Let Lincoln Riley Explain How College Football Has Really Changed

John. E. Hoover

Lincoln Riley used to be just a football coach.

Now he’s also a manager. A virus manager.

As COVID-19 threatens to derail the college football season on an almost daily basis, Oklahoma’s head coach and chief virus manager explained how life in a pandemic is just different.

“Gosh, I’d have a hard time thinking of an area where we haven’t changed,” Riley said Tuesday during a video press conference. “Practice is different in a lot of ways — in the way we’ve spread guys out, the way that we determine reps, the lifting groups are totally different, the position meetings are totally different.

“Our team meetings right now are in that huge area of the weight room where we’ve got all that turf. That’s where every team meeting is and we’ve got guys spread out from end to end. Thank God we've got that huge video board so everybody can actually see what we’re talking about.”

Alterations across the entire Norman campus have presented unique challenges no one’s ever dealt with before — not the faculty, not the students — and surely not the football team, with its 100-plus players and dozens of support staff.

“The travel’s different,” Riley said. “Twice as many buses as we’ve ever had as we’ve spread guys out. We’re having our team pregame meal and we’re in a huge ballroom where everybody is just spread out. hardly where you can even talk to each other. We haven’t got to the true travel part of it yet, but there's been a lot of things being done already and that’s going to change.

“Even our players, the night before games, a great example is a lot of times we’d give them a little bit of downtime when you’d have families staying over at the hotel and guys have a chance to pop over there for an hour or so before curfew and sit in the lobby, see their family or whatever. They can’t do that now. It’s different. It is.”

Successful football teams forge a bond, a special chemistry that develops away from the gameday lights, away from the practice field. That’s gone now. But Riley, in his new role, is managing it well, and the team is adapting as best it can.

“I do think we’re getting used to it,” Riley said. “I remember we had the very first team meeting in there and all those dudes were spread out and I was like, 'Man, I can’t do this.' It just felt so — there was not that same personal feeling. You’re used to everybody being packed into the team room and it just ... you’ve got to adapt.

“That's what we’ve all had to do and we all continue to. It’s affected — every single thing that we do is different. That’s been hard. Some of the best parts about football, you miss: the camaraderie, popping in there and just sitting down and hanging out with the guys a little bit.

“And even as a player, anybody that’s ever played football, I promise you, that was one of your favorite things to do. After a game, after practice, whatever, just sitting in the locker room having it out with the guys. And now they can’t do that. We’ve got to have somebody in there hustling them out, making sure they have masks on, they’ve got to wear a shield when they go shower. It’s just a lot of those things have been taken away or altered right now.”

Riley said some of the precautions the team took in the early stages of their return from the pandemic have normalized somewhat — or, at least, have returned to the median.

“We were ultra, ultra-conservative early,” he said, “and as you learn about it, and then you start to learn about some ways where you felt like maybe that was over the top, maybe we could give some in this area. I think as we’ve learned more and more about it, we certainly have. We were ultra-conservative, but I think we’ve even found areas in the last several weeks where we can do better.

“The other challenge is just using our staff and personnel. We’ve been a little bit limited there as far as who we let in the building. You’ve got to have eyes, kind of, at all times. Simply just having someone in the locker room to monitor that, that’s something you would’ve never, ever done before. The locker room’s kind of a sacred place for players.

“So it’s certainly been an all-hands-on-deck mentality. We find some things, not always huge things, but there’s things we continue to find right now.”

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