By Michael Kinney
One day after a stunning 48-45 loss to rival Texas, Lincoln Riley made the hardest decision he’s had to make since becoming head coach at Oklahoma in 2017.
After his Sooners allowed the Longhorns to rack up 48 points and more than 500 total yards, Riley fired longtime defensive coordinator, Mike Stoops Sunday.
“It was a tough decision. Probably the hardest day I’ve had here, as a head coach for sure,” Riley said after practice Monday. “Tough because I know what Mike has meant to this program, the kind of guy he is, the kind of friend he has been to me. Went through a lot together with him. At the same time, my job Is to make the best decisions for this program and this team right now.”
Riley said the main reason he fired Stoops was the need for a spark in the defensive locker room.
“I feel like we needed a new voice, a little bit of a spark,” Riley said. “I thought making the change was right for that reason and also because I felt good about the guys we have in this room and a plan for the rest of the season. Because this team has a lot in front of them. This team can make a run here. We all feel that. I didn’t think about anything down the line. It was all about this team and what’s best right now…. I don’t know if it’s lost. You just need a spark. In this game, it’s so hard to make it all work. So many things people have to come together and one little thing here and there can throw it off. The margin between being good and great is so thin. The margin between winning and losing is remarkably thin. I don’t think his voice was lost I just felt like we needed a new spark and a new voice.”
While many believe the move was made in response to the crushing loss at the Red River Showdown, Riley said that’s not the case.
“I’d never make a decision off of one game as emotional as the Texas game is,” Riley said. “It’s kind of its own deal. I figured out you can’t put too much stock into that game in that it’s so unique, it’s so different. Teams play differently. You have to be careful about that. I think there was enough that I saw in as far as the direction that we just needed a spark. I don’t think there was any one stat or thing or any single thing that happened. It’s not really that dramatic. For me, it was a gut feel. Coming back after that game and thinking through it, slept on it and having conversations with Mike and other people that I respect, I just felt like it was the right thing to do.”
Various reports had said Riley was forced to fire Stoops by OU president James L. Gallogly. Riley flatly denied those rumors.
“I don’t know how specific I want to get into that,” Riley said. “It was my decision and my decision only. Oklahoma doesn’t work like that. Other places do and that’s why they go up and down. Oklahoma, the people that make the decisions are the people that should make the decisions. That’s why this place has been so good for so long. Of course, you have bosses, I have people that I answer to. I make them aware of big changes or anything going on in the program that we need to. We have a great open communication system with our president and that office, with Joe (Castiglione) of course and his group. But this place wouldn’t be like it is, you would see all those banners over there if that’s how this place was run.”
According to Riley, the players were told before the public announcement.
“We met with them this morning,” Riley said. “We had a talk with them. They were emotional. A lot of those guys love Mike. Were recruited by Mike. Everybody in that room, me included, felt ownership in this. It damm sure ain’t all Mike’s fault. It’s my fault, it’s every coaches’ in that room’s fault. It’s every player in that room’s fault. We all own it. So I think we all hate that part of it. They understood why we did it. I’m always very honest and open with my players. I don’t hide things from them. They have a right to know, so we went through why we did it, the plan going forward and what we expect. They are resilient. They’ll bounce back. They’ll play hard for Ruffin, they’ll play hard for Mike. The way they play will be their chance to make it right by everybody and send the message that they love coach Mike.”
Ruffin McNeil, 59, was named the interim defensive coordinator to replace Stoops. According to Riley, he will have playcalling duties as well.
“At the end of the day I thought we needed somebody to unite the group and it’s really tough to look past Ruffin’s experience,” Riley said. “He’s done so much in his career. Very little in college football that he hasn’t done. He’s been in this situation. I got to see it first hand. Both as a coordinator and as a head coach at the Alamo Bowl. I was confident in his ability to handle it. He’s one of those guys with what he’s been through, he doesn’t have to sit back and think. When this happened he didn’t have to sit back and think ‘oh, what do I do.’ He knows exactly what to do.”
Even though Riley has the right people in place to make the transition as smooth as possible, he said this was still a difficult time for him. Mostly because of what the Stoops family has meant to him.
“It’s Tough. Tough. It’s real. And as much as you want to take the human element out of it, we’re all humans,” Riley said. “It was the fact that it’s Bob’s brother, did that make it harder? In some ways, but more than that just simply taking Bob out of it. Just my relationship with Mike and Mike’s relationship with me. The run we’ve had here together it’s, defensive and offensive coordinators can either be at each other’s throats. Cause you’re against each other the whole year, and then trying to work together during the season. It can either be really bad or really good and with he and I, he was so good to me when I came in here. Especially we stuck on offense the first half of that first year. And I’ll never forget that. We’ve had a great relationship. He’s a great friend and it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do.”
Locker room blow up
Riley also addressed rumors of linebacker Curtis Bolton leaving the stadium during the game because of frustration at what was taking place on the field.
“It was blown out of proportion a little bit,” Riley said. “I think after half, he was just emotional. Sometimes guys get emotional and just have to remove themselves from the situation. That’s a heated game, that’s a heated locker room. Curtis has been a warrior for us all year. He’s one of our emotional leaders, no question. Wears his heart on his sleeve like some of our guys do. I think it was something that was blown out of proportion.”
Story ran in the Yukon Review
Michael Kinney is a Freelance Content Provider