NORMAN — Oklahoma’s new coach tried to deflect any hubbub about the start of the Lincoln Riley era.
Seamless transition, you know.
But there’s no denying the immutable fact: Bob Stoops is no longer calling the shots at Owen Field. That was evident throughout OU’s 56-7 victory over UTEP.
Players said Riley was pretty normal before the game, calm, stoic, loose. And his very first pregame speech?
“Not as dramatic as you might think,” Riley said.
Turns out the team had a thorough meeting on Friday night and “we got a lot of things out in the open that we needed to do,” Riley said.
But as for sweaty inspiration ahead of the kickoff?
“That’s like Bob said before, that Knute Rockne died a long ago, when talking about pregame speeches. They are overrated,” Riley said. “They are either ready to play in that moment or they are not.”
Riley said he told the players he was confident in their ability to go play at a high level.
“I just told them, ‘Let’s go enjoy the moment together and let’s go play for each other,’ and we went out there and did that.”
From his own perspective — was Riley really ready? — he said he did wonder.
“I guess I was a little curious if it would feel much different,” he said, “but it really didn’t.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has been around some of the best head coaches in the business. He also was a head coach for almost eight seasons at Arizona. But Stoops said he didn’t feel the need to monitor his new boss.
“We had a couple texts early,” Stoops said, “but shoot, there’s nothing ‘worried’ or any different. He has great trust in his players and vice versa, and coaches. So it was business as usual. I think for us, obviously he has a lot more to deal with now because of his involvement so strongly with the offense, but he was great. He was the same person we see day-in and day-out.”
Left tackle and captain Orlando Brown said it was “coach Riley as usual” before the game. “I don’t think he’s changed much.”
Riley was asked if he had a pregame “moment” he’d like to share. The only thing he could think of was jogging out with his new security detail, Oklahoma Highway Patrol lieutenant Brian Orr, the muscled-up former Central Oklahoma linebacker who was formerly assigned to protect Bob Stoops.
“I don’t have a great story for you. I’m sorry,” Riley said. “Yeah, I just kinda went out. I got the biggest bodyguard in America, so I feel safe, I know that.”
As for the game itself, Riley was as good as he ever was as an offensive coordinator.
Sure, it was just UTEP, a team the No. 7-ranked Sooners were favored to beat by 43 points, and OU inevitably was going to put up big numbers. They finished with 676 yards total offense, averaged 9.1 yards per play and compiled 35 first downs.
But Riley’s starting quarterback completed 19-of-20 passes. His backup completed 10-of-11. His walk-on third-stringer went 3-of-5. The Sooners committed zero turnovers and suffered just one offensive penalty.
“That was good,” Riley said. “First game, that’s something that you always think about. We took care of the ball well and the penalties were good on that side of the ball.”
Quarterbacks also got the football to 14 different receivers. The four running backs carried 27 times for 170 yards, and three fullbacks got the football, too, and scored two touchdowns.
Riley did admit to a couple of personal snags during the game.
“There were a few instances where I had to (remind myself), ‘Oh yeah, I’m the guy who has to decline or accept the penalty,’ ”Riley said. “One in particular where the guys did a good job of snapping me back in. (That was a second-down UTEP penalty on an incomplete Miner pass after which Riley didn’t indicate that he wanted to decline it; at one point the line judge was waiving his arms in a “decline” motion to the OU sideline, and the penalty was eventually declined.)
“No, it was good,” Riley continued. “Cale (Gundy) did a great job up top of helping me monitor that and finding times where we could talk about what we had going on offensively. There were times where I had to be keyed in to what we were doing defensively or on special teams. I think that’s something that, like all these guys got stuff to improve on, I certainly do, too.”
Asked about players bouncing up and down and singing and throwing water on him, Riley sheepishly laughed, perhaps a silent acknowledgement that so many of his charges wanted to get his head coaching career off to a 1-0 start. The postgame celebration “was fun,” Riley said, “not because it was my debut but because it was a great moment for our team.
“Our first chance to do this.”
“It was heavy on (Riley),” said fullback Dimitri Flowers. “But you know, we had a bunch of different guys score their first touchdowns, a bunch of guys out there that competed today, and I feel like we celebrated everybody.”
Mike Stoops did acknowledge a little different vibe in the postgame celebration.
“I think everyone was excited to get this out of the way and excited for him, to let his era begin,” Stoops said. “He has great support from everybody inside these walls, and everybody goes out and tries to do their jobs and make it easier on him because we know he has a lot to do.”
Riley was asked what he might remember from his big debut. He had to think about it. A lot.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It still doesn’t feel that much different. It feels like a fun first game. I’ll probably remember the young guys that stepped up and played well. Again, the whole situation from June 7 up to today, the thing I’ll remember the most is how our team and our staff has responded to all this change. Today was a little bit of a culmination of that for me.”
After his first postgame press conference had ended, Riley met up with his wife Caitlin. They walked out together, eager to reunite with older daughter Sloan, and even more eager to get home to baby Stella.
“Baby’s not ready yet,” Riley said.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. 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. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.