NORMAN — While athletes jolted across college football fields nationwide Saturday, small administrative fires kindled in campus offices.
By Sunday, the annual coaching carousel roared. Arizona State, Arkansas and Texas A&M fired head coaches, while Florida and Ole Miss announced new ones.
Tennessee, oddly, did a little of both.
Somewhere in Norman was Lincoln Riley, whose transition to Oklahoma head coach in June suddenly never seemed so flawless, just days away from the No. 4 Sooners’ meeting against TCU in the Big 12 championship game (Saturday, 11:30 a.m. FOX).
“Having the best coach in college football obviously makes it easy,” OU quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “We went from having the legend of coach [Bob] Stoops to having the future of coach Riley.
“It was about as smooth as it could have possibly gone.”
Stoops’ decision to step aside — which he said was, in part, to make way for Riley, whose talent had become undeniable to him — rocked a fan base and captured the nation’s attention, just not in a toxic way, which describes how Tennessee’s attempted transfer of power took place Sunday.
Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and Volunteer officials reportedly agreed on a deal, only to watch it melt down under heavy scrutiny of a fan base — and even state politicians — divided on Schiano’s past record and clouded history in former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assault scandal.
Schiano and Tennessee essentially married and divorced on the same day. The task of coaching in Knoxville now has never seemed so daunting.
For OU, having Riley inside an office overlooking Lindsey Street has never seemed like such a pleasure, and not just because of his youth, wits or familiarity to players.
With his hire, the Sooner coaching staff retained every assistant and only added one, defensive line and assistant head coach Ruffin McNeill, whose addition is largely positive based on feedback from inside the program.
“Most teams and most college athletes that are losing their coaches are about to have completely different strength staffs, position coaches, coordinators,” OU left tackle Orlando Brown said. “We were fortunate to come into a situation where nothing changed much but a head coach.”
No new schemes, no new culture.
No new drama.
Riley has used that to his advantage while winning 11 games his first season, the most in a debut than any other OU coach in history. Barry Switzer (1973) and Chuck Fairbanks (1967) both claimed 10.
In 2015, Riley was forced to release a statement through the university stating he had no interest in the North Texas head coaching position, after the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported he interviewed for the vacancy.
Two years later there are no questions about his future.
“This is a dream job for me,” Riley said. “It’s nice not to pay any attention to that. Then it’s also again, I think, shows how special this place is, with the that’s been in place a long time. The way that things are run from an administration standpoint. Not just athletics, but the whole university.”
If being a Power 5 head coach didn’t provide so many uncertain challenges, as Riley alluded to Monday, one could argue nearly six months into his new position that he is finally comfortable.
“You’re always trying to push it to get better. Regardless of what happened, whether you just won a game or got a recruit or lost a recruit, it’s always about the next thing, the next step. I would say my focus is there,” Riley said.
The next step was critical after OU’s shocking 38-31 home loss to Iowa State in early October. Under Riley’s design, the team crescendoed.
The Sooners scored 62 points in a must-win slugfest at Oklahoma State, have scored more than 38 points in the first half of three of their past four games, and were their most efficient selves in a 59-31 win over West Virginia, averaging a school-record 12 yards per play.
Having a Heisman Trophy-favorite quarterback in Mayfield helps, but so do the smooth waters of a seamless regime change.
Fans can thank Riley or OU athletic director Joe Castiglione for that. Riley often thanks the players.
Maybe everyone is right, considering the Sooners are a victory away from reaching the College Football Playoff.
“We could’ve handled that in the wrong way,” Mayfield said. “We took it as something to draw us closer together. … It’s hard when you have a change, when somebody that recruited you and has been there has to leave, and so, it’s about how you handle it. We’ve handled it well and I’m proud of that.”