What’s that phrase?
We used to hear it all the time. Every press conference. Pretty much every difficult question. Anyway, it seemed like it.
“To a degree.”
It was the thing Bob Stoops would say when disagreeing with the premise of your question would be entirely nonsensical, yet agreeing with it, he feared, would be to offer some vulnerability or critical judgment.
Like, the question might be, “You’ve really come a long way on the offensive line since the beginning of the season, right?”
And the answer would be, “To a degree, we have …” and then some defense about why the horrible line play earlier in the season wasn’t as horrible as most people think it was.
Except, perhaps, in 2009 when the offensive line was just horrendous well into the season. But we digress.
It’s possible Lincoln Riley has never equivocated an answer by breaking out “to a degree.”
Yet, simultaneously, crazy though it may sound, there are moments he actually reminds you, when speaking, of Stoops. Not near the end, but the beginning.
The beginning, before back-to-back national-championship game losses had taken a bite of his soul, before the fiasco of Rhett Bomar’s season that was, followed by his season that wasn’t, but Paul Thompson’s instead.
Riley’s voice sounds nothing like Stoops' voice, of course, but these words, part of his opening at his weekly press luncheon Monday could have been Stoops himself, circa 2001.
“There’s still a ton of things that we have to correct on all three sides,” he said.
Really, a ton?
OU’s coming off maybe its two most impressive outings of the season.
The defense has stepped up considerably, dramatically and exceptionally.
Meanwhile, the offense has scored 103 points without playing hurry-up, has gained 58 first downs and 1,238 yards and not only has Kyler Murray thrown seven touchdown passes, but the running game has gone for 323 yards one week and 322 the next and how good is that?
Yet, “a ton” of things must still be corrected? Could that even be?
It really doesn’t matter if 2,000 pounds — a literal ton, in case you didn’t know — of mistakes, errors and omissions must still be cleaned up. What matters is that it feels like it to Riley and that’s terrific for OU on a couple different levels.
One, he’s got to feel like something very close to perfection is attainable because if the Sooners really get “a ton” of things ironed out, they’re going to be reasonably close to perfection.
Two, it’s always easier to be critical, to harp on mistakes, to rush out and explain that, for all the good you’re doing, there’s still all this stuff you’re doing that isn’t good, when the good stuff you’re doing isn’t just good, but really, really, really good.
Because it’s easier to be critical when you feel great about your team.
Stoops would spend more time defending his team and giving it credit when it was struggling than he ever did when it was dominating.
Riley is giving credit, too.
He’s gushing about his defense, talking about the “11-man football” the unit is playing under elevated defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill.
A defensive side note, Riley mentioned that a Big 12 defense cannot face two more different tests than Kansas State one week and Texas Tech the next, so that’s a fantastic Saturday subplot, even if the Sooner offense is dominant enough to bail out all defensive struggles.
And it may, because it’s hitting on all cylinders and Riley gushed about his line and his quarterback earlier in the week, too. Riley closed his opening remarks Monday with this.
“We know the challenge it’s getting ready to be,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun down there. Hostile environment, just like we like it, so can’t wait to have a great week and get down there and play.”
Stoops wouldn’t have said it that way exactly, but what he would do, when things were rolling, was embrace every moment and every challenge and call it “great.”
Not because it was any more great than any other challenge, but because it was the one in front of his team and he looked forward to it, couldn’t wait.
It’s where Riley is now.
May he'll always be there, even if he suffers his versions of the difficult seasons Stoops suffered in 2005, ’09 and ’14.
You know, when things were really fantastic during the Stoops era, basically 2000 through 2004, OU could be so dominant that it was unclear how the Sooners would ever lose.
How OU fell down to Kansas State and LSU to close 2003 remains a mystery. What Southern Cal did at the Orange Bowl the next season, crushing OU, still doesn’t make sense.
Listening to Riley talk about his team, watching the offense do its thing and the defense finally begin to turn, you can almost see it being like those days again.
Those teams could break your heart, but only because you’d never see it coming. Because they were just that good, you couldn't figure out how they might get beat.
Riley’s Sooners are moving that direction, “to a degree,” at least.