In 2018, Oklahoma’s spring game was played in front of a record crowd of 52,102. It was an impressive number, ranking ninth in the country that season and the most-ever in Oklahoma’s history.
That was the year after the Sooners lost to Georgia in the Rose Bowl, a game that I witnessed in person and still haunts me to this day. Kyler Murray was relatively unproven as a quarterback and everyone was worried about how Lincoln Riley was going to replace Baker Mayfield.
Fast forward to 2022, and the picture is recognizable although some major elements have changed. Baker Mayfield was still a topic of conversation, although this time it was concerning his statue being unveiled in Heisman Park.
Kyler Murray was on the field, but it was as the 2018 Heisman winner, not a player making a first impression on Sooner Nation.
There are major pieces of last year’s team to be replaced, but this time it was the head coach, quarterback(s), defensive staff, and numerous starters on both sides of the ball.
It was also a record crowd again, but this time it was in front of 75,360 fans, almost 50% more than what showed up in 2018.
That is the Brent Venables effect.
The Mood Has Changed Since November
On November 28, 2021, Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley blindsided college football when he left the confines of Norman, Oklahoma for Los Angeles to take the USC job. In the time since then it has been speculated why he left, and the most logical answer is that the 38-year-old head coach wasn’t ready to lead a storied program like Oklahoma into the SEC. Such a monumental task would’ve been a lot to ask of a legend like Bob Stoops, not to mention a coach with five years of experience at the Power Five level.
While the first week or so following his departure was doom-and-gloom, but the winds changed quickly when rumors of Brent Venables returning to Norman started to circle. Then, when his plane landed on the tarmac in the heart of the Sooner State and was met by thousands of fans in the middle of the night, everything started to make sense: Oklahoma was going to be just fine.
All of a sudden, the majority of Sooner Nation had forgotten about Riley leaving in lieu of excitement for what Venables was bringing to the table. Venables quickly assembled one of the top staffs in the country, adding names like Jerry Schmidt (S&C), Jeff Lebby (OC), Ted Roof (DC), Todd Bates (DL), Brandon Hall (Safeties), Miguel Chavis (DE), and Jay Valai (DB). He also retained Demarco Murray (RB), Cale Gundy (WR), and Bill Bedenbaugh (OL), the nucleus of Riley’s offensive staff that ranked among the best nationally.
Now, he has taken that staff and reassembled the most talented roster in the Big 12. Replacing names like Caleb Williams and Mario Williams wasn’t going to be easy, but it appears that Dillon Gabriel and Jalil Farooq will do just fine for Jeff Lebby in 2022.
Spring Game Indicative of Hungry Fanbase
Oklahoma hasn’t won a national championship in 21 years (2000), which is the longest drought it has had since winning its first of seven in 1950. While that is the case, the Sooners have undoubtedly been one of the most consistent teams during that dry spell, making a bowl in every year since 2000 and finishing the season ranked in the Top 15 in 18 of the last 21 seasons. The 2022 version of Oklahoma won’t fall off as much as Colin Cowherd would have you believe. Oklahoma was around long before Lincoln Riley became a hot commodity, and it will be around long after his time in Norman.
The sea of humanity that showed up last Saturday responded to a challenge from their new head coach, a challenge that he was clear and intentional about. “The little things matter,” Venables says. Oklahoma did the little things right on Saturday. Not only did 75K show up to the Palace on the Prarie, but over 250 former players gathered on the sidelines as well. The message was very clear to the rest of the nation. There is only one Oklahoma, and that hasn’t changed.
Guys that haven’t been around the program in years, like Sam Bradford and Rufus Alexander, came back on Saturday because the new sheriff in town cares about the little things. He knows what a fan base and alumni base like Oklahoma has is capable of. The little things matter again, which is exactly what Bob Stoops had to preach back in 1999 when he brought the program back to prominence.
The Sooners might not win a national title in 2022, but you can bet they will be vying for another Big 12 title in December. Who knows, maybe Venables and staff can right the ship in one year.
One thing is certain: the people around Oklahoma haven’t felt the way they do now in many years, and that should scare the rest of the conference.