Who is OU football’s best assistant coaching hire ever?

Who is OU football’s best assistant coaching hire ever?

OU has had hired an amazing number of great assistant coaches like Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Chuck Fairbanks, but who ranks No. 1?

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Jan 29, 2024, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Jan 29, 2024, 6:00am CST

(This story originally appeared in Berry Tramel’s newsletter. Subscribe here)

Brent Venables goes into the 2024 OU football season with two new coordinators. Well, in title, at least. Venables is the defensive coordinator. New hire Zac Alley comes aboard as tri-coordinator — he’ll share the “co-coordinator” title with Jay Valai and Todd Bates, in the wake of Ted Roof’s firing as defensive coordinator. But Seth Littrell is the offensive coordinator, succeeding Jeff Lebby, who is off to Mississippi State as head coach.

A new coordinator at OU is a big deal, because the Sooners’ history is such that anyone who takes the mantel has an excellent chance at impacting college football on a high level.

And the hirings of Littrell and Alley got me to thinking. Who are the best assistant-coach hirings in OU history? Who impacted the Sooners, and college football, the most after getting hired onto OU staffs?

The pool is deep. I ranked the top 20 and could have gone longer. Here they are:

18. Jerry Schmidt, 1999: Are strength and conditioning coaches allowed? My list, my rules. Schmidt arrived with Stoops and stayed all of Stoops’ 18 seasons, quickly transforming the Sooners physically. His value was apparent immediately, and that value continues today. Venables brought back Schmidt, after he bolted to Texas A&M after one year with Lincoln Riley.

17. Donnie Duncan, 1973: Hired to coach running backs on Switzer’s first staff, Duncan was a fine assistant, I’m sure. But his impact on OU (and others) went far beyond football. Duncan was at Navarro Junior College when hired by Switzer. From such humble beginnings, Duncan went on to be head coach at Iowa State, executive director of the Sun and Gator bowl, OU’s athletic director and the Big 12’s football czar. As OU AD, Duncan teamed with Texas’ DeLoss Dodds to form the Big 12. And while Duncan’s football-coach hirings (Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger, John Blake) were not pristine, Duncan also hired Patty Gasso, Sherri Coale, Kelvin Sampson and Larry Cochell.

16. Galen Hall, 1966: Part of Jim Mackenzie’s staff makeover in ‘66, Hall stayed through all of Chuck Fairbanks’ era and two-thirds of Switzer’s. Hall was Switzer’s offensive coordinator for 11 seasons; the first eight years, OU’s record was 83-9-2. Hall was the true coordinator, game-planning and playcalling the wishbone, allowing Switzer to oversee the program.

15. Cale Gundy, 1999: The only assistant to serve the entirety of the Stoops and Lincoln Riley era, Gundy became OU’s ace recruiter (Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray, CeeDee Lamb). The 1990s OU quarterback ended up participating in more games as a player and/or coach than any Sooner ever.

14. Scott Hill, 1978: Hill, an OU safety under Switzer, was hired to the staff at age 24 and became OU’s chief recruiter of the great 1980s teams. Hill snagged players like Brian Bosworth and Jamelle Holieway, keeping the Sooner talent at the highest levels.

13. Jerry Pettibone, 1967: Before Hill and Gundy, there was Pettibone, a Sooner alum hired for Fairbanks’ first staff. Black athletes weren’t recruited en masse when Pettibone was hired, but under Fairbanks’ direction, Pettibone began signing many of the best Texans, and soon enough the Sooners were again a national power.

12. Tom Stidham, 1935: Hired as line coach for Biff Jones’ first staff, Stidham was elevated to head coach two years later, when Jones left for Nebraska. Stidham brought OU its first national acclaim in almost 20 years, with his 1938 team that went 10-0 in the regular season, giving up just 12 points, and finishing fourth in The Associated Press poll, before losing 17-0 to Tennesse in the Orange Bowl.

11. Merv Johnson, 1979: Hired as assistant head coach by Switzer, Johnson coached the OU offensive line for 17 seasons, morphed into the director of football operations and eventually became the Sooners’ radio analyst. He remains an OU football icon, at age 87.

10. Brent Venables, 1999: I suppose Venables will go either up or down on this list in five years. Just know that the 28-year-old hired to come along with the Kansas State exodus of Stoops’ first staff now is entrusted with leading OU’s exodus from the Big 12 into the Southeastern Conference.

9. Gary Gibbs, 1977: Gibbs wasn’t a huge winner as the OU head coach from 1989-94 (44-23-2), but neither was he a big loser, and he did help stabilize the program coming off the scandals of 1988-89. But too often we forget what a tremendous defensive coordinator was Gibbs. His OU defenses from 1984-87 were what Georgia and Alabama have trotted out in recent times. Star-studded. No cracks. Best in the nation.

8. Larry Lacewell, 1966: Man, what a staff Jim Mackenzie put together in his lone OU season. Four Mackenzie hires are on this list. Lacewell actually left OU in 1967-68 for Wichita State and Iowa State, respectively, but he returned in 1969 to coach defensive ends, then became coordinator in 1970. Lacewell’s defenses of the ‘70s were epic; in 11 months from New Year’s Eve 1972 to Thanksgiving Friday 1973, OU allowed 27 points total to Penn State, Southern Cal, Texas, Colorado and Nebraska.

7. Mike Leach, 1999: Only one year in Norman as Stoops’ first offensive coordinator, Leach still made a deep and wide mark on Sooner football. His Air Raid revolutionized the Big 12 and set OU on a generational path as a passing power. Leach disciple Lincoln Riley was part of that, and the legacy continues with new OU offensive coordinator Seth Littrell.

6. Mike Stoops, 1999: Joining his big brother, this Stoops brought big-time defense that along with the Air Raid fueled the 21st-century OU success. In the history of national championship games, even going back to the unofficial bowl showdowns pre-1992, only two defenses have pitched shutouts — 2011 Alabama (21-0 over Louisiana State) and 2000 OU (13-2 over Florida State).

5. Gomer Jones, 1947: Remembered as the two-year head coach who had a losing record (9-11-1, 1964-65) and the OU athletic director who died of a heart attack in New York City during the 1970 National Invitation Tournament, Jones should be hailed as the right-hand man of Bud Wilkinson. Hired as line coach for Wilkinson’s first staff, Jones spent 17 years as Wilkinson’s trusty lieutenant, producing great players and great lines, on both sides of the ball, including an 11-year span (1948-58) in which OU’s record was 107-8-2.

4. Lincoln Riley, 2015: OU’s offensive uprising was immediate when Stoops named Riley coordinator in January 2015. The Sooners became the nation’s top quarterback factory with Riley as coordinator or head coach, won six straight Big 12 titles and made four College Football Playoffs. Just because he was not all that grateful for the fabulous opportunity and fled for Southern Cal, doesn’t change the facts.

3. Chuck Fairbanks, 1966: The most underrated head coach in OU history, for my money. Hired in ‘66 by Mackenzie, Fairbanks was elevated to head coach in April 1967 upon Mackenzine’s tragic death, and Fairbanks’ impact on OU was enormous. Black athletes were recruited by OU much more because of Fairbanks’ Northern (Michigan State) influence, plus he held a fabulous staff together after Mackenzine’s death. And remember, he was the head coach when the Sooner renaissance bloomed.

2. Barry Switzer, 1966: It seems like Switzer’s head-coaching legend grows bigger every year, which is fine, but Switzer’s assistant-coaching stretch grows dimmer. Which is a shame. Switzer spent seven years as an assistant coach, and his installation of the wishbone in 1970 as offensive coordinator would have made him a Sooner icon even without ever becoming the OU head coach.

1. Bud Wilkinson, 1946: Spent only one year as an assistant but was so impressive, both upon his initial interview and in his season as Jim Tatum’s sidekick, that OU regents hungered to make him head coach. Which they did when Tatum threatened to leave for Maryland. The regents were glad to call that bluff and turn over the program to Wilkinson. The rest is history — three national championships, a 47-game winning streak and a made monster.

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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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