NORMAN, Okla. — After a tumultuous offseason for both Oklahoma and favorite son Baker Mayfieldthe Sooners faithful showed up to welcome new coach Brent Venables and see the unveiling of Mayfield’s statue in OU’s Heisman Park.
An announced record crowd of 75,360 — over 20,000 more than the previous spring-game attendance mark, according to Oklahoma — stretched into the third deck at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday to witness the start of a new era following the departure of coach Lincoln Riley to USC in December and the arrival of Venables.
Venables began coaching before the game even began, taking the microphone at midfield and summoning more than 250 former players to the center of the field.
“This is Oklahoma,” Venables boomed to the crowd with a large contingent of alumni behind him. “The winningest team in the modern era. This place always has been and always will be about the players. This is the home that y’all have built. I want to show them the love and the appreciation for these guys, their work, their belief, their commitment to making this the model program in all of college football.”
The game itself was a bit of a sidebar, despite a lot of curiosity about the new coaches’ philosophy and the play of UCF transfer Dillon Gabrielwho is replacing transfers Caleb-Williams (USC) and Spencer Rattler (South Carolina).
Splitting time between the red and white teams, Gabriel was 19 of 28 for 250 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Jovantae Barnes led all rushers with 60 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries, while Eric Gray (4 carries, 54 yards) and Tawee Walker (13-55, 1 TD) were right behind him. Jayden Gibson caught a 95-yard touchdown from backup quarterback Michael Bowens and finished with three catches for 113 yards. The red team, led by Barnes and receiver Marvin Mimswon 21-17.
“It was special,” Mims said of the atmosphere. “This was like a regular-season game. That means a lot to us.”
At halftime, attention turned to Mayfield, who walked out of a smoke-filled tunnel to the raucous crowd, stood on the field and watched the video board as his statue was unveiled live across the street from the stadium. He smiled, mouthed “Wow,” and then took the microphone to give his thanks to the crowd as well.
“I dreamt about having a statue right there and now I do,” Mayfield said to the crowd as he was joined on the field by former coach Bob Stoops along with fellow Heisman winners Steve Owens, Jason White and Kyler Murray. “It blows my mind.”
After the game, Mayfield spoke to the media and talked about what it meant to be back in Norman during an offseason in Cleveland in which the Browns traded for deshaun watson and Mayfield’s future NFL team is still in doubt.
“It’s pretty cool to come back to where this all started,” Mayfield said. “It’s a good reset being around family, friends, loved ones, just to have that home base. You always have somewhere to go back to that you can lean on.”
Venables said Mayfield asked to speak to the team this week, and that it was inspirational to remember his unique journey from a walk-on to a Heisman winner with a statue.
“This was a great weekend for him to get back to Oklahoma and kind of get people to put their arms around him,” Venables said. “What an honor to be a fly on the wall to see history made.”
Mayfield said he had input on the statue’s pose, and despite fans’ desire for it to memorialize the 2017 moment when he planted a flag on Ohio State’s logo at midfield, that wasn’t ever an option. So instead he chose another moment from his Heisman season, a moment against in-state rival Oklahoma State.
“We all know [athletic director] joe [Castiglione] was going to keep it pretty appropriate, so the flag-plant was never gonna happen,” he said with a laugh. “They gave me a couple of options, and I thought, ‘What better way to keep a statue in the state of Oklahoma than for it to be a stiff-arm of your little brother? Forever. They have to deal with that one.”
While it was another classic Mayfield jab at a rival, he was much more introspective during this visit, seeing his former teammates as well as players he grew up idolizing as a lifelong Sooners fan. And despite his affection for Riley that is not shared by many others in the stadium these days, he wanted to make it clear he believes OU is on the right track.
“This place is headed in the right direction,” Mayfield told the crowd. “I got to talk to [Venables] yesterday in his office for 30 minutes and I was ready to run through a wall. We’re back. We’ve never left, but we’re back. It’s pretty special to have this place packed like this for a moment like this.”
Venables stressed that this environment is what he expects going forward from fans for Oklahoma to continue its string of success, calling the stadium by its nickname, “The Palace on the Prairie.”
“You can’t fabricate family. This is what family looks like,” Venables told the crowd at halftime. “We only get six opportunities in the Palace a year. We need to make the Palace an absolute nightmare for opponents. This place has got to be absolutely demoralizing, deafening. … This is what commitment looks like. We wanted to send a message to college football that there’s only one Oklahoma.”