Following a loss to rival Oklahoma State the night prior, the 38-year-old Riley shrewdly threw everyone off the scent of him leaving for USC by bluntly putting down the speculation that he was going to LSU. It was one of the savviest smokescreen tactics in the modern age of the college football coaching carousel.
As for OU, it has now suddenly been thrust into a chaotic college football coaching cycle that it previously wasn’t anticipating taking part in. The Sooners are one of the elite bluebloods of the sport and have had the luxury of nailing most of its coaching hires over the last 40+ years. Starting with Chuck Fairbanks in 1966, the Sooners tend to hire young coaches in their 30’s and in the case of Barry Switzer, Gary Gibbs, and Riley, coaches who were already on the OU staff. With Riley poised to take a chunk of his staff to Los Angeles, they may be forced to go in a different direction this time around.
With a jump to the SEC imminent, the Sooners are under pressure to hire someone who can maintain success during that transition. Here’s a list of potential candidates that OU could target over the next week or so. Note, this is just pure speculation and spitballing. Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione could go in a completely different direction here.
Oklahoma head coach candidates
Current Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is one of the most respected defensive masterminds in the sport and served as Oklahoma DC under Bob Stoops from 1999-2011.
The ties there are obvious but the question has always been if he’ll actually make the jump into being the head coach of a big-time head coach like OU. Venables has eschewed numerous head coaching opportunities over the last decade as he gets paid a HC salary to sit back and coach defensive ball under Dabo Swinney. Perhaps a significant pay raise and the challenge of the SEC will get him to make the jump.
Following a successful three-year stretch at UCF, Heupel made the jump to Tennessee this season and had a surprisingly respectable Year 1 in Knoxville. He led the Volunteers to a 7-5 record and had them competitive in most games. His “proof of concept” was turning Virginia Tech transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker into one of the most efficient passers in the SEC, finishing the year with over 2,500 yards passing, 26 touchdowns, and three interceptions.
The obvious OU tie is Heupel leading the Sooners to a BCS National Championship in 2000, a year where he finished a runner-up in Heisman Trophy voting. He’d go on to serve as OU’s OC from 2011-2014 and his firing has reportedly led to lingering bad blood between himself and Bob Stoops. That could be an obstacle to him getting the job, but one would think he’d get a phone call.
Matt Campbell is the most successful head coach in modern Iowa State football history, posting a 42-33 record in six seasons in Ames, IA. Last year, he brought the Cyclones to the cusp of its first conference championship in over a century and took them down to the Fiesta Bowl, a previously near impossible feat to accomplish at that program.
Campbell has more than likely maxed out everything he could possibly do at ISU and may be ready to take a step up into the dominant program in the Great Plains. The only question would be how he’d handle a jump to the SEC.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops immediately comes to mind because of the obvious family connection with his brother Bob. However, he appears to be staying in Lexington, KY, after securing a contract extension on Tuesday.
Baylor head coach Dave Aranda is another defensive mastermind that could potentially do well at OU, but he’s in line for a contract extension himself and appears to be happy in Waco, TX, for the time being.
For all of the talk of “cultural fits”, Castiglione could take a swing for an out of the box candidate one wouldn’t think about when thinking of OU, someone like Oregon’s Mario Cristobal or Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell. College football is a national sport and with a powerhouse like Oklahoma, you never know.