Morris: Lincoln Riley makes ECU’s offense go

You might wonder why a program like East Carolina consistently ranks among the national leaders in most offensive categories. Look no further than Lincoln Riley, once the youngest offensive coordinator in the country, and now five years into the job he is considered one of the brightest minds in the game.

Riley is a disciple of Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech coach who now leads Washington State. Yet Riley has put his stamp on an East Carolina offense by using more formations, operating at a faster tempo and greater utilizing the running game than Leach’s get-it-and-go attacks.

“Lincoln’s one of the sharpest coaches I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with,” Leach said of Riley this week via email. “He elevated very, very quickly because of his work ethic and because of his awareness and understanding of football on offense.”

Riley’s up-tempo, spread offense has resulted in an East Carolina that a season ago ranked seventh nationally in third-down conversions (51 percent) and eighth in scoring (40-point average). The Pirates scored 52 points on N. C. Central last weekend in preparation for Saturday’s meeting with South Carolina.

The wide-open offense and big numbers have made Riley a much sought-after coach. Riley, whom he said will “become an old man” when he turns 31 Friday, reportedly rebuffed job overtures from North Carolina and Notre Dame during the offseason to remain on coach Ruffin McNeill’s staff.

“He’s been loyal to me,” McNeill said this week. “He’s been approached from job after job since he’s been here. It’s more than Lincoln and I working together. He’s more like my son sometimes because I am older than him, and sometimes he’s like my younger brother.”

Riley and McNeill first forged that relationship when McNeill served as Texas Tech’s defensive coordinator under Leach, and Riley was a student assistant. They knew they were friends when McNeill met Riley’s girlfriend at the time, Caitlin Buckley, who now is Riley’s wife.

“Is this your girlfriend?” McNeill recalls saying.

“Yes.” Lincoln replied.

“Caitlin, why is somebody as pretty as you going to marry somebody as ugly as that?”

Riley was just beginning his coaching career, even though he was a sophomore at Texas Tech. A third-generation quarterback, Riley hoped to be the first in the family to play at a big-time football program. He spurned offers from smaller schools to walk on at Texas Tech.

At the end of spring practice following his freshman season, Leach summoned Riley to his office. Because he was a walk-on, Riley had little or no communication with Leach, so he was a bit puzzled by the meeting. Leach then informed Riley that he liked his intelligence on the field, but those smarts far outshone his athletic ability.

Leach, who was Texas Tech’s head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, believed Riley could help ease the load by becoming a student assistant coach with the specific assignment of working with the younger quarterbacks.

Mostly, Riley was a gofer for the full-time assistants, running for fast-food pickups and filling the gas tanks in their cars. He gradually progressed from student assistant to graduate assistant to Leach’s receivers coach at, gulp, age 23.

Then Leach was fired the week of the Alamo Bowl, following the 2009 season, and McNeill was named the interim head coach. He immediately named Riley the offensive coordinator for the bowl.

Riley knew a few things about operating beyond his age. He learned to drive a truck at age 11, and was driving a tractor on his father’s farm in Muleshoe, Texas, at age 13. So calling plays and coaching an offense for the first time was no exceptional challenge.

“His first time calling plays was in one of the most controversial weeks in bowl history, and we together as a group became successful against a great Michigan State team,” McNeill said.

Riley’s offense produced 571 yards in the 41-31 victory.

Later that summer, while McNeill was interviewing for the East Carolina job, Riley was doing the same for offensive coordinator positions at Southern Mississippi and Rice. Upon being hired by East Carolina, his first telephone call was to Riley.

“Linc,” McNeill recalls saying, “I’ve got this job, you coming?”

“Sure am,” Riley replied and caught a flight that evening to Greenville, N.C.

Riley was 26, but age was never a factor in his hiring, according to McNeill, who added, “It’s amazing how people think you have to be old to be wise.”

Riley said he understands that Leach and McNeill took chances in hiring such an inexperienced young coach. He believes part of what makes Leach and McNeill successful is their willingness to take chances and buck the norm. It carries over to the offenses they run.

“You’ve seen (other offensive coordinators) tinker with the scheme (learned at Texas Tech),” Riley said, “but the mentality has remained the same as far as being the aggressor, not being scared to take chances, being very, very committed to what we’re doing.”

Age is not a factor in carrying out that mentality.