Oklahoma coaching search: Mario Cristobal, Josh Heupel, Brent Venables top candidates to replace Lincoln Riley

26 May 2022 | 09:50 | Football

Oklahoma is going to be fine. Don’t take my word for it. Tell it to a freaking out Sooner Nation. Lincoln Riley bolted on Sunday, leaving one of the jewel coaching jobs in the country for another in USC.

That’s why OU athletic director Joe Castiglione is likely going to have a talented group of finalists compiled by Sunday night. Joe C is great to work for and OU is great to work at. The first order of business is to hire someone who can jump in and re-recruit quarterback Caleb Williams while completing the 2022 recruiting class.

That would suggest someone young and accomplished, preferably a sitting head coach.

Here are the best fits for the Sooners, which went from College Football Playoff contenders to top-two job in the coaching carousel in a span of less than 24 hours.

Josh Heupel, Tennessee coach: Knoxville would melt down if Heupel pulled a Lane Kiffin and left after one season, but Heupel is still beloved in Norman, having quarterbacked the last Oklahoma national championship team in 2000. He cut his coaching teeth as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach helping develop Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. However, Heupel was eventually fired by Bob Stoops in 2014 and replaced by Riley. There is believed to be some bad blood stemming from that move, and given Stoops is serving as interim coach, that could be a hiccup. That firing set Heupel on his course to UCF where he succeeded before eventually making it to the SEC and suddenly becoming a hot commodity again. The Volunteers went 4-4 in SEC play this year, but all of their losses were to teams ranked at the time of kickoff.

Brent Venables, Clemson defensive coordinator: You’ve read Venables’ name in this space before, but this might be the one job that could spurn veteran away from Clemson despite him previously turning down interest from several schools. Venables was Stoops’ defensive coordinator from 1999 to 2011 and also has a championship ring from the 2000 season. He is only 50. With Clemson “slipping” to 9-3 this season, it might be time for Venables to bounce.

Mario Cristobal, Oregon coach: You have to call the Pac-12’s best coach whose trajectory is pointing way up. Cristobal’s name already has surfaced at Florida and LSU. He had the Ducks in the playoff hunt for most of the season and still owns one of the most significant wins of 2021 (at Ohio State). Cristobal recruits like a madman and is responsible for taking some big-time talent out of Southern California. A third consecutive Pac-12 title is possible this week.

Dave Aranda, Baylor coach: Aranda is supposed to sign an extension at some point soon after Saturday’s Big 12 Championship Game. But does Riley’s departure change the math for a Big 12 Coach of the Year candidate?

Mark Stoops, Kentucky coach: Bob’s brother makes sense. What Mark has accomplished in the brutal SEC is admirable (58-53 in nine seasons). Mark has a defensive sensibility like his brother. It would be interesting to see what kind of offensive players he could bring with OU transitioning to the SEC.

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati coach: Another call you’ve got to make if you’re Castiglione. Fickell has the Bearcats one win away from a CFP berth. He is more of a developmental coach, which might hinder him on the recruiting trail, but how do you not contact the favorite to become the national coach of the year? There’s talk that Fickell is planning to stay at Cincinnati, but as a midwest guy, Oklahoma may be more attractive as an option than USC ever would have been.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State coach: Who knows how much Campbell was involved at USC? You have to think Campbell might be motivated to leave after the best team he’s had at Iowa State has gone 7-5 to date. One question: Could Campbell keep those big-time West Coast quarterbacks at home?

Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss coach: Look, everything is on the table. Kiffin left Tennessee after one year. Why not leave Ole Miss after two? Kiffin coached and recruited in Southern California, so he could potentially retain some of the recruits that Riley might swipe. Bonus: Lane would be staying in the SEC. Eventually.

Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals coach: Please tell me why an established NFL coach with (arguably) the league’s best player (Kyler Murray, from Oklahoma by the way) would leave now? Kingsbury knows the NFL better than he knows what recruiting has become with name, image and likeness and the transfer portal. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Sunday that OU has “targeted” Kingsbury as a candidate. I suppose you have to make that call if you’re the Sooners, but the Cardinals coach likely isn’t answering it, and the report was probably Kingsbury’s way of getting a raise.

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