The new head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners will have to do more than just call great plays to succeed in Norman. He's also going to have to be a great recruiter. He’s demonstrated the ability to do so in the past, and few doubt his present and future capability in that regard.
As you’re all aware, the Lincoln Riley era at Oklahoma has begun. The new head man has been hailed as a rising star since he first began as a student assistant at Texas Tech. His impressive resume already includes two years of success as the offensive coordinator for the team he'll be leading, so OU fans should be comforted to know that at least the team is in familiar hands as one of the all time great coaches steps down.
While there are still questions looming regarding Riley's ability to lead an entire team — rather than just an offense — those aren't the only new responsibilities he's inherited. He's also taking the recruiting reigns from a man who'd run the ship for 18 years. So, the million dollar question: how will he do?
Although OU has demonstrated an ability to recruit nationally, the Sooners draw the bulk their players from Texas and Oklahoma. The schools that occupy those states are, with few exceptions, from the Big 12. Riley's primary task is to win conference titles, and to do that he's going to have to keep the team's main pipelines intact. Given the states of most programs in the Big 12, who we're really talking about here is UT and Oklahoma State.
Tom Herman has been pillaging Bob Stoops' targets since his arrival in Austin, so this is one area where Riley's impact is going to be particularly interesting. While I've never been on the phone with a UT coach, here's what I'm guessing their big pitch against Oklahoma looked like until last week: “UT has a new, hungry coach who's ready to get going. Bob Stoops is nice at Oklahoma, but his glory days are behind him. He hasn't won a national title since 2000. Come be a part of building something new and special in Austin. Plus, as great as Oklahoma's offense might be, don't expect Lincoln Riley to stick around very long.”
The last part isn't just my guess — rumors since Herman's hire indicate he and his staff had indeed highlighted Riley's potential exodus as a red flag for recruits on offense. As much as I will always admire Stoops, I have to admit that it wouldn't have been too hard to make the case that his teams peaked back shortly after next year's high school seniors were even born. Stoops likes to say that college football programs are like relay races, and as Bob hands the baton to his successor, a lot of the ammunition with which to attack Oklahoma disappears. There's no longer a clear win for Herman in the young-and-hungry department. All of a sudden, that sell has gotten a lot tougher for UT. It also probably doesn't hurt that Riley is actually a native Texan (something his new rival can't claim).
In Stillwater, on the other hand, Mike Gundy may have reason to be a bit more optimistic. Now the longest tenured coach in this in-state rivalry, Gundy’s staff can now sell stability. In fact, it's already started:
Will your son be playing for the Coach that is recruiting him. Here, Unequivocally Yes. https://t.co/Hz5eRW1PVB— Glenn Spencer (@Glenn_Spencer) June 13, 2017
Until Gundy proves that he can actually beat Oklahoma on the field, it's hard to say how effective this pitch will be. However, I have a hard time believing that the Sooners weren't touting their own stability in years past. Fortunately, Stoops' retirement comes at a time where Riley can't really make any staff changes even if he wanted to, so even with a new head coach, Oklahoma can still point out that everyone in place has a track record of success.
The Bigger Competition
Bob Stoops won 10 Big 12 titles during his time at Oklahoma, but can claim only one national title. Digging into the Sooners' recruiting history, it's no secret that the talent may need to improve before OU can reclaim national dominance. The 2017 recruiting class was a major step forward for Oklahoma, but a team has to consistently recruit at a high level to compete with the likes of Alabama and Ohio State.
Fortunately, Riley has already shown an ability to recruit top talent — at least on offense. He was a big part of recruiting four-star quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and offensive linemen last year. It's worth noting that while youth is sometimes a mark against a football coach, that's not necessarily true in the recruiting world. Riley will generally be dealing with young men around the ages of sixteen and seventeen to convince them to come play for him. Like it or not, in today's world that means that a social media presence is important. Stoops did well on Twitter (especially considering his age), but expect this to be an area where Riley may be a big improvement. Tweeting about watching the NBA Finals isn't necessarily going to swing a big player to your school, but exposure is important nonetheless.
Beyond this year, the biggest indication of how well Riley will be able to recruit will likely be how his team actually fares come football season in 2017. His lack of head coaching experience quickly becomes a non-factor if he proves he's good at his job. Conversely, it'll get a lot harder to sell recruits that he's a rising superstar in the college football world if the Sooners go 8-5 despite returning a Heisman candidate quarterback and potentially the best offensive line in the country. Until those games are played, though, Riley should benefit from the momentum the program built with the last recruiting class. Success often breeds more success in the arena of college recruitment.
The Results So Far
It's only been a week since Riley took over in Norman, but a lot can happen in a week. Riley said he spent much of his time since the night of his promotion on the phone with recruits:
It also appears as though he's been able to make good things happen from that beautiful office. On Monday, Ron Tatum gave the Sooners their first commit of the Riley era.
I'm coming back home......‼️⭕️ pic.twitter.com/7F4YmfVsAL— Ron Tatum III‼️ (@rontatum3_) June 12, 2017
Even better: Tatum's commitment is also a decommitment from UT. The four-star defensive lineman was reportedly experiencing a change of heart regarding his future school before Stoops stepped down, so the coaching change may not have been the difference here. Still, it's comforting that the first recruiting news of what's been dubbed "Riley's Reign" was a new commitment rather than a decommitment by someone the staff had already sold on OU before the coaching change. It also shows that the defensive guys don’t mind that an offensive guy has taken the reigns.
Other prospects have recently taken visits to Oklahoma as well, including 2018 WR Tommy Bush and DE Jalen Redmond, and it sounds like they went well. As the news of Stoops' retirement still swirls around the minds of Sooner fans everywhere, it should be comforting to know that things appear to be business as usual on the recruiting trail, with the Sooners making strong impressions. Also, since Riley's takeover, four-star defensive back Kalon Gervin announced that OU is among his top 5 school choices, and four-star defensive lineman Trevor Trout announced that the Sooners have cracked his top 9. On top of all that, three-star wide receiver Jaylon Robinson received an OU offer following Riley’s appointment as head coach and quickly decommitted from the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
So while Riley won't immediately be able to make all of the same sales pitches that Stoops could make, it doesn't appear for now that Sooners fans have reason to be too concerned. The baton has been passed without initial fumbling, and Riley is off and running. Between his success as a coordinator, his history of recruiting well, Oklahoma's recent dominance in the Big 12, and Riley's confident West Texas demeanor, there's plenty of reason to think he may run himself a fine race.