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OU at the Rose Bowl: Lincoln Riley’s first day set the tone for OU’s run to Roses

December 31, 2017

LOS ANGELES — On June 7, the date that seems permanently stamped in OU history as the day the world stopped turning for a moment, Lincoln Riley stood in front of his team and did two important things.

First was telling a room full of players he would work to earn their trust. Despite already being offensive coordinator, despite being a hotshot young coach, despite now being the leading man at a college football blue-blood, Riley carried no pretention.

“I’m sure most coaches come in expecting to have that trust already, expecting to be all high on the horse, but he didn’t,” center Erick Wren said. “He has earned it, and he’s done what he said.”

The second thing Riley did was set a striking tone for the days ahead. Riley talked about the program’s standards: Expect to work hard. Don’t expect too much change. This is still the same program. Expect to win Big 12 titles.

And also … Expect to win national titles.

“Coach Riley didn’t want to just come in and win the Big 12, he didn’t want to come in and have a winning season,” linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said. “It was national championship talk. From the first day we started summer conditioning, it was all over our shirts, it was all over that building. It’s been the same since day one.”

Riley didn’t exactly set a goal that wasn’t already on the forefront of OU’s minds, but he did put the mechanism in motion to create a culture with a singular focus: Get to Atlanta.

“That’s always been the standard at Oklahoma, is winning championships, winning conference championships and having a chance to compete for national championships and win those,” Riley said. “I wanted them to understand that that standard wasn’t going anywhere, and they believed it.”

From the first days of summer workouts, players wore shirts and wristbands with ATL and the College Football Playoff logo stamped on them. At the end of sprints and workouts, players would follow cornerback Parnell Motley’s lead and yell, “ATL, baby.”

In meetings and practices and casual conversations, the talk of winning a national title wasn’t taboo.

“Our whole focus was to get to Atlanta, and I think from last year, we didn’t talk about it enough last year,” linebacker Emmanuel Beal said. “I feel like this year all we talk about is getting to Atlanta, the steps we have to take to get to Atlanta, the important games we have to win, the practices we’ve got to have, and finishing in the weight room and the classroom, as well. I feel like that’s brought us to this point.”

Sunday in Los Angeles, Riley sat on a press conference stage beside Georgia coach Kirby Smart, speaking for the final time before Monday’s Rose Bowl. Riley has his team two wins away from the goals he laid out on his first day as head coach.

“We expected to be here from second one,” Riley said. “Even after this coaching change, even after the Iowa State loss, we still fully expected to be here.”

Riley’s first day was important because it created a feeling that always loomed just beneath the surface, influencing everything the Sooners do in both active and subconscious ways.

It was always felt in small moments, like Riley’s first meeting with his defense, when he told them he would be just as committed to those players as he would the offense. It was also felt in big moments, like when Oklahoma beat Ohio State.

“We’ll be disappointed if this is the highlight of our season,” Riley said that night.

Even now, at 12-1 and in the College Football Playoff, Riley maintains an attitude he’s had since his early days as offensive coordinator. He’s confident in the job. But never 100 percent comfortable, still trying to earn respect and win the biggest of games.

“It’s been a must-win attitude for a long time,” Riley said. “I still feel an immense pressure to do my job the very best I can for our team, just like I did the day I got the job. So I don’t know if that will ever go away.”

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