Lincoln Riley coaches another Heisman winner

by Zach Bigalke

On Saturday, Kyler Murray became the second straight Oklahoma quarterback to claim the Heisman. The win put his coach, Lincoln Riley, in an exclusive club.

Until championship weekend, the smart money was on Alabama’s dynamic sophomore Tua Tagovailoa running away with the 2018 Heisman Trophy. Then Tagovailoa had an utterly underwhelming day in the SEC championship game, finally exiting injured while Alabama was down in the fourth quarter and opening the door for Jalen Hurts to engineer a comeback for the Crimson Tide.

That sequence of events opened the door for Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, the most efficient quarterback in the FBS this season, to snatch away the most coveted trophy in college football away from the Tide superstar. Murray’s victory made it two straight Heisman Trophies for the Sooners, as he followed in the footsteps of 2017 winner Baker Mayfield.

With the victory by Murray, Oklahoma became just the fifth school in Heisman history to win the award in two straight years. Yale did it first in 1936 and 1937 with Larry Kelley and Clint Frank. Army matched that mark in 1945 and 1946 when Doc “Mr. Inside” Blanchard and Glenn “Mr. Outside” Davis won the Heisman in successive seasons at West Point.

Archie Griffin, obviously, won both of his consecutive awards as an Ohio State Buckeye in 1974 and 1975. And USC teammates Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush won back-to-back in 2004 and 2005, though Bush’s Heisman has since been vacated. Now Oklahoma has also joined this exclusive club.

What Murray’s win really stirred up for this week’s Sunday Morning Quarterback, though, was what it means about the man who guided the last two Heisman winners. Let’s look a little more at Riley this morning.

Lincoln Riley also joined an exclusive club with Murray’s win.

It wasn’t just Oklahoma itself that achieved a rare feat. In the process of coaching Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray to consecutive Heisman Trophies in Norman, Riley joined the rarefied air of the pantheon of coaches who have coached more than one player to a Heisman Trophy.

Only a dozen coaches before Riley managed to coach at least two different players to the Heisman. Riley joined his former boss, Bob Stoops, as the second coach to pull off the feat at Oklahoma. That makes the Sooners just the second school, along with USC, to have two different head coaches who have helped mold two or more different players into Heisman winners.

Perhaps most impressive about Riley’s feat is its unprecedented nature. Before Riley coached Mayfield to the Heisman last year, nobody had previously coached a Heisman winner in his first season at the helm of a program. Pete Carroll was the quickest to land a Heisman winner, doing so in his second year as a coach with USC quarterback Carson Palmer.

Further, no head coach prior to Riley had managed to guide two consecutive Heisman winners in his first two seasons as a head coach — or even just the first two seasons at a particular school. Prior to Riley, the quickest turnaround to coaching a pair of Heisman winners was four years, which Ducky Pond first achieved at Yale and Pete Carroll later equaled at USC.

Also impressive is the fact that Lincoln Riley became the first coach to guide a pair of transfer students to Heisman Trophies. Baker Mayfield, of course, got his start at Texas Tech, while Kyler Murray was originally recruited by Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. While Heisman winners have started their college career at a different school than the one where they claimed the award, this is the first time that the same coach led two different ones to Heisman Trophies.

Could Riley make it three Heisman winners in a row?

Next year, losing finalists Tua Tagovailoa and Dwayne Haskins will once again be among the favorites to lead the Heisman voting next year. Other early favorites include Clemson’s duo of quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, as well as Wisconsin tailback Jonathan Taylor.

The likeliest candidate to take over at quarterback now that Murray has exhausted his eligibility is Austin Kendall. He has completed 28 of the 39 passes he has thrown so far in a Sooners uniform, with three touchdowns and no interceptions along with 265 yards through the air. A former four-star recruit by Bob Stoops, Kendall has shown flashes of brilliance in limited action.

If anyone can help Kendall break out in his junior year, it seems that Riley would likely be the magician to make it happen. He has done things in his young career that nobody else has ever pulled off in the long history of the Heisman Trophy, and if he can turn Kendall from an unknown quantity to the most outstanding player in the FBS he will emerge as the next legend of the coaching ranks.

Also waiting in the wings if Kendall falters is another four-star prospect, Tanner Mordecai. After a freshman season where he went 2-of-4 for 37 yards in short stints during the first two games of 2018, Mordecai has four seasons of eligibility left thanks to the new redshirt rules. Depending on what happens in the spring, one of the two recruits could launch Riley into another stratosphere of coaches.

All signs point to the Sooners leader coaching the top player in the country at least once more in what should be a long and illustrious career. Kendall is getting early buzz, and Mordecai is also a talented prospect, but even if neither player wins the Heisman in 2019 it won’t diminish what happened over the past two seasons. The fact remains that Riley has already done things no coach has ever pulled off before.

Zach is currently a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State focusing on the history and philosophy of sport. He has covered a variety of American and international sports online and in print since 2006 and was formerly the managing editor at Informative Sports and Sports Unbiased.