NORMAN, Okla. —
The price of oil was showing strength at over $100 per barrel, which created a hopeful mood as the University of Oklahoma board of regents met in June 2014.
Their beloved football program didn’t just spring up out of the dusty plains winning championships. The school had to invest in it, and, in the boom-or-bust economy of the Sooner State, that meant drilling for donations while the getting was good. The stadium, nicknamed the “Palace on the Prairie,” was in need of an upgrade. Plans were drawn up to improve the seating in the south end zone while at the same time adding a state-of-the-art, $160-million shrine to Oklahoma football history where Bob Stoops and his players could do their work with only the finest accommodation.
All of this had been put into motion years before anyone knew Lincoln Riley’s name.
Of course the regents approved the project. After 15 years atop the program, leading it back from the depressing drought of the 1990s to its rightful place among college football’s biggest winners, Stoops had earned it. Sure, one national championship wasn’t good enough, but this investment would help him win the next one, a bookend to an all-time great run.
Stoops would be hands-on, too, giving special attention to the design of his office. For a tough-minded football coach from Ohio’s Rust Belt, he showed surprising taste while imagining the 1,200 square foot room where one day he’d host America’s best young football players. His nine gothic windows would be the centerpiece of the building from the outside, tricking the eye into thinking this was actually a place of worship. Inside there would be cathedral ceilings and a chandelier straight out of medieval times, a sphere of candelabras lighting the space. Functionally, a full kitchen and a bathroom with a shower would make it so Bob could basically live there.
Given the passion he poured into the project, it just didn’t feel right that he would never work a day in his new office.
The news of Stoops’ sudden retirement came so fast that day in June 2017 that it was hard to even process the major announcement tucked within: 33-year-old Lincoln Riley would be Stoops’ successor, stepping into that immaculate office without any head coaching experience.
“Coach Stoops and his wife, Carol, planned the whole office, and we were wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to this job?’” says Katelynn Henry, the lead interior designer. “But Lincoln just accepted everything as it was. If a Nick Saban comes in, they would want to scrap it and do their own style, their own pieces. The furniture was second-hand to Lincoln, but he loved it.”
The young man must have been eternally grateful. Stoops had picked Riley out of East Carolina to rejuvenate his offense two years prior. The kid had been an instant success — but so successful he should be trusted with the entire enterprise?
The Sooner faithful did not know much about Riley, the outsider from West Texas, but they knew the only important thing: Bob said Lincoln was the right man for the job.
Four and a half years later on a Wednesday afternoon, the Oklahoma head coach’s office sits without a permanent occupant. A sign at the front of the red-brick building says it is closed to the public until further notice.
In the yard that welcomes visitors to the Switzer Center, a landscaping crew is raking up fallen maple leaves and removing yellowed shrubbery, one last cleansing before what is certain to be a long winter.
Three bouquets of flowers have been left in front of Bob Stoops’ statue. If you didn’t already know what happened Sunday, you might get confused and think someone had died. In truth, the only death in the family when Lincoln Riley left for USC was the notion that Oklahoma was a place that coaches didn’t leave once the good Lord had blessed them in finding their way here.
The Sooners’ bloody Sunday began with the mourning of the team’s heartbreaking loss to bitter instate rival Oklahoma State in Stillwater. There would be no Big 12 championship for the first time since 2014, but at least Riley had put down those Louisiana State rumors in his postgame news conference. The last few years, he had been recruiting his tail off, so the belief of the fan base in him had not wavered. Heck, even they knew Stoops and now Riley had spoiled them.
But in the middle of the afternoon, Riley’s decision to jump to USC leaked to reporters. Bob Stoops got a call during what was supposed to be a pleasant round of golf.
Tyler McComas, who hosts a daily radio show focusing on all things Sooners, was spending time with his wife, relieved the football season was over, when he got a text from a friend that said, “Bummer about Lincoln.”
Within a few hours, McComas was doing an emergency show that would shatter the station’s high mark for listeners.
“The word ‘snake’ is being used a lot right now to describe Lincoln Riley,” McComas says. “We had a certain perception of who he is — almost this small-town, West Texas, innocent kid that said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got the Oklahoma job, I’m the luckiest guy in the world, I will never leave, everything I do is going to be about OU’ — but now everyone’s looking around like, wait, who was this guy?
“Another reason why they’re so mad is Bob Stoops essentially vouched for him to get that job, you know? There’s this feeling of, he owed it to Bob, to the university, to not leave the way he did. He was handed an opportunity that few others in college football history have gotten.”
And yet, there Riley was early Monday morning, boarding a private jet with USC officials, his wife, Caitlin, and two daughters, Sloan and Stella, and four key Oklahoma staff members.
“Whose fault is this? Like, how did this fall apart? Who let this happen?” Murdock says of the emotions. “The breadcrumbs start coming out, and people are making judgments, and really, so far, all the blame’s been on Lincoln Riley.”
Around the time the flight to Los Angeles took off, as the sky turned pink with the sunrise, two large signs reading “TRAITOR” were hung on campus monuments. In the five stages of grief, many Sooners had skipped straight to anger.
“Other than faith and their family, OU football is the most important thing to a lot of people in the state of Oklahoma,” says Gabe Ikard, who played center for Oklahoma from 2009-13 and serves as the sideline reporter on OU radio broadcasts. “It means a lot to the people here. This isn’t Los Angeles. With the way he left, he is challenging Kevin Durant for the title of public enemy No. 1 in the state of Oklahoma. I think he’s the new No. 1.”
On Monday afternoon, Oklahoma called a news conference and leaned on none other than Bob Stoops, who had taken over as the interim head coach, to issue a unifying message to the fan base: It’s the players who make OU football, not the coach.
He would not address much about his feelings about Riley.
“You know, disappointed? Sure,” he said. “The rest of it, that will be between Lincoln and I personally, as it should be.”
Not long after Stoops’ efforts to restore calm, Riley stood on the seventh floor of the Coliseum a world away from Norman in every sense, with members of the USC marching band and the famed Song Girls on either side of him, and said, “This is going to be the Mecca of college football.”
To which Oklahoma defensive lineman Isaiah Thomas responded on Twitter, “Told us that last week.”
Monday’s public flogging was rough for Riley’s tight circle of friends in Norman. He didn’t let many people in, but OU golf coach Ryan Hybl was one of them, as they bonded over their love of the links.
Hybl watched Lincoln’s introduction to L.A. from his office desktop computer and was moved when Riley had to pause, seemingly holding back tears, at his first mention of Oklahoma.
“There’s a lot I could feel through my screen,” Hybl says. “He knows what just happened. He’s still got a big heart, and he loves this place. There’s no act going on there.”
Hybl understood that most Sooners won’t share that sentiment. Around town, the suggestion was being made that Riley is now in the perfect place to improve his thespian abilities.
In the years after his retirement from coaching, Barry Switzer could have decided to live anywhere. Having just led the Dallas Cowboys to a win in Super Bowl XXX, the sway of the legendary Oklahoma head coach extended far beyond Norman, where he led the Sooners to three national championships.
But Switzer chose to build two big stone houses a block from the OU campus, one for him and one for his daughter to raise her family. He’d been here since 1966, seeing the town grow from 30,000 to 120,000, and somewhere along the way, it became home.
“Lincoln is the first Oklahoma coach to leave for another school since 1947,” Switzer says, sitting in his office surrounded by his three German Shepherds, Panzer, Saber and Jazz, and his yellow lab, Bella.
It was Jim Tatum who left OU for Maryland. His assistant coach, Bud Wilkinson, took over, starting OU’s postwar dynasty with the school’s first three national championships.
Switzer is 84 years young. His main source of competition now is seeing if he can cook up a better Christmas light display than his son-in-law across the street, but he does keep close tabs on OU football.
“It’s devastating for the program because it’s so close to signing day, and kids get in that damn [transfer] portal,” Switzer says. “But we were Oklahoma before Lincoln Riley ever coached here, and we’ll be Oklahoma after. It shocked me, surprised me. Stoops swears he didn’t know about it. He was playing golf.”
Switzer, like everyone besides Riley, doesn’t know why he bolted. But he is confident it isn’t about money.
“I just wonder,” Switzer says, “did he give Oklahoma a chance to sit down and negotiate with him? I don’t think he did. I think he just made a decision and Oklahoma didn’t have a chance to counter.”
Switzer continues, “He’s had success recruiting out there, so why not keep all of them home? Oklahoma’s got 3 million people. What’s L.A. got? It’s a numbers game.”
Asked about the staggering sums of money being thrown around to lure coaches the last few weeks, Switzer provides a history lesson to add perspective.
“In a way, we caused it,” he says. “In 1981 Oklahoma sued the NCAA for television rights. Probably the most profound act in NCAA history. They always let us sell our popcorn and Cokes in the stands, but they wouldn’t let us sell our product we produce on the field.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oklahoma in 1984, starting the big business era of college sports. Once schools and their conferences could negotiate their own TV deals, they would inevitably try to outbid each other for the top coaches — and, Switzer points out, schools would change conferences looking for the league that could gold-plate their operation.
He finds it ironic that OU fans, mere months after the school ditched the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference in clandestine fashion, could fault a coach for switching schools.
“Can’t criticize one without looking at the other,” he says.
By the middle of the week, Oklahoma fans were still struggling to remove their amateur detective hats. The two things nobody can believe from Riley’s story are that he did not talk with USC until Sunday morning and that he accepted the job within just a few hours.
“Everybody feels hurt and betrayed,” says Jeff Stewart, who owns O’Connell’s Irish Pub, an OU institution. “You can’t have that kind of thing happen that quickly. The final decision, yes, but there’s a lot more to it. I feel like it may have started earlier in the season, where maybe his mindset was more on the upcoming job. A lot of fans feel like he may have made a few trips out there when he was recruiting. The stories are flying all over the place.”
It did not help the believability of Riley’s story when rumors began swirling Tuesday night that OU cornerbacks coach Roy Manning had contacted five-star cornerback Domani Jackson of Santa Ana Mater Dei on behalf of the Trojans while still employed by Oklahoma.
“Good riddance,” said shock-jock radio host Jim Traber Wednesday afternoon. “No scruples. No integrity. He’s got one dude recruiting for both teams. Sleaziest thing I’ve seen in college football in a long time.”
“I wish him lots of traffic, losses, smog, high taxes,” said another voice. “Someday he’s gonna be sitting in traffic and go, ‘Was it worth it?’ ”
Each day, Tyler McComas’ show continues to set new records.
“Everyone’s on edge,” McComas says. “Normal, everyday people are like, ‘I can’t sleep, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, and I’m so upset about Lincoln.’ ”
Rick Knapp, the president of the OU TD Club, one of the oldest booster organizations in the country, struck a more measured tone. He just seemed a bit sad as he ate lunch at OU’s famed Campus Corner. On a nearby TV, Fox’s Colin Cowherd and former USC quarterback Mark Sanchez were debating something about Riley’s move to the Trojans.
The reminders of the pain were inescapable.
“Everyone figured he’d be here for a long, long time,” Knapp says. “My own personal guess on Lincoln, as far as a place to live, coming from Muleshoe, Texas, this would be more suitable for him. But, that said, you can blend in pretty easily out there.”
Few in Norman felt like they got know Riley. The consensus was that he was friendly yet guarded. He cut down on media access to the program when he took over, turning Oklahoma into one of the most closed-off teams in the country.
“He takes himself very seriously,” Murdock says.
Ryan Hybl, Riley’s friend, said that Lincoln would often come to the OU golf school as an escape, choosing to practice various skills in seclusion or with Hybl’s players instead of playing rounds at the school’s more crowded course.
“He’s a private person, and I actually think you can be a little bit more private in L.A., as odd as that may sound, because there’s so many people,” Hybl says.
Maybe if Riley had ingratiated himself in the community, he would have gotten more benefit of the doubt. Or maybe there was never going to be a clean exit from a place as football-obsessed as Norman.
Perhaps this piece of contrary evidence will resonate with the fan base’s lead investigators: Riley and his family had only been living in their new, custom-built estate for two months before USC came calling. It was meant to be Caitlin Riley’s dream home and equipped with certain features that would not be necessary for anyone other than the OU football head coach, like a large space specifically to host and entertain recruits.
Would the Rileys have invested in building an exorbitant mansion in the middle of Oklahoma if they had one foot out the door and had a hunch they would soon be selling it?
The legends here are immortalized in bronze. That path was handed to Lincoln Riley and he spurned it, but it must be remembered he is only 38, with a whole football life in front of him.
Inside the shimmering Switzer Center lobby, which shows off Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophies and seven national championships, an LED display lists the accomplishments of Wilkinson, Switzer, Stoops and the OU coaching greats. Riley, even with his .846 winning percentage, four Big 12 championships and three College Football Playoff appearances, is not mentioned.
“Lincoln Riley won a lot of games and represented the program well,” says Ikard, the former Sooners center. “OU fans will eventually appreciate his contribution to OU football, but that won’t happen for a very, very long time. The majority of OU fans will never forgive him. It’s probably not right, but that’s just the truth.”
Riley’s Oklahoma legacy starts with his development of transfer quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray into Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 overall draft picks. He will be credited with modernizing the Sooners’ recruiting and being the first coach to introduce the eyeball emoji to signal a commitment on social media.
But former players and fans had their issues, too — a strength and conditioning program that didn’t get Oklahoma ready to dominate the fourth quarter, a running game that would too often disappear from the game plan and a defense that improved under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch (who joined Riley at USC) but could not break through as one of the nation’s best units.
“Bob Stoops left Lincoln a great roster and even better culture,” Ikard says. “It’s interesting. Even though recruiting was going well, as we got further from Bob being the head coach, the team seemed to get a little worse each year.”
OU fans expect Riley to revive USC due mostly to his recruiting chops, which will thrive in Southern California’s talent hotbed. They do not know how long it will take the Sooners to return to the playoff with a new head coach and the daunting move to the SEC in the coming years. Sleepless nights, indeed.
But, whenever Oklahoma does make the playoff once more, there will be no hesitation on the Sooners’ desired opponent.
“If USC ever plays OU in the playoff, it will be the most aggressive, hateful atmosphere at an OU football game in history,” McComas says. “If they play in Arlington, or Houston, or Vegas, no matter where it’s at, OU fans will flock there, just to be able to sound off their frustrations to Lincoln Riley. Because there’s no closure with this.”