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The New Normal in Norman (Big 12 Media Days; Day 1)

LM Otero/AP Photo
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, while addressing members of the media on Monday, stressed that the league is as strong as its ever been despite the 11-year national title drought. (LM Otero/AP)
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, while addressing members of the media on Monday, stressed that the conference is as strong as any in college football despite its 11-year national title drought going into 2017. (LM Otero/AP)

Andrew-Leffler – by Andrew Leffler
 A Lot of Sports Talk contributing writer

 

FRISCO, TX — As sweltering as the Texas heat was on Monday, it was no match for the cool confines of Jerry Jones’ Taj Mahal of NFL training facilities, appropriately known as The Star, as the venue played host to the annual Big 12 Media Days for the first time. The two-day event features member teams, their coaches and assorted players meeting and greeting the media and fellow conference mates just over a month before they all put on the pads and headsets for real. It felt like a brisk fall day judging by the excitement and anticipation of the upcoming college football season.

Media Day began with Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby giving a state of the league presentation, which highlighted the overall success of the Big 12.

“Relative to the conference, we also had a great year competitively,” Bowlsby said in his introductory remarks before he took questions. “We won five national championships. “I think we finished in the top four in the country in 18 sports. But we’re here to talk about football, and we didn’t make the College Football Playoff. Obviously that’s the coin of the realm at this point.”

In the three years of the four-team College Football Playoff, only one Big 12 team has made the sport’s Final Four, with Oklahoma losing to Clemson in a national semifinal matchup at the 2015 Orange Bowl.

Putting the Big 12 football struggles aside, Bowlsby believes the Big 12 is one of the most competitive football conferences in the country.

“I think our league has the best depth,” he said. “We’re the only one playing a full round robin, full nine-game schedule, and we’re the only one that guarantees our two best teams are going to play each other in the postseason.”

“What you may not remember is that the Big 12 was first in scoring defense in the postseason last year, first among all conferences in scoring defense,” Bowlsby affirmed proudly. “For a league that is reported to be singularly interested in offense, that probably speaks volumes.”

The commissioner had more praise for the league, continuing to cite successes earned during the bowl season.

“We came off last year with two Heisman Trophy finalists, neither of which won, but they were both in New York,” said Bowlsby. “We had a 4-2 bowl record, and we played well in the postseason. We, led by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, got a pretty one-sided win there,” referring to the 35-19 win against Auburn in New Orleans.

But the commissioner wasn’t done just yet.

“We beat the representative from the Pac-12 by 30. We were 2-1 against the SEC in the postseason. I think that, by many measures, we had a really good postseason. And I mentioned that OU and Oklahoma State and [Kansas] State particularly delivered big victories.”

Another topic Bowlsby addressed, which all the coaches touched upon, was the unexpected and sudden retirement of longtime Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops.

“Let me stop just for a minute and spend a little time giving credit to somebody that really deserves a lot of credit,” Bowlsby said, in order to ensure everyone was listening. “Bob Stoops is not here for the first time in many, many years.”

“We were together at a memorial service over the weekend and had a chance to visit a little bit, and I had the opportunity to tell him how much I have appreciated his work in the last five years that I’ve been around on behalf of the sport of football. Now, he’s out there competing every day on the recruiting trails, he’s fighting tooth and nail, like everybody is, to win games on Saturday. I think he feels very good about the timing of moving away from the game, and I think he feels very good about Lincoln Riley coming in as his successor.”

Bowlsby showed his genuine admiration for Stoops, and how the Big 12 will not be the same.

“He has been a real leader among our coaches,” Bowlsby said. “He has been a voice of moderation. He has been a voice for change. He has been active in implementing change. He’s been very innovative. The Big 12 is poorer for not having Bob Stoops any longer as a head coach in our league. He was a tremendous influence on his staff, on his players, on his university over a very long period of time, and he had tremendous football teams and tremendous football players. His legacy is extraordinary, and I would have been remiss to not recognize him today.”

Bowlsby concluded his thoughts about Stoops by saying, “I think he is tremendous in every way, and as much as we’ll miss him on the field, we’re really going to miss him in the meeting room, where he always was very thoughtful and very impactful with his colleagues.”

During his time on the stage, TCU head coach Gary Patterson had nothing but good things to say about Stoops when asked what this change meant for the Big 12.

“It’s hard to lose a guy, number one, what he stood for, not just for the Big 12 obviously. I considered him a friend the years now that I’ve played in the Big 12. It’s hard when you lose somebody that you stood across the field from that you had respect for. I understood his decision. In some ways, I understand what he did and how he did it. But obviously, you know, I think it hurts a conference a little bit when you lose somebody like that.”

Back to the Future

Stoops’ ability to continually lead the Sooners to the cusp of championship glory over his 18-year tenure helped the league in always being seated at the table when it came to the short list of national championship hopefuls year after year. But after the league weathered a storm of near-crippling defections during realignment, including Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten in 2010, Colorado’s departure to the now Pac-12 and Texas A&M and Missouri bolting for the SEC in 2011, the conference has struggled to capture its gridiron glory on a national stage, especially with the loss of its conference championship game due to the conference having fewer than 12 teams and NCAA rules then requiring at least that many teams to stage a title game.

The failure of both Baylor and TCU to be selected to the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014, after each posted 11-1 overall records and 8-1 league records, was the last straw. One year after the NCAA passed legislation to allow a conference championship game to be held in a conference with fewer than 12 teams so long as it plays a full round-robin schedule, the Big 12 Conference Championship Game will make its return for 2017 at Cowboys Stadium in nearby Arlington.

“I think our perception is somewhat a product of not being in the playoff two out of the three years,” Bowlsby admitted. “I mean, that’s a really short window. As most of you remember, the ACC was, I believe, 2-13 in the BCS era, and now they’re on top of the heap. So I don’t – I really – it gets a little tiresome because I know we play at a very high level, and I know that top to bottom we’re the best in the country in terms of balance. And I know that the method by which we conduct our championship and conduct our regular season is the most difficult because you never miss anybody.”

Bowlsby pointed out that since the Big 12 was cut to 10 teams, last year was the first time anybody went through the season undefeated in the conference season, with Oklahoma posting a perfect 9-0 league mark.

“So as I say, it gets a little tiresome because I know we play at a very high level,” said Bowlsby.

Time for Redemption (TCU)

TCU head coach Gary Patterson was the first coach to speak at the press conference, with four others to follow him today and the remaining five to speak tomorrow.

Patterson, who led the Horned Frogs to 12 wins in 2014 and 11 in 2015, spoke on the disappointment of last season, only his second losing season in Fort Worth since 2004.

“Any time you have a season that you don’t want to have, you want to get back in as quick as you can,” he opened with. Really liked our offseason. Didn’t like the way we ended the season. Feel like we had to get back to being more physical.”

Patterson said that the good news is that they have everybody back, but the bad news is that they went 6-6 (not including its bowl loss to Georgia), and have everybody back.

“So how do you make that work?,” Patterson asked. “For us, that’s kind of the way we’ve gone about it. Really like the team. I like the kids. Really have worked hard. I like the way the guys have come back from injuries are back. It’s really kind of a different place for us, something that’s never happened, where we had eight seniors, but really we signed 25. We had different guys’ medicals. We had guys out that couldn’t play anymore, different things that happened. So I think, just like I am, they’re ready to go.”

One of the big things Patterson wanted to see was great improvement from former Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill, who threw for just over 3,200 yards in his first season as a Horned Frog last fall. He threw 17 touchdowns, but also 13 interceptions.

“I judge quarterbacks on Saturdays,” Patterson responded on a question about Hill. “Obviously, we went through a season where that was his first time. For me, I think I’ve got to do a better job of helping him with his swagger.”

Coach Patterson alluded to the success of his quarterback not just being a one-man job, but rather a team job.

“We’ve got to give him help,” Patterson simply stated. “We’ve got to catch the ball better. I think we’re going to be better up front offensive line wise. We lost one wide receiver. So to put him in an offense too that bends toward his strengths.”

Hill, who was present in Frisco, talked about what he’s been doing to make his second TCU season much more successful than his first.

“I’m throwing all the time,” he said in the breakout session. “I’m hanging out with [the team], being around them all the time. Anything we can do to be around each other. That way, I’ll know where they’re going to be, and they’ll know where the ball is going.”

Getting Offensive (Kansas)

Once Coach Patterson was finished, Kansas head coach David Beaty took the stage. The 2-10 Jayhawks finished last in the Big 12 and only recorded one conference win, a 24-21 overtime triumph over Texas which pretty much sealed the fate of erstwhile Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong.

Like Patterson, Coach Beaty wasn’t the most pleased with this past season.

“Obviously, we weren’t satisfied last year with our record, but we’re extremely encouraged by the progress that our team has made,” he said at the coach’s press conference.

Beaty said it was a great time to be in the Big 12, and “it’s a great time to be at the University of Kansas,” he added.

The Jayhawks have some new faces to look forward to, one of them being their new offensive coordinator, Doug Meacham. Prior to joining the Kansas football team, Meacham served as the co-offensive coordinator and wide receiver coach at TCU.

“Extremely excited about [Meacham],” Beaty said. “He’s one of the best offensive minds in college football. Bringing him to Lawrence was an incredible addition to an already amazing group of coaches and men we have at our place.”

Beaty also spoke very highly of his players, despite the rough last season.

“I’m also really proud of our players and the way that they have developed over the last two to three years and the perseverance that they have developed along the way.”

He continued by making it clear that his team understood that hard work was essential to success.

“This team knows that it has to earn everything that it gets. Nothing’s going to come easy in this league. It never does because it’s one of the finest leagues on the face of the planet. But these guys that we have, they’re committed to getting better every day.”

With Meacham joining the team, Beaty spoke on how great it was for his team moving forward.

“I’ll tell you what, it’s been so comforting for a head coach to have a guy that, first of all, we share the same philosophies offensively. We’ve been in the same family of offenses, which is something that was very important to me. And then, secondly, to have a guy that you have as much respect for as anyone in the country for doing it the way he does it, and then watching him put his spin on this “air raid” offense has been so much fun.”

A New Sheriff in Town (Texas Tech)

Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury spoke next, and the former record-setting quarterback in Lubbock is coming off finishing 5-7 in 2016, 3-6 in the Big 12.

Entering his fifth year as coach of his alma mater, Kingsbury talked about having to adjust each season.

“I think you just adjust each and every year to your personnel, to your coaching staff,” he said in the press conference. “Time management is something that I feel like I’ve gotten better at. And then trying to be more involved in all aspects of the program. Not just saying, hey, we’re going to outscore everybody. We’re going to have a great quarterback. We’re going to score a bunch of points. But having an impact on special teams, strength and conditioning, defense, recruiting. I think, as you go, you learn that you better be involved in all those things.”

A big addition to the team this upcoming season is the return of Texas Tech’s second leading tackler in 2015, linebacker Dakota Allen. Following his freshman year, Allen was kicked off the team after he and two other teammates admitted to the burglary of a Lubbock home. A deal was made with the district attorney in a pre-trial diversion, agreeing to be placed under community supervision in exchange for the dismissal of the charges. After the charges were dropped and Allen played his second year of college at East Mississippi Community College, the linebacker is back in the fold in Lubbock.

“He’s been huge,” Kingsbury said of Allen’s return. “Dakota is a guy who made a mistake after his freshman year and went to junior college and paid the price and did everything right, earned his way back, and was a tremendous player for us his freshman year.”

With Allen’s return, Kingsbury expects him to continue where he left off, while also bringing leadership skills.

“He’s a leader for us already in our locker room. He can tell those young guys about the mistake he made, about what he went through, about how good they have it. He’s made an immediate impact off the field, and I’m hoping that his presence on the field is felt that way as well.”

As much as Allen’s return gives Texas Tech a bonafide star on one side of the ball, its biggest concern is how to replace Patrick Mahomes II, the rubber-armed quarterback who went 10th overall to the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round of April’s NFL Draft after forgoing his senior season. If there is a bright side to that, Kingsbury, the first quarterback of the “Air Raid” era in Lubbock under former head coach Mike Leach, had to be replaced when his eligibility was done and was followed admirably by B.J. Symons, starting a trend in Lubbock of new quarterbacks stepping in and performing above expectations.

Change He Can Believe In (Iowa State)

Entering his second season as the Cyclones’ head coach, Matt Campbell finished his debut season in the Big 12 one game ahead of Kansas, sporting a 3-9 overall record and two wins in league play. Both of Iowa State’s wins in league play – a 31-24 victory in Lawrence over Kansas and a 66-10 home demolition of Texas Tech – came in back-to-back games in the final month of the season.

“I’m proud, and I’m encouraged by what our football team has been able to do as we put an end to last football season,” Campbell began. I think we learned some great lessons across the board, and really you saw our football team, I think, get better as last football season went on.”

As the season went on, Campbell, who came over to Ames after a successful stint as head coach of the University of Toledo, says he only saw improvement.

“We were able to take some of those really great traits and really take our understanding and growth process into the months of January and February and March and saw our football team really come together.”

Campbell gave a lot of credit to linebacker Joel Lanning, a player who converted to defense this year after spending four seasons as a quarterback with the Cyclones and starting 14 games under center during his Iowa State career.

“Number one, I think the transition – that’s never an easy transition, you know, going from the quarterback to now going onto the defensive side of the football,” Campbell explained. “But Joel has kind of been a beacon of excellence within our program really from the day that I’ve gotten to Iowa state. You talk about laying a foundation of attitude and effort, Joel was that and has been that.”

When Campbell was asked about the sudden retirement of Bob Stoops, Campbell explained why Stoops was so special to him.

“Coach Stoops holds a special place in my heart because I’m a guy that grew up 30 miles down the road from where he grew up, similar upbringing,” the Massillon, Ohio native Campbell recounted. “His father, head high school football coach, my father a head high school football coach in the same area. I can remember the first convention. We just got done playing in Mount Union, and the first speaker I ever heard was Bob Stoops down in New Orleans at one of the national conventions. I was so taken back by who he was and what he stood for.”

Campbell continued: “I think one of the great things that you have about Bob Stoops is who he was, you know, I think up here in front of everybody, to who he was with his football team, to who he was with his coaches. I think he’s as respected as anybody in our profession, and that’s hard to find today. He’s a guy that lived it, that breathed it, and had a phenomenal career. I think how he built his own football program and the success they had, it’s a staple, and it’s a beacon that I think we all live – especially us young coaches, hope to be able to have a career like what Coach Stoops was able to do at Oklahoma.”

Life of Riley (Oklahoma)

For the first time since 1998, someone other than Bob Stoops represented the Crimson and Cream as the head football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners. Lincoln Riley, who had served as the team’s offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, was the leading man during Big 12 Media Days.

“A couple months ago, didn’t obviously think I would be here doing this at this time,” the 33-year-old Riley admitted. “It’s been probably best described as a whirlwind since June 7th. Tough to describe kind of all the emotions that went into that day and that decision and still a little bit of a dream for me.”

Despite the surprise change, Riley acknowledges that it could have been a lot more complicated, and is thankful for the smooth transition.

“Normally, when there’s a change in the head coaching position, so much else has changed as well as far as bringing in a new staff a lot of times, getting to know players, starting to develop those relationships. What made this so unique, I think, was the continuity that was kept with the decision. It’s made it definitely a lot easier on me when I think about all I’ve done in the last month.”

Riley was relieved on how the situation was handled by the Oklahoma football organization.

“Not having to hire ten new coaches, not having to get to know new players and develop those relationships, people within the program, support staff, we felt like there was so much good going on with Oklahoma football that I think Coach [Stoops] said it best. He didn’t want to derail that. He wanted to continue that.”

Riley is very appreciative of what Stoops has done for him, especially in preparing him for this milestone in his coaching career.

“He was very, very good to me in the last several years, helped me to feel as prepared, I think, as you could for this position and being a first-time head coach. Spent a lot of time with him, especially this last year, going over as many different things of a program as you could imagine, and he knew eventually that I did want to be a head coach and was so gracious with his time and knowledge.”

Just because Stoops is no longer on the coaching staff, doesn’t mean Riley will lose contact.

“Certainly look forward to using him as a recourse, as somebody that I can visit with, bounce things off of here in the future. So he’s just been tremendous.”

Riley also said how thankful he is of how the players have handled the sudden change to the team.

“Our players, I appreciate them so much for the – just the way they handled this,” he said graciously. “I told them in our first meeting, you know, they signed up to come play for a different head coach. I wasn’t the guy that came in and recruited them, and I don’t feel like they should have to accept me just because now I’m the head coach.”

Like players having to earn their spot on the team, Riley saw himself in a similar position.

“I feel like that’s something that I should have to earn, and I told them that I would give them every ounce I had to get that done.”

There is a lot of excitement for a coach preparing to begin his first season with the head coach title.

“Probably the thing I’ most excited about with our team is our overall team leadership,” Riley averred. “I was telling a couple of guys earlier that I felt like there was really 10 or 12 guys we could have brought to this Media Day today. It’s interesting because the leaders are really spread throughout the team.”

Stoops was the Sooners’ head coach from 1999 to 2016, and had over a decade of coaching experience before assuming the head coaching position. When Riley was asked what he had learned from Stoops that would help him on his new journey, Riley didn’t have to think about his answer.

“Just to stay focused on the things that matter,” he said following the press conference. “With the pressure comes opportunity, and I’m excited about the opportunities that you get at Oklahoma, but we work hard enough at this that we put a lot of internal pressure on ourselves. We understand our priorities and if we can stay focused on those then I think we’ll be fine.”

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