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Patience, time needed as new DC
Alex Grinch works to fix OU's defensive culture
Oklahoma's new defensive coordinator has the right name. Alex Grinch. Yes. That'll do just fine, or at least better than Alex Cinch. Moving the ball on the Sooners has been easy enough the past eight or nine years.
He has the right presentation. Grinch is slightly older than his 35-year-old head coach. Young and energetic worked when OU promoted Lincoln Riley to replace Bob Stoops. Young and energetic worked when OU hired Bob and his younger brother, Mike, once upon a time.
Grinch wore a visor while coordinating Mike Leach's defense at Washington State. That bodes well around here. He wears a tough guy's stubble. He talks with a tough guy’s rasp.
About that three-year stint at Washington State… Grinch did well enough in turning Cougar defensive fortunes that Ohio State's Urban Meyer hired him away last year. Unless it has to do with Zach Smith, Meyer typically knows what he’s doing.
So this all bodes pretty well, Grinch riding into Norman, patching OU's defensive holes and getting the Sooners to play like it's 2009. That was the last year the defense felt like a fortress, the last time the defense led OU into games ahead of the offense.
Right about here, though, I'd like to pause and ask that you all exercise a little caution. Not because I don't believe in Grinch. I don't know enough about him to believe one way or the other. None of us do, even if his track record is encouraging.
This is more about the mess that was left for him to clean up.
We aren't talking about changing a cornerback rotation or a blitz scheme. This isn't about whether a coordinator prefers press coverage over zone, or how often his pass-rushing linemen stunt.
Grinch must change a culture.
He'll get to personnel as he starts to hire assistants, and then when those assistants start recruiting their own players.
He'll get to alignment and design based on both his personal preferences and the strength of his players.
Right now, it must start with culture.
This is a program built on the wings of wishbone runners, sure, but also the backs of bone-jarring tacklers. The Selmons. The Burrises. Tubbs, Cumby, Calmus and The Boz. Kinlaw and Casillas. Zac Henderson and Roy Williams.
Last season, the Sooners couldn't stop Kansas. They struggled to stop everyone, really, and the frustration seeped out. It was everywhere, whether in the form of anguish on the faces of players and coaches being asked what was wrong or in the lungs of fans who got sick of Pooka Williams making would-be tacklers look silly and voiced their displeasure.
During a season that saw OU win a fourth consecutive Big 12 Conference championship and a second straight Heisman Trophy before punching a ticket to the College Football Playoff, fans at Owen Field booed the defense.
That isn't just personnel and coaching breaking down. That's a culture.
It takes time to build something that broad back up. It's going to take Grinch time.
He comes across as a sharp coach. By the accounts of those who have played for him or been around him, he is a magnetic coach. The Sooners should want to play for him.
Of course, they wanted to play for Ruffin McNeill, too. Riley replaced Mike Stoops with McNeill, reputed to be the players' biggest advocate on staff. The thought was they'd run through the proverbial brick wall to change the defense's ways.
It sort of happened in McNeill's first two games against feeble Kansas State and feebler TCU. Then reality poured down and the defensive numbers in OU's last six games were somehow worse than the ones in OU's first eight.
The Sooners wanted to be better. They had some four- and five-star players in the lineup to try to make it better. They just couldn't.
That's an issue tied to unrelenting Big 12 offenses, yes, but first the Sooners must look inward. They must figure out whether it’s innovation they lack or the right body types or the right practice habits or the number of film room hours or something as basic as the right morale.
Grinch must figure it out. He'll have help from Riley and whatever staff he gathers. But it’s ultimately his responsibility. That puts a lot of pressure on a coordinator.
At a place like OU with its history of championship defense? With its current position as curve-setting offense? Double down on that pressure.
The one thing keeping Riley, the play-calling Mensa member, from a national breakthrough is defense.
Everybody knows it. Everybody knows Riley hired Grinch to fix it. And he just might do it.
“This is a unique opportunity at one of the premier institutions under elite leadership,” Grinch said the day he was officially announced. “Oklahoma is in the top one percent. There's no faking it in this business. You're either it or you're not. Oklahoma is one of those programs."
He also might need your patience as he goes about making repairs. Given the task at hand, that isn’t too much to ask.
(Editor's Note: This story appears in Sooner Spectator's 2019 Bowl Review issue. To subscribe or read more, call 405-364-4515)