A day after being shocked by Lincoln Riley’s abrupt departure for the USC job, Oklahoma president Joe Harroz and athletic director Joe Castiglione held a news conference to discuss Riley’s exit and reintroduce a familiar face in interim coach Bob Stoops.
“We’re here today, surprised by yesterday, but with unlimited excitement for tomorrow,” Castiglione said.
All three spoke of their disappointment in Riley’s decision, but indicated there was nothing he said that led them to believe he was leaving because of any dissatisfaction at Oklahoma or with the impending move to the SEC.
“He made a personal decision,” Harroz said. “Were we disappointed? Absolutely. And that disappointment lasts until you realize you’ve now got to move forward. I mean, we’d like more notice.”
Castiglione said that when Riley was told of the SEC move, he didn’t share any reservations.
“He was engaged in our thoughts about it. He was definitely on board with it. And in many conversations since that announcement was made, he continued to be very much on board with it,” Castiglione said, adding that he and Harroz had been discussing an enhanced contract for Riley for some time. “There wasn’t any mention of unrest.”
Castiglione said the process of Riley’s departure went as quickly for them as it did for fans.
“On Sunday morning I got a call from him that says he was considering and would speak to USC and then he will get back to us,” Castiglione said. “He agreed to meet a couple hours later. And president Harroz and Lincoln and I met and he told us that he’d had a visit and he was making the decision to take a unique opportunity.”
Despite the speed of the process, Castiglione indicated that he had no knowledge that USC had engaged with Riley during the season.
“I have absolutely no reason to believe based on the conversations I’ve had with him that there were any conversations prior to the time he informed us,” Castiglione said.
Harroz said he and Castiglione then turned to Stoops, calling him to ask if he would be interested in serving as interim coach. Before they could complete the question, Harroz said, Stoops interrupted and said, “Of course I will. Anything I can do I’ll do.”
Stoops, meanwhile, said he was on the golf course when he got the call.
“I wasn’t playing well. That’s the only reason I answered,” he said.
But Stoops wasted no time getting back into a familiar role as the face of the Oklahoma football program, selling the university and looking back at his first news conference in Norman 23 years ago. He acknowledged legendary Sooners coach Barry Switzer, who was in attendance, and said the Oklahoma program will be fine despite losing Riley.
“When I arrived here on December 1, 1998, there was something to be concerned about,” Stoops said. “Four straight years without a winning record. No bowl games. Two years later, we were 13-0 and won the national [championship]. This place is in a hell of a lot better shape than it was in December 1, 1998. We’re a perennial top 5, 10, 15 team every single year. We’re playing that kind of football.
“This job is going to attract the very best in the coaching world. And they’re already lined up and cold calling Joe. There’s not one guy, one person in the history of this program that’s bigger than the program — coach Switzer, myself or Lincoln Riley.”
Stoops said he already has been calling recruits, meeting with players and their families and working with several familiar faces on the coaching stuff. He even said he’d be out on the road recruiting on Monday night.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “My wife’s glad I’m out of the house.”
Castiglione, in turn, said the allure of the job is evident based on the reaction he’s heard from other coaches.
“People are reaching out that some people would never believe have interest in it,” Castiglione said. “That’s Oklahoma for you.”
Oklahoma has lost several star recruits since Riley’s announcement, and several other players have indicated they will explore the transfer portal. Stoops said he understood that players have to examine their future, but added that he’s there to counsel them, beginning with being in Sunday’s meeting when Riley informed the team.
“They were, of course, blindsided — they were in shock,” Stoops said. “They were very respectful of coach Riley as he addressed them. Some even clapped for him as he left, but in shock.”
As for a replacement, Castiglione declined to set a timetable or discuss the characteristics he’s looking for in a head coach. Castiglione hired Stoops and Riley when they were both assistant coaches. Stoops was defensive coordinator at Florida and Riley took over after serving as Stoops’ offensive coordinator for two years.
“Why would I change models?” Castiglione said, though he said he wouldn’t rule out a sitting head coach over a rising-star assistant. “My benchmark is hiring the best coach for the University of Oklahoma and always has been.”
“It’s gonna be stealthy as usual,” he added. “But we know the importance of time and timing. So we’ll move it quickly.”
The trio were upbeat about moving forward despite the initial shock. Stoops remarked that it was just five years ago that he stepped aside, and he delivered the same message now that he did then.
“It’s Lincoln’s choice to leave,” Stoops said. “It’s OK. You’re the ones who are going to make all the plays or not make the plays. You guys win and lose. You’re OU football. He isn’t. I’m not. And any other coach who comes here isn’t. OU football has been here a long time. And it isn’t going anywhere else. 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.”