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The lay of the land at Oklahoma

As Joe Castiglione conducts his first coaching search since 1998, the reality of OU's program must be top of mind.

The Oklahoma job is open for the first time of the Internet era in college football, and boy does it show. Already, there have been at least two rumors of imminent hirings and yet the job remains open.

Trust me when I tell you OU fans are desperate out there.

As he goes about his work under the cover of hysteria, Joe Castiglione must balance the short- and long-term needs of the program. The most important thing is to have the right head coach in place for 2024, 2025 and beyond, not a head coach as we sit here on Dec. 3, 2021. And yet the outcome of the next 13 days could very well shape the standing of Sooner football in 2024, 2025 and beyond.

Spencer Rattler has entered the transfer portal, which is an outcome we all saw coming when Caleb Williams stepped on the field at the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 9. Five-star running back Raleek Brown, 5-star quarterback Malachi Neslon and the rest of the Cali Crew have decommitted, which is an outcome we all saw coming on Sunday.

But none of that is the most pressing issue here. Marvin Mims, Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease and Austin Stogner are in the portal. Combined, those players caught 83 passes for 1,213 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. When you add in seniors who are no guarantee to return either, Oklahoma could return all of one player who caught more than 18 passes last season. (It hasn't gone unnoticed in Norman that Charleston Rambo, after catching 25 passes as a Sooner in 2020, set Miami's single-season record with 79 grabs this fall.) 

And this doesn't include the biggest fish in the pond: quarterback Caleb Williams. It's not an accident his only public comment this far, this tweet from Sunday, was extremely non-committal.

Williams did attend a Sooner basketball game Wednesday night -- he received a standing ovation -- and he's re-tweeted plenty of pro-OU content since Sunday. He's also re-tweeted plenty of pro-Lincoln Riley content as well, so it's safe to stay the Face of the Franchise is keeping a poker face for the time being.

So, Oklahoma needs the right head coach, it needs a head coach, and it needs the right head coach right now

John Wooden's old adage "Be quick but don't hurry" comes to mind right now.

As Castiglione considers his options, one makes the most sense from a number of perspectives: keeping the job "in the family."

It's possible the reason Oklahoma doesn't have a head coach right now, under two weeks until Signing Day, is that he's waiting out Luke Fickell and/or Matt Rhule. It's doubtful -- sources close to Rhule told FootballScoop he's not interested in leaving the NFL at this time -- but not impossible. 

But when examining the on-the-ground reality of Oklahoma football at this moment, I keep coming back to this:

-- Co-offensive coordinator/inside receivers coach Cale Gundy is a former Sooner
-- Associate head coach for offense/H-backs and tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley is a former Sooner
-- Running backs coach DeMarco Murray is a former Sooner
-- Defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux is a former Sooner
-- Inside linebackers coach Brian Odom is a former Sooner
-- Outside linebackers/defensive ends coach Jamar Cain is not a former Sooner, but all indications are that he'd like to stay if given the opportunity

That right there gets you three-fifths of the way there to filling out a coaching staff.

Bringing in a Fickell, a Rhule or a Matt Campbell likely means letting most or all of those guys go. Again, it may very well be the right move in the long term, but it could easily push all the portal entries out the door and send much of the 2022 recruiting class scattering for more familiar options. 

We've seen elsewhere that a Fickell, a Rhule or a Campbell could be the right long-term choice, but the short-term setback is so devastating that he'd spend multiple seasons crawling out of the hole he walked into. 

Given all that, my mind keeps coming back to two men: Brent Venables and Bob Stoops.

Venables coached at Oklahoma from 1999-2011, and all he's done since is lead top-10 defenses and win national titles at Clemson. Sooner players and recruits may not know him by name or face, but two words would be all that's needed to command their attention: "Clemson defense."

Bring in Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, also a former Sooner, and you have a compelling story to tell skeptical players and recruits: The best-of-the-best leading both sides of the ball, led by former Sooners up and down the coaching roster. 

Bring in Venables and Lebby, retain the six coaches listed above, and now you've filled nine of the 11 full-time chairs in the staff room. Assuming Venables would coordinate his own defense, he'd have a proverbial blank check to go get an elite secondary coach and offensive line coach, unless Bill Bedenbaugh wants to stay, too.

(It also doesn't hurt that Brent Venables would be a first-time head coach with a B first name, perfectly mirroring Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops.)

If you can't get Venables -- sources tell FootballScoop that Venables is indeed a serious candidate, with Lebby coming along as offensive coordinator -- the next-best option is already in place.

If it were my search, Venables would be option 1, 2, and 3. But you can do worse than Stoops as option 4 as a long-term interim for a year or two while Castiglione studies the landscape for the absolute best option, couldn't you?

Joe Castiglione's choice for his next head coach will shape the landscape of Sooner football for at least the next decade, so he owes it to his university to move every mountain and check under every pebble to ensure he's making the right choice. But the river of reality left behind in his program -- the staff room, the locker room, the recruiting board -- seems like it's pushing him in a familiar direction.