McNeill says he’s ‘proud’ of mentee Riley
Ruffin McNeill didn’t need long to know that Lincoln Riley was ready for his first head coaching job. Riley said he grew a lot this season with the Sooners.
It only took Ruffin McNeill 30 minutes to know that Lincoln Riley was ready for his first head coaching job.
Sitting with Riley in his expansive office back in June, McNeill laughed with his old mentee. For half an hour, they reminisced about the old times at Texas Tech and East Carolina and laughed about the crazy circumstances that brought them both to Oklahoma.
But then, it was all business.
Riley laid out his plan for his staff, his players and his season for McNeill, all mapped out within weeks of his promotion to head coach.
That’s when McNeill knew that Riley was ready to tackle the task at hand.
Months later, sitting at the L.A. Hotel, McNeill reflected on Riley’s first year as head coach.
“From that moment on, he had a plan,” McNeill said, remembering their June meeting after he was hired on as the defensive tackles coach. “He had a plan of how to handle the team. Not just the team, but the leadership part of the team. Plan with the staff, where he wanted us recruiting-wise, position-wise. All of that.
“He had a plan already set before we even played a game … It didn’t take the season for me to see. ”Riley’s first season came to a close just days after The Oklahoman’s conversation with McNeill, but his feelings about Riley’s first season still hold true.
“Two words: proud and pride,” McNeill said. “When I hear him speak, I see him with the people around him over there, he’s handling it with poise.
“He’s done a great job of handling the team, the staff, the media and the situations of the season, of each week, each day, each game. Very proud of him and how he’s handled it. It doesn’t surprise me.”
With a talented team and veteran leadership propelling him, Riley’s first season ended in the College Football Playoff — but it was a roller coaster to get there.
In the preseason, he dismissed freshman quarterback Chris Robison for a violation of team rules. A couple weeks later, he guided the team to a monster win at Ohio State, jumpstarting its playoff hopes.
Then there was the close win at Baylor and the loss to Iowa State.
The shocking upset at the hands of the Cyclones catalyzed Riley to make adjustments to his plan, McNeill said.
In the aftermath of the Kansas win, Riley had to punish Baker Mayfield, the player with whom he shares the tightest bond.
“The discipline, it was handled in what I call a command influence way,” McNeill said. “It was tough on both of them because they’re tight, and he’s like that with all the kids, but those two have a bond. But he made a decision. It wasn’t a quick, off-the-cuff decision. It was thought about, he made it.”
Riley knows his first season was far from perfect, and he’s dedicating part of this off-season to self-evaluation.
“I know I’ve grown a lot, I’ve learned a lot and I’ll continue to do so,” Riley said. “I think we did some really good things. I think there’s still plenty things that I’ve got to do better … We had a great year. But it’s all in our nature to never be satisfied.”
It didn’t take Ruffin McNeill long to know his former mentee was ready to be a head coach.