NORMAN — Lincoln Riley stepped off the elevator at the third floor of the Stadium Club on Monday for his very first weekly press conference as Oklahoma’s head football coach, and there they were.
Life-size portraits of Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops, staring (glaring) down at him. A bit down the hallway, there’s even one of Bennie Owen. Just across the street, those men have their own statues (minus Stoops, although his rests comfortably in a nearby warehouse, waiting).
Is Oklahoma’s 33-year-old head coach ready for everything that goes with the job of leading the Sooners?
“That’s a good question,” Riley said. “I — I guess we’ll find out.”
He means this Saturday when the Sooners open the 2017 season against UTEP — their first in 19 years with someone other than Stoops at the helm, a stretch of 6,859 days — but in reality, we’ll know a whole lot more next week when OU visits No. 2-ranked Ohio State. And of course, there will be even more certainty come December, when Riley’s first season is in the books.
But really, how could any man be prepared for the magnitude of being the OU football coach?
“Have I learned things? Yes. Of course I have,” Riley said. “And I’ll continue to. But there’s not one part of this that I felt unprepared for. It’s felt good. And a lot of that, again, has been the people around me, giving me that support, delegating more here and there. I think the people around me have been a big part of that. But not for one second have I felt unprepared.”
One day into game week and it’s apparent that Lincoln Riley will be doing things his way. He certainly learned many important lessons from Stoops, but there are examples everywhere that he’s putting his own stamp on this team:
- There is no depth chart. For all his close-to-the-vest secrecy, Stoops always had a depth chart ready for public consumption. The OU pregame notes package for Saturday’s UTEP game actually includes a page that says “Depth Chart” at the top, and the rest of the page is completely blank. Maybe by Wednesday he’ll know more, Riley said, but anything right now might include the word “or” 15 times. Better to wait and be accurate.
- There is a true freshman starting at middle linebacker. Riley said Kenneth Murray is “physically just so good, and he’s just getting better so fast. He’s gonna make a lot of plays right now, and it’ll be a matter of time before he’s making all of them.” No rookie ever won the middle linebacker job under Stoops. Even Stoops’ best Mike ‘backers, Teddy Lehman and Curtis Lofton, were backups as freshmen.
- There is a true freshman punt returner. CeeDee Lamb has done enough in camp to gain the coaches’ trust, Riley said. Think about it: there are few plays more devastating to field position and momentum than a fumbled punt. Stoops never trusted a rookie with the task of catching punts without at least redshirting a season.
- Oklahoma is purported to have America’s best offensive line, but there remains a competition at guard between Ben Powers, Dru Samia and Cody Ford. The competition surely is a good thing — Stoops’ best teams had starter-quality players throughout the two-deep — but Riley said there likely will be a rotation at the position. A rotation at guard?
- Riley announced Monday that Baker Mayfield’s backup will be Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray, but also announced that last year’s backup, Austin Kendall, will redshirt this season and that walk-on Tanner Schafer will be third string. Stoops wasn’t much on announcing who his backup quarterback would be, and he certainly never formally announced that any quarterback definitely would redshirt (Paul Thompson did in 2004 after playing as a true freshman in 2003; Tommy Grady was Jason White’s backup in ‘04, but Thompson always was available for duty had White suffered a long-term injury), and Stoops never announced the definitive status of his best walk-on QB.
- Maybe most telling, Riley consulted with his coaching staff several times throughout training camp to determine the best balance between overworking the team and giving them some needed R&R, including a “golf” outing midway through camp.
“I feel like we did some things creatively to change up the schedule, to keep our guys fresh and excited,” Riley said.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about it and talking about it. And we didn’t necessarily lessen the physicality, as we’ve said, or the amount of time, but just tried to change things up. You go practice the same way for five weeks and don’t hit anybody else, you know, it’s human nature, you’re gonna get a little discouraged with it or a little tired of it.
“I thought the staff had some great ideas. We did change some things up with the way we met, did a few more game-like scenarios, we got under the lights a little more. We just tried to change it up as much as we could, and again, our players responded to it very well.”
Everyone from Stoops to Joe Castiglione to Mayfield to Mike Leach said back on June 7 that Lincoln Riley was ready to be the head coach at Oklahoma. With a summer of recruiting victories and Big 12 Media Days and his very first training camp behind him, and now that game week is here, is Riley as ready as he thought he was?
Was he just not prepared yet to make the tough calls on that depth chart? Is he being wishy-washy? Is he being intellectually patient? Or is he playing coy with UTEP and, by extension, Ohio State?
“I told these guys, any time there’s a new head coach and you come in that you really start from scratch,” Riley said. “And I felt like it was important for that not to just be lip service with these guys. They understand that we’ve told them from Day 1, what you’ve done in the past is great, but that will be a starting point for us for the first day of fall camp, and then after that, it is what have you done for us lately. So we’re gonna continue with that.”
Mayfield and tight end Mark Andrews illustrated ways that Riley has shown since June 7 that he is ready.
“He’s not a big yelling guy or anything like that,” Andrews said. “He’ll put his arm around you and talk with you and be real with you. I think everyone respects that. It’s just different things he does like that. There’s a lot of other things that make him a players’ coach, but just being personable and being someone you can trust is one of them.”
Said Mayfield, “He’s obviously got a lot more responsibility dealing with the knuckleheads on the other side of the ball, the defensive side of the ball. … Just a lot of appreciation and respect for him. He’s got a lot more responsibility. He’s got to answer a lot more phone calls.”
Those portraits outside the Stadium Club elevator aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Neither are those statues.
But OU’s new head coach has made it crystal clear: The Lincoln Riley Era has begun at OU. This is his team, his program, and he’s going to mold it in his own image.
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.