HOLLYWOOD, Florida — The morning after Oklahoma’s loss to Alabama in the Orange Bowl was a reflective opportunity for Lincoln Riley, as he and others in the program packed and departed from their Florida hotel.
Twice the Sooners came within 11 points in a 45-34 loss to the Crimson Tide, frustratingly close as Riley put it. He actually felt OU would win after Charleston Rambo’s 49-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.
That didn’t happen, of course, and moving forward his focus will shift from College Football Playoff preparation and the result of that game to his most critical decision since taking over OU’s head coach.
Riley must find a new defensive coordinator and assemble other puzzle pieces on the defensive staff, if he parts ways with any other assistants at all. He isn’t convinced wholesale changes are necessary across the board.
“Probably would look at the new coordinator first and then [decide on assistants]. We've got good people in that room,” Riley said. “We've got good coaches and good recruiters, people that are loyal to this place, people that have been great to me personally, people that I trust. And so, I don't see this as a, all of a sudden we're just gonna clean house and start from scratch there. I don't see it there.”
Ruffin McNeill (interim defensive coordinator), Kerry Cooks (defensive backs), Tim Kish (inside linebackers), Bob Diaco (outside linebackers) and Calvin Thibodeaux (defensive line) must wait to see what ultimately happens.
Riley said he’ll take his time and find the right coordinator, but won’t waste time either. He doesn’t have a timetable for the decision and there's extra time with the bulk of OU’s 2019 recruiting class in place following the early signing period.
“I’m going to take a step back and look at the schedule and take some time to reflect,” Riley said. “I always learned from my mentor, in big decisions like this, you have to take a step back and look at the whole picture with a clear mind. I'm not going wait around and drag my feet. I'm going to make sure we get the very best person that we can.”
Who is that person? Someone who has the right defensive scheme is important, he said, but it’s a secondary factor behind finding a person who can build the culture Riley envisions, as well as someone who recruits relentlessly.
“That's one deal with us: everybody recruits,” Riley said. “We don't have any, 'Well he coaches really good but he's not much of a recruiter.' That's not going to exist on this staff. That's a big quality for anybody that we hire in any position on the field, off the field, they've got to have a positive impact on recruiting.”
Eleven freshman, redshirt freshman or sophomores played for OU’s defense against Alabama. The Sooners lose one senior in linebacker Curtis Bolton and will likely lose Amani Bledsoe, whose lawsuit against the NCAA to seize a year of eligibility is trending the NCAA’s direction.
OU signed seven four-star recruits from the 2019 class. Riley sees the talent level rising, but knows it isn’t where it needs to be yet. That was evident watching Alabama on Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium.
“You don't fix problems in recruiting overnight. You look at that team we played last night. That is years and years and years and years in the making and it takes time to get it like that and look like that. That team looks a little different than we do. I mean it ain't hard to see that,” Riley said. “But with these guys we've got coming in, the development of our program, we're gonna look like that pretty soon. And even with that, we've been right on the doorstep here the last two years.”