East Carolina offensive coodinator Lincoln Riley was groomed for success by then Texas Tech Head Coach Mike Leach
Sep 20, 2014; Greenville, NC, USA; East Carolina Pirates fans celebrate during the 4th quarter against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The East Carolina Pirates defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels 70-41. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
(C+P)– When the East Carolina Pirates walked off the field Saturday, they did so having shocked many around the country after their victory over Atlantic Coast Conference squad North Carolina. It was not the win that was shocking, an upset sure, but after beating Virginia Tech the week prior it was no secret the Pirates were not to be overlooked. What was surprising however was the final score, 70-41 – a team from the American Athletic Conference torched what was supposed to be a team from the much superior ACC.
The question for many is what happened? Is North Carolina’s defense really that poor? Maybe, but taking a closer look people may be more surprised to find out this outburst probably shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
It all started over a decade ago in 2002 when a young Lincoln Riley decided to walk-on at Texas Tech to play quarterback under the recently hired Mike Leach. After working for a year as a scout team quarterback, Riley decided to hang up his cleats and study under Leach’s soon to be famous ‘Air Raid’ offense.
Riley served on the offensive staff for the duration of his college career as a student assistant and stayed on there after as a coach following graduation. He worked with the wide receivers for much of his career with Texas Tech, molding Michael Crabtree from an unheralded quarterback recruit, into the best wide receiver in the nation and an eventual first-round pick in the NFL draft.
Then controversy struck at Texas Tech during the 2009 season. Leach was fired for the alleged mistreatment of Adam James, one of his players. The Air Raid offense that had blossomed under Leach was now without its creator heading into the Alamo Bowl versus a team long known for its prowess on defense, the Michigan State Spartans.
Ruffin McNeill, ECU’s current head coach, was named the Red Raiders’ interim head coach moving over from his role as the team’s defensive coordinator. Without hesitation, he named Riley the team’s offensive coordinator for the bowl game, and his choice proved to be the correct one.
Texas Tech went on to win that game 41-31 and their offense did not miss a beat, in fact, they gained a few, producing 571 yards of total offense, the most in the school’s bowl history to that point.
Soon after that game, the coaching carousel began around the country, and while McNeill was considered for Texas Tech’s vacancy, he eventually ended up at East Carolina. His first hire was an easy one, despite his age at only 26, McNeil wanted Riley to lead his offense.
“It is amazing how people think you have to be old to be wise,” McNeil told the Charlotte Observer in reference to his choice to hire Riley at such a young age.
Wise beyond his years is precisely what Riley has been, he has also been quite historic. Since taking over the Pirates’ offense in 2010, Riley has produced the top four offensive units in ECU history. Take a moment to reflect on that, an 82-year-old football program’s offensive record book was shattered by a 26-year-old offensive coordinator in each of his four seasons at the helm.
If you were wondering, yes Saturday’s win produced more records for Riley and the offense. The 70 points were second most in school history while the astounding 789 total yards were the most ever by a Pirates’ offense.
In case the above hasn’t made it clear, the answer to how this scoring rampage transpired is simple. The Air Raid has officially found a home in Greenville, N.C. and one Lincoln Riley is the mastermind behind it all, or at least the Pirates’ version.
“You’ve seen [other offensive coordinators] tinker with the scheme [originated 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 are doing.”
Scared is something the Pirates have not looked in a very long time, and most certainly not in 2014. Four weeks into the season, ECU sits at 3-1 with their only loss coming against SEC power South Carolina, one they easily could have won falling 33-23 in Columbia.
Heading into conference play, the Pirates are likely the favorite to win the American Athletic Conference, and now possibly even push for a spot in the first ever college football playoff. In fact, maintaining their composure as the inevitable hype builds may be the team’s biggest challenge the rest of the year.
“One breath, one mind, one heart beat, one spirit and we will be OK,” coach McNeil stated simply, explaining how his team can continue to be successful.
Seems appropriate as one breath, one heartbeat, and one blink of the eye is certainly all Lincoln Riley, and the Pirates’ Air Raid offense needs to score.