FRISCO, Texas – Without Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, Monday’s Big 12 football media day seemed like the SEC without Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Stoops had become a Big 12 icon following 18 seasons at Oklahoma that saw him produce a school record 190 wins, 10 Big 12 championships and the 2000 national title.
His June 7 retirement at the age of 56 shocked everybody including Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby.
“The Big 12 is poorer for not having Bob Stoops any longer as a head coach in our league,” Bowlsby said. “He was a tremendous influence on his staff, on his players, on his university over a very long period of time, and he had tremendous football teams and tremendous football players. His legacy is extraordinary.”
Taking over for Stoops is 33-year-old Lincoln Riley who moves from offensive coordinator to the head coaching chair. Though Riley understands he’s replacing a legend, he embraces the expectations that go with one of the most high profile jobs in college football.
“Of course you get the pressure with it,” Riley said. “Of course the expectations are there to win, like they always are at Oklahoma. But that’s something that I enjoy and something that our staff enjoys, our players. That’s why you come to play and coach at Oklahoma is to win and to win big. It’s always been like that. If you don’t enjoy that sense of pressure and those expectations, then it’s probably not the place for you.”
Though Riley had only been at Oklahoma for two seasons as offensive coordinator, Stoops endorsed him for his replacement because of offensive coaching skills and his potential as a head coach.
Stoops will still be around Norman to give Riley advice, and the new Sooners coach plans to take advantage of such a valuable resource.
“I’ll definitely use his counsel,” Riley said. “I think both with Bob and with Coach (Barry) Switzer, you’ve got two guys there that have done it as high level as anybody has done it, obviously both at Oklahoma, and guys that are ready and willing at any point, which I’m thankful for.”
Riley said he has already learned a great deal from Stoops and was always impressed by how he got his teams prepared for game days.
“One of the most impressive things to me was he always had a great sense, I thought, for the pulse of the team, which I think is so important for the head coach,” Riley said. “You’re going to have decisions that come up that you’ve got to make that could go either way. You’ve got to have an understanding of where the team is and what’s best for the team in that current situation. He was, in my opinion, one of the best to ever do it.”
Unlike many coaches stepping into a new job, Riley already has a highly successful system in place that has produced back to back Big 12 championships and a College Football Playoff appearance in 2015.
Oklahoma’s offensive and defensive coaching staffs are among the best in the country, and Riley doesn’t plan to change many of the schemes. Riley said his relationship with defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, Bob Stoops’ brother, remains strong.
“Mike has been awesome,” Riley said. “He’s a great coach and we’ve become very close over the last two years. We’ve worked together hand and hand a lot, and I’m very confident in the kind of coach he is.”
Additionally, Riley brought in veteran Ruffin McNeill to coach defensive tackles. Riley was McNeill’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2010-13 when he was head coach at East Carolina. McNeill knows the Big 12 well since he was an assistant at Texas Tech from 2000-09 where he first coached with Riley.
“Our staff has just been tremendous in the way they’ve handled it,” Riley said. “They’ve been 100 percent with me and for this program from the beginning, and then able to add a guy I know very well and this league knows very well in Ruffin McNeill, I think has just enhanced us.”
The Oklahoma players believe the transition will be seamless from Stoops to Riley, and they like the way he handles his team on and off the field.
“I feel like he’s going to succeed as a head coach because he’s a player’s coach,” said Oklahoma safety Steven Parker. “He’s intelligent. But it’s not just about football. He’s also developing us as men. Keeping the staff there was very important. Coach Riley has made it clear that nothing has changed except the head coach.”
While Heisman Trophy contender Baker Mayfield is the Sooners most high profile player, they’ve got a lot of talent coming back on both sides of the ball to support their quarterback. Orlando Brown leads one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country while linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and cornerback Jordan Thomas head a veteran defense.
“I’m thrilled going into the season,” Riley said. “I feel like we have a very, very strong team coming back with some new exciting young players that we’re excited to infuse our team with. Probably the thing I’m most excited about with our team is our overall team leadership. I was telling a couple of guys earlier that I felt like there was really 10 or 12 guys we could have brought to this media day today.”