It is fairly well known to most Sooner fans that Lincoln Riley attempted to walk-on at quarterback for Texas Tech, then later converted to a student coaching assistant under Mike Leach, thus ending his playing career and beginning his coaching career.
Less known is that Riley had a promising playing career in high school, but an early injury to his throwing shoulder hindered his physical development as a passer.
Brandon Sneed details this is in his new book Sooner: The Making of a Football Coach, which discusses Lincoln’s playing days in high school, and how an injury hindered his throwing ability, forcing him to rely on and develop his football IQ.
Below is an excerpt from an interview with Brandon. Read the full interview here.
Whether Riley would have been able to pursue a D1 level playing career, if not for the shoulder injury:
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.
Riley’s skill at playing multiple positions, including time as 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.
While attempting to walk on at Texas Tech, Brandon discusses how Mike Leach knew that while Riley wouldn’t make it as a QB, he had an incredible intelligence about the game, and so he offered him a position as Leach’s personal assistant:
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?
Leach 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’.