NEW YORK — Lincoln Riley needed a quarterback, and he had plenty to choose from.
It was 2015, and Oklahoma was in the market for a transfer QB. Will Grier was leaving Florida after his freshman year. Kyle Allen was leaving Texas A&M as a sophomore, and Kyler Murray also was getting out of College Station after an uneven freshman season.
Riley, then-head coach Bob Stoops and OU assistants Dennis Simmons and Cale Gundy gathered for a film session to evaluate the trio. They watched Grier and Allen and came away very impressed. Both were good throwers, pocket passers, and certainly seemed capable of running a big-time college offense.
“Then we flip on Kyler’s film,” Riley said during a black-tie banquet Sunday night, Murray seated just a few feet behind him. “We all watch it. We don’t really say anything. And when it ends, Bob looks over at me and says, ‘What do you think?’
“I said, ‘Well, I like the other two guys. But if Kyler comes here, he’s gonna win the Heisman.’
“And here we are, Bud,” he said, turning to face Murray. “Here we are.”
Three years later, this past weekend in New York City, Murray fulfilled Riley’s outlandish guarantee by winning the 84th Heisman Trophy. Although Murray said all weekend that he always believed this moment would come and assured everyone that his confidence never waivered and that, yes, he absolutely always saw a Heisman Trophy in his future, he did almost slip up once, on Saturday night, just an hour or so after winning the award.
“I never thought I — never mind.”
It was a momentary glimpse of self-doubt, a sliver of whatever Murray might have been feeling in his waning days at A&M. Murray hasn’t ever really offered much insight on his dark times as an Aggie.
Until his big night, that is.
“When I was at A&M in the transfer process, I remember just sitting in my room and being miserable,” Murray said Saturday. “I was miserable. I was calling my mom and my dad and some other loved ones. I was like, ‘What should I do? I don’t want to be here anymore.’ I think many kids have gone through that situation. I’m not the only one. I was kind of deciding whether or not I wanted to play in the bowl game or not, but my head wasn’t in it.
“I’ve always taken the high road when it comes to that because when I left A&M, I was ‘the bad guy.’ I’ll explain it all one day.”
His father, former Aggie legend Kevin Murray, supported Kyler’s decision.
“When I told him I didn’t want to play in the bowl game, they wanted me to finish it off and play in the bowl game,” Murray said. “He understood. He was kind of more fed up than I was at that point. Once I got out of the situation, all that me-being-miserable kind of left. I was at home for a whole month.”
When Murray ultimately decided he’d had enough and got his scholarship release, Oklahoma quickly popped up as a possible destination. After that fateful film session inside the Barry Switzer Center, Riley and Murray put their heads together and came up with a plan. Murray would transfer to OU and, after redshirting the 2016 season, the Sooner coaching staff would give him two years to put his prodigious skills to use.
OU announced on Christmas Eve that Murray would soon be a Sooner and, a week later, Murray watched his future teammates lose to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. It was Oklahoma’s first College Football Playoff appearance. Whatever self-doubt he might have had was dissipating.
“That was a better time for sure,” Murray said. “Yeah, I was chilling. That was a good time.”
The following spring, after a year of appeals following Baker Mayfield’s transfer from Texas Tech, the Big 12 Conference ruled that Mayfield would not be given back the year he sat out as a transfer. That was actually expected, Riley said, and so Murray had set his mind to be the Sooners’ starter in 2017.
The next day, the Big 12 flipped its ruling. Mayfield was never offered a scholarship at Texas Tech, so the league changed its rule and granted him the 2017 season back.
And Murray’s two-year plan was ruined.
“The first people I called — because I felt bad about it for them — the first people I called was Kyler and Kyler’s parents,” Riley said.
“I want you to think about this if you’re this guy, OK? He’s probably the greatest high school football player ever to come out of the state of Texas. He went 43-0 in the top division, OK? Player of the year, every single year, Gatorade National Player of the Year, top recruit in the country. I mean, the guy’s unbelievable — not to mention the guy’s pretty good at baseball, too.
“And so making that call to him, how would you have handled that if that was you? I’ll tell you how he handled it and how his parents handled it: they said, ‘Coach, that’s how it goes sometimes. We’re gonna continue to work, we’re gonna continue to do what we gotta do, and we’re gonna be ready as soon as that opportunity comes up.’ And I think that tells you all that you need to know about this cat right here. He is extremely special.”
So Murray enrolled at OU, sat out 2016 as a redshirt transfer, then sat the bench in 2017, somewhat frustrated as Mayfield had arguably the greatest season by a quarterback in Sooner history, culminating in OU’s sixth Heisman Trophy.
“Frustrated’s not the right word,” Riley said. “I wouldn’t say that. He was eager. But he always handled it the right way.”
Murray said “frustrated” actually was the right word for how he felt.
“This whole process, the past couple years, like I said, it’d be nice when I come home when we win the game, but it just didn’t feel — you’re used to playing, the competitor in you, you’re a little frustrated,” he said. “You obviously want the team to win, but you do that a lot. The competitor in me was just a little frustrated for not being able to contribute the way that I want to.
“But it’s all been worth it.”
“Everybody sees the physical gifts that this guy has,” Riley said,” and it’s really something special the way he can run, the way he can throw. But what a lot of people don’t understand is the type of competitor he is, how smart he is.
“And because of that, we’re all able to turn on the TV on Saturdays and see one of the greatest athletes that there’s ever been to do it. And I don’t say that lightly, but that’s what this guy is.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.