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2021 Oklahoma Report Card: Coaching

The Sooners didn't show any real improvement in 2021, and that falls at the feet of the coaching staff — and ultimately the head coach.

Grading the Oklahoma coaching staff for the 2021 season is a challenge because the Sooners went through the football season with 10 assistant coaches who were actually coaching their players and a head coach who apparently had wandering eyes.

The OU staff as a whole through nine games? Maybe an A-minus. Coaching down the stretch? Probably a D. Lincoln Riley’s preparation for the Bedlam game? F-minus.

Ultimately the 2021 season will be judged on how Riley lost two of his last three games, then slinked away under cover of night for a less-than-lateral move to Southern Cal.

So, how to judge the coaching staff’s performance comes down to one simple question: did the players get better?

Unequivocally, indisputably, they did not.

Riley’s quarterbacks certainly didn’t. Spencer Rattler didn’t show much growth at all from last year’s uneven performance. Caleb Williams was at times otherworldly, but it seemed the more teams prepared for him — the more Riley coached him — the less effective he was.

2021 OU Report Cards

Bill Bedenbaugh’s offensive line was spotty all season and not markedly better than 2020. Dennis Simmons’ outside receivers, other than one big play a game from Marvin Mims and a three-TD game by Jadon Haselwood, didn’t show a lot of growth. Cale Gundy’s inside receivers also plateaued. DeMarco Murray’s running backs were far better than they were the year before, when Murray didn’t have Eric Gray or Kennedy Brooks. First-year coach Joe Jon Finley's H-backs were the most consistent group on the entire team. 

On defense, any real progress made by individual players was largely negated by an overall lack of productivity and consistency from the group.

Alex Grinch’s safeties became at least reliable and occasionally delivered impactful plays, but also got picked on. Roy Manning’s cornerbacks showed a significant lack of steady progress. Brian Odom’s linebackers didn’t come close to reaching their potential. Jamar Cain’s edge players also fell short of high expectations. And Calvin Thibodeaux’s defensive tackles started strong, leveled out and then picked things up at the end.

Good coaching maximizes a player’s strengths and hides his weaknesses. That didn’t happen at OU in 2021, whether it was Riley’s offense or Grinch’s defense.

Too often there seemed to be a philosophical disconnect between Riley’s new-age thinking as a head coach and Grinch’s old-school teachings as a defensive coordinator.

At one point Grinch followed up a Riley press conference by stating, “someone’s got to be the truth-teller around here.”

Another time, just before Riley canceled a practice (the Monday before the Kansas game — was he property hunting in California, or was he just giving guys an unprecedented day off?), Grinch seemed alarmed that while “we believe in practice, but some of our players don’t.”

Whether that disconnect was real or eventually produced cracks in the foundation of Riley’s program can never be known. Grinch went to work for Riley at Southern Cal, so maybe it was all imagined.

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What wasn’t imagined was the fan base’s angst over Riley telling them every week how “close” the Sooners were when it was more and more obvious each game — each close victory over a pedestrian (or worse) opponent — that they were not really close at all.

Tulane, Nebraska, West Virginia, Kansas State, Texas and even Kansas either rallied late or jumped out early.

OU’s two best games under Riley this season were home games against TCU and Texas Tech, 52-31 and 52-21.

Oklahoma certainly had opportunities to win at Baylor and at Oklahoma State, but poor sideline execution in both games cost the Sooners two losses and eventually kept them out of the Big 12 title game.

Ultimately, any grade of Oklahoma’s coaching falls at Riley’s feet.

Riley proved himself a fantastic play-caller and an extremely gifted quarterback coach. He also reached new heights in recruiting, with help from OU’s vast and talented recruiting staff.

But the longer Riley was a head coach — one who insisted on calling his own offensive plays despite frequent game mismanagement and late-game collapses, and one who refused to acknowledge the benefits of a dedicated special teams coach — the further his star fell.

Riley’s first OU team in 2017 really was “agonizingly close” to winning a national title — and that would be the closest he got. The 2018 Sooners fell further away, the 2019 squad fell even further, and the 2020 team lost back-to-back Big 12 games for the first time since the John Blake era. The 2021 Sooners muddled through one of the nation’s easiest schedules, then collapsed when the enemy toughened up and blew another lead to unceremoniously end what had been billed as a national championship-or-bust season without even playing in the Big 12 Championship or a New Year’s Six bowl.

Call it toughness or culture or whatever you want, the fact is, the longer Lincoln Riley coached Oklahoma, the worse the Sooners got.

Riley even lost his touch with quarterbacks. Rattler was a heavy Heisman favorite when the ’21 season began, but by mid-October he was on the bench. Williams played like Superman early, but as the season went on, he had few answers for what defenses in Waco and Stillwater dictated to him.

Most disturbing of all, these were Riley’s hand-picked quarterbacks. Baker Mayfield was a Texas Tech transfer who came to OU before Riley did. Kyler Murray was a Texas A&M transfer who only needed a capable quarterback coach to unlock his prodigious abilities. Jalen Hurts was an Alabama transfer who decidedly did things his way (locking in on one receiver, then taking off with the football) rather than Riley’s way.

Riley recruited Rattler as a high school freshman. And although Riley at first offered Brock Vandagriff over Williams and admirably stuck with that commitment, it was Williams’ insistence on being coached by Riley that brought him to Norman and eventually pushed Vandagriff to Georgia.

Riley landed he No. 1 quarterback in the nation in the 2019 class, and the No. 1 overall player in the nation in the 2021 class, and the Sooners went 19-4 with one Big 12 title and no College Football Playoff appearances.

Grading the Coaches

  • Hoover: D-
  • Chapman: D
  • Callaway: D-

Coaches GPA: 0.778 (D on a 4.0 scale)