Questions abound in Norman, Oklahoma and around college football regarding Lincoln Riley’s stunning decision to leave the Oklahoma football program for the same job at USC.
Sadly, Riley’s departure from OU has much broader implications on the Sooner football program than losing the head coach. Within hours of Riley’s announcement, four top-ranked recruits from the 2022 and 2023 classes decommitted from Oklahoma, including the No. 1 quarterback in the 2023 class nationally, Malachi Nelson.
And the Sooners aren’t just losing their head coach. Five other OU assistants are leaving with him. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, receivers coach Dennis Simmons, offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, director of operations Clarke Stroud and strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie are reportedly joining Riley in Los Angeles.
All of this speaks to the urgency now facing Athletic Director Joe Castiglione and the OU administration not only to have to replace a head coach for one of the country’s premier college football programs, but a number of key assistant positions, as well. The fact that Riley also served as offensive coordinator and play caller in addition to his head coaching responsibilities compounds the matter even further.
Whoever the Sooners end up hiring — and social media has been lit up the past 24 hours with a wide-ranging list of possibilities, although I’m sure Joe Castiglione’s full energies will be directed at a much shorter hot list — is basically going to need to build an all-new staff.
The timing of all of this is what hurts the most. It comes at one of the busiest recruiting periods of the year, with the early signing period beginning Dec. 15, the first time you can sign recruits in the 2022 class to National Letters of Intent.
Within hours of the news that Riley had become the new head coach at USC, two members of the Sooners top-ranked 2023 recruiting class, RB Treyaun Webb and WR Brandon Inniss, both out of the state of Florida decommitted from OU. A little later, Malachi Nelson did the same, presumably to join Riley at USC. Two other high school teammates of Nelson’s, five-star WR Makai Lemon and four-star WR Deandre Moore might also flip their commitment to USC.
Riley and his OU assistant Simmons had built a strong relationship with Nelson, Lemon and Moore, all of whom are from Los Alamitos, California, so it’s not all that surprising, but highly unfortunate, that they would decide to stay home and with the coach(es) who recruited them.
Oklahoma also will probably lose out on the top-rated running back in the 2022 class, Raleek Brown, a five-star prospect from Santa Ana, California.
Riley’s first commitment to the 2022 OU class, four-star inside linebacker Kobie Mckinzie, from Lubbock, Texas, also has decommitted from Oklahoma after hearing the news about the Sooner head coach. And early Monday morning, four-star 2022 defensive end Derrick Moore, from Baltimore, Maryland, announced his decommitment.
And there’s no way of knowing what the changing situation at Oklahoma might potentially have on other 2022 and 2023 recruits Oklahoma may have been targeting under Riley’s leadership but who had not yet committed to the Sooners.
Without a head coach in place and several key assistants, including both coordinator positions, Oklahoma’s recruiting efforts are essentially at a standstill, and at perhaps the most critical time of the year.
As if that concern was not big enough, there is no way of really knowing how many of the current Oklahoma players might choose to enter the transfer portal and follow their former head coach to the West Coast. A lot of that will be determined by who is hired as the new OU head coach and how soon that spot is filled.
In a statement released by the University of Oklahoma, Riley said:
“My time at Oklahoma has included some of the most special year’s in my life. Leaving OU was probably one of the most difficult decisions of my life. OU is one of the best college football programs in the country, and it has been forever. That’s not going to change.”
Despite the sadness and also bitterness that exists right now throughout the Sooner Nation, the fact remains that Riley was an outstanding assistant and head coach at OU. His record and long list of accomplishments in just seven seasons in Norman, five as head coach, speaks for itself.
He leaves as the winningest head coach in Oklahoma history from a percentage standpoint. His .846 winning percentage (55-10) is better than Barry Switzer (.837), Bud Wilkinson (.826) and even Bob Stoops (.798), the winningest Sooner head coach in terms of total wins (190-48).
The widespread speculation behind Riley’s reason for leaving Oklahoma at this time is not as much about the money as it is to be a bigger fish (USC) in a pond (the Pac-12) with fewer big fish than exist in a conference where Oklahoma is soon headed (SEC). Logic would also tell us that his chances of playing for conference titles and the ultimate prize, a national championship.
I think Berry Tramel, sports columnist of The (Oklahoma City) Oklahoman, has summed up this whole whirlwind situation as well as anybody:
“The Oklahoma job changed in July,” he writes. “That’s when OU pledged to the SEC, and Riley was tasked with beating Alabama and Georgia not for national supremacy but for conference supremacy."
And here’s the reality check, Tramel says:
“Soon enough, the Sooners will be in the fast lane. Harder to win. Den of vipers recruiting. Partners with schools like LSU, Florida, Auburn and Tennessee, that have lost all semblance of sanity in expectations and behavior.”
On the bright side for the future of the Oklahoma football program, AD Castiglione is one of the best athletic directors in college sports, so the job search for the next great coach in OU football history couldn’t be in better hands. Castiglione has a strong record of hiring outstanding head coaches, including Bob Stoops, Lon Kruger and Riley, and recently the Sooners’ new men’s basketball coach Porter Moser.
“Oklahoma is one of the premier football programs and jobs in America,” Castiglione said in a statement issued on Sunday. “Our storied history, annual pursuit of conference and national championships and tremendous fan support, beautiful facilities and quality of life combine to make this an incredible place to recruit to and coach, and we have begun the search for our next great leader.”