Lincoln Riley owns a 19-3 record at the University of Oklahoma, where he is scheduled to make $25 million over the next five seasons. His team is favored to win by 10 points at Texas Tech on Saturday.
The number of my colleagues who believe Riley should drop what he’s doing at the end of this season (if not sooner) and hustle to Cleveland to coach the 2-5-1 Browns, a team that is an 8 1/2-point underdog at home to Kansas City on Sunday, staggers me.
And if it was only one colleague, which it’s not, that would still stagger me.
Riley, naturally, was asked about the Browns’ opening since he coached Baker Mayfield to the Heisman Trophy last fall in Norman. He said the proper thing, which is that he has no interest in the NFL “right now.”
An unexpected nosedive by the Sooners’ program could change his mind, but I can’t imagine that anything else would. Certainly not if the destination is Cleveland, where coaches filled with self-belief as the right guy to fix the NFL’s worst organization tend to last about two years.
Some folks just believe the NFL is the pinnacle and that coaches who want to be the best need to coach the best. I could tell you how silly I think this is, but instead, I called Barry Switzer so we could use his words instead of mine.
“I dealt with this a few times, I told Bob (Stoops) about a decade ago when Detroit was interested, ‘More coaches want the job you’d be leaving than the one you’d be taking,'” Switzer said. “Most coaches would rather work one of the top five programs in America, and Oklahoma is one of those top five.
“There are two reasons they’d rather do it. Winning and money. Not many NFL coaches retire set for life like Bob Stoops just did.”
Switzer may be wrong about the inability to retire after even short stints in the professional ranks. But he’s dead on when it comes to what counts. The money at the top college programs is sensational. If Riley is guaranteed $25 million for five years to live in Norman, you think $35 million over five years in Cleveland is a better life?
Certain schools have managed to sustain built-in recruiting advantages over decades. The Sooners are one of them. And, as Switzer pointed out, Riley brings his own edge to the equation.
“Lincoln recruits the quarterbacks. He works daily with the quarterbacks. He calls the plays,” Switzer said. And his first starter won the Heisman. “That gives him a tremendous advantage to recruit the best quarterbacks every year.”
What about the lure of coaching Mayfield?
Riley’s never going to say it, and he probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about or analyzing it, but what if he believes Mayfield is more likely to be an average NFL starter than a great one?
Maybe the only differences between Mayfield and Kansas City’s MVP-in-waiting Patrick Mahomes are the weapons and head coach. But it’s possible there’s more to it. Mayfield made a wonderful NFL debut on a Thursday night game against his draft rival, the Jets’ Sam Darnold. For one night, there was no question which quarterback was more ready for prime time.
Since completing 74 percent of his passes that night, Mayfield has completed 56.5 percent while going 1-4 the next five weeks. Yes, his passer rating is the best of the four rookies. But he ranks 29th while Darnold’s 32nd, Arizona’s Josh Rosen is 33rd and Buffalo’s Josh Allen is 34th.
The Sooners ranked seventh in the first College Football Playoff rankings, highest among the three teams tied for the Big 12’s top spot. It’s possible that Texas wins the league or maybe West Virginia this season, but the betting money is on Oklahoma.
And some of you want Riley to drop that to go see if he can develop Mayfield into an NFL playoff quarterback. Remember, Cleveland isn’t just your basic coaching graveyard. Cleveland is where Bill Belichick goes to get fired.
There’s money and glory to be found in the NFL if you land with the right franchise at the right time. But the whole thing is essentially a crapshoot. Take a look at the team that brings in the most money (hint: it plays in Arlington) and how many Super Bowls that franchise has visited the last two decades.
Riley’s a smart, innovative coach who no doubt could succeed in the NFL, as Mayfield suggested Wednesday. “What it comes down to is players trusting the coach. I think his style would work but that’s just because of who he is,” Mayfield said.
The difference between these two jobs? With some very lucky bounces, Riley may find success in Cleveland. He’s already riding it at Oklahoma.
It’s his call, of course, but for me, this isn’t one of the tougher ones.
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