NORMAN — Ruffin McNeill believes in fate.
He doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s the new guy in charge after a midseason coaching change for the third time in his career.
The reason? This time he’s at tradition-rich Oklahoma.
“The first time, you wonder what it is,” McNeill said. “The second time … You want to know what it is.
“Sometimes you get trained for situations like this.”
McNeill handed his duties coaching defensive tackles to Calvin Thibodeaux and will serve as OU’s defensive coordinator the remainder of this season following Mike Stoops’ firing early this week. McNeill previously held interim roles at Texas Tech in 2007 (defensive coordinator) and 2009 (head coach).
With the No. 11 Sooners wallowing at 96th nationally in total defense, he has a monumental task ahead. How much can the Sooners improve, if at all, will fall more squarely on his shoulders now.
But McNeill calls himself a simple man with a basic plan. This is not a defensive overhaul, he says.
“I like what we’re doing [schematically],” McNeill said, “so there won’t be any changes in nomenclature or vocabulary. The interim tag … It’s the most minimal adjustments as possible.”
OU (5-1, 2-1) remains in the hunt for a Big 12 championship and perhaps a College Football Playoff berth, if things fall the right way, but basics like tackling have been an issue for players. Even though there’s “no Harry Potter, no magic wand” to fix them immediately, as McNeill says, it’s possible in time.
“I had to do it before,” he said.
Colby Whitlock, a Noble product, played on the 2007 Texas Tech team that watched defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich resign after a 49-45 loss at Oklahoma State. McNeill stepped in as a position coach and led the unit.
“We came back, of course, we had Monday off. We came back Tuesday and had a defensive team meeting. Ruff just kind of laid down the line as far as what would happen and needed to change,” Whitlock said. “We changed some stuff up as far as, say, tackling. Tackling was a huge deal. We swarmed to the ball.”
McNeill is known to work quickly.
In 2007, Texas Tech’s defense surrendered 17 points to Iowa State and 7 to Texas A&M in two of its next three games after Setencich stepped down. After that, opponents averaged 32.1 points per game, but the Red Raiders won nine games and finished 22nd in the Associated Press poll.
In 2009, McNeill served as the interim head coach in the Alamo Bowl when Mike Leach was fired. OU coach Lincoln Riley was promoted to offensive coordinator. Together, they helped steer a 41-31 win over Michigan State.
In 2007, Setencich resigned with the Red Raiders set to play the following Saturday. Leach was fired three days before the Alamo Bowl.
This time, McNeill has an open date at his disposal. OU won’t take the field again until Oct. 20 at TCU.
“I’m a very sequential guy,” McNeill said. “So first things first, let’s work on making sure we get our effort down, and then, of course, the fundamentals. [OU coach] Lincoln’s been great about giving us the extra individual time we need to give us a chance to work on that. It’s fun. I’ve known Lincoln since 2007, 2009 season. It’s been a deal, but like I said, I’ve been through it before.”