Although Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said Monday there would be candidates “lined up at the door” to replace Lincoln Riley, it appears he’s already begun to narrow his focus on just a few names.
“People are reaching out that, some people would never believe would have interest in it,” Castiglione said Monday. “That’s Oklahoma for you.”
Of course, Castiglione, famous for his clandestine coaching hires, isn’t revealing who those names are.
“It’s gonna be stealthy, as usual,” Castiglione said at the beginning of the week.
Only four days later, Castiglione is still radio silent. But others in the industry of college athletics are talking — and the consensus opinion is that Castiglione could have his man early next week.
That jibes with what Castiglione said Monday when he and president Joe Harroz introduced Bob Stoops as the interim replacement for Lincoln Riley. Although Castiglione expressly said there’s no defined timetable for him to recommend someone to Harroz and the OU Board of Regents for hire, he did offer clues that sources point to for a speedy resolution.
“There are coaches that we may want to talk to that are engaged with teams that are playing in a conference championship,” Castiglione said. “And then we'll see if either of those get named as the four (teams) in the College Football Playoff.”
One former Division I head coach told SI Sooners that would almost assuredly point to three strong candidates: Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, Baylor head coach Dave Aranda and Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning.
All three are preparing to play in championship games this weekend, so Castiglione has given them their appropriate space, an OU source said.
A Baylor win over Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship Game likely wouldn’t put the Bears in the CFP, so Aranda might be available to meet in earnest with Castiglione as early as Saturday evening, although it’s believed Aranda would be reluctant to leave what he’s started in Waco.
Lanning’s No. 1-ranked Bulldogs are heavy favorites to not only beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, but also advance to the College Football Playoff and win a national title. It’s a complicated situation for Lanning, who would likely have to leave the team that’s a prohibitive favorite for this year’s crown if he were offered the Oklahoma job. He could also stay on in Athens through the final game (the CFP title game is Jan. 10), but that could put him behind in recruiting. Or he could do what others have done: continue to coach his current team with no recruiting duties while stepping onto the recruiting trail for OU a little at a time. It’s hard to do, but it’s been done before.
Fickell’s situation could bear a different type of complexity: He’s built a strong foundation at Cincinnati — the Bearcats play Houston in the American Athletic Conference title game, and at No. 4 in the rankings are certainly in the discussion for a playoff spot — and UC is set to join the Big 12 Conference in the near future. Knowing that, Fickell may just decide his best career path lies in the Queen City.
“We get it,” Castiglione said Monday. “It's a unique part of the challenge. But we'll work through it and we'll talk to people as quickly as we can engage with them.”
Castiglione said even his top early candidates can rule themselves out of the search process.
“If sometimes the situation is such that it doesn't present you with an opportunity to engage,” he said, “then you have to decide to move on.”
That could be the case with Lanning, a young, dynamic recruiter who coordinates America’s best defense. It’s head coach Kirby Smart’s defense, but Lanning is the play caller of this year’s team.
The former D1 coach told SI Sooners it might seem like a no-brainer that Lanning would drop everything at Georgia to become the head coach at Oklahoma. But that’s not always the case. Coaches are people. They form relationships and lasting bonds with players and other coaches on staff. Being on the cusp of a national championship makes it hard for a coach to leave. National titles don’t come around very often in a coach’s career.
It’s why Dan Mullen stayed behind in 2008 when he was offensive coordinator at Florida even though he was hired as head coach Mississippi State. He famously worked both jobs, traveled back and forth between Starkville and Gainesville, and slept on the plane as the Gators prepared to face Oklahoma in the BCS Championship Game.
When Aranda took the job at Baylor in January 2020, however, he had just finished with the 2019 season and won the national championship as LSU’s defensive coordinator. Likewise this season, Aranda has been hyper focused on his job at Baylor and hasn’t been the easiest person for Castiglione to reach. It’s been reported that Aranda is expected to sign a new contract extension in the coming days — likely after the Big 12 title game, and possibly after he turns down Castiglione.
A source at OU says Castiglione isn’t feeling hurried, but he is moving with expediency to try meet with the top candidates he’s identified — at least, those that are able to meet with him.
One name widely believed to be a strong candidate — many former Sooners certainly want him back in Norman — is Brent Venables. The former Bob Stoops lieutenant and current Clemson defensive coordinator “wants the job. That is a fact,” former OU All-American linebacker Teddy Lehman said during his radio show, and has gotten broad support from his old players.
With Clemson not in contention for a CFP berth or even the ACC title game this year, Venables, 50, is currently on the recruiting trail for the Tigers. But Venables certainly has the flexibility to meet with Castiglione. The OU source declined to say whether a meeting has taken place yet or not.
Venables, a native of Salina, KS, and a former Kansas State linebacker who played for Bob and Mike Stoops in Manhattan under Bill Snyder, was co-defensive coordinator at OU from 1999-2004 and was Bob Stoops’ DC from 2005-2011 before Stoops brought back his brother from Arizona to call defenses. Venables agonized between staying at OU and taking the gig at Clemson, and in the end decided to spread his wings under Dabo Swinney. As Venables has coordinated some of college football’s best defenses in the past decade, the Tigers have won two national championships.
Fickell’s career head coaching record in six full seasons is 47-14 and includes one year as interim head coach at Ohio State (2011, when Jim Tressel was suspended, then resigned), and three 11-win seasons at Cincinnati. The 48-year-old Fickell, a native of Columbus, OH, also had the Bearcats at 9-1 last season. They’re currently 12-0 heading into Saturday’s AAC title game.
Aranda, 45, is 12-9 in two seasons as a head coach after years of success as a defensive coordinator, and after a quick rebuild has the Bears in the conference title game. The son of Mexican immigrants, Aranda was born in Southern California and has been an assistant at Texas Tech, Houston, Hawaii, Utah State, Wisconsin and LSU.
Lanning, 35, hails from from Kansas City and has worked at Arizona State and Alabama as a graduate assistant and at Memphis and Georgia as a full-time position coach. He was Smart’s outside linebackers coach in 2018 and was elevated to defensive coordinator in 2019.
Lanning is young and relatively inexperienced, but the OU source said Lanning intrigues Castiglione because of the reputation he’s already established in recruiting throughout the South. With OU’s forthcoming move to the SEC, that could be a significant factor.
The OU source also said Castiglione is likely to be talking to and interviewing other candidates that no one expects. Asked if an established name like Swinney is off the table, the source said no one is off the table, and pointed to Riley’s move to USC and Brian Kelly’s move from Notre Dame to LSU.
Harroz told reporters at Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting in Oklahoma City, “The search is proceeding at pace” and Castiglione is “engaged in the search process. … It is proceeding and proceeding well.”
The bottom line is that Castiglione does have a lot of qualified candidates to choose from, and he’ll probably act sooner than later depending on who’s available and who wants the job.
“Again, it gets back to offense (or) defense, head coach (or) top assistant,” Castiglione said Monday. “And I'll tell you one thing — who wants to be at the University of Oklahoma? That has something to do with it too.
“We know the importance of time and timing and what we need to do with everything that is going on in this very different and new world, so we’ll move it quickly.
“Like we always say, this job is one of the best ever in sports.”