Lincoln Riley's hometown thought he would work for NASA, so how'd he end up as Oklahoma coach?August 13, 2017 8:46am

Aug. 11-- MULESHOE, Texas-Magann Rennels has been on the job as a local television newshound for almost four decades. Still, the savvy proprietor of the town's only cable station can't possibly know what stories might fall into her lap for the three times a week "Muletrain" reports on her family-operated Channel 6.

How could she possibly have known nefarious souls would steal the portable outdoor air conditioning system down at the nursing home, necessitating an emergency fundraiser; or the success of the after-school healthy snack program? And, of course, who knows when those smitten might get engaged or married or when babies will be born? And then there are the obligatory obits about friends and neighbors.

A real surprise blockbuster came in June when Muleshoe's own Lincoln Riley, whose parents Mike and Marilyn still live in Rennels' neighborhood, was named the football coach at the University of Oklahoma after the unexpected resignation of Bob Stoops. Now the youngest head coach in major college football hailed from the West Texas speck on the map that fell into Channel 6's market.

Overnight, "Muletrain" was competing with "SportsCenter" for eyeballs.

"A really exciting time," Rennels called the high-adrenaline week that followed Riley's ascension from offensive coordinator. "Surely not an everyday event in these parts."

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Of course, some weeks are slower than others in this farming town of 5,000, located 70 flat High Plains miles northwest of Lubbock. No matter how savvy the journalist, the decision to eliminate one of the town's two traffic lights has a newsy shelf life.

Fortunately there is a simple, dependable, go-to staple for slow news cycles at Channel 6.

"Weather here is always important because this is an agricultural community," said Rennels, 74, sounding every bit a schoolmarm lecturing a student just off the turnip truck.

"Muletrain," it should be noted, actually has been around since the late 1950s as a radio offering on a station that beamed it in from Clovis, N.M., 30 miles away.

It may be a good thing that the show never has had a scripted length. After all, "Muletrain" isn't "60 Minutes."

"It runs how long it needs to," Rennels said.

The Rennels house on West 3rd Street is conveniently located just down from Muleshoe High, whose Friday night football games the station videotapes for continuous airings on Saturdays and Sundays.

For years, Magann's favorite "Muletrain" story focused on a local who grew tulip bulbs in a cotton field and shipped them to the Netherlands.

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The biggest story in town history, she said, has to be the dedication of the National Mule Memorial, constructed in homage to the animal that was once farming's beast of burden. It attracted 10,000 souls. But that was 1965, 15 years before the birth of Channel 6.

However "favorite" and "biggest" were eclipsed when 33-year-old Lincoln Riley, the wunderkind football coach, took over one of America's most storied football programs.

Muleshoe (locals pronounce it mule-SHOE), named in honor of a nearby ranch and developed in 1913 to take advantage of commerce sure to come with newly laid railroad tracks linking Lubbock to New Mexico, was back on the map.

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No telling if the city founders had any inkling the name might itself become a celebrity of sorts.

"One of the greatest assets our town has is its name," Rennels said. "Muleshoe-don't you like just hearing it?"

As you might expect, Runnels, who could double as a one-woman Chamber of Commerce, has a special sweet spot for Riley. Once she was his Sunday school teacher.

"Everybody in town knows him," she said. "Everybody loves him. Everybody is just so proud."

Surely, Lincoln Riley has surpassed actor Lee Horsley as Muleshoe's most famous son. Back in the early 1980s Horsley starred on television as Texas oilman Matt Houston, who doubled as a private investigator. But truth be told, Horsley never really was an integral thread in the town's fabric. Born in Muleshoe, he was raised and schooled primarily in Colorado.

On the flip side, Lincoln Riley is pure Muleshoe. He has deep roots here. He once played quarterback for the Muleshoe High Mules, just as his father Mike had done three decades earlier. His grandfather Claude Riley, who is 97 and lives at the nursing home with his wife, Evelyn, 89, was a quarterback there, as well.

Lincoln's wife Caitlin is also pure West Texas even if she's not from Muleshoe. She's from Dimmitt, 45 miles away. Still, they somehow became aware of each other at basketball games while playing for rival high schools.

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That Lincoln Riley isn't coaching at the nearby college-Texas Tech-long-favored by most of his hometown folks, is an inconvenient truth. But he did go to school there, walked on to the football team there, and when it became evident that he didn't have the skill to play quarterback there, transitioned to student assistant there, the first step on the coaching ladder that has led him to the University of Oklahoma where the population of Muleshoe could fit 17 times into the stands of Memorial Stadium.

But that's not to say Muleshoe is a one-horse town when it comes to college football loyalty.

Take Riley's own parents for example.

Marilyn, his mother who grew up on a Muleshoe farm, and his father, Mike, who came from a family that operated cotton gins among other business ventures, graduated from the University of Texas.

Mike and Marilyn returned home from Austin soon after graduation and eventually took over family-owned cotton warehouses in neighboring Sudan.

Their hearts belonged to the Longhorns until sons Lincoln and Garrett went off to college at Texas Tech.

Garrett, six years younger than his brother, is currently the quarterbacks coach at the University of Kansas.

But on this Tuesday, the first day of August, Mike Riley is sporting a crimson University of Oklahoma cap at lunch alongside Marilyn on Muleshoe's main drag.

As is custom, Leal's Mexican Restaurant on West American Boulevard, is packed by noon as pickup trucks clog the dusty parking lot in the shadow of a grain elevator skyline.

Like most everyone in town, restaurant owner Victor Leal has a favorite story about his favorite college football coach. Seems that back when Lincoln was the big man on campus at Muleshoe High, Victor marveled at how much time the older brother spent tutoring elementary school-aged Garrett on the football field.

Soon after, Todd and Starla Ellis, who run the local funeral home, stopped by the Riley's table.

"We were Tech fans here because it's close," Todd, the undertaker, announces. "Now we are Oklahoma fans because Lincoln is closer."

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Muleshoe High football hit an extended drought in the second half of the 20th century as coaches came and went with remarkable regularity. Things got so bad that during Mike Riley's sophomore year back in 1969, the Mules scored a single touchdown during the entire season.

The next year with Mike settling in as quarterback, the Mules won three games. Still, he opted not to play as a senior.

"Didn't see eye-to-eye with the coach," Mike Riley says sternly in a slow West Texas drawl, leaving no doubt that there will be nothing further from him on the topic.

In 1996, fresh-faced David Wood arrived fresh off the offensive staff at Canyon Randall High to try to lead the Mules out of the desert.

Wood found a fragile Mules program. In a school of about 450 students, there were just enough players-22-to field only a varsity team. Some of the town's better players seemed to migrate to more stable programs up in Nazareth or down in Sudan or out in Farwell.

Wood, determined to put an end to the exodus, noticed a seventh grader playing at the junior high with "lots football smarts" if not lots of blue-chip skills. He told his assistants, "We've got to keep him around."

And so, Wood said, he hitched his career to Riley.

"Lincoln helped me get established and stay here," Wood said as he prepares for his 22nd season at the school. "As long as I could have kids like Lincoln I knew I could compete."

In 1999, with Riley as a sophomore lineman, Wood began tinkering with a shotgun offense that called for more passing and demanded a quick-thinking triggerman.

In 2000, Riley as starting quarterback led the Mules 400 miles to a Class 3A state semifinal game at Texas Stadium in Irving.

"He wasn't a blue-chip athlete," Wood said. "But he was the kind of athlete you wanted running the show. I had to explain everything to him only once. And sometimes he'd double back and explain to me what I was missing."

Wood said he envisioned his quarterback working someday for NASA.

"He knew where every kid was supposed to be on every play," the coach said. "He knew all the progressions. He was a computer on legs."

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When Lincoln Riley was named the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 2015 after prepping for the position at East Carolina University, his first stop away from Texas Tech, his high school math teacher Debbie Conner told The Oklahoman newspaper Lincoln had been a "brilliant" student.

In Mrs. Conner's honors math class, Lincoln routinely dissected problems using shortcuts she never considered and his fellow students never quite understood, she said.

When Lincoln filled out recruiting questionnaires, his SAT and ACT scores made more impact with some coaches than his measurable football skills. Seemingly overnight, the Ivy League discovered Muleshoe.

Who knows what would have become of Lincoln had he gone to Dartmouth, which seemed most interested, instead of his eventual landing spot at Texas Tech.

But it's not as if Riley graduated at the top of his high school class. School was only a means to a football end. He raced through his homework as soon as he got to the house simply so he could get back to football as quickly as possible, his mother recalled.

"School was not his primary motivation," Marilyn Riley said. "But he had a really good memory, was really good at math and he was very competitive. He wanted to win in the classroom like he won on the field."

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One thing for certain: Neither Lincoln nor Garrett wanted to follow their father into the cotton warehouse business. Mike Riley's series of tin-roofed warehouses on the northern fringe of Sudan can feel like ovens in the unforgiving West Texas sun. Each of the thousands of bales waiting to be loaded and shipped off weighs up to 500 pounds. It can be backbreaking work.

But when they worked there during high school, the boys learned valuable life lessons such as time management and the importance of every worker in the chain.

Football offered a nice escape. But as much as he relished playing the game, Riley suspected his playing days were over when he passed on small-school college football to attend Texas Tech. Although rocket science was not to be, he considered pursuing his mother's dream that he study to become a pharmacist.

It didn't take much, however, to get his competitive football juices flowing in Lubbock. Success on the intramural field spurred him to attempt to walk onto the Tech team in the spring of his freshman season.

Riley showed the coaches just enough that he was invited to join the team in January of 2003. By June, however, Coach Mike Leach had seen enough. He took the whip-smart but physically limited quarterback aside and asked him to be a student assistant coach.

Lincoln shadowed Leach, a noted night owl, as much as he could. After three years of student coaching as an undergraduate and another as a graduate assistant, Leach, on Valentine's Day 2007, offered Lincoln a job as an assistant coach who worked with receivers. Leach took to introducing Riley, then 23, as the youngest full-time major college assistant coach in the country.

"I don't think they would have had to pay him," his father Mike said. "He loved the job and was used to working for nothing."

A decade later, Lincoln Riley's new contract at Oklahoma calls for a guaranteed $3.1 million a year for five years. But it has come at a price.

In years past, he has made it back to Muleshoe every summer.

The streak ends this year. He's been too busy.

"I get back as often as I can," Riley said via cellphone after a morning practice recently in Norman, Oklahoma. "But it's never as much as I want to.

"It's always been a special place I carry with me," he said. "Everybody knew everybody. They say you are raised by a village. Muleshoe will always be my special village."

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(c)2017 The Dallas Morning News

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