Muleshoe’s Lincoln Riley knew he wanted to be a football coach — it just happened a little sooner than he expected.
After his freshman season as a non-scholarship quarterback at Texas Tech, then-Red Raiders coach Mike Leach approached Riley about hanging up his pads and grabbing a whistle. Seven years later, Riley is in his first year as offensive coordinator at East Carolina. At 26, he is one of the youngest coordinators in Division I.
What’s it like to come from a small town and be exposed to a world that most of us could only dream about?I really have to pinch myself at least once a week. As I grew up and started to think about what I wanted to do for a living, coaching always stayed in my mind. I always assumed I would be a high school coach and never dreamed about being at this level. A few good breaks, some great people, and hard work have given me this opportunity and I am very thankful. There is rarely a dull moment in my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You’ve lived in West Texas nearly all of your life. What’s the biggest adjustment to life in North Carolina?
Trees, water, and pork barbecue. All things we aren’t used to in West Texas, but they are all really growing on me. This state is absolutely beautiful and it’s pretty cool being only an hour from the ocean.
What is the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make as an offensive coordinator?
Just being in charge of more people. I feel very comfortable doing it and I really am excited to get out of bed every morning and head to the office. I always have had confidence in myself and the Alamo Bowl just reinforced that. I have a great staff around me and I’m excited to get going.
Who has had the biggest impact on you as far as football goes?
I’m not sure I can narrow it to one person. The coaches I’ve played for, David Wood and Mike Leach, both gave me a positive experience as a player. Working for Mike and for Ruffin McNeill has really shaped me as a coach. My dad has also had a big impact on anything I have done. All of these people have been great teachers, examples, and supporters of my coaching career and life.
What’s the best lesson you learned playing at Muleshoe?
That you can accomplish anything and never should put limits on yourself. The teams at Muleshoe as I grew up were awful, and we changed that so quickly because we believed that we could and worked extremely hard. No one on the outside would have ever believed that we could accomplish the things we did, but that didn’t matter. I have taken that mentality into every season and will continue to do so.
How many hours a week do you work during football season?
A few. Sunday and Monday 15-16, Tuesday and Wednesday 13-14, Thursday 11, Friday 8-9, Game on Saturday......whatever that adds up to.
Q: What is your favorite football moment?
Two. The Alamo Bowl and (Michael) Crabtree catching the pass to beat Texas.
Who was the best player you coached at Texas Tech. What made him so special?
Crabtree. He was a very confident person who worked hard and had God-given talent. He also is unbelievably smart. Wes Welker and Graham Harrell were also very special.
Who was the most talented player you’ve ever seen on a football field? What made him so special?
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better player than Crabtree. Vince Young, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Adrian Peterson and Ndamakong Suh were some of the best. We have a receiver here, Dwayne Harris, that is extremely good.
What’s the most memorable stadium you’ve been in?
Gosh, there’s so many great ones. Nebraska is probably my favorite because of how loud it is and the way the fans treat you. You can’t even hear yourself think in that stadium. They have sold out a ridiculous number of games in a row. A&M, Texas, Oklahoma, and Sun Devil Stadium in Phoenix are pretty cool. I’m looking forward to a few new ones here. We play at Virginia Tech and at North Carolina this year, so they should be cool. I’m also looking forward to playing in our stadium. They just expanded it to 51,000 (seating capacity) and added an 82-foot long HD Jumbotron.
You got to play at Texas Stadium when Muleshoe played Forney in a state semifinal game in your senior year. What was that like?
It was a great experience, but I have often wondered if we were a little overwhelmed by the stadium and didn’t give our best performance. Playing on the same surface as Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and the Cowboys was awesome, but I would trade it for a win in that game any day of the week.
Who was your favorite NFL quarterback when you were growing up?
Aikman. He was the QB of America’s Team and a true professional. I thought he held that team of prima donnas together and made them a great team.
If you had a chance to work with one NFL quarterback — past or present — who would it be?
Tom Brady would be the guy. He runs an offense that is similar to our offense and obviously has had a great deal of success doing it.
You had a chance to play quarterback at smaller colleges but walked on at Texas Tech. Why?
I wanted to go big or go home. I always have enjoyed doing things at a high level, whether it was playing a sport in front of a packed house or coaching in a stadium with 100,000 people in it. That has always been something I was after.
Is it true that former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach told you during your freshman year that you had a brighter future as a coach than a player? Was that hard to hear?
He gave me the option to stay and compete for the third QB job, but he really sold me on the idea of going into coaching. He needed help with the young QBs because of his head coaching duties, and it was such an opportunity for a guy that assumed he would be a high school coach. It was too good to pass up.
What is something people might not know about Leach?
Every time he drove through Muleshoe, usually to go skiing in New Mexico, he called me and said he saw all of my ex-girlfriends at the Sonic. This literally happened 10 times at least.
Your dad and grandfather also played quarterback at Muleshoe. Did they give you advice when you played?
They gave me advice on leadership and how to handle all the success our team was having. The game had changed so much from their time to mine, but the great qualities that separate teams never do. They always did a good job of directing me in that aspect.
You worked under Leach at Texas Tech for seven years. How much of his offense will you install at East Carolina?
Much of the concepts will be the same, but I will have my own twist on it. Those concepts started at (Brigham Young University) in the ’90s and moved from Hal Mumme to Leach to several members of our staff at Tech that have gotten the opportunity to run our own version.
What was going through your mind the night before the Alamo Bowl (Texas Tech beat Michigan State 43-31) when you took over as offensive coordinator after Leach was suspended?
My mind had settled by that time. The week was as trying of a week as I could imagine. Normally at a bowl game you enjoy all of the events that are going on, but Caitlin (his wife) and I just holed up in our hotel room and got out once to see a movie. I was just ready for the game to arrive and for all the nonsense to be over.
What kind of reaction do you get from people when you tell them you’re from a town called Muleshoe?
They normally laugh and say, “Is it really called that?”
Where’s the weirdest place you’ve drawn up a play?
Church. I probably shouldn’t have admitted that.
— Compiled by Rick White