Baker Mayfield knew there was going to be a team meeting on June 7. He didn’t know what it was about. He just knew that he needed to show up to the Sooners’ facility later that day.
Before he did, however, his phone started blowing up. Texts from friends. They were hearing strange rumors.
“What’s going on up there,” one text said.
Mayfield didn’t know. But then he started to see what his friends were seeing. Rumors about his head coach, Bob Stoops, retiring. That didn’t seem possible. Stoops still had plenty of years ahead of him. He was just 56 years old.
But then he got a phone call from then-Sooners offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. He told Mayfield to come to his office. Riley needed to talk to him. By then, Mayfield was starting to feel uneasy. He had an idea what was coming, he said, but he had difficulty grasping the concept.
Then he walked into Riley’s office and found not only his offensive coordinator but his head coach, Bob Stoops. Then it all started coming together.
“It caught me so off guard,” Mayfield said. “Coach Stoops is all I’ve known for OU football my whole life, so it was hard for me at first. … To hear Coach Stoops’ explanation as to why it was humbling for me. It was such an honor to hear that he wanted to tell me before he addressed the team.”
During the meeting, Mayfield got a bonus. He found out that Riley — the coordinator that had guided Mayfield to amazing heights the past two seasons — would be his new head coach.
Then, moments later, so did the rest of the world.
“It’s been probably best described as a whirlwind since June the 7th,” Riley said on Monday at Big 12 Media Days in Frisco. “Tough to describe all the emotions that went into that day and that decision and (it’s) still a little bit of a dream for me.”
The Sooners are still adjusting to Bob’s bombshell in early June. It’s been about six weeks since Stoops decided to step aside after 18 seasons, 190 wins, 10 Big 12 titles and a national championship in 2000. It would be hard enough making this transition in December or January, when programs usually make head-coaching changes.
But in June? That usually happens in a situation that involves some sort of scandal. Instead, Bob Stoops cleared the path for Riley to become a head coach for the first time, something Riley said that Stoops had known about as a career goal for the 33-year old and was willing to nurture during Riley’s two years as offensive coordinator.
“I spent a lot of time with him, especially this past year, going over as many different things of a program as you could imagine, and he knew eventually that I did want to be a head coach and was so gracious with his time and knowledge,” Riley said.
Promoting from within was really the only option the Sooners had once Stoops decided to step aside. Riley is working primarily with Stoops’ staff and Stoops’ recruits, though he certainly played a hand in recruiting for the Sooners the past two seasons. The big exception, the one new addition, is Ruffin McNeill, the Sooners’ new defensive tackles coach. Riley lured McNeill away from Virginia, where he was serving as the assistant head coach and defensive line coach under Bronco Mendenhall.
Before that, McNeill was the head coach at East Carolina and was Riley’s boss for five years as Riley served as his offensive coordinator. Before that, the pair worked together at Texas Tech.
Riley considers it a blessing that he doesn’t have to hire a new staff, but he also has a comfort level with McNeill that he has with no other coach on OU’s staff and that should come in handy as the Sooners transition to their new head coach.
“We have a ton of history, a ton of trust built up,” Riley said. “And then I think it just fit too within our staff and that he and Mike (Stoops) get along together great and have very similar philosophies in a lot of ways.”
Meanwhile, the players already see a change in attitude around the facility with Riley in charge. They also see energy in the community with the coaching change and a bounce in recruiting, as Riley quickly locked up several commitments on the recruiting trail.
Defensive back Steven Parker, one of the leaders on the Sooners’ defense, admits that things seem a little looser around the program.
“We’re ready to play for Coach Riley,” Parker said. “We loved Coach Bob. But it was his time to go. It’s just a different feeling now. Everyone feels like they’re more free to play, just because it’s a change and everyone is ready to get this season started.”
The direction of the Sooners now? Well, Riley inherits a great roster, a team that won 11 games last year and beat Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. He also inherits the massive expectations that surrounded Stoops’ tenure in Norman, along with the legendary Sooner history created by former coaches Barry Switzer and Bud Wilkinson.
It may not take long for fans in Norman to put the heat on Riley. He says he’s ready.
“I’ve always envisioned it (head coaching) being more like this,” Riley said. “Of course you get the pressure with it. 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 (enjoy). That’s why you come to play and coach at Oklahoma. If you don’t enjoy that sense of pressure and those expectations, then it’s probably not the place for you.”
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