Lincoln Riley 2.0? Garrett Riley doesn’t live in his famous brother’s shadow

Texas Christian offensive coordinator Garrett Riley watches players warm up before a game against Iowa State in November.
Texas Christian offensive coordinator Garrett Riley watches players warm up before a game against Iowa State in November. Like his more famous brother, USC coach Lincoln Riley, Garrett was a high school football star in tiny Muleshoe, Texas. Now, he’s a rising name in the college football coaching ranks.
(Matthew Visinsky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In the small West Texas town of Muleshoe, where two of college football’s foremost masterminds were made, Wes Wood grew up revering Lincoln Riley.

He was hardly the only boy in town who felt that way. Lincoln pulled Muleshoe out of its decades-long football doldrums, leading the Mules on an unforgettable, undefeated run to the Texas state semifinals in 2000. Lincoln, anyone in Muleshoe will tell you, put the town on the map. Muleshoe never forgot, and neither did Wes, whose father, David, coached the team. As a kid, Wes tried his best just to be in Lincoln’s orbit. Years later, as Wes led the Mules to their first Class 2A state title, he wore No. 12 as a tribute to Lincoln.

“He was my hero,” he says.

But for Wood, it was the second of Muleshoe’s native sons, the younger of the two Riley brothers, who left the more lasting mark on his life.


Lincoln Riley’s path to USC was forged in Muleshoe, Texas, where the locals say Riley could’ve been anything he wanted — but puzzle ‘Why L.A.?’

Dec. 12, 2021

Once again, one of the Riley boys has Muleshoe, a town of barely 5,000, back in the college football spotlight. Though, safe to say few in town expected Garrett Riley to beat his older brother to the punch.

While Lincoln Riley fell just short of the College Football Playoff in his first season at USC, his brother will have a shot at a national title Monday during his first season as Texas Christian’s offensive coordinator.

“It’s the chatter all around town,” says Colt Ellis, Muleshoe’s mayor. “Everywhere you go, everyone is talking about Garrett and how no one would have ever guessed Garrett would be in a national championship before Lincoln was.”

Wood spent enough time watching Garrett — first as a backup quarterback, then as a fellow coach climbing through the ranks — to know never to underestimate him.

“There’s no question about it, I am who I am and was the quarterback that I was in large part because of Garrett Riley,” said Wood, who’s now coach at Snyder High, south of Lubbock. “They’re both so special, but Garrett was my mentor. He taught me a lot about football and how to play quarterback, but he taught me so much more about how to be a good leader or talk to your teammates or capture a locker room.”

Long before he helped guide Texas Christian to the national title game as the architect of its high-flying offense, Garrett was the fourth of four Rileys to quarterback the Mules. Despite the bloodlines, Garrett, 33, says he never felt the pressure of stepping into his brother’s long shadow.

TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley speaks during College Football Playoff Championship media day on Saturday.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

“If either one of us has bragging rights over the other, we’ve certainly never hesitated to use that.”

— Lincoln Riley, USC football coach, on what he and younger brother Garrett accomplished in high school

Garrett’s ascent as quarterback felt almost preordained — “I don’t remember ever considering that it would happen any other way,” Lincoln says — but where Lincoln’s run at Muleshoe came completely by surprise, the expectations had risen considerably by the time his brother took on the role five years later.

The roster was different too. The town’s makeup was changing. Gone were the stout linemen who grounded Muleshoe’s Wing-T attack with Lincoln at quarterback. So as Garrett took the reins in 2006, David Wood decided to alter his approach. He called on Lincoln, who was by then a Texas Tech staffer under coach Mike Leach, to help install the spread offense that Leach was popularizing down the road in Lubbock.

There weren’t many Texas high school teams running the Air Raid. But he knew Garrett had the arm — and the mind — to pull it off.

“It fit right into Garrett’s hands,” David Wood recalls. “Then, of course, Garrett set all the records.”


If a referee hadn’t stepped in front of one of Garrett’s fourth-down passes in the 2008 playoffs, with it falling incomplete, many in town still wonder if Garrett would have surpassed his brother in another way.

But Garrett never made it out of the second round of the state playoffs, losing twice to Littlefield — a fact that Lincoln may have brought up a time or two over the years.

“His path has been very different than mine. But I knew while we were [at East Carolina] that he was going to be just fine in this business.”

— Lincoln Riley, on his Garrett’s path in college football

“If either one of us has bragging rights over the other,” Lincoln said, “we’ve certainly never hesitated to use that.”

Yet when it came to coaching, Garrett was determined to not rely on the cache his brother built. Both had gone to Texas Tech to play briefly for Leach, even overlapping for two years while Lincoln served as inside receivers coach and Garrett was a backup quarterback. But by the time Garrett was ready to coach, he’d made it clear that he wanted to carve his own path.

His route to this point proved far more circuitous than Lincoln’s. He started in 2011 as a quarterbacks coach at Lubbock Roosevelt High School, just down the road from his brother at Tech. A year later, he was off to Illinois, where he coached running backs at Division III Augustana College. Then, in 2013, he took a job as a general assistant on East Carolina’s staff, where his brother was offensive coordinator.


Ruffin McNeill, who coached East Carolina at the time, says there was no need to ask Lincoln for a recommendation. Garrett impressed him on his own. In 2015, McNeill gave Garrett his first, full-time, Football Bowl Subdivision staff job.

“He didn’t need Lincoln to lobby for him,” McNeill said. “Not at all, not at all. I knew what Garrett would bring to the table.”

TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley watches from the sideline during the Big 12 Championship game.
TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley watches from the sideline during the Big 12 Championship game against Kansas State on Dec. 3.
(Matthew Visinksy / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The brothers coached together for just one year, though both have fond memories of it. Over the years, Lincoln said, there were informal conversations about his brother joining his staff at Oklahoma, but “it never really lined up.”

“His path has been very different than mine,” Lincoln said. “But I knew while we were [at East Carolina] that he was going to be just fine in this business.”

Instead of following his brother, Garrett bounced from Kansas, where he spent three seasons, to Appalachian State, where he served as running backs coach in 2019. Sonny Dykes, who coached with Lincoln at Texas Tech, hired Garrett to run his offense at Southern Methodist in 2020, a move that changed the trajectory of both of their careers.


The USC running back corps became more crowded with the transfer of MarShawn Lloyd from South Carolina and the return of Austin Jones on Friday.

Jan. 6, 2023

The pair of offensive minds, both branches of the Leach coaching tree, meshed perfectly. SMU’s offense ranked in the top 15 in the nation in both scoring and total offense during Garrett’s two seasons as offensive coordinator. Garrett reminded Dykes quite a bit of Lincoln, whom he said was “more mature at 20 than I was at 30.”

“I don’t know what’s in the water in Muleshoe,” Dykes said, with a laugh. “... Most 33-year-old guys don’t have that discipline and that confidence in the system and themselves.”

That confidence helped carry both Riley brothers to the College Football Playoff. Lincoln is 0-3 in three trips; Garrett, whose team outdueled Michigan 51-45 in the semifinals, already has surpassed his brother in that regard.

Whether TCU can upset top-ranked Georgia or not, Lincoln doesn’t expect it’ll be long before his brother is fielding offers to be a coach. Whether Garrett takes that leap this offseason is another question.

It’s the College Football Playoff’s decision to ban tailgating at its premier event — the same stance it took at last year’s game in Indianapolis and in years prior.

Jan. 5, 2023

“He’s well on his way to getting that shot, and it’ll certainly be a cool moment when he does,” Lincoln said. “But I don’t think necessarily he’ll be a guy that just jumps at the first thing. I know he enjoys working where he’s at right now. There’s a difference between wanting to be a head coach and being in a hurry to be one. I know he definitely wants to, and he’ll be a great head coach. But I don’t think that he’s necessarily in a hurry right now.”

After carving his own way through the coaching ranks, Garrett is one win from a national title, and his hometown is beaming once again about the Riley brothers.


“I don’t know if I ever thought that Garrett would cut a similar figure as Lincoln,” Wood says. “But now I don’t think it’ll ever be anything different. It’s not just Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln anymore.

“It’s the Riley brothers, man. It’s Garrett Riley.”