Oklahoma football: Who was the best of Sooners’ head coaches in year one?

Quarterback Caleb Williams (13) came to Oklahoma to play for coach Lincoln Riley and he'll reunite with him at Southern Cal.tramel jump
Quarterback Caleb Williams (13) came to Oklahoma to play for coach Lincoln Riley and he'll reunite with him at Southern Cal.tramel jump /

Lincoln Riley won 12 games in his first season as the Oklahoma football head coach and took the Sooners to the College Football Playoff as the No. 2 seed.

Riley’s 2017 Sooner team, led by Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, finished with a 12-2 overall record. That’s the most wins of any head coach in Oklahoma history in his debut season, but it isn’t the best record for a first-year Sooner head coach.

The then 33-year-old Riley had the rare good fortune among college head coaches of inheriting a team that was built to win at a high level immediately. He replaced Bob Stoops, who announced his retirement in the spring of 2016 after 18 highly successful seasons, a national championship and 10 Big 12 championships.

The team Stoops left behind for Riley was loaded with talent and ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press 2017 preseason poll after finishing No. 5 the year before. Frankly, it would have been hard not to win a lot of games with that 2017 Oklahoma team. Plus, Riley was more familiar with the team, its roster and the players’ capabilities than any other coaching candidate, having served the previous two seasons as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator.

Most first-time head coaches are brought in or elevated to the position because the previous man in the position failed to meet expectations. And that generally because the program is in need of a talent upgrade, a culture change or, more often than not, a combination of both.

Let’s be clear, though, the expectations at Oklahoma are much higher than they are at most other college programs. And that’s because of the enormous success and national recognition Oklahoma football has achieved over the past seven decades. And for the most part, Oklahoma head coaches in their first full season on the job have done very well in terms of producing a winning record.

Only one Sooner head coach since 1946 has lost more games than he won in his first season in the job. John Blake, a former Oklahoma player, had a 3-8 overall record in his debut year in 1996.

Stoops, who has more wins than any other Oklahoma coach in history, followed Blake on the job and had a major restoration project ahead of him after inheriting a Sooner program that had won just 12 games overall and only eight conference games over the previous three seasons combined.

Needless to say, Stoops was probably fortunate to produce a winning record (7-5) his first season in 1999, but even more remarkable, the very next season Oklahoma won its seventh national championship.

Bud Wilkinson was 7-2-1 leading his first Oklahoma team in 1947. Chuck Fairbanks, who coached the Sooners for six seasons beginning in 1967 after being elevated from defensive backs coach under Jim Mackenzie, was 10-1 with his first Oklahoma team

Fairbanks left the Oklahoma job in 1973 to become head coach of the New England Patriots in the NFL. His replacement was Barry Switzer, who like Riley was the OU offensive coordinator before being promoted to head coach.

Switzer’s 1973 Oklahoma team went 10-0-1, the best season in the inaugural year of any Oklahoma head coach. In fact, Switzer would not lose a game as the Sooners’ head coach until the ninth game of his third season, in 1975, an improbable 23-3 loss to unranked Kansas.

Switzer owns the best three-year coaching start of any OU head coach, a 32-1-1 record that included two national championship seasons.

Record of all Oklahoma head coaches since 1946 in their inaugural season

Jim Tatum (1946) — 8-3

Bud Wilkinson (1947) — 7-2-1

Gomer Jones (1964) — 7-2-1

Jim Mackenzie (1966) — 6-4

Chuck Fairbanks (1967) — 10-1

Barry Switzer (1973) — 10-0-1

Gary Gibbs (1989) — 7-4

John Blake (1996) — 3-8

Bob Stoops (1999) — 7-5

Lincoln Riley (2017) — 12-2

Brent Venables (2022) — ?