Why is OU recovering so well after Riley’s departure?

As Oklahoma’s 2022 football season drew to a close, it became painfully clear that these weren’t the same Big 12 that fans of the Sooner team have grown accustomed to in recent seasons.

You wouldn’t notice it as much in the last season record — in the last three seasons, the Sooners have won 12, 9 of 11 in the 2020 pandemic season and 11 games last season — but they didn’t win as easily or as decisively as past teams did Oklahoma.

Last season alone, OU had six wins seven or fewer points away. The Sooners lacked the killer instinct to take out teams when they had opponents on the ropes. As a result, a year ago, the Sooners finished third in the Big 12 standings and snagged a streak of six straight conference championships.

The disappointing 2021 season wasn’t a question of a lack of talent. Oklahoma certainly had plenty of it. There was definitely an imbalance between the team’s offensive strength and defensive strength, but the Sooners still prevailed in most of their games, although more than half of the games could have gone the other way and left OU with as few as seven or eight wins and an overall record just over .500.

The point was that for the first time in quite a while, Oklahoma appeared more mortal and vulnerable than it had in a while. And against this backdrop, the entire bottom appeared to be breaking out in late November.

Less than 24 hours after losing their last regular-season game at Oklahoma State, they surprisingly lost their head coach, Lincoln Riley, who chose to abandon ship and head west to take the vacant job at USC.

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

In doing so, ongoing concerns about the state of football in Oklahoma were taken to a whole different level of concern and uncertainty.

Brent Venables was the #1 target from the start

As Riley left the stage on the right, OU athletic director Joe Castiglione immediately went into coach search mode, but he did so with full intention of finding the man he knew was not only the perfect man, but the right one Choosing the right time for the job.

Enter Brent Venables.

Venables was one of the Sooners. Yes, he spent a decade as defensive coordinator at Clemson, but before that he was in the same role at Oklahoma for 13 very successful Sooner seasons under Bob Stops. That alone made Venables a very popular job among the Oklahoma fan base.

Venables literally took off on December 5, 2021, and he hasn’t stopped yet. His fire and energy and passionate personality reinvigorated the Sooner locker room. He has invested a lot of time in strengthening the relationships between the coaching staff and the players and between the players themselves.

Oklahoma’s new boss has done an amazing job realizing his vision for the Sooners to be a confident, physical, tough team with worker ethics that competes at a very high level. You could see that after spring training and entering fall training camp this week, the Sooner players are happy with the changes so far and are approaching training drills with the same tenacity, energy and aggressiveness that is reflected in their head coach’s personality.

Why is Oklahoma’s football programs going so well after eight months ago it seemed like the sky was about to fall? There are two main 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 after Riley’s retirement announcement:

“There is no guy, no person in the history of the (Oklahoma) program that is bigger than the program (that includes) Coach Switzer, myself or Lincoln Riley.”

Sooner fans are some of the most passionate in the country, and Oklahoma has an undeniable winning culture. A sports columnist said of the OU coaching change, ÔÇťOklahoma Football did Lincoln Riley. Lincoln Riley didn’t do Oklahoma Football.”

The other reason, perhaps more obvious, is that they’ve hired absolutely the right man to take the reins as Oklahoma’s next head coach.

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

The transformation is underway and it is refreshing and comforting to witness it.

And Venables doesn’t do it alone. You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with.

Oklahoma football’s 23rd head coach assembled a crack defensive staff after Riley decimated that side of the coaching staff. And if you ask me, the newcomers to Norman have better credentials than the ones who left. At the same time, Venables managed to retain the entire offensive coaching staff, including the longtime OU assistant Cale Gundywho works with the wide receivers, and Bill Bedenbaughone of the best offensive line coaches in the college game.

Under Stoops and Riley, Oklahoma had kept the talent pipeline flowing with a series of top 10 recruit classes. Venables has already made a name for itself in this area. With the help of former head coach Stoops, he stabilized and secured a #10 OU recruit class for 2022 and is recruiting at an extremely high level this summer to fill commitments for the 2023 class.

What’s also impressive about the Sooners 2023 class, aside from the crowd and level of talent, is their balance with highly acclaimed recruits on both offense and defense. According to 247Sports, the 2023 class of OU is currently ranked 6th nationally.

While admittedly surprising and shocking at first, the managerial change actually comes at a good time and for the right reasons. Though his words said otherwise, Riley obviously wasn’t committed to Oklahoma long-term, and to be perfectly honest, his Sooner football team had become too static and predictable and had lost its edge.

Venable’s passion for Oklahoma football never left him, even while he was with Clemson. And now Bob Stoops’ former assistant is back where he really belongs.

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