ATLANTA | Lincoln Riley may not be old enough to be president, but there’s no age restriction for winning a national championship.
The first-year Oklahoma head coach, who turned 34 in September, sat on stage in the College Football Hall of Fame on Thursday for a joint press conference with his three counterparts who have also led their teams to the playoff .
Sitting to one side of Riley was Georgia’s Kirby Smart, who not long ago was considered a hot young assistant coach and turns 42 on Dec. 23. On the other side of Riley was Alabama’s Nick Saban, a 66-year old grandfather who has made all four of these playoffs. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, 48, two wins away from his second national title, filled the final chair.
That makes Smart the senior statesman of the coaches in the Georgia-Oklahoma Rose Bowl matchup. Smart was finishing up his second season under Saban as defensive coordinator with the Crimson Tide when he was Riley’s age. Smart was asked if he could envision being in Riley’s position then.
“No, I couldn’t imagine that,” Smart said. “I followed his career. He’s done a tremendous job. A lot of times that I was the defensive coordinator, when you have opportunities to get a head coaching job, everybody’s million dollar question is, ‘Who is your offensive coordinator?’ He was a guy on the radar for a long time, then he got his own. He’s done a tremendous job.”
Riley was elevated from offensive coordinator after two seasons on June 7 after the abrupt retirement of Bob Stoops.
The youngest head coach on the FBS level guided the Sooners to a 12-1 record, the Big 12 championship and a matchup with Smart’s Bulldogs on Jan. 1.
Riley, a Texas native and former East Carolina offensive coordinator, is just four years older than Sam Bradford, the former Oklahoma quarterback who was the last Sooner to win the Heisman Trophy in 2008 although his quarterback this year, Baker Mayfield, is expected to be next on Saturday.
College football is in many ways a young man’s game given the demands of year-round recruiting.
Smart and Riley ran into each other Thursday morning in the weight room at Archer High in Lawrence–ville.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Smart said. “The first guy I saw was him. He was going solo. I was going solo. Got to sit there and talk. Got a lot of respect for him, what he does, how fast he’s been able to do it.”
At the same age as Riley, Saban was in his first coordinator job at Michigan State under George Perles. Swinney was in his first year as wide receivers coach at Clemson and still five seasons away from becoming a head coach.
Riley said his age is a non-factor.
“I think you can either relate to players or you can’t,” he said. “You can either lead people or you can’t. Some of the people, they’re going to say, ‘He’s young, he can relate to players, closer to his age.’ Some of the best coaches I’ve ever seen that relate to players are 55, 60 years old because they’re gifted at it.”
Smart won four national titles as defensive coordinator at Alabama and this is his third playoff as a coach, winning the national title in 2015 and losing in the title game to Ohio State in 2014.
“It’s a big benefit having been through it because you know the scheduling aspects, you know the travel aspects, you know the dynamic of talking to the team,” Smart said. “It’s not your typical bowl game. We’re not going to ride rides and do that kind of thing. That’s not the purpose of this trip. I don’t think you get that perspective if you haven’t been through it.”
Riley coordinated the Sooner offense in 2015 when Oklahoma lost to Clemson 37-17 in the semifinals.
“I learned a lot I think that first year going through it, going against Coach Swinney and those guys at the Orange Bowl a few years ago, again, how you prepare the team for a game with this kind of magnitude,” Riley said. “It certainly helps me having been there with a guy in Bob Stoops that was in a lot of games like this for many, many years. Certainly a lot of things that I picked up from him and will continue to lean on him for. I’ve got kind of a great background there that I’ll certainly draw on as we charge forward here.”