Jeff Lebby joins the club of beleaguered OU offensive coordinators

Jeff Lebby joins the club of beleaguered OU offensive coordinators

Berry Tramel: The truth about Lebby’s offense is that it hasn’t been up to OU’s standards. Not last season, when chaos ruled as Venables built back from the Riley mess, and not this season, when the Sooners have put themselves into Big 12 title and College Football Playoff conversations.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Nov 3, 2023, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Nov 3, 2023, 6:00am CDT

NORMAN – Welcome to the club, Jeff Lebby.

The You’re-A-Bum-No-You’re-A-Genius-Wait-I-Was-Right-The-First-Time Club. A club that includes men with quite disparate football careers. Barry Switzer and Joe Dickinson. Galen Hall and Gary Nord. The club of under-fire offensive coordinators.

The Oklahoma fraternity of such an order has been a little dormant for the better part of a decade. Lincoln Riley came to town, became an offensive savant and never heard a discouraging word until the day Riley didn’t take the LSU job and became Beelzebub.

But the guild is back in session, after Kansas beat the Sooners 38-33 on a rainy day in Lawrence last week, and OU’s championship hopes took a shot across the bow.

Lebby ordered a pass when he should have run it, or ordered a run when he should have passed. He was accused of both high crimes; literally, he was asked post-game both why he went away from the run and why he didn’t throw more. People are hard to please.

Of course, head coaches are, too, and Brent Venables didn’t exactly come rushing to Lebby’s defense Tuesday. Venables was asked if he wishes Dillon Gabriel had launched more downfield aerials, and the generally-honest Venables didn’t defer.

“I think the opportunity was there,” Venables said. “Wishing is not going to do anything. But we do need to be maintaining an aggressive mentality.

“There’s always that balance when you’re trying to be efficient and protect the football. But at the same time, at the right time, take your shots. We’ve got good players that can run past people and go up and make competitive plays.”

The truth about Lebby’s offense is that it hasn’t been up to OU’s standards. Not last season, when chaos ruled as Venables built back from the Riley mess, and not this season, when the Sooners have put themselves into Big 12 title and College Football Playoff conversations.

In Big 12 offensive efficiency, the 2022 Sooners ranked eighth in a 10-team league. The 2023 Sooners rank fifth in a 14-team league. Better, but not good enough.

Ignoring fiery darts is part of the job description. Offensive coordinators from the NFL to flag football at your local youth field are under the gun. Everyone’s an expert, even if they don’t know a jet sweep from a chimney sweep.

Venables says he’s told his staff to block the noise. Pay it no mind. Focus on people you respect, not people you don’t even know.

Venables said that kind of pressure is one of the things that makes the job so desirable. But still, coaches must tune it out.

“That’s a place like Oklahoma,” Venables said. “So that comes with it. So just stay inside out. Have an appreciation for the support, but there’s craziness to all of it.

“I love the passion and the energy. When things don’t go well, hey man, they have a right to be pissed. But you have a right whether or not you listen to it and let it affect you or not, too. Just don’t live in that world.”

Switzer knew the pressure before he switched to the wishbone in 1970. Hall knew the pressure when the ‘bone stagnated. Jim Donnan knew the pressure when the Sooners were trying to navigate the final triple-option heydays. The latter two were national championship coordinators.

Mark Mangino, Chuck Long, Kevin Wilson, Josh Heupel. All had grand times game planning the OU offense, and all drew the ire of the masses when the points didn’t mount. Bob Stoops fired Heupel 12 months after quarterback Trevor Knight lit up Alabama.

The only offensive coordinators who stayed above the fray were Homer Rice (1966), Mack Brown (1984) and Mike Leach (1999) — all were on the job just one year before being hired as head coaches — plus Riley, who became head coach, remained his own offensive coordinator and thus was immune from being fired from that post.

“Don’t get your value through the applause,” Venables said. “Have a respect for it, have an appreciation for it, have an understanding for it, but don’t value the opinion of people that you’d never seek advice from. I believe in that.

“And understand … at a place like Oklahoma on this stage, there’s scrutiny that comes with it, with that title, with that job.”

Let’s be clear. Questions about Lebby are legitimate. Lebby’s offense needs to be better. Venables’ defense has been transformed in a year’s time. It’s not the Selmon brothers. It’s not the Casillas-Bosworth days. Not the Roy & Rocky Show of the early Stoops administration. But it’s good and getting better.

The offense needs to pick up. I’d recommend starting with Saturday in Stillwater; Bedlam has become as telling as Texas.

“Not good enough,” Lebby said post-game at Kansas of his playcalling. “I mean, obviously. We’re standing here after getting beat. Not good enough.”

Of course, playcalling is vastly overrated. Game planning is the ticket to offensive success. I’ve said it before. This isn’t Battleship. This isn’t some guessing game, trying to outfox the defense.

If offenses really were predictable, Michigan wouldn’t be cheating to steal signs from Big Ten offenses.

The best coordinators devise game plans that work against a variety of defenses and in a variety of conditions.

Seems pretty clear that Lebby was worried about the rain in Kansas, then even moreso after Gabriel threw a pick-six on OU’s third snap. Hard to win a competitive game when you give up a defensive touchdown, and Lebby had 55 minutes to worry about giving up another. Maybe that’s why Gabriel finished with only 19 (completing 14), and six of his passes came in the final 40 seconds.

“Felt like we were trying to get in a little more rhythm while the weather was a little better,” said Lebby, who no longer speaks to the media other than after games. “We were trying to throw it around at times. Still was very limited throwing the football. Felt like the right thing to do was trying to stay ahead of the sticks.”

And of course, the crimson wrath fell upon Lebby for OU’s penultimate possession. The Sooners had a 33-32 lead and 2:23 left in the game after Ethan Downs’ interception set up OU at the KU 38-yard line.

Lebby dialed up three straight running plays, OU eventually punted and Kansas drove 75 yards to the winning touchdown.

But that’s not on Lebby. That’s a Venables decision. First down or bust? Make KU burn timeouts? The head coach picks the strategy.

“We wanted to make sure they used all three” timeouts,” Lebby said. “But we were trying like heck to get a first down. We felt like running the ball and having the ability to pin them there without any timeouts, making them go the length was the right thing to do. That’s why I ran it there on third down.”

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t tell a coordinator to make the defense burn three timeouts but also tell him to get a first down. It’s hard enough to make 10 yards with the full playbook. Cut the options by 40 percent, and a coach’s hands are tied.

So that’s on Venables. The rest of the game? That’s on Lebby. The deep ball has provided some of OU’s best offense this season, so just like when the Sooners dunked and dinked against Southern Methodist, the game plan at Kansas was bewildering.

“Yeah, it was frustrating at times,” said slot receiver Drake Stoops. “I think the rain (hurt), not to make excuses or anything like that.”

Rain, shine or snow, the Sooners need to air it out in Stillwater. The OSU defense has been quite vulnerable to the long pass.

“I feel like that’s our offense in general,” said receiver Jalil Farooq. “I feel like we could have took more advantage of it. The weather had a big part on it. The football gods wasn’t on our side that day, that’s all it was.”

That’s as close as you’ll come to hearing players criticize a game plan. This isn’t 1990, when freshman quarterback Cale Gundy questioned the playcalling after the OU-Texas game.

Lebby has been good for his alma mater. When Riley stashed Caleb Williams into his Trojan horse, OU in early January 2022 was void of quarterbacks. Lebby on the quick had Gabriel ready to transfer in, signed Nick Evers, brought in Davis Beville as a backup and persuaded Jackson Arnold to commit.

Evers and Beville didn’t work out, but Gabriel has been a savior and Arnold looks like the next great thing. All wanting to banish Lebby to the recycle bin best remember what he’s already done for the Venables era.

Still, it happens. Coordinators get fired. The Sooners had nine offensive chiefs in a 14-season span, 1989-2002. Some of those left to become head coaches, but Larry Coker (1992), Nord (1995), Dick Winder (1997) and Dickinson (1998) were removed from their jobs.

Seems unlikely Lebby will join them. Venables doesn’t seem like a quick-trigger head coach. Of course, Venables’ latest mentor, Dabo Swinney, made way for Venables’ 10-year run at Clemson by firing a coordinator, Kevin Steele. 

So you never know. Lebby already is a member of the You’re-a-bum… Club. A few more rainy days, and you never know what might happen.


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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].
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