A small grin formed on Lincoln Riley’s face when the question was raised Wednesday.
Can this just be funny now?
Former OU quarterback Baker Mayfield’s sideline display at Kansas two seasons ago is far enough in the distance that, yes, the humor can be appreciated now. Saturday, the No. 6 Sooners play their first road trip at Kansas since then.
In 2017, Mayfield yelled an expletive at the Jayhawk sideline and grabbed his crotch. Worse transgressions have occurred on a football field, but this one was caught on national television by ESPN cameras. Why’d he do it? Because KU’s captains — Joe Dineen, Dorance Armstrong and Daniel Wise — refused to shake his hand during the coin toss.
That pregame festivity infuriated Mayfield and induced a hostile atmosphere. There were scuffles and angry exchanges between several different players over the next three-plus hours. By the third quarter Mayfield boiled over — in a 41-3 win against Kansas, which is still trying to get off the Big 12 doormat.
Riley’s quickly becoming known for having a photographic memory. So the first thing he remembered about the game, of course, were the weather conditions.
“It was really, really windy. Which [had] a huge effect on the game. Really neither team had any downfield passing game, even with, we had a great quarterback we still, it was one of those days, you can get those days there just like you can here [in Oklahoma],” Riley said. “The incident? Uh, looking back on it, yeah, I mean, some of us that were around it can probably laugh about it a little bit now. It obviously wasn't real funny at the time. But one of those things you get past and I think fair to say you can laugh about it a little bit now.”
No, it was not funny at the time. By Mayfield’s own account later, in a GQ interview, OU administrators had already stepped in asking him to apologize earlier in the season for celebrating victory with a flag plant at Ohio State.
He would have to apologize again this time.
He was three weeks from winning the Heisman Trophy and an easy favorite. Closing the deal was the equivalent of a short birdie putt, a tap-in layup — all Mayfield had to do was finish. Only something freakish could prevent it.
The KU incident fell under that category.
There were fewer than the announced 22,000 fans or so actually in the stands when it happened. Most reporters didn’t see it until it bubbled up on Twitter, where thousands were talking about the grab of the day.
Even more people viewed it on television over the next few days. It was a slow college football weekend in need of a space and time filler and Mayfield’s outburst worked perfectly.
It didn’t matter that he apologized to a small group of Oklahoma reporters afterward huddled in a cramped room beneath the KU bleachers afterward. National media and talking heads steadily let him have it from Saturday night until Monday morning when OU held its weekly press conference. Mayfield spoke quietly and emotionless, a shell of his usual self.
He said he was sorry. Riley had no choice but to act and suspended him for the first series of senior day at Owen Field the following weekend against West Virginia. (Kyler Murray started in his place and, if there’s a silver lining, it’s that a powerful omen was concocted. Murray ran 66 yards on the game’s first play. A year later he and Mayfield would become the first consecutive QBs on the same team to win the Heisman.)
Two days after the incident, Riley teared up explaining what Mayfield meant to him personally, marking just the second time he’d become that emotional publicly since accepting OU’s head coaching job the previous June. He and Mayfield were longtime comrades toiling with the season-long grind and both seemed a little tired that morning.
They were in a familiar place, performing damage control after another one of Mayfield’s sophomoric mistakes. He’d been arrested for public intoxication in February 2017. There was the flag in Ohio. He pegged a TCU player in the head with a football when the Horned Frogs ran through the Sooners’ pre-game warmup drills. All required explanations, some bigger than others.
The KU debacle, though, has followed Mayfield as closely as any of his antics. It’s been penned into in-depth feature stories about him by GQ, The Athletic and Sports Illustrated, serving as the perfect bad-boy anecdote. It cemented the idea that coaching Mayfield meant managing his polar attitude, not corralling it. That wasn’t possible. He played better with an edge.
Jalen Hurts will quarterback the Sooners in Lawrence for the first time Saturday, and the Phog Allen statue at Allen Fieldhouse might display more emotion. It’s difficult to imagine Riley worrying about an incident with Hurts, who seems to believe talk is cheap. He’s a clam compared to Mayfield.
“Yeah, I don't have to worry about him saying something crazy in the media or this or that. That's fair,” Riley said. “He's pretty even keeled.”
• Watts decommits: Four-star 2020 cornerback Ryan Watts decommitted from OU on Wednesday, according to Rivals.com’s Josh McCuistion.
Watts, a Little Elm, Texas product, committed in April. At 6-2, 187 he was a prototype of the bigger cornerback OU is looking for in Alex Grinch’s defensive system.
Bryson Washington remains OU’s only 2020 defensive back. The class now has 17 commitments.
• Eye on redshirts: What do linebacker David Ugwoegbu, defensive end Marcus Stripling, tight end Austin Stogner, receiver Theo Wease, receiver Jadon Haselwood, cornerback Jaden Davis and receiver/safety Trejan Bridges have in common?
All are freshman who’ve played in four games this season, meaning a fifth Saturday would keep them from being able to redshirt this year. Most figure to surpass the five-game mark, with the exception of Bridges, whose scenarios are more complicated since he may be moving from offense to defense.
Notable freshman who aren’t at the four-game mark yet are: safety Jeremiah Criddell (2), running back Marcus Major (2), quarterback Spencer Rattler (2), cornerback Woodi Washington (2) and linebacker Joseph Wété.