NORMAN — Lincoln Riley smirked, because he had a story to tell that not even DeMarco Murray knew was public knowledge within the Oklahoma coaching staff.
On the day Murray found out former OU running backs coach Jay Boulware had left the program last month, he texted the “eyeballs” emoji — typically reserved as a surprise reaction to exciting news — to Cale Gundy, his former position coach at OU.
“I was actually in Dallas recruiting with coach Gundy and he showed me his phone, and DeMarco sent him a text with the eyeballs,” Riley said. “That was a good recruit for us.”
Murray wanted the job and would eventually have it.
The former NFL star, who holds the Sooners’ all-purpose yards record, was introduced as OU’s new running backs coach Wednesday, alongside new defensive ends/outside linebackers coach Jamar Cain.
The two assistants met each other in a Pac-12 game last season — Murray as Arizona’s running backs coach and Cain as Arizona State’s defensive line coach. Arizona State won 24-14.
“My ‘backs didn't have good success that game because of him,” Murray said.
Their coaching similarities end there. Cain came up the hard way, a product of junior college, then New Mexico State, followed by a ground-up coaching rise through FCS into Power 5 football.
Cain has six years of full-time collegiate coaching experience. Murray has one.
Riley weighed that fact when interviewing the former OU running back, who totaled 6,718 yards all-purpose yards for the Sooners from 2007-10.
Murray still has some proving to do in this role. Following his NFL retirement in July 2018, he spent as a college football analyst at FOX.
Highlights from his college career — Murray’s 65-yard touchdown run against Texas his freshman season comes to mind — are easy to recount. Teaching young players how to replicate them is a different science.
“For me, honestly, [it was] the fact I had no control when they were on the field,” Murray said of the most challenging aspect thus far in coaching. “I trust in my players and you give them all the tools and they are very receptive, but just the fact that you are on the sidelines and you really don't have the physical control over in that aspect.”
Murray stayed in contact with Gundy through the years, as well as former OU coach Bob Stoops. They were both helpful tools as he got his feet wet at Arizona.
As for his new employer, Murray and Riley weren’t overly familiar with each other until the interview process at OU began recently. Riley trusts in his coaching acumen however brief the sample size.
“When we sat down and interviewed DeMarco I went into it saying, ‘Look, I’m interviewing like this is some guy I’ve never seen play ball.’ I have no idea where he went to college. I just want to see what the coach is about,” Riley said. “It’s like with really good players. A lot of times you can see it right away. You just know. Like there’s no doubt. You can tell that with him as a coach.”
Murray’s NFL experience supports the idea he can be an effective recruiter. He said that’s just one aspect to his approach of dealing with prospects.
“That’s not something I talk about or something I put out there or say, ‘Hey, this is who I am so you should give me an opportunity,’” Murray said. “That, to me, is sort of irrelevant. It takes a lot deeper path and emotional connection to get into it with these kids and their families.”
More than a decade since he missed OU’s 24-14 national championship game loss to Florida in 2008, Murray said “now that I’m not playing, I guess I can say that” the Sooners would have won with him in the lineup.
Now he’ll get another opportunity to aid OU’s quest for its first national title since 2000.
“Obviously Big 12 championship means a lot and playoff means a lot, but the ultimate goal, why you come here and why you play here and why you coach here is to be in the big one,” Murray said.