NORMAN — Oklahoma made it official on Monday, announcing Mike Stoops’ “dismissal” and defensive tackle coach Ruffin McNeill’s promotion to defensive coordinator in a press release.
“I have great respect for Mike,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “He’s a quality football coach, great man and a close friend. It became time for a change in our program and that happens sometimes in football, but we cannot lose sight of the accomplishments Mike had at Oklahoma. He was responsible for a lot of success and deserves the gratitude of everyone associated with Sooner football, not only for his role in the winning, but for coaching with integrity.”
The press release says McNeill will serve as defensive coordinator “for the remainder of the season” and that Bob Diaco will move from defensive specialist to coach the outside linebackers.
Later Monday morning, I asked Riley during his regular turn on the Big 12 coaches teleconference what the most important determining factors were that pushed him to make this decision now.
“More of a gut feeling, you know, that this was the appropriate response right now, you know, that we, more than anything, needed a different voice in that room and what this team and this moment needed right now,” Riley said. “We still have a very, very good football team and, I think, have chance to do a lot of special things.
“Mike’s a big part of the way this team was built and the success this program’s had for a long, long time. This never comes together because of one person. Head coaches and coordinators and quarterbacks, you know, always get the lion’s share of the credit when things go good and blame when things go bad, and that’s part of the business. We get it. We understand it. We’re not new to it. But we also, within these walls, we know to do things well, it takes a lot of people. And when things don’t go well, it’s rarely because of one person, and it certainly wasn’t here.
“There’s a lot of people that have got to do a better job — me being at the top of that list — for us to play the way we want to play defensively. But in the end, I felt like this was a change that, just in my gut, needed to happen.”
McNeill, 59, previously served as defensive coordinator at UNLV (1997-98), Fresno State (1999) and Texas Tech (2008-09) and was head coach at his alma mater, East Carolina (2010-15). Defensive specialist Bob Diaco, 45, hired by Riley last offseason, was formerly defensive coordinator at Cincinnati (2009), Notre Dame (2010-13) and Nebraska (2017) and was head coach at Connecticut (2014-16).
“Ruffin has an impressive résumé,” Riley said in the statement. “That’s why I wanted him on our staff in the first place. I have confidence in his knowledge and leadership. Bob has a lot of experience in very good programs and also has a list of accomplishments that will help him step in and make an immediate impact. We are fortunate to have these men in our program. They’ll be ready to get to work in new roles right away.”
Later on the Big 12 call, Riley expressed a deeper appreciation for why McNeill is ready to succeed at Oklahoma.
“If I didn’t feel like we had the firepower in that room to get this done, I wouldn’t have made the decision,” Riley said. “But I felt like, a, it was the right decision, and b, we have people in that room who could bring a spark to us right now. And Ruffin’s certainly a big part of that, as will (be) all the other assistants, and then obviously, getting coach Diaco on the field as well, those are all certainly big factors.
“But no doubt, I have a ton of confidence in Ruffin. There’s not anything in this game that he hasn’t done. He’s just one of those guys that when something like this comes up, he doesn’t have to sit back and figure out how he’s gonna handle it, he knows how he’s gonna handle it the second the situation’s presented. He does have a confidence about himself. He’s got a way with the players. They’ll be excited to play for him and I think he’s one of those guys that can do so many things. This is a new challenge for him here and I know he’s excited about it.”
McNeill was an assistant at Texas Tech in 2007 when the Red Raiders lost 49-45 at Oklahoma State. After the game, Mike Leach criticized his team, especially the defense, and afterward defensive coordinator Lyle Sentencich resigned and Leach appointed McNeill to the post. The Tech fallout was largely overlooked because that was OSU coach Mike Gundy’s famous “I’m a man, I’m 40!” moment.
Stoops, 56, was fired after yet another Sooners defensive meltdown, this time on Saturday against rival Texas in the Cotton Bowl. The Longhorns put up season highs in points, yards, passing yards and first downs and set a Texas record for points scored against OU in a 48-45 victory that knocked the Sooners out of the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
“I’m extremely disappointed in my inability to get this team to play at a higher level,” Stoops said after the game. “It takes everybody pulling the same way and I certainly take a lot of that responsibility.”
On the Big 12 call, Riley declined to elaborate on the specifics of Mike Stoops’ involvement in his decision and the report that Stoops had offered to resign, and also didn’t want to discuss whether or not he was influenced by the OU administration or even discussed with his bosses the decision to fire a $1 million-a-year employee.
“I would never get too much into the internal details,” Riley said. “I will say this: Mike Stoops cares about the program. Deeply cares about the people here. He’s had a long, extremely successful run here, so he wants nothing more than the best for this program and the best for the people and players here. Um … ah, this decision was my decision.”
He was also asked whether he discussed his decision with his predecessor, Bob Stoops.
“I think just because of the nature of mine and Bob’s relationship, obviously with Mike being his brother, I don’t know that I’d feel comfortable saying either way, honestly,” Riley said.
With the Sooners on an open date, OU is not staging Riley’s weekly noon news conference Monday. Riley, however, will meet with the media on Monday evening after practice, about 6 p.m., per the morning press release.
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.