The lead from Lincoln Riley’s media address Thursday was his confidence in having college football return this year.
“I definitely think we’ll play,” the Oklahoma coach declared.
This was encouraging but also expected. The coach who thinks negatively about anything, even during a global pandemic, should be doing something else. Practicing politics or tax collecting maybe.
It was good to hear, don’t get me wrong. We’ll take all the hope we can get after two dismal months.
It’s just the more revealing part of Riley’s commentary followed those first five words.
“When we play, I just think everybody, whether it’s our decision-makers, our coaches, our players, fans, I think everybody’s got to have a very open mind about this,” he said. “We’re not the NFL. There are some huge, huge differences in us being able to put on a successful season versus a professional league.”
We have covered the most basic difference -- the players Riley coaches don’t earn a paycheck. They are returning to school, not jobs, or so we are told over and over and over again.
But here’s another important nuance -- the players Riley coaches are recruited, not signed to a contract.
Riley, like Bob Stoops before him and Barry Switzer before Stoops and Bud Wilkinson before Switzer, spends years cultivating relationships with players and their families, not days cuddling up to free agents and their agents. It’s no different for Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, Philip Montgomery at Tulsa and any other coach.
They all sat in living rooms and at dinner tables and vowed to develop teenagers as football players, yes, but also as young men. Right? We know this because we heard them say it. Coaches have told us as much through time, really.
We have heard them say it so often for so long that, until now, we have conditioned ourselves to sort of ignore it. Well, not now. Not with 301,000 global deaths from 4.4 million global cases of a virus the world is trying to endure.
Our lives and economies have turned inside out for two months. Under those conditions, a coach can’t just wake up next week, call his 20-year-old starting quarterback, tell him, “Hey, you’re coming back today,” and not have to answer to it.
His first answer has to be to the quarterback’s momma. That coach must remember what he promised her at the kitchen table.
“Without a doubt,” Riley said Thursday. “It’s our job as football coaches to look way, way beyond what’s competitively the best thing for our own team. For a lot of coaches, that’s hard. We’re wired to try to do everything we can to help our teams win. This is different, though. This is just... This is totally different.
“We as coaches and our university administrators, our ADs, the NCAA, the people at the conference level, the people making decisions have got to keep that (the promise to be caretaker) the number one priority.
“So yeah, I think it would be completely irresponsible of us to bring these guys in... In my opinion we need to bring them in as late as we possibly can before we play a season.”
That returns us to timelines we’ve been pursuing for weeks now, no matter how futile the chase.
“I mean, all this talk about these schools wanting to bring players back on June 1 is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard,” Riley offered. “And so we’ve got to be patient.”
He is optimistic he’ll see his players again, face to face and not on some Zoom meeting, like he is optimistic about playing football again. It’s just the time must be right, whenever that is.
“Every day early that we bring them in is a day we could have gotten better,” Riley said, meaning better from a health perspective and not a football one. “It’s a day we could have learned more about the virus. It’s a day PPE (personal protective equipment) maybe gets better. It’s a day closer to a vaccine. It’s a day that our testing equipment and testing capabilities get better. And it’s just not worth it.
“So we’ve got to be patient. We get one shot at this and we’ve got to do it right.”
There is too much at stake, beginning with a promise no coach can afford to break.