OU football: Why Alex Grinch won't sugarcoat things and why the result could be sweet for the Sooners
NORMAN — Offseason workouts for the Oklahoma defense always ended with the same number this summer.
One hundred twenty-nine.
The strength and conditioning staff might have the defenders do that many reps on the last drill or that many seconds on the final exercise. But every workout ended some how, some way with 129.
That was where the Sooners ranked nationally in pass defense last season.
“You get tired of hearing it,” Sooner defensive back Tre Norwood said, “but it makes you want to keep working. You don’t want to go back to that.”
That’s why Alex Grinch made sure the strength coaches concluded the workouts with those digits. He wanted to make sure his Sooners were reminded of the sour taste last year left in their mouths.
Sugarcoating isn’t his way.
On the day the Sooners met with the media, then let fans meet with them, OU’s new defensive coordinator continued his brutally honest ways. He has been open in his assessments and answers about his defenders, sometimes alarmingly so. He caused consternation among Sooner Nation last spring when he repeatedly said how far away his bunch was from being where it needed to be.
At one point, he even said he wished he could tattoo 129, that dead-last, no-one-worse pass-defense rank, on his players.
“I did not do that,” he deadpanned Friday.
While what happened last season will soon start fading into the background — “As we flip the page and the calendar goes up to August, it’s 2019,” he said. “(Last season) no longer will be the emphasis” — he wasn’t about to go all Pollyanna. He is more Tigger than Winnie. More Branch than Poppy. More, well, Grinch than Cindy Lou Who.
Over-the-top positivity isn’t Grinch’s way.
He doesn’t believe it can be.
“It’s a results business,” he said. “It’s very, very easy as a coach, you can walk off the practice field every single day feeling great. You can tell yourself the right story — ‘We’re getting better. We’re doing better.’
“Oh, by the way, everybody else in the country’s getting better.”
Grinch has to be real with himself, and he believes in being the same way with his players. That can motivate. That can "dig at their soul" as Grinch said. He never worried about it piling on a defense that has been beaten up both on the field of play and in the court of public opinion.
His methodology has the backing of his boss.
“You can’t be scared to talk about the elephant in the room,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “You’ve got to be real. You’ve got to be honest. The only way you correct or change something is by not being afraid of those moments, not being afraid of being honest with what you really see and having those real conversations behind the scenes.
“I think that's who he is and our players have gotten to know that and understand that.”
I don’t think Riley was suggesting honest conversations weren’t happening between coaches and players before. I don’t believe that at all. It’s hard to imagine Mike Stoops seeing a missed assignment and letting it slide. The former defensive coordinator would rather pop a blood vessel than hold his tongue.
But perhaps as the defense continued to spiral and falter and struggle, the message wasn’t received like it is now.
Every Sooner defender who was asked about Grinch’s honesty saw it as a positive. Perhaps that’s what you say about someone controls your playing time, but as they explained why, their backing made sense.
Defensive end Ronnie Perkins: "He'll say, 'All right, you did good, but you can do this better.' That's probably what I like best about him — it don't matter who you are, everybody's gonna get held accountable and everybody's gonna get treated the same."
Defensive tackle Neville Gallimore: "As a competitor, that's the kind of person you need — somebody that constantly holds you accountable. ... We do it right, they let us know. But when we do it wrong, they'll definitely hold us accountable. There's no gray area."
Does this mean the Sooners will be able to tackle the ball carrier better or intercept a few more passes this season? That remains to be seen, but at the very least, it sounds like there's an understanding those problems must be fixed. An understanding, too, that everyone must help with the repairs.
That's the reality, and every time the Sooners finished an offseason workout, it smacked them in the face.
That 129th ranking was always waiting for them.
"That's nothing but motivation," Norwood said. "That's the past, and we can't change it, so we just have to grow from that and learn from that.
"We just have to be honest with ourselves."
Alex Grinch will make sure of that.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.