Lincoln Riley’s decision to leave Oklahoma for USC after five seasons sent shockwaves through the college football world when it was announced Sunday. Riley was 55-10 with four Big 12 titles and four top-10 finishes during his time in Norman.
Sooner fans were less than pleased by Riley’s decision, and the program itself lost several key commitments while quarterback Spencer Rattler entered the transfer portal. To make matters worse, Oklahoma president Joe Harroz confirmed in a Monday news conference that the university and Riley had spent the last several weeks working on an extension in preparation of the school’s move to the SEC.
He, as well as athletic director Joe Castiglione, also said Riley’s move had little to do with Oklahoma’s trajectory toward the SEC.
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“There wasn’t any mention of any unrest. In fact, we were talking about all the positives of the job and where we are now and what we were planning to do going forward,” Castiglione said. “But when he talked to president Harroz and I, he said that he was intrigued by a different kind of opportunity. He was absolutely happy with everything that we had.”
Despite this, all parties involved admitted they were surprised by Riley’s decision. Harroz admitted they would’ve liked “more notice,” and Castiglione said things ramped up in earnest Sunday morning before Riley made his decision later that afternoon.
“I have absolutely no reason to believe based on the conversations I had, with (Riley’s camp) ongoing, that there were any conversations (with USC) prior to the time he informed us,” Castiglione said.
Riley confirmed as much, and laid out a similar timeline following his team’s 37-33 loss to Oklahoma State in Bedlam, which knocked the Sooners out of Big 12 title contention for the first time of his Oklahoma tenure.
“I got the information from USC that there was some real interest,” Riley said in his opening news conference at USC. “It came together quickly. And to be honest in this day and age in college football it kind of has to. That’s just the way of the world right now.”
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“I would say the impact of meeting with our university leadership was pretty immediate to me,” Riley said. “We’re obviously aware of this program, aware of what it’s done, what it can be.”
Castiglione tabbed soon-to-be College Football Hall of Fame coach — and the former leader of the Sooners program — Bob Stoops to serve as the team’s interim coach for the bowl game.
“Am I disappointed? Sure. The rest of it’s between Lincoln and I personally, as it should be,” Stoops said. “My initial reaction is what’s best for the program immediately, and recruiting. And the players as well. I should say first and foremost, the players on our team right now, reassuring them that they are OU football sticking together.”
Stoops said the current crop of assistants are working to ensure the current players’ well being is top priority.
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“They’re all right off the bat still working, putting in work and contacting our current players, making sure everything’s OK with them,” Stoops said.
Castiglione, Oklahoma’s athletic director since 1998, was noncommittal when discussing the Sooners’ hiring process, and generic in terms of what he’s looking for in the program’s next coach. He did concede, though, that he has a list of potential candidates, and has for some time.
“It’s going to be stealthy, as usual,” he said. “We know the importance of time and timing and what we need to do with everything going on in this very different and new world.
“I absolutely have a list. I didn’t necessarily know when I’d have to activate it — I thought it might be well down the road but that being said, that’s why you have a list,” he said.
He didn’t elaborate on who is or isn’t on the list, if he would opt for an offensive mind like Riley or a defensive mind like Stoops, or if the next coach would be someone currently or formerly on staff (as all but one former Sooners coach since 1966 has been_.
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The only name for certain not on the list is Stoops himself, whose current tenure will start and end with the bowl game. Harroz said they already tried to get Stoops to come back full time.
With early signing day fast approaching, changes to transfer rules and an overall evolving landscape, Castiglione understands the need to be both expedient and responsible.
“I don’t ever put a specific timetable. But based on the conversations I’ve had with our players yesterday, some today, we’re all engaged in talking to our prior commitments and recruits’ families,” Castiglione said. “We understand the dynamics of a world that we haven’t really seen much of. So again, we’re very proactive about all of that, and we’re moving as quickly as possible.”