NORMAN — Lincoln Riley stood on the turf in the Everest Training Center, surrounded by some 30 reporters and media, and contemplated what he’d just done.
Less than 18 months after Bob Stoops retired and virtually appointed Riley head football coach at the University of Oklahoma, Riley made Mike Stoops unemployed, firing the Sooners’ defensive coordinator following a disastrous 48-45 loss to rival Texas.
“Yeah it was a tough decision,” Riley said. “Probably the hardest day I’ve had here as a head coach, for sure.”
With Oklahoma on an open date this weekend, Riley didn’t have his usual noon Monday press conference. But, rather than avoid a hot topic, Riley scheduled a 5:15 press briefing for after practice.
For 20 minutes, Riley took on almost every question like he always does: straight ahead.
“Tough,” he said, “because I know what Mike’s meant to this program, the kind of guy he is, the friend he’s been to me. I’ve been through a lot together with him. Very difficult. But at the same time, my job’s to make the best decision for this program and for this team right now. I just, at the end of the day, I felt like we needed a new voice. We needed just a little bit of a spark.”
Riley used the words “new voice” four times and the word “spark” seven times. That’s how to best summarize his decision to part ways with Stoops. Big-time college football is a bottom line business, and to his credit, Riley recognized that Stoops’ defensive efforts were not meeting the bottom line.
“I thought this would have a chance,” Riley said, “to make us a little bit better.”
Riley thinks the Sooners are still a championship contender, but to achieve that, they’ll need to be markedly better on defense.
“You owe it to this team to try to do the very best that you can right now,” Riley said. “And this team happens to have a chance to accomplish every single goal that we had at the beginning of the year, and I think is very capable of doing it.”
How, then, does having a new defensive coordinator allow players to tackle better, cover better, rush the passer better and play more fundamental defense?
“Well playing good football, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams, takes everybody,” Riley said. “There’s never one thing or one person that’s the cause. Like I said, I felt like we needed a spark. I felt like sometimes just one little thing can kind of get you going.
“Very similar to how that game was the other day. We got one little spark of momentum with the team and then we took off and played much closer to the way we’re capable of there in that fourth quarter, so we need that to happen for this whole team and for this defense right now.”
Riley said he met with the team Monday morning before putting out the 8:17 a.m. press release email announcing Stoops’ dismissal. Players, he said, were “emotional.”
“Lot of those guys loved Mike, were recruited by Mike. And everybody in that room felt ownership in this,” Riley said. “It damn sure ain’t all Mike’s fault. It’s my fault, it’s every coach in that room’s fault, it’s every player in that room’s fault. We all own it. I think we all — you hate that part of it. But they understood why we did it.
“I’m always very honest and open with my players. I don’t hide things from them. They have a right to know. We went through why we did it. We went through the plan going forward, what we expect. They’re resilient. They’ll bounce back. They’ll play hard for Ruffin. They’ll play hard for Mike.”
Stoops’ voice — his message, whatever it was, however he was conveying it — was not getting through. OU has good players, players that other schools tried to recruit, players that will go on to play professional football. But too often under Stoops, those players were not developed to their potential, and the program suffered for it.
That spark, then, is a new defensive coordinator, and that new voice is Ruffin McNeill’s.
“When I first started thinking about it, there was some back and forth in my mind — not indecision, but just options,” Riley said, referring to former FBS coordinator and head coach Bob Diaco (promoted from defensive specialist to outside linebackers coach) and inside linebackers coach and former interim head coach Tim Kish. “If we do make this move, what would we do? At the end of the day, I thought we needed somebody to unite the group and it was really tough to look past Ruffin’s experience. He’s done so much in his career. There’s very little in college football that he hasn’t done.”
Without giving away any trade secrets, Riley confirmed that McNeill, 59, will simply assume Stoops’ role — and will get plenty of help.
“Ruffin’s the defensive coordinator,” Riley said. “He’s gonna call the game. But how we work with the rest of the staff, all that, we’re working through. And I think we’ve got some good leads, some good plans right now, but I’m sure that’ll evolve here through this bye week and into next week. We’ve got a talented staff in there, so now we’re simply putting the pieces where they best fit so we can get the most out of every coach in that room.”
Riley tried to describe his relationship with Mike Stoops and how that made it so difficult to cut ties with Mike.
“Tough. Tough,” he said. “It’s real, and as much as you want to take the human element out of it we’re all humans. The fact that it’s Bob’s brother, did that make it harder? In some ways. But more than that just simply taking Bob out of it, just my relationship with Mike and Mike’s relationship with me and the run we’ve had here together – defensive and offensive coordinators can either be at each other’s throats because you’re against each other the whole year and then you’re trying to work together the whole season and it can be either really bad or really good.
“With he and I, he was so good to me when I came in here, especially when we stunk in the first half of that first year, and I’ll never forget that. We’ve had a great relationship and he’s been a great friend and it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do.”
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.