🏈 A Lincoln Riley blindside
So, what's next for Oklahoma after the OU head coach bounced for Southern Cal?
Oklahoma football, in the modern era at least, was never built for this.
A program defined by its stability made a mockery of schools that see coaches leave and replace them all the time with its smooth handoff from long-tenured head coach Bob Stoops to young offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley in 2017.
The one issue with the plan? Riley could never be expected to extend that same courtesy. But for this to be the end of the Riley era in Norman?
The how is pretty unbelievable.
OU has lived in a bubble the last two decades with a few other elite programs that have consistently competed for national championships. Stoops was to thank for those years of steady success, leaving the program in decent shape to pass on to a protégé.
Riley had quick success with future top-overall NFL draft picks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. But he had no issue attracting top-tier talent of his own, emphasizing a more modern approach to recruiting. He never could get OU out of the College Football Playoff semifinals, but he got them in three times. He also maintained OU’s hold over the conference until this season.
He now heads to Southern Cal less than 24 hours after OU’s regular-season slate ended with a 37-33 loss to Oklahoma State in Stillwater on Saturday.
USC is undoubtedly a place where he can do a lot of the same that he did at OU. It’s a winnable league with a recruiting base he’s already familiar with, which includes plenty of local players already revoking their verbal pledges to the Sooners. And Riley will reportedly have the help of Sooners defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, receivers coach Dennis Simmons and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.
What does this mean for OU?
It’s bound to be bad the next few weeks for OU’s recruiting with commits naturally not looking to sign with a school without a coach. Just how long OU will continue to spiral remains to be seen. But if there’s one thing certain: 2022 will be the first time in a long time Oklahoma fans should have zero expectations for their football team.
If OU makes the right hire, it’s going to be fine after a rebuilding season or two. “Fine” could be up and running again as a title contender within a few years or simply respectable in conference play, but there’s the added challenge of moving from the Big 12 to the SEC. Riley’s departure comes at a less than ideal time and puts OU in a difficult spot to find a coach willing to lead the program into an uncertain situation.
If OU whiffs on this coaching decision, it will get ugly and be that way for a while. A lot of it will depend on how much the next coach can retain from the current roster and who they can grab from the transfer portal for Year 1 and what foundation they can build from that.
Who replaces Riley?
The Sooners are going to have to act fast to land a worthy candidate with LSU still trying to find a head coach. Seeing the way Joe Castiglione just conducted two basketball coaching searches this year, I wouldn’t be shocked for the OU athletics director to hire someone no one is talking about right now. But here are a few of the names that make sense and should at the very least receive a phone call:
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell: The former Ohio State defensive coordinator has been spectacular at Cincinnati, which is on the cusp of earning a Group of Five league's first bid to the College Football Playoff and joining the Big 12 Conference. That last part makes this feel more like a long shot, but if leading a bigger program is important to Fickell, he’d be as solid of a hire as any coach on the market.
Baylor head coach Dave Aranda: Perhaps another long shot. Aranda feels committed to continue building what he’s already got in place in Waco, Texas. But it’s hard not to be envious from the outside with the physical brand of football Baylor has shown under Aranda. It would be quite the change from OU’s current setup but would hold up better in the SEC.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables: OU had Venables as its defensive coordinator and would likely have plenty support from boosters and recent alumni. He’s been a terrific recruiter at Clemson and could seemingly build a winning program with the right offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator around him.
Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal: The Ducks coach has proven he can recruit with the best of them, especially in the trenches. He’s helped Oregon remain one of the Pac-12’s best programs. And considering his West Coast connections, perhaps he can sustain OU’s recruiting pipeline to California.
Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning: He's only 35 years old, so maybe OU doesn't want to go with someone with zero head coaching experience. But if going all in on defense is what Castiglione wants for the program, Lanning would be an exceptional hire the way he’s transformed Georgia’s defense these past four seasons and wouldn’t have to face a bidding war with what we know the school can pay.
More to the story?
I’m not ready to start workshopping conspiracy theories quite yet, but the ones that have been thrown out there already (for the most part) have been entertaining and some that might have something to them.
The Los Angeles Times’ piece on Riley’s move to Southern Cal reports both parties have been in contact throughout the season. Knowing that, I don’t think it’s necessarily unfair to ask whether or not Riley was fully locked into this campaign, but the team did go 10-2 and were a few plays away from a Big 12 championship game berth. So, yeah. Hard sell.
Telling by Riley’s first hires, you can draw the conclusion there might be a divide between Riley’s guys and the OU alumni on his staff. Perhaps that works to OU’s benefit if the next coach is willing to keep assistants like DeMarco Murray (running backs) and Calvin Thibodeaux (defensive line) around and salvage some of the 2021 team.
It’s going to be a long offseason, however, for a program that was already due for some self-reflection after Saturday’s Bedlam defeat.
Happy coaching search, y’all.