Barry Switzer stands in a coaching tower, glaring down on his team during one of their first practices with him at the helm.
“Speed,” he’d yell at his team from the tower above them. “Quickness.”
Switzer had just been named Oklahoma’s new head coach after serving under future NFL coach Chuck Fairbanks as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator for six years. He had perfected the wishbone offense in previous years, and with running back Joe Washington and quarterback Steve Davis leading the way, a 35-year-old Switzer was primed for a successful first year
“The coaching staff was in place, the Selmon brothers didn’t leave, Joe Washington didn’t leave — I knew we were going to be good,” Switzer said.
Switzer’s Sooners would go 10-0-1 in 1973, finishing No. 3 in the AP Poll.
Forty-four years later, Lincoln Riley stands in the middle of the Sooners huddle, addressing his team before its first practice under the then-33-year-old head coach.
“Let’s get out to a great start,” Riley said to his team.
Just a couple months earlier, it was announced Riley would replace legendary coach Bob Stoops after 18 seasons. Creating one of the most lethal offenses in the country as the offensive coordinator during his previous two years at Oklahoma, and returning senior quarterback and eventual Heisman Trophy-winner Baker Mayfield, Riley, too, had all the tools to have a historic first season.
Four months later, Riley’s Sooners have gone 12-1, winning a third-straight Big 12 Championship, and have their eyes set on the program’s eighth national title.
“I look at what he’s accomplished similar to my first year,” Switzer said. “He knew he was going to be good, he had the same staff, the only person that left was Bob Stoops.”
Riley and Switzer both started their head coaching careers in similar ways — young, passionate and with an already loaded team. They both had strong relationships with their quarterbacks, Davis and Mayfield, kick-starting their careers with offensive success.
However, the two have their differences: Switzer was brash and bold, while Riley is calm and collected.
“I’m probably more crude than he is. He’s probably a little more polished than I was,” Switzer said with a laugh. “He’s more erudite than I probably was.”
— Barry Switzer (@Barry_Switzer) December 10, 2017
But while Switzer and Riley may have some differences, there’s one thing they share for certain — winning.
“Switzer and Lincoln can be real passionate about something, especially winning” said Washington, who now serves as the director of the Varsity O Association. “When they talk to you, they’re getting after it, they’re feeling it.”
With his eye on a young Davis, Switzer watched his quarterbacks warmup one practice before his first season as head coach. Davis slipped as he let a pass go, the ball landing in the stands next to Switzer.
“You’re going to have to get a whole hell of a lot better if you want to play football here at the University of Oklahoma,” Washington recalled Switzer saying to Davis.
Switzer was hard on his quarterbacks, expecting a lot of them — similar to Riley. When Riley first stepped onto campus at Oklahoma, he had a decision to make at the quarterback position: a highly-recruited baseball player, a Sugar Bowl MVP or a walk-on transfer from Texas Tech, who’d thrown nine interceptions in eight games.
It seemed like an easy decision, but Riley made it a difficult one. He gave all three a chance, taking away their titles and viewing them just as players. Riley would eventually choose Mayfield, the best decision of his career.
“I just gave him an opportunity,” Riley said Saturday night after Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy. “Bob (Stoops) and I when we came in, we opened that competition up, (Mayfield) won the job. He showed me very early on he had what it takes inside of him to be a great player for us.”
Mayfield and Riley have left their legacy at Oklahoma, just as Switzer and Davis did years ago. Mayfield has had his ups and downs throughout his OU career, sometimes stirring controversy along the way.
Much like Riley has dealt with Mayfield, Switzer also had many outspoken players, such as Brian Bosworth. But Switzer praised Mayfield, saying Bosworth took some things too far, and that he wouldn’t make Mayfield change anything.
“I wouldn’t change a damn thing” Switzer said. “(Mayfield) gets more attention because he’s the quarterback, but he’s the most positive guy on our team too. I don’t want him to change. Keep on being what you are. Keep being Baker.”
Even when Mayfield created one of the biggest controversies in college football this season when he grabbed his crotch and yelled obscenities at Kansas, Switzer could relate.
“I’ve seen those things happen before and, you know, I’ve had players that didn’t have the cameras on them as much, but I’ve had players turn around and give other players the finger on the field,” Switzer said with a laugh. “In this case it was (Mayfield) being filmed on the sidelines, you know, grabbing his crotch. People making too much out of it. By god, if you want to see people grabbing your crotch go to YouTube right now and find all you want, probably a bunch of ‘em.”
The way Riley has handled Mayfield’s outgoing personality is a testament to the strong relationships he’s built with his quarterback. Riley’s and Switzer’s success can be attributed to the trust they’ve had in their quarterbacks on and off the field.
For Mayfield, Riley is the reason he’s where he is today.
“The thing I’m most thankful for is, (Stoops) hiring coach Riley,” Mayfield said as he thanked his former coach during his Heisman acceptance speech. “That changed my life.”
In the spring of 2017, Riley’s future was unknown. With whispers of him being a candidate for multiple head coaching jobs, including Houston where he apparently “killed” the interview, Riley had a decision to make.
Stay at Oklahoma and maybe one day be the head coach, or leave and hope a larger opportunity eventually presents itself.
It was the same decision Switzer had to make over 40 years ago.
“I felt like I could handle the job and I was ready for the job. I had been offered jobs and I turned them down when I was an assistant here at Oklahoma, and they weren’t what I wanted,” Switzer said. “I’m sure Lincoln has had the same opportunities and offered jobs that he probably turned down too because they weren’t what he was looking for. We were both looking to coach at Oklahoma.”
When Riley first arrived in Norman, the team had just finished 8-5 that season, which ended with a 40-6 loss to Clemson. Now, since Riley has taken over the offense, with Mayfield right by his side, Oklahoma has finished in the top seven for total offense in all three years. Riley also became the first head coach in program history to win 11 games in his first year as head coach.
Riley has created a welcoming, exciting atmosphere at Oklahoma, one that former players would still want to play for today.
“The one thing I do know, when you see our offense moving, you got guys that would want to play, I’ll promise you that,” Washington said. “I’d love to come to Oklahoma and play football on this football team.”
Riley’s quick success is no surprise though, learning from past mentors Mike Leach, Ruffin McNeill and Stoops. The future was always bright for Riley, who was handed the reigns of an already great team. Just as Davis helped kick-start Switzer’s career, Mayfield has done the same for Riley.
“Without him, without the way the team played my first two years at Norman I wouldn’t be the head coach,” Riley said. “I think that’s pretty obvious.”
But Riley has brought more than wins to this program. From his weekly highlight videos, to becoming a part of the Jumpman brand, Riley has brought a fresh perspective to a tradition-rich program.
He’s taken what was left behind from Switzer and Stoops, and not only made it better, but also made it his.
“Lincoln is that old soul in a new energetic body,” Washington said. “Lincoln has definitely put his signature on everything, and what he’s done with what Bob left, he’s enhanced it.”