Most college football coaches operate as singular voices within their programs. Common themes, messages and buzzwords start at the top, then trickle through the coaching staff and a roster of 100-plus players.
Yet every August many turn their programs over to a series of relative outsiders. For an hour or so each week in fall camp, the Kirby Smarts and Lincoln Rileys of the world fall in with the audience while motivational guest speakers address their teams.
Preseason visitors to Alabama, for instance, have included Michael Jordan, Alex Rodriguez and Michael Phelps since 2020. Last month, the Crimson Tide heard from Michael Strahan and Pete Rose.
In 2021, Dabo Swinney invited Charles Barkley and Daryl Strawberry to speak in the team room at Clemson. Over the last month at Texas, speakers included ESPN analyst Louis Riddick and former Longhorns linebacker Sam Acho.
And in Norman this summer, the Sooners heard from a collection of voices.
Motivational speaker C.L. Shepherd arrived with a message on the commitment inherent in reaching excellence. Comedian Mike Goodwin weaved jokes into a speech on the process of mastering a craft. And Sooner legends Keith Jackson and Brian Bosworth came with earned credibility and told stories of the smash-mouth football they once played at OU.
Those figures can’t help supercharge The Sooners’ defense when it takes the field against Arkansas State Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN). They likely won’t be the difference between OU hitting nine wins or 10 this fall, either.
But they do matter, if only because these are the voices and the messages Brent Venables chose to emphasize on the verge of his critical second season.
“I really appreciate coach Venables for doing that because it takes your mind off football a little bit,” said kicker Zach Schmit. “Obviously, he wants it to be applied for football. But he also wants it to be applied to life and life after football. So it’s awesome to get to hear those guys and their testimonies.”
I spoke with a handful of Sooners about the speakers they heard from and the messages they resonated with them ahead of the 2023 campaign. Here’s what they had to say:
An offensive lineman at Florida Atlantic in the early 2000s, Shepherd has dedicated his post-playing career to “delivering hope” through speaking, writing and non-profit work. Alabama, Florida and Ole Miss are among the other programs who welcomed Shepard onto their campuses this summer.
Offensive lineman McKade Mettauer: “Shep is a model of consistency when he comes to talk. He always brings a good message.”
Offensive lineman Tyler Guyton: “I really liked Shep, man. He has a story about coming from a broken household. Really similar to what I was dealing with. Just the way that he looks at everything he had to go through. It just really motivated me to make it to the top. He faces his fear of public speaking every day. I have fears myself that I need to face. I just look at him as a role model for those things.”
Mettauer: “One of his common themes is that you can be consistent without being committed. That’s what Shep said and it’s true. You can see guys come here every day and workout but then outside of football, you can live totally wrong and not the athlete lifestyle like you’re supposed to. You can be consistent and show up every day but you’re not committed to the cause and to the program.”
Jackson was a 1985 national champion with the Sooners and a two-time All-American tight end. OU went 42-5-1 in his four seasons in Norman. He went on to spend nine seasons in the NFL and became a Super Bowl champion with the Green Bay Packers in 1997. Jackson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
Kicker Zach Schmit: “So I noticed Mr. Jackson. He was standing off to the side before the team meeting. I didn’t recognize him at first. And then they started playing his highlight film and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Former Oklahoma tight end Keith Jackson (88) (Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports/File)
“It’s a surprise (speaker each week) which makes it even cooler. You’re wondering who’s up next. And then you see this guy sitting in the corner. You recognize the face but you can’t put a name on it and then the highlight film comes up and you’re like, ‘Okay this is a legend.’ So I’m elbowing (punter) Josh Plaster like this is one of the greatest tight ends of all time. He has no idea.”
Mettauer: “He brought his Packers Super Bowl ring. That was pretty sweet.”
Schmit: “As an Oklahoma fan growing up in Oklahoma I know about him. So it was cool to see all these (teammates) from out of state come in and they get to see this legend. This dude is one of the best to ever do it.”
A stand-up comedian with a message, Goodwin learned at a young age that laughter could be a tool to cope with tension and pain. A U.S. Army veteran and a former educator, Goodwin “infuses his varied life experiences into his act, making him relatable to audiences from all walks of life.”
Mettauer: “It was a good change of pace. Less intense as a comedian. It was a good time for us.”
Schmit: “One of my favorite ones was probably Mr. Goodwin. He was really good. And what I loved about him was he was comedic and very funny. But he also brought a life lesson along with it. In fall camp, everyone’s stressed. Everyone’s tired. But he was able to bring out a lot of laughter and at the same time deliver a great message of how you have to be yourself.
Receiver Drake Stoops: “(His message was) really just kind of being a master of your craft. Not getting complacent. Just showing his rise in the comedy game and how he got complacent and times thinking he had it all figured out. You gotta sharpen your craft and keep pushing.”
Schmit: “He just told us about moments in his life where he had moments of dysfunction or adversity and how he made it through those himself. And he kind of gave us tips about how to get through those adversities and how laughter can help with that and just being happy.”
Like Jackson, the two-time All-American linebacker needs little introduction. Bosworth is another member of the Sooners’ 1985 national title team and claimed the Butkus Award back-to-back in 1985 and 1986.
Defensive end Reggie Grimes: “When he came in, it was like ‘Oh my goodness. It’s the Boz — Brian Bosworth.’ They play a little highlight video and then he walks into the room and the whole room stops.”
Stoops: “Brian Bosworth was really cool. Getting to see the rich tradition of Oklahoma football and that smash-mouth football from back in the day. Getting to hear his perspective on it was really cool.”
Grimes: “He came in and spoke to us about him coming in with their class and their class changing the expectation for what Oklahoma football was and being their best. And being their best allowed them to become the best. It’s symbolic of what we’re doing right now.”
Linebacker Dasan McCullough: “Hearing his story and how he grinded for that starting position his freshman year. It just kind of reminded me of how hard I was grinding my freshman year and how bad I wanted to get on that field. He just kind of got that hunger back in me. Like fuel.”