Lincoln Riley: 'By September, the world is going to need football'

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley talks with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch during OU’s game at Baylor on Nov. 16 last season. (Photo provided)

Lincoln Riley said he has not spent much time considering the prospect of a canceled 2020 football season.

Oklahoma’s football coach engaged questions about that Tuesday, but has been too busy figuring out ways to care for his current players in a unique environment, with “80% to 85%” of the team currently off campus due to restrictions caused by the coronavirus.

“There are still so many unknowns. We’ve got a plan for if it does happen, if we do have our season,” Riley said. “We understand if we do, there may very well be some type of adjustments that we may have to abide by. None of us know exactly what it looks like right now. It’s pure speculation.

“But you can obviously see ... I think it’s pretty clear that it very well could be limiting the amount of people that could participate, watch, all of that. I think that’s very possible.”

Riley said if players aren’t allowed back on campus by June 1, it will “be very telling” about which way the situation is trending.

Having said that, he echoed a refrain many fans likely agree with.

“I said it the other day and I believe it: I feel by September, the world is going to need football,” Riley said. “Hopefully I think a lot of that will be determined by our country’s response to this and how serious every single person takes it. Hopefully we, as a country, can do the best we can.”

Riley is keeping a narrower, more optimistic outlook than some others. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby openly wondered last week about the possibility of the coronavirus rebounding during the fall and winter sports season.

Last week, former Texas coach Mack Brown, now at North Carolina, said he believes the season will be played, but expressed concerns about what an altered or canceled season would do for college sports as a whole.

The NCAA Board of Governors recently took action to distribute $225 million to schools compared to a previously estimated $600 million.

“Coaches really have no clue,” Brown said. “There is a fear of ‘would we have a season? Would we have a partial season? What does a partial season mean?’”

In the interim, coaching staffs are juggling all sorts of issues.

At OU, Riley was set to begin close spring evaluation of quarterbacks Spencer Rattler and Tanner Mordecai. The Sooners’ previously scheduled April 18 spring game sits right in the middle of the Big 12’s suspension of all organized, in-person team activities of any type until May 31.

And as time goes on, offseason workouts creep closer into the picture. Riley believes the starting point for determining a viable 2020 season begins when players can return to campuses — for now, they’re limited to two hours of virtual meetings and film study per week with countable members of the coaching staff.

“I think we all gotta be open-minded and wait and see how this thing kind of plays out,” Riley said. “But I do think by June 1, if our players are on or off campus will be pretty telling.”

If players are allowed back on campus by summer, Riley believes that’s plenty of time. Coaching staffs are supposed to be creative and quick on their feet, he said, estimating the Sooners could be ready for a season with “15 to 20” practices.

That wouldn’t put a polished product on football fields immediately. Riley figures games would look a lot like spring scrimmages at first and slowly improve.

He’s thankful this isn’t last year, when OU was breaking in a new quarterback, a mostly new offensive line and an entirely new defense.

“I think the game will still be fantastic,” he said. “Now, to a coach’s eye, to a very experienced eye, may they be able to pick out a thing or two here or there, yes, I don’t think it will hurt the quality of the fan experience, the excitement, I think would be minimal.”

And if there are no fans? If teams play inside college football’s hallowed venues, which were built for tens of thousands of people, in front of no one?

“Admittedly, never lined up against another team in that scenario. It would be unique,” Riley said. “It would be very, very different. But if that’s what it comes to for the games to still be able to be played, for the guys to still to be able to play and for our fans to connect and be a part of it virtually, may be a world we get into. The idea of it does sound strange, though.”

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