NORMAN, Okla. — Lincoln Riley sweeps his hand across his field of vision to acknowledge that the place where he speaks the next few sentences might make those sentences seem ironic. He walks through a hallway in Oklahoma’s slick new football complex. Beneath strategically dim crimson and cream lights are reminders of one of the nation’s richest football histories. Trophies, photos, jerseys and other memorabilia connect Bud Wilkinson to Barry Switzer to Bob Stoops to Riley himself.
“You want all these guys to know about the history here, because the history here is as good or better than anywhere,” Riley begins. Then comes the spin forward. “But we’ve also had to balance that with being new and current and progressive,” Riley says. “I think we’re heading in that direction a little bit more.”
In his first season as the Sooners’ head coach, the 34-year-old Riley parlayed one of most graceful torch-passings the sport has seen into a Big 12 title and a College Football Playoff berth. Quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy. The Sooners led the Rose Bowl with a minute remaining in regulation before succumbing to Georgia in a double-overtime classic*. Riley’s first try at his new job was astounding.
*Before we continue, please indulge a brief digression to ponder an intriguing alternative timeline. Imagine Oklahoma had stopped Georgia instead of allowing the Bulldogs to tie the Rose Bowl with 55 seconds remaining. The Sooners would have played Alabama for the national title the following week. Oklahoma’s defense, shredded by Georgia’s run game the previous week, would have allowed some first-half points—probably on long runs. But Oklahoma’s offense would have scored its share against Alabama’s defense. The game would have been close at halftime, which means Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban would not have reached the desperate point he reached down 13-0 in the actual national title game. Tua Tagovailoa would have remained on the bench, and the Mayfield-led Sooners might have outscored the Jalen Hurts-led Tide in the second half. Oklahoma might have won the national title, or Hurts might have led Alabama to one. Either way, the phones in Tagovailoa’s inner circle would be ringing constantly to gauge his interest in transferring. Football is a crazy game sometimes.
But every new coach wants to make his new program his own, and transfer of power from Stoops to Riley happened so suddenly last June that Riley didn’t have much time to evaluate what his program needed. It had few short-term needs anyway. The Sooners had a transcendent quarterback, one of the nation’s best offensive lines and a chance to win a third consecutive Big 12 title. So Riley didn’t make any changes that would affect the on-field product in 2017. “Bob and I were so much aligned in how we think,” Riley says. “There was not a ton I wanted to change.”
The few tweaks Riley made cast an eye toward Oklahoma’s future. He reorganized the recruiting department, bringing in former Oklahoma track athlete Annie Hanson from North Carolina to organize the staff’s recruiting efforts and create a brand strategy to reach potential future Sooners. Riley likes the coaching staff he inherited. He knows Oklahoma’s biggest challenge going forward is talent acquisition. The Sooners need to feel cool to 16- and 17-year-olds, and nothing Jack Mildren or Keith Jackson did will help sway the players Oklahoma needs to keep competing for national titles.
Oklahoma didn’t need a football culture change when Riley took over because Stoops made the necessary changes on that front early in 2015 when he wiped out most of the existing coaching staff following an 8–5 2014 season that ended with a humiliating loss to Clemson in the Champs Sports Bowl. The biggest hire that offseason was Riley as the offensive coordinator. Within a few months of Riley’s arrival, Stoops and Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione knew the program would be in good hands when Stoops decided to retire—if Oklahoma could hang on to Riley. The arrival of Mayfield as a walk-on transfer from Texas Tech the previous year was especially fortuitous. Mayfield was already on campus when Riley arrived, but Riley had previously expressed a desire to work with Mayfield. When Mayfield decided to transfer out of Lubbock following the 2013 season, East Carolina offensive coordinator Riley offered him a scholarship.
Riley did have to make one change that will allow him to put his stamp on the program he inherited. Jerry Schmidt, the strength coach who came with Stoops from Florida following the 1998 season, left this offseason to take the same job at Texas A&M. Riley didn’t want to lose Schmidt, but when he realized he’d need a new strength coach, he knew exactly who to call. Riley sought out the guy who had introduced him to college football with extreme prejudice when Riley was a walk-on quarterback at Texas Tech. “I was in decent shape for a college kid,” Riley says of his first encounter with Bennie Wylie. “I wasn’t in good shape for a college athlete. That was a painful day.” Wylie was Mike Leach’s strength coach in Lubbock and worked at Texas for the final three years of the Mack Brown era. Riley lured Wylie out of private practice—he had been running a training center in Abilene, Texas—because Riley hasn’t forgotten Wylie’s powers. “Any time I was lifting, if he was spotting me or around, I could instantly lift more weight,” Riley says.
We won’t let this turn into one of those new-strength-coach stories, though. Schmidt was so good at his job that none of the usual strength staff turnover clichés apply. What matters in this case is that Riley found someone he trusts to handle the second-most-important job on any football staff. The strength coach spends more time with the players than anyone on the staff, and he is the most direct conduit from the head coach to the players. Riley knows exactly how Wylie works, and Wylie knows how Riley was raised as a coach. “There are so many situations that come up between a strength coach and a head coach because you’ve got to work so closely with them,” Riley says. “I already know what he’s thinking and how I’m going to handle them. So it’s a new hire, but it’s not a new hire.”
Riley likes his staff, and he likes his roster. He just needs to upgrade it a bit for two reasons. A Baker Mayfield won’t always show up on the doorstep, and the Sooners don’t want to be justthisclose to playing for a national title. They want to actually play for one and win it. The fact that Riley immediately went to work on the recruiting department suggests he understands this better than anyone. What stands between Oklahoma and a national title is a slight step up in talent level from great to elite that happens to be the most difficult step to take. The Sooners are good, but what happened against a Georgia program that is in the midst of taking that step was telling.
Switzer noticed the biggest problem six years ago, and it remains the biggest problem. “They don’t have people squatting down in the front four,” Switzer told The Tulsa World following a 2012 loss to Kansas State. “They got gashed time after time. Can't get off blocks. They can’t just go in and push the pocket when they’ve got to. That’s what the Tommie Harrises and Gerald McCoys were able to do. Remember how many times they just pushed and all of a sudden there’d be a lot of people back there where the quarterback is? They’d cave in the line. We don’t cave in on people because we don’t have that type of player.”
Oklahoma had the best quarterback in the country. It has had the best offensive line in the Big 12 for the past few years. It always has great backs. It had an excellent safety tandem last season. But the last true difference-maker on the defensive line was McCoy, whose final season as a Sooner was nine years ago. If the Sooners had anyone in McCoy’s neighborhood playing last season, Georgia doesn’t average 9.3 yards a carry and that alternative timeline up there in italics might have come true. Alabama always has a few of those players. Clemson may have the biggest collection at the moment. Who won the past three national titles? The problem is those special defensive linemen are the rarest commodity in football outside of quarterbacks capable of winning the Heisman Trophy.
Someone on Oklahoma’s roster may develop into that type of player. Amani Bledsoe, who was recruited just after the aforementioned staff shakeup, has the potential to blow up plays from multiple defensive line positions, but his first two seasons were truncated because of a one-year NCAA suspension. Bledsoe tested positive for the banned substance clomiphene in October 2016. He claims he unknowingly ingested the substance in protein powder given to him by a teammate and has sued the NCAA to try to regain the year of eligibility he lost. With a full spring and preseason camp to prepare and no looming suspension, the 6'5", 283-pound Bledsoe may give the Sooners a dynamic they lacked last year. That said, Oklahoma still needs more special players on the defensive front in the coming years. It also needs to keep assistant Bill Bedenbaugh’s offensive line factory humming. The Sooners will always be able to find the skill position talent they need. If they can get better at the line of scrimmage, they’ll join the Alabama–Clemson–Ohio State group that always seems to be in the hunt for the national title.
While Riley keeps looking for recruits to upgrade Oklahoma’s talent for the future, his most pressing question in the present is who will replace Mayfield. Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray backed up Mayfield last season. Meanwhile, Austin Kendall redshirted after backing up Mayfield in 2016. Riley believes the two years Murray and Kendall spent with Mayfield in meetings and at practice will keep them from trying too hard to do everything Mayfield did. They know how special he is, and that should make their expectations for themselves more realistic. On the flip side, they watched a Heisman winner’s daily routines and learned the kind of habits they’ll need to have if they hope to come close to duplicating his success. “They’ve got to be secure enough in themselves,” Riley says. “That’s a big part of being able to play quarterback at a place like this. It’s a belief in yourself and a confidence.”
Mayfield hung out at a practice last week, the day before he worked out for NFL personnel at Oklahoma’s pro day. He spent the final portion hanging with Riley’s wife Caitlin. As the quarterbacks walked off the field, Mayfield began clapping. “Hey, let’s go,” he said, adopting his best coach impression. “On the move.” Then everyone cracked up.
Mayfield won’t be around much longer. He’ll have a new team to lead. Riley, meanwhile, plans to be at Oklahoma for a long time. And he’s laying the groundwork for a tenure that he hopes will be just as successful as his predecessor’s.
A Random Ranking
I asked the people to select this week’s topic, and as usual, the people came through.
Here are the top 10 spices…
5. Cayenne pepper
9. Fennel seeds
10. Garam masala
*Listen, sometimes things become the biggest because they’re also the best. Also, these are all you need to properly rub a brisket before smoking.
Three And Out
1. In case you didn’t have enough salt in your diet, check out this exchange from Sunday. Following Saturday’s Alabama win against UCF in the women’s NIT, Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne poked a little fun at UCF for declaring itself a national champion and throwing a parade for its football team.
UCF athletic director Danny White clapped back quickly, though.
White probably isn’t really mad, though. The more people talk about UCF’s football team, the happier he is.
2. Temple coach Geoff Collins made sure his team celebrated St. Patrick’s Day properly—by watching the quarterbacks get harassed by a leprechaun.
3. I hung around in Norman last week for Oklahoma’s pro day, where offensive tackle Orlando Brown needed to show serious improvement after a disastrous combine performance.
What’s Eating Andy?
We debate about sports. We complain about sports. We get in Twitter spats about who threw a parade for whom. But this is why we watch.
What’s Andy Eating?
One of my core beliefs is that if a restaurant offers an all-you-can-eat deal, that restaurant is challenging me to keep it from turning a profit. I’ve probably been undefeated on that front at least since the day when the manager at Shoney’s asked my mom for proof of age before he would give her the 12-and-under price on the breakfast buffet. (I was nine, and apparently I’d put on a show.)
So when I learned about the $6.99 all-you-can-eat breakfast deal at Ozzie’s, a diner tucked inside Norman’s tiny airport, I had to test my mettle during the highest profit margin meal of the day. I also couldn’t resist the opportunity to say this.
O.K., I never said that. My server was incredibly competent, and I didn’t want to insult her. Also, I’m too weak to follow through on an order like that. It’s not that I can’t eat a mess of bacon and eggs. I simply can’t resist another biscuit.
The all-you-can-eat deal at Ozzie’s includes the following items:
• Home fries
This isn’t a buffet with food rotting under warming lamps. Everything is cooked to order, meaning diners must select from this dazzling array after cleaning each plate. If I wanted to ensure Ozzie’s didn’t profit off me, the surest way was to order only bacon and ham. But that’s no fun. Also, the biscuits at Ozzie’s are soft, fluffy and golden. Other than bacon, which rules over all, they’re the best thing on this list. They’re too good not to order every time. That they cost very little and take up too much space in the stomach meant my mission might fail.
I wound up polishing off three plates during my visit. Ozzie’s buys in bulk, so let’s assume it pays slightly less than grocery store prices for its raw material. We can estimate from there.
Slices of bacon at 20 cents each: 6 ($1.20)
Eggs at 12 cents each: 4 ($0.48)
Ham slices at 50 cents each: 1 ($0.50)
Hash browns at 20 cents per portion: 1 ($0.20)
Pancakes at 20 cents each: 1 ($0.20)
Biscuits at 20 cents each: 5 ($1)
Jam for biscuits at 5 cents a container: 5 ($0.25)
With no biscuits, I might have been able to eat all the bacon and eggs Ozzie’s had. But after the two that came with my first order, I knew I’d need biscuits with every re-order. My server probably got a little worried when I asked for them a third time and cut me back from two to one. Had she brought two on that third plate, I’d have eaten them both. So I thank her for making the responsible decision I couldn’t.
The estimate above shows my breakfast cost Ozzie’s about $3.83, so they turned a profit on me. (I also paid for coffee. Ozzie’s isn’t running a charity.) Ozzie’s may have snapped my no-profit streak, but any meal that includes those biscuits also is a win for me.