Oklahoma football: Who is going to be the next Oklahoma head coach?

OU athletic director Joe Castiglione has said that full capacity is expected for the football season at Owen Field.cover
OU athletic director Joe Castiglione has said that full capacity is expected for the football season at Owen Field.cover /

Names are cropping up from all kinds of sources regarding potential replacements for Lincoln Riley as the next head football coach of the Oklahoma football program.

The next head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners will be only the 25th head coach in Sooner football history, which just finished its 126th season. I say “only” because that’s fewer than most major college programs.

And the reason for that is that the Sooners have been fortunate enough — and successful enough — over the years that its four winningest head coaches (Bennie Owen, Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops) all remained in place for at least 16 seasons. All four won more than 100 games during their time as Oklahoma head coach, led by Stoops with a program-best 190 career wins.

By comparison, Alabama has had 27 head coaches in its history, including current head coach Nick Saban. Notre Dame, which like Oklahoma is in search of a new head coach, will shortly hire its 33rd head coach.

Stoops will have the chance to add one more win to that total when he coaches the Sooners in their bowl game this season.

Joe Castiglione, Oklahoma athletic director, is the man responsible for the search and hiring the next head coach at Oklahoma. That search is ongoing as you read this, and based on Castiglione’s hiring history, the Sooners should be in great shape when the process in completed and the final selection is made.

Stoops and Riley were both Castiglione hires, as were Lon Kruger and Porter Moser on the basketball side.

There has been widespread speculation that the biggest unsaid reason for Riley wanting to leave Oklahoma was because he didn’t think he or Oklahoma would be as successful once the Sooners move to the SEC.

Castiglione was asked at the Oklahoma press conference on Monday if that was one of the key criteria in his search for the next OU head coach:

"“I certainly want people who are excited about it (the move to the SEC). And if you’re not, no need to apply,” he said with a smile out of the corner of his mouth."

The Oklahoma AD was also reminded by one of the reporters at the Monday press briefing of his and OU’s history of not bringing in established head coaches and instead going with first-time head coaches rising out of the coordinator ranks (Stoops and Riley are both prime examples).

Castiglione responded that he would not limit himself to hiring a coach without previous head-coaching experience.

"“My benchmark is hiring the best coach for the University of Oklahoma,” he said. “It always has been, and always will be.”"

As always happens in circumstances like this, the names of prospective candidates start flying out of the woodwork and, as Castiglione referenced in the press conference, the unsolicited inquiries from those interested in the job start flooding the phone lines and email. And some are from people you never thought would be interested, he said.

The media have been busy promoting a host of popular names for the Oklahoma job, ranging from current NFL head coaches, existing college head coaches and, of course, a number of rising stars in the coordinator world.

Right out of the gate, NFL analyst Adam Schefter was reporting that Arizona Cardinals head coach and former Texas Tech head man Kliff Kingsbury was OU’s top target. There’s no way of knowing if that was or wasn’t the case because it is Castiglione’s style to keep details of coaching searches extremely close the vest. Over the past few days, however, the prospects of luring Kingsbury out of the NFL and back to college do not appear to be realistic.

The same can be said for Matt Rhule, the former Baylor head coach who is now coaching the NFL Carolina Panthers. Rhule has already publicly said he is not interested in leaving the NFL.

The name of Luke Fickell, the head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats, who are undefeated and have a good chance of making the College Football Playoff, has also gotten a lot of traction. He’s pretty busy preparing for a conference championship game, but he is going to be on the short list for every major college opening.

When Brian Kelly stepped away from Notre Dame for the LSU vacancy earlier this week, rumor began flying that Fickell would be next in line for the Notre Dame job. As of this writing, however, it appears the Notre Dame administration may be headed in a different direction for its coaching hire. The recruitment of Fickell might take longer than Castiglione is willing to wait with other strong candidates out there.

Another current head coach with Oklahoma ties is 44-year-old Shane Beamer, who just completed his first season as head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the SEC. Beamer was an assistant at OU under Riley from 2018 to 2020. He is the son of legendary head coach Frank Beamer, who was at Virginia Tech for 29 years.

Other names that have been on the possible OU target list are Brent Venables, defensive coordinator at Clemson and a former assistant at Oklahoma; Josh Heupel, Tennessee head coach and the quarterback of the Oklahoma 2000 national championship team and later offensive coordinator for the Sooners under Bob Stoops; Matt Campbell, head coach at Iowa State; Dave Aranda, former LSU defensive coordinator and current head coach at Baylor; Lane Kiffin, now at Ole Miss and a journeyman of college head coaching.

Another popular name early on in the week was Mark Stoops, brother of Bob, who has had a successful nine-year run as head coach in the SEC at a blue-blood basketball school, Kentucky. A defensive mastermind, like his older brother, Stoops this week agreed to a contract extension at Kentucky through the 2027 season. So it would appear there is no basis for his candidacy for the OU job.

The names of the two coordinators at No. 1-ranked Georgia — offensive coordinator Todd Monken and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning — have also been rumored to be in consideration.

Castiglione has given no indication if he is looking for someone more defensive minded as head coach, given the Sooners issues defensively in recent seasons. That may not be as important a consideration as getting the best head coach for the job, knowing that the new Sooner head coach will be tasked with filling both coordinator roles.

The three names that are being talked up the most four full days into the Oklahoma search process for the next head coach are Brent Venables, Shane Beamer and Matt Campbell. One source reported that Campbell was expected to interview at OU on Thursday. There is also an outside chance of landing Luke Fickell, but that might take another month depending on how Cincinnati ends up in the final College Football Playoff rankings.

Beamer was one of the most well-liked assistants by the players during his time on the Sooner coaching staff.

A good case can be made for both Venables and Campbell, although Venables could still harbor some bitterness toward OU, despite the fact that he spent 13 seasons as an assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for the Sooners, after being forced out when Mike Stoops returned to the program defensive coordinator after being fired as Arizona head coach.

Venables has been in line for a head-coaching position for several years, but he has elected to remain at Clemson, where he has become one of the most accomplished and highest paid defensive coordinators in college football. Whether Oklahoma is the right opportunity he’s been looking for and whether Castiglione feels he is the right fit for OU remains to be played out.

In six seasons at Iowa State, Campbell has become the winningest football coast in Iowa State history. That might not sound overly impressive until you consider how difficult it is to recruit top high school talent and transfer candidates to come to Ames, Iowa.

There is an unconfirmed report that Oklahoma plans to introduce its new football coach during the Sooner women’s home basketball game Thursday night. That may not be the case, but I’m told the  process is moving fast. I would say we should have a definitive announcement before the weekend is over.