By Michael Kinney
In the span of 24 hours the University of Oklahoma and its fan base took some serious gut punches. If it had been a heavyweight fight, the Sooner Nation may have had to take an eight count.
First, the Sooners dropped a 37-33 heartbreaker to cross-state rival Oklahoma State Saturday night in Stillwater. The Bedlam loss not only assured them of missing the College Football Playoffs for a second straight season but also ended the program’s six-year streak of winning the Big 12 Championship.
However, that was just the appetizer. An even bigger shock came Sunday when it was announced head coach Lincoln Riley was leaving OU and taking the head coaching position at the University of Southern California.
Even though there had been rumors swirling about Riley being connected to other coaching jobs, his departure after just xx years in Norman caught much of the fan base off guard.
“Leaving OU was probably the most difficult decision of my life. OU is one of the best college football programs in the country, and it has been forever,” Riley said in a statement. “That’s not going to change. It’s not going to change in the SEC, it’s not going to change with another head coach. It’s stood the test of time and it’s going to continue to do so. This was a personal decision solely based on my willingness to go take on a new challenge, and I felt like it was the right opportunity for me and my family to do that.”
For the past week, Riley had been connected to the LSU job. But after the loss to OSU, he was asked directly if he would be coaching at LSU, to which he responded that he wouldn’t, which is true. Unfortunately, Riley wasn’t asked if he would be coaching at Oklahoma next season.
According to reports, Riley and USC came to terms late last week. He told his players Sunday afternoon in a special team meeting. Several Sooners took to social media to express their astonishment.
In five seasons as the Sooner’s head coach, Riley racked up 55 victories, four Big 12 Championships and three appearances in the College Football Playoffs. That also includes helping produce three quarterbacks who went on to be drafted in the NFL, including two No. 1 overall picks.
“I’d like to thank Coach Riley for all he has done to help our football program since he arrived in Norman in 2015,” Oklahoma Athletic Director Joe Castiglione. “The leadership and ingenuity he displayed during his two years as offensive coordinator made our decision to promote him to head coach when Bob Stoops retired a no-brainer, and he certainly lived up to expectations in his five years as head coach.”
However, Riley’s detractors will point out that despite producing some of the most prolific offenses in NCAA history, the Sooners were unable to advance in the College Football Playoffs and his play calling in big games had tended to grow conservative.
Regardless, that was not what USC saw when they went after Riley. The struggling program needed a fresh face and offensive mind to turn around the once-legendary football titan.
“Lincoln is universally considered one of the brightest and most talented football coaches in the nation,” USC, athletic director Mike Bohn said. “The fact that he chose USC is a testament to the strength of our brand, the power of the Trojan Family, and the leadership of our university. This is for our current players, our former players, our alumni, our fans, and our entire university community. Our time is now.”
Riley leaves behind a program that seems to be reeling. On the same day the announcement was made, three of the Sooner’s top recruits from the 2023 class decommitted. And there is worry that current Sooners will head to the transfer portal and follow Riley to USC.
One of those is freshman quarterback Caleb Williams, who would not address the situation in a statement he put out Sunday.
“I appreciate all the concerns about the situation but I am also happy for Coach Riley, mama Riley, Sloan and Stella for that huge opportunity ahead.,” Williams stated. “That’s all I plan to say right now.”
Castiglione quickly named Bob Stoops as the interim coach for whichever bowl game the Sooners attend. While Stoops hasn’t coached a college game since he stepped down, many of the players on the team had been recruited by him at some point or know of his resume.
“He is looking forward to the opportunity and we certainly appreciate all he has done and continues to do for our athletics department and football program,” Castiglione said. “Our team and players are in great hands under his leadership. When we met with the team today, I communicated to our players that our program is about them. It will always be bigger than any one person. And just as it’s always been, Oklahoma football is positioned for greatness.”
During a press conference Monday, Stoops tried to calm the fan base and said the current situation is just a bump in the road and that nobody was bigger than the program.
Castiglione made it clear they have started the search for the position long term. However, he knows he may not have the time to be patient. The Sooners have already lost commitments from 2023 recruits in running back Treyaun Webb and defensive lineman Derrick Moore. From the 2022 class offensive lineman Demetrius Hunter and Kobie McKenzie have also decommitted.
“We know the importance of time and timing,” Castiglione said. “And what we need to do with everything that’s going on in this very different and new world. We’ll move it quickly.”
Michael Kinney Media
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