I doubt I will get much disagreement from Sooner fans when I say that Lincoln Riley is the most despised coach in OU football history after he left the program for the USC job.
There are four coaches in Sooner history that bring a smile to fans’ faces when their names are mentioned—Bennie, Bud, Barry, and Bob. Bennie Owen built the foundation. Bud created a monster with three national championships, 14 conference titles, and an unprecedented winning streak. Barry continued to feed the monster with three national championships and a dozen conference titles. Bob Stoops continued the trend with one national crown and 10 conference championships. All four are members of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Oklahoma has another four head coaches who create frowns when their names are uttered—Jim, Howard, John, and Lincoln.
Jim Tatum Era
Jim Tatum was hired as head coach in 1946, and in 1947, he defected to the University of Maryland as the Terrapins’ head coach. Tatum’s name doesn’t quite stir the ire among many Sooner fans today, not because his sudden departure was 75 years ago, but he turned over the reins of the Sooner Schooner to Wilkinson. Wilkinson made a greater impression with the University of Oklahoma regents when he was interviewed with Tatum to be Tatum’s top assistant. The regents wanted Bud to be hired as head coach, but OU president Dr. George Cross, intervened stating that offering the position to Wilkinson may compromise institutional ethics.
At the end of OU’s 1946 season, Tatum was offered the Terrapins’ job, and the University of Oklahoma swiftly hired Wilkinson as his successor. Bud got to meet his former boss thrice on the gridiron, and Bud was victorious all three times. Maryland was crowned national champs (those titles were awarded before bowl games in the 1950s) in 1953. OU beat Maryland 7-0 in the Orange Bowl. Two years later, the Sooners earned the national championship, and this time it was Maryland’s turn to try to upset the champs. Bud’s Sooners turned them away, 20-6, in the Orange Bowl.
Tatum was hired as North Carolina’s coach, his alma mater. The Tar Heels’ first opponent in 1956? Oklahoma. Bud met his former boss in back-to-back games (although in different seasons), and the Sooners hammered the Tar Heels, 36-0.
Succeeding Switzer: A Job That Three Men Couldn’t Do
Switzer’s successor, Gary Gibbs, a Sooner alum, had lost favor with fans, and after a dismal 44-23-2 record, he resigned at the end of 1994. That year, Oklahoma went 6-6 and was blown out by BYU in the Copper Bowl. Gibbs wasn’t a favorite among fans, but he sure looked better than those who succeeded him. That would be Howard Schnellenberger, a baritone-voiced, Captain Kangaroo look-a-like, who smoked a pipe and allegedly drank a lot of booze.
Schnellenberger proclaimed that books would be written and movies made about his era at the University of Oklahoma. The new head coach alienated himself from the fans. He did not want them drinking beverages or sitting while watching the practices. He requested fans to show up early at games and chastised those who left at halftime when a game was a blowout. He also limited players’ water breaks. As a result, two of them were dehydrated and had to be hospitalized for overheating; one nearly dying from severe dehydration.
The 1995 Sooners went 5-5-1 and ended the season with consecutive shutouts to Oklahoma State and Nebraska. Schnellenberger was sent packing after just one season.
At Switzer’s recommendation, John Blake, another former Sooner player, was hired to succeed Schnellenberger.
Blake enraged the Sooner faithful with his blasphemous 12-22 record during his three-year tenure. His first squad in 1996 began 0-4, but the fifth game was a stunning overtime upset over Texas. Certainly, forgivable for a rookie coach. It was Gibbs who suggested to Blake to “beat Texas” upon the latter’s hiring. Gibbs only managed to beat OU’s two main rivals—Texas and Nebraska, once each in his six years at the helm. Blake went 1-2 against the Longhorns during his time at OU.
Blake did beat lowly Baylor and OSU for three wins in ’96 and the Sooners made slow progressions the next two seasons going 4-8 and 5-6, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the crimson faithful. He was fired after the last game of the 1998 season.
Blake was a hell of a recruiter—four of his signees turned into All-Americans. He can be forgiven for his shortcomings on the sidelines because he brought in good talent. In fact, some would say that his talent coupled with his successor’s leadership and motivation is what won Oklahoma their seventh national title. His successor was Bob Stoops.
Stoops Hands Lincoln Riley a Dynasty
Stoops remained at the helm for 18 years producing more victories (191) than any Sooner coach. Suddenly, in June 2017, Stoops had had enough, and he handed the program over to his offensive coordinator—Lincoln Riley, whom he hired in 2015 to run the offense.
Stoops wanted to leave Oklahoma’s program with a smooth transition and he seemingly did. Riley had led OU to a 55-10 record in five seasons as head coach, including four straight Big 12 Championships to add to the couple of titles he and Stoops won together in 2015 and ’16. There were over 30 players on Oklahoma’s roster in 2017 that made NFL rosters — Stoops led the charge in recruiting most of those guys to play in Norman. This program was ready to win a championship when Bob left it in Lincoln’s hands. Riley got the Sooners to the College Football Playoff semifinals three times—losing all three. He managed to waste what Stoops gifted him, and dashed when he had expended those resources.
Riley Becomes the Villian
After being upset by Oklahoma State in the 2021 season finale, rumors circulated that Riley would become LSU’s next coach as the Tigers needed a replacement for the fired Ed Orgeron. Riley adamantly denied that he was a candidate for the LSU job. In the post-game press conference following the loss to OSU, Riley said, “I’m not going to be the next coach at LSU. Next question.”
He didn’t allow a follow-up. Sooner fans exhaled a sigh of relief, believing he would be the Sooners’ head coach in 2022 after denying the LSU job.
The next day Riley bolted Norman for Los Angeles to take over the USC football program. This raised the ire of Sooner fans. How could he jump from a prominent program to one that had been struggling recently?
USC had fired its coach just two games into the 2021 season, and many believe Riley had begun talks with Trojan brass in September. Riley’s final season in ’21, the offense didn’t appear as crisp as it had in the past. Oklahoma had its worst scoring output with a 39-point average in Riley’s two years as offensive coordinator and five seasons as head coach. The Sooners struggled to put up a bunch of points against lowly Nebraska and West Virginia. OU was getting blown out by Texas, and Riley booted Spencer Rattler, his star quarterback, to the bench and replaced him with another stud—Caleb Williams, who led OU to a miraculous comeback over the Longhorns.
Bob Picks Up the Pieces That Lincoln Left Behind
Bob Stoops came in and stabilized a program that was on the verge of a monumental collapse, comparable to what we are seeing south of the Red River.
When Riley made his swift exit to the West Coast, Stoops stepped in as interim coach and guided the Schooner through the bumpy road, which included a victory in the Alamo Bowl, his 191st win. However, even with a Hall of Famer stepping in to clean up the mess, Oklahoma is still taking hits a month later.
Now, Williams has placed his name in the transfer portal and may soon announce he is joining Riley in LA. Another handful of Sooners has entered the portal as a result of Williams’ probable departure, adding to the list of Sooner “casualties” at the hand of Riley.
Some local sports radio talk show hosts won’t speak of Riley’s name, instead referring to him as “Muleshoe,” the Texas town where he grew up.
Sooner fans didn’t remain angry for long after Riley’s defection. One week later, Brent Venables was hired as the 23rd coach at OU. Venables served as defensive coordinator in Norman for 13 years and another decade as Clemson’s DC. He has won three national titles—one at Oklahoma and two with Clemson.
Howard was the most disliked coach for 26 years because he was seen as a buffoon. Lincoln took over the title of most despised since he shocked fans with his sudden exit.