After nearly two decades under the leadership of Bob Stoops, Oklahoma football is looking at a bevy of unknowns surrounding its new head coach
Thirtysomething assistants with no head coaching experience rarely get the keys to top college football programs. As we’ve seen recently, when the top job at a Michigan or Alabama or Ohio State opens up, the most coveted candidates typically have their fair share of skins on the wall.
Oklahoma, however, has a history of hitting it big with young up-and-comers – Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer, Bob Stoops. The Sooners are now hoping that they’ve found their next wonder boy in 33-year-old offensive mastermind Lincoln Riley.
While guys like Nick Saban and Urban Meyer have track records that offer blueprints for how they build and run programs, Riley is a blank slate. Inquiring minds in Sooner Nation should be asking five key questions to get a better feel for their new coach and his plans for this season and beyond.
1. What is Ruffin McNeill’s role on the coaching staff?
Adding McNeill, who was a defensive coordinator under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, gave rise to some speculation that Mike Stoops’ time at OU is running short. It’s no stretch to assume that Riley will want to put his own guy in place at some point, and Bob Stoops’ brother has yet to recapture the touch he showed back in the early 2000s as a defensive tactician.
More likely, however, is that Riley just wanted a reliable confidante on his first coaching staff. Riley served as McNeill’s offensive coordinator at East Carolina for five seasons before moving to OU, and both have made their respect for one another clear. McNeill also has experience coaching defensive linemen, an area where the Sooners need to see some more players emerge quickly.
It wouldn’t be surprising if McNeill ends up as Riley’s top lieutenant and surrogate when it comes to handling some of the duties of the head coach.
2. Will Riley’s promotion create friction with OU’s other assistant coaches?
Continuing in a similar vein as the question about McNeill, will OU’s other assistants chafe at taking orders from a new head coach who was their peer, let alone someone who is so young? In some organizations, introducing that kind of dynamic can quickly turn a situation toxic. Not to mention, McNeill aside, Bob Stoops hired all of those assistants, not Riley.
In theory, Riley has enough familiarity with his staff to assume this won’t be a problem. Hurt feelings and jealousy don’t often abide by the rules of logic, though.
3. How will he accommodate calling plays on offense?
If there are offensive strategists in college football better than Riley, you might be able to count them on one hand. As Steve Spurrier noted, Riley is in this position specifically because he knows how to get points on the board. Turning over play-calling to someone else on OU’s staff seems like a waste of his considerable talents.
The trade-off is diverting his attention from the rest of a head coach’s responsibilities, both large and small, during a game, such as clock management, lobbying the refs, making adjustments and the like.
Hopefully, Riley knows how to delegate among his staffers. That could be pivotal when it comes to keeping things running smoothly on game day while he’s managing the O.
4. How does Riley approach garbage time and personnel rotations?
"Why are the starters still in the game?"
Television announcers asked that question nearly every time OU was cruising in the fourth quarter of a blowout in the last 18 years.
Stoops rarely went deep into his bench in blowouts. Style points probably had a lot to do with that. Frankly, though, OU just seemed to prefer using shorter rotations in general.
Stoops' philosophy was simple: the players who show the coaches in practice they should play will be out on the field. Snaps were earned by competing during the week, not by where your name fell on the depth chart.
It’s hard to argue with the overall results. The other side of the coin, though was: how many players checked out mentally because they knew they weren't going to play on Saturdays?
5. What’s the plan for the early signing period?
To be fair, Riley’s not alone on this. The addition of a December period for recruits to sign letters of intent will add more stress to the lives of coaching staffs as they address bowl preparation and other end-of-season matters.
Every college football coach right now is working out how to approach the new adjustments to the recruiting calendar. Stoops never showed much fondness for recruiting, so he’s probably happy that Riley will be the one to figure out how OU will deal with this.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.
(Photos courtesy of SoonerSports.com)