conference championships. But even then it was, and this is what I love about Greenville, is even then the fans are complaining, ‘well, the games are still kind of boring though’. It was just an old school kind of grind-it-out style of offense that Skip Holtz, the coach, implemented. That’s how he believed in controlling a football game was by controlling the clock, and Lincoln and Ruffin came in and they said, we’re going to have fun. We’re going to throw the ball over the place. It’s gonna be a great time.
And that’s absolutely what they did. It was really, really fun watching that team and just watching the fans. To me, it was just as much fun watching the fans be as happy as they were that the team was actually like living up to their love for it. You know? Because the fans here, they just, they love the team, and it was cool to watch the team actually be able to give them what they had wanted for a long time.
Adam: The book does make me want to visit Greenville.
Brandon: Dude you should put that out. That’ll mean a lot to the people of Greenville. It’s an awesome little town, man. I just feel like everybody here feels kind of overlooked. Like I say in the book, it’s right between the beach and the Triangle, Raleigh Durham. So it’s just an easy place to blow by if you don’t know much about it. But it’s an awesome little town.
Adam: The Greenville tailgating scene sounds pretty legit. In the book you give a good comparison with Norman, Riley’s next stop, and I think it’s pretty spot on with describing the scene in Norman, which is maybe not as, you know it is tail-gatey, but it’s not as much as another place you might find.
Brandon: In Norman, there’s a lot of tailgating, but the energy is just different. It’s a weird thing to try to articulate, but it was like, ‘all right, here’s what we’ll do, and the real party is when the game starts.’ Whereas in Greenville it’s like, ‘no, the party is the party and the game is part of the party’. That’s how it feels in Greenville, at least to me, that’s just me. I ran that by a few friends around here, and yeah, that’s pretty much right.
Adam: I saw a Sooner Swirl reference in there. You hit The Mont? That’s some in-depth research. That’s a tough gig sometimes.
Brandon: You’ve got to make sure you know what you’re dealing with. Yeah, the Swirl. I think it’s a mix of margarita and something else. Jason Kersey at the Athletic introduced me to it. He’s awesome, but he’s gonna be frustrated I don’t remember the exact details. It’s in my notebook somewhere.
Adam: I’ve had plenty, and I couldn’t tell you either to be honest, but I remember The Mont as a spot to go whenever you finished the semester and sold your books back, you know, you had some cash. It’s not like they’re expensive, but it felt like up-town a little bit to hang out there. At least for me.
Editor: Margarita and Sangria
Adam: What’s the spot in Greenville? Do you have an equivalent to The Mont and The Swirl?
Brandon: That’s a good question. The first one that comes to mind is the bar that has been voted the best college sports bar in the country for like two years in a row at Barstool Sports is Sup Dogs in downtown Greenville. They make great hot dogs and some great drinks. The downtown Greenville scene has actually come up a decent bit in recent years with some of the different businesses coming through. There’s this group called Uptown Greenville that is working hard to try to bring in good restaurants and good entertainment and bars and breweries and things like that. There’s a couple breweries downtown that are cool. I don’t know if there’s singular, The Swirl at the Mont situation, though I’ll come back to that if something comes to mind.
Adam: Back to the thread of Riley’s mentors and influences that you write about throughout the book. We talked about Leach and McNeill. I think most OU fans are going be familiar with the connections between Leach and Stoops with his year in ’99 at OU that links it back to Norman, but I was surprised to see that there was a great deal of influence with the kind of guy behind the guy, if you will. A connection that I think a majority of OU fans will find very interesting , linking back Riley to the Switzer days via Donnie Duncan. That was probably the most surprising part about the book.
Brandon: It was surprising to me, too, to learn about it. Donnie Duncan had done kind of everything there is to do in college football career wise. He started the Big 12, and he knew all the ins and outs of that world. It was when Lincoln took over as the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech (for the bowl game), Duncan was aware of him before then, because he was close with Mike Leach. But that’s when Donnie and Lincoln and Ruffin, they all became a lot closer starting around that time. And then Donnie was just one of the first calls Lincoln would make when it came time to figuring out like what moves to make career wise, what to take, what interviews to take, where not to go, how to deal with basically anything he’d have to deal with as a college coach.
Donnie lived in Dallas, Lincoln would go through there on recruiting trips all the time and he’d always go by Donnie’s and they just spend nights out on the boat just talking about everything. He was like a father figure in the college football world to Lincoln. He died after a long battle with cancer a few years ago, and that just tore everybody up. There was several people who were a big part of Lincoln getting there, but Donnie may be one of the biggest.
Adam: That is a very fascinating part of this story. The thought that came to me was that this is almost like a story with this Dickensian benefactor dropping in at the right time to help with prepping for interview questions during the bowl game or making the right calls to various people, getting in to Stoops, those types of things. That might be exaggerating a bit. But it definitely had that sense of linking Switzer, through his association with Donnie Duncan, and seeing that come in through 40 plus years to the present day coach, which was really fascinating.
Brandon: Absolutely. Something Lincoln’s really good at, too is just being really aware of – yes, he’s bright and he knows how to coach a team and work with players and all that, but he’s only ended up where he is because of the people that have helped him along the way, which is really what the story becomes about. Lincoln’s the one doing all this stuff, but to me, just as fascinating was just all the different people that made that possible. So yeah, Donnie, and Mike Leach, Ruffin McNeill and some other people. He couldn’t be doing it without them.
Adam: There’s a passage in the book discussing Bob Stoops considering interviewing Lincoln, and it’s like he was getting peppered at one point from various sources to talk to this guy. From Leach and Duncan, and then Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys guy was ringing him up, too. And Stoops is like, ‘Hey yeah, okay. He’s coming to my office in five minutes. I get it.’ Do you think Stoops was kinda thinking ‘Shit I got it. Okay, I’ll talk to the guy!’
Brandon: I think that he knew Lincoln was an unusual talent, and I really think once you sit down and talk with Lincoln, you don’t have any doubts he’s the real deal, because he is. He’s bright on a football field, but he’s just bright in general. And he’s, he’s also very humble and, just personable and it comes off as, truly just considerate of the people that he’s around and their time, and what matters to them, too. Maybe there might’ve been some element of ‘Oh gosh, okay. I’ll talk to him’, but I think is also just probably a good confirmation. A lot of people that Bob Stoops trusted that agreed.
Adam: I love the book, I burned through it really quickly.
Brandon: I’m glad to hear the book was a quick read. The thing I love most about it is this is just a great story. My goal with it is just to write a story that people were going to get lost in for a little while, but also move quickly, and just kind of grab you. I love a good story that’s about true things, but it just, it also can just be like great entertainment for a little while.