Carlson: OU football coach Lincoln Riley admits pandemic pigskin is tough, but here's why he believes in Sooners continuing
NORMAN — Lincoln Riley has taken to wearing a mask almost all the time.
“The only time I don’t have a mask on,” he said, “is when I’m eating, which I’m by myself, and then when I go to sleep.”
He’s even wearing one sometimes when he’s home with his wife and daughters. The OU football coach says he’s tried to spend more time outside with his young girls, even as it’s gotten colder, in hopes of reducing the chance of spreading the coronavirus.
Riley hasn’t tested positive for COVID-19 — and he hopes to continue that run — but these past few weeks have reminded him and all of Sooner Nation how difficult a dance this is. The Sooners had to postpone last week’s game at West Virginia and close the football facility for several days because of the virus, and this week’s game against Baylor was in peril until Friday’s testing because so many people within the program were quarantined due to positive tests or contact tracing.
Why are we doing this again?
After hearing Riley talk earlier this week about the struggles inside the program and lengths to which he’s going to avoid the virus, I decided to ask him that very question. I recognize I make my living covering games and he makes his living coaching them, but still, all the hoops he has to jump through personally and professionally must be exhausting.
So, I asked, is there any part of him that says maybe this isn’t the right time for football?
He sat silently for several seconds before answering.
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“I think that was more probably a decision for the beginning,” he said finally. “I mean, we all decided that we were going to take this on and knew some of the potential challenges that were going to come up with it.
“We knew this thing could potentially get more difficult as the year went on.”
And it certainly has.
Just this week, Riley had to call on retired Sooner head coach Bob Stoops to help with practice. Until late Friday afternoon, there was a chance Stoops might've been on the sidelines Saturday night.
We could still see all sorts of other folks in unfamiliar roles.
To hear Riley tell it, every aspect of the program has been impacted in the past couple weeks.
“Try having a football practice without any equipment managers,” he said.
I don’t envy what Riley is trying to do. I know he gets paid handsomely to coach football, but trying to keep several hundred people safe from a virus that can kill while also trying to put a competitive team on the field isn’t anywhere in his contract. No coach at any level signed up for this.
And frankly, it was refreshing to hear Riley admit he wrestles with the decision to keep playing.
“It’s a hard question because I think we all feel it,” he said. “Are there times where I feel like that a little bit? Maybe. And then there’s also times where part of me is like, ‘You know what? This is our world, and we can’t just totally stop living.’
“This is our lives, and we only got so many of these years and so many of these days and opportunities available.”
Riley said there were even conversations inside the program as far back as a month ago about the possibility of a shutdown.
“Cases were spiking across the country, more games getting canceled,” he said. “And this was before we had any type of spike or outbreak or whatever you want to call it. We talked a lot as a team, ‘Who knows how many of these we got left? This might be the last one, and we don’t even know it.’
“We’ve always been grateful (to play), probably even more grateful this Saturday if this one’s able to get played.”
Lincoln Riley doesn’t have all the answers, and frankly, I’m heartened by that. Everyone is struggling over what to do — Should we travel? Visit family? See friends? — and it’s good to know someone like Riley, someone who seems to have things under control, struggles to find answers, too.
“At times, you do kind of sit back and say, ‘Man, this is a lot,’” he said. “But we only get one of these lives, too, so I know at some point, you’ve got to live a little bit.”
“I don’t know where the right answer is; I don’t have that for you.”
That’s OK. We know the feeling.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.