Oklahoma football: Why is OU rebounding so well after Riley’s departure?

Oct 16, 2021; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Marvin Mims (17) reacts during the game against the TCU Horned Frogs at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 16, 2021; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Marvin Mims (17) reacts during the game against the TCU Horned Frogs at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

As the 2022 Oklahoma football season wound down, it was becoming painfully apparent that this wasn’t the same Big 12 dominant Sooner team fans were used to seeing in recent seasons.

You wouldn’t notice it that much in the final season record — over the last three seasons the Sooners have won 12, 9 of 11 in the 2020 pandemic season, and 11 games last season — but they weren’t winning as handily or as decisively as past Oklahoma teams.

Last season alone, six of OU’s wins were by seven or fewer points. The Sooners lacked the killer instinct to put teams away when they had opponents on the ropes. As a consequence, the Sooners finished third in the Big 12 standings a year ago, snapping a string of six consecutive conference championships.

The disappointing 2021 season wasn’t a question of the absence of talent. Oklahoma certainly had plenty of that. There was definitely an imbalance between the team’s offensive strength and its defensive capability, but the Sooners were still able to come out on top in most of its games, although more than half of the games could have gone another way and left OU with as few as seven or eight wins and an overall record barely above .500.

The point being, for the first time in quite a while, Oklahoma appeared mortal and more vulnerable that it had in some time. And it was on that backdrop, at the end of November, that the entire bottom appeared to drop out.

Less than 24 hours after losing their final regular-season game at Oklahoma State, surprisingly lost their head coach, Lincoln Riley, who elected to jump ship and head out West to take the vacant job at USC.

And that was just the beginning of the falling dominoes. Riley took half of the OU assistants with him as well as several key Sooner players who chose to follow him to his new destination.

Just like that, the lingering concerns about the state of Oklahoma football was elevated to a whole another level of concern and uncertainty.

Brent Venables was the No. 1 target from the get-go

As Riley exited stage right, OU athletic director Joe Castiglione went into immediate coach-search mode, but he did so fully intent on landing the man he knew was not only the perfect fit but the right choice at the right time for the job.

Enter Brent Venables.

Venables was one of the Sooners’ own. Yes, he spent a decade as the defensive coordinator at Clemson, but before that he was in the same role at Oklahoma for 13 highly successful Sooner seasons under Bob Stoops. That in itself made Venables a highly popular hire among the Oklahoma fan base.

Venables literally hit the ground running on Dec. 5, 2021, and he hasn’t stopped yet. His fire and energy and his passionate personality has re-energized the Sooner locker room. He has invested a great amount of time strengthening the relationships between the coaching staff and the players and among the players themselves.

The new Oklahoma head man has done an outstanding job of establishing his vision of having the Sooners become a confident, physical, tough, blue collar work ethic-type team that competes at a very high level. You could see coming out of spring practice and entering fall training camp this week that the Sooner players are comfortable with the changes so far and are approaching practice drills with the same toughness, high-energy and aggressive nature reflected in the personality of their head coach.

So why is it that the Oklahoma football programs is doing so well after it appeared eight months ago that the sky was coming crashing down. There are two prime reasons:

The first is the Oklahoma football brand, one of the strongest in all of college football. Bob Stoops said it best at the time of the press conference following Riley’s departure announcement:

"“There’s not one guy, one person in the history of the (Oklahoma) program that’s bigger than the program, (that includes) Coach Switzer, myself or Lincoln Riley.”"

Sooner fans are some of the most passionate in the country, and there is an undeniable winning culture at Oklahoma. One sports columnist had this to say about the OU coaching change: “Oklahoma football made Lincoln Riley. Lincoln Riley didn’t make Oklahoma football.”

The other reason, perhaps even more obvious, is they hired absolutely the right man to take the reigns as the next Oklahoma head coach.

As always under AD Joe Castiglione, the Sooners found their man

The transformation is underway, and it is refreshing and reassuring to witness.

And Venables isn’t doing it all alone. You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with.

The 23rd head coach of Oklahoma football has assembled a crack defensive staff after Riley decimated that side of the coaching staff. And if you ask me, the new guys in Norman have better credentials than the ones that left. At the same time, Venables was able to retain then entire offensive coaching staff, including longtime OU assistant Cale Gundy, who works with the wide receivers, and Bill Bedenbaugh, one of the best offensive line coaches in the college game.

Under Stoops and Riley, Oklahoma had kept the talent pipeline flowing with a number of top-10 recruiting classes. Venables already is making his mark in that area. With the help of former head coach Stoops, he stabilized and secured a No. 10 OU recruiting class for 2022 and is recruiting at an extremely high level this summer in filling out commitments for the 2023 class.

What’s also impressive about the Sooners’ 2023 class, aside from the quantity and talent level, is its balance, with highly touted recruits on both offense and defense. OU’s 2023 class currently ranks No. 6 nationally, according to 247Sports.

While admittedly surprising and shocking at first, the coaching change actually comes at a good time and for all the right reasons. Although his words spoke otherwise, Riley obviously was not committed to Oklahoma long term, and to be perfectly honest, his Sooner football team was becoming too static and predictable and had lost its edge.

Venables’ passion about Oklahoma football never left him even while he was at Clemson. And now the former Bob Stoops assistant is back where he really belongs.