STATUES OF LIMITATIONS:
Following a college football legend can be a thankless task
Lincoln Riley says the Oklahoma football program is like the Dove soap commercial.
Comfortable in its own skin.
“We’re confident in the way we do things,” Riley said the other day on the practice field. “We’ve had a consistent history of it going well. We don’t worry too much about the outside opinion. We do what we feel is best for the university, for the athletic program. It’s very stable and confident and a lot of belief in the way we do things.”
Comfortable in his own skin also is a good description of Riley. Comfortable in his own skin is what a coach needs most when succeeding a legend.
Which Riley most certainly is doing. Bob Stoops is retired after 18 seasons that cemented his place alongside Bennie Owen, Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer as giants in Oklahoma football. Soon enough, a Stoops statue will go up, and Riley can be reminded even more of the monumental footprints in which he walks.
Stoops won one national title, played for three more, won nine Big 12 championships and tied for another. Odds are not great that Riley will replicate that kind of success.
“It’s not something I worry about,” Riley said. “I really don’t. I don’t think about it much. We’ve been given a great setup here, and if we do it the right way, we’re going to have a chance to win big.
“I meant it when I said it before. I would rather have it this way than the other way, than taking over a program that had struggled.”
Still, it’s a daunting task. I made a list of 38
coaches who since World War II have replaced campus legends. I threw out Kirk Ferentz at
Iowa, since he’s hard to pigeon-hole, and Luke Fickell at Ohio State, since he was interim.
That leaves 36 coaches who have done what Riley is trying to do. Only five have been ultra-successful: Tom Osborne, following Bob Devaney at Nebraska; Dan Devine, following Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame; John Robinson, following John McKay at Southern Cal; Jimbo Fisher, following Bobby Bowden at Florida State; and Phil Fulmer, following Johnny Majors at Tennessee.
Others were successful but eventually moved on to other pastures
– like Lou Holtz, following Frank Broyles at Arkansas; Bret Bielema, following Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin; and Rich Rodriguez, following
Don Nehlen at West Virginia.
Some produced consistently good teams, just not up to the standard of their predecessors. On that list are Fred Akers, following Darrell Royal at Texas; Frank Solich, following Osborne; Earle Bruce, following Woody Hayes at Ohio State.
And many were busts. Ron Zook, following Steve Spurrier at Florida; Ted Tollner, following Robinson at Southern Cal; Ron Prince, following Bill Snyder at Kansas State.
It certainly hasn’t been easy following OU legends. Gomer Jones was Wilkinson’s 17-year assistant but went 9-11-1 in two years as head coach and gladly stepped aside. Gary Gibbs went 44-23-2 in six years after taking over for Switzer and was pushed out.
But countering that is the OU history of promoting young, sharp assistants, which describes both Wilkinson and Switzer, along with Chuck Fairbanks.
“The history is there, with Barry, Bud, other guys that have been promoted like that,” Stoops said. “I think, too, none of us were head coaches before we got there. So it’s worked incredibly well before. I think our people are knowledgeable about all of that. They know what we’ve been doing the last 18 years has been pretty darn good. Why would you change it?”
No one has debated that elevating Riley wasn’t a good decision. Of those 36 cases I studied, 20 were coaches who were promoted from the staff of the departing legend.
So that’s accepted procedure. It’s just hard to match the success of someone who prompted a call to the foundry.
But in Riley’s favor, four of the five who have been up to the task were promoted from within. Osborne, Robinson, Fisher and Fulmer all were assistants for the coaching legend they succeeded.
“Where things do get upset is when a guy comes in that hasn’t been in the system,” Stoops said. “And all of a sudden the thing’s turned upside down. I guess when it’s put back together, it hasn’t always gone as smooth. You turn over the whole applecart, even though it’s a great place.
“If you add their wrinkles to it, but continue with the same blueprint, got a much better chance. When you look at our track record over the last 18 years, it’s worked pretty well. With Lincoln adding his wrinkles to it, it could be even better.”
Could be. But the odds are against it.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok. com/berrytramel
Lincoln Riley, left, and Bob Stoops walk off the field in celebration after an overtime victory over Tennessee in September 2015. Twenty-one months later, Riley succeeded Stoops as the OU head coach.