NORMAN, Okla. — Imagine the shock around Oklahoma — the entire country, even — following a move so bold and seemingly out of nowhere, yet obviously in the works for some time and impossibly kept under wraps.
It’s a reminder that all’s fair in love, war and college football.
Four months ago, Texas and Oklahoma were finagling their way into the most exclusive club in college football, changing the sport. Playoff expansion discussions immediately took on a new tone of suspicion. The Big 12 went into expansion mode, which shook up the American, which picked up schools and shook up Conference USA, and on down the line.
Texas had already begun preparations, firing Tom Herman and hiring Steve Sarkisian, who had recently been re-polished in Nick Saban’s spin machine in Tuscaloosa after two previous head-coaching opportunities with mediocre results. The Longhorns brass banked on Sark’s offensive prowess and his experience inside that Alabama operation to know what the Horns were up against. Oklahoma, with the supreme confidence of a school that has won 50 conference titles and seven national championships, announced it would be just fine.
“We believe the special Sooner magic that we will bring to the SEC will only make us, and our new conference rivals, stronger,” Oklahoma president Jay Harroz said when the decision was announced on July 30.
All that’s happened since? The Longhorns suffered through their longest losing streak since 1956 and the Sooners lost Riley — Bob Stoops’ hand-picked successor — who became the first coach since 1947 to leave OU voluntarily for another college job.
In between, Texas lost to Kansas at home, endured soap-opera drama with a Halloween incident involving an assistant coach’s pet monkey, a leaked video from a coach upset with players joking around after a loss to Iowa State, and had a starting wide receiver get into an argument with Sarkisian and later leave the team. Oklahoma suffered through a season of underwhelming wins and a couple of crushing losses, all while navigating a quarterback controversy as preseason Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler was supplanted by freshman Caleb Williams.
Big 12 teams never needed motivation to face either of them, but at every turn opposing crowds took glee in derisively chanting “S-E-C!,” including Oklahoma State fans who stormed the field after their team beat the Sooners on Saturday. Texas suffered the brunt of it all season en route to going 5-7. But Oklahoma’s turn came this weekend when Riley’s abrupt exit shocked the entire state.
On his Sunday night show, Dean Blevins, the sports director of KWTV in Oklahoma City who grew up in Norman and played quarterback at Oklahoma from 1974 to ’77, said the Bedlam loss coupled with Riley’s departure will go down as one of the worst weekends in Oklahoma football history. A string of six straight conference titles was over, the team eliminated from contention by an in-state rival that’s still seething from being kept in the dark in the realignment derby.
For now, Bob Stoops is back as the interim coach to hold down the fort while the Sooners look for the right man for the job. Riley, it turns out, was no longer it despite a 55-10 record at Oklahoma, four Big 12 titles in five years and three College Football Playoff appearances.
There hasn’t been much elaboration on Riley’s motivation, other than USC was a “unique opportunity.” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said on Monday that Riley was “on board” with the SEC move and that they had frequent conversations about how they’d adjust in terms of staffing.
The one thing we don’t know is whether Riley was involved in the SEC decision. One thing we do know is that he cares about winning. A lot. And the USC job offers a great deal of upside without beating your head against the wall in the SEC every week.
The SEC hasn’t explained how divisions will break down in the expanded league, but it can be assumed Oklahoma’s path would include some combination that frequently includes Texas A&M, LSU, Alabama, Auburn and the Mississippi schools, given that those are in the current SEC West, along with Oklahoma’s blood rivalry with Texas. Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Texas have won 10 national championships in the past 15 years, and if you include Florida, another potential league opponent, that runs the total to 11 of 15.
At USC, Riley’s path to the playoff would be through Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, Colorado and Utah. Currently, only 9-3 Utah, at No. 19, is in the CFP rankings. The last Pac-12 school other than USC, which won NCAA-recognized titles in 2003 and ’04, to win a national championship was Washington in 1991.
It brings to mind a conversation a few years ago with a longtime SEC coach on the subject of what constitutes a dream job. His response was simple: being the big dog in a mediocre conference, like Bobby Bowden was at Florida State or like Dabo Swinney became at Clemson when he surpassed FSU. At USC, the resources and recruiting ground are there — particularly for Riley, who regularly mined Southern California — to take command in a league that has struggled to get footing in the CFP era.
In July, Harroz included in his statement that, during the Big 12 era, Oklahoma won 20 national team championships, 101 conference titles and four Heisman Trophies, and produced 113 NFL draft picks.
But none of that matters moving forward. On Monday, Barry Switzer, the last coach to take over at Oklahoma after a coach left for another job — Chuck Fairbanks to the New England Patriots in 1972 — told ESPN that Riley’s departure was a “tipping point” for the Sooners with the SEC move looming. There’s no guarantee that long history of success at Oklahoma will continue, much like Nebraska has struggled since Tom Osborne retired, Frank Solich was fired and the Huskers moved to the Big Ten.
“You can’t recruit off tradition,” Switzer said. “S—, 18-year-old kids don’t give a damn about Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer, Bob Stoops. They don’t know who the hell they were.”
After four months of shockers, Oklahoma is preparing for a new world with an unprecedented amount of uncertainty for a program that has prided itself on stability. The Sooners haven’t known mediocrity since Stoops arrived in 1999. Stoops projected confidence in a news conference on Monday in his role as interim coach.
“OU football has been here a long time. And it isn’t going anywhere else,” Stoops said. “It’s going to be here and it’s going to be at the top of college football and it’s going to continue that way.”
But the SEC decision may test a fan base that’s accustomed to decades of winning. Couple that with a coaching change, which is never a guarantee for quick success — just ask Texas — and all of a sudden, the landscape looks different in Norman.
On Sunday night at Othello’s, the Italian restaurant at Campus Corner that was Switzer’s old haunt and the site of his famed “Table of Truth” where he has held court for years, bar patrons talked about Riley being “the first casualty of the SEC move.”
After a thrilling Bedlam win on Saturday night, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy also lamented the shakeup after what might have been the last rivalry game between the two in Stillwater, depending on when OU finally exits for the SEC.
“That’s about as good as it gets for college football,” Gundy said after a 37-33 win over the Sooners, just his third victory in 17 games against OU as a head coach. “We need to be careful about messing with the structure of college football. College football is pretty good the way it is.”
But on Monday, USC athletic director Mike Bohn crowed about it when he introduced Riley as the Trojans’ new coach.
“It was never our goal to change the landscape of college football with one of the biggest moves in the history of the game,” he said, “but we did exactly that.”
It marked a stunning end to a turbulent season for two teams that made their own landscape-changing moves, with the rest of the college football world waiting to see what’s next.
At Othello’s, one Sooner die-hard wore an “In Lincoln We Trust” shirt with Riley’s face on a penny on it, unwittingly throwing it on in the morning before the news broke. Interesting choice of shirts, a reporter told him.
“I’ll let you have it if you want,” he said.
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