NORMAN, Okla. — Karen Walker, her husband, Josh, and their 7-year-old son, Cannon, arrived at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium ready to celebrate on Saturday. It had been 151 days since Lincoln Riley shocked Oklahoma football fans by announcing he was leaving for USC.
Karen marked the occasion by wearing an “IT AIN’T GOOD ENOUGH” shirt, an homage to new Sooners coach Brent Venables, who returned to the plains after spending 1999 to 2011 as an Oklahoma assistant under Bob Stoops and the past nine seasons as Dabo Swinney’s top lieutenant at Clemson.
All offseason, Venables has challenged fans to “Pack the Palace,” a reference to the stadium’s nickname, “The Palace on the Prairie.” The Walkers were among more than 75,000 fans who heeded his call, setting an Oklahoma record and giving Venables his first “win” as head coach.
Cannon displayed his love for his favorite player, Baker Mayfield, by wearing the former quarterback’s trademark headband style just above his glasses. The white headbands, with “BAKER” written in crimson, were one of the freebies handed out to fans to mark the new statue Oklahoma unveiled Saturday to celebrate the walk-on who won a Heisman Trophy.
Mayfield has had a rough offseason after his current team, the Cleveland Browns, traded for Deshaun Watson, and OU fans can relate. Together, they exhaled. The Brent and Baker show turned the spring game into a tent revival.
The Sooners faithful came together and circled their covered wagons, as it were, to get whole again and remind the college football world that they don’t plan on going anywhere.
“A rebirth,” Karen called it.
Venables reveled in it, giving impassioned speeches from the center of the field before the game and again at halftime, dispatching with any notion of discomfort in his first head-coaching appearance. At times, he sounded like a pro wrestling announcer, enthusiastically imploring fans to do their part.
“This place has got to be absolutely demoralizing, deafening,” Venables demanded.
Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said OU planned for 70,000 fans, which would have already been the largest spring game crowd in the country. And the fans outdid even that, with an official total of 75,306.
“It was a special day,” Castiglione said. “The crowd was enormous, by far the largest we’ve ever had. And it just really set a great tone for what we want to create for our program going forward.”
More than 250 former players showed up — another record, according to OU.
“This program is not one person,” former Sooners coach Barry Switzer said. “This thing’s a monster that was built years ago back with Bud [Wilkinson] in the ’40s, and it continues today. We’re one of the top five programs in America, and we remained that way so we continue to have people support us the way we do.”
Even Mayfield, the lifelong Sooners fan who grew up behind the burnt orange enemy lines in Austin, Texas, seemed starstruck by the presence of all of his heroes. But none of them had a more unbelievable story than Mayfield’s scramble to this moment.
“It’s a movie is what it is,” Stoops said. “I think it speaks to how special he is. To show up here then earn the starting job, become the Heisman Trophy winner, be the first pick in the draft. It’s just who he is. He’s a winner, and it’s just an incredible, incredible true story.”
Mike Jones, a former Switzer assistant who is now in business in Norman, has been longtime friends with Mayfield’s parents, James and Gina, and has known Baker since he was born. Seeing Mayfield get his own statue is surreal for someone Jones literally watched grow up.
“At the Mayfields’ house, when we were watching bowl games, Baker always wanted to emulate an Oklahoma Sooner,” Jones said. “I used to throw passes to him when he was 4 years old down the hallway and watch him run into the wall. I figured he’d be a linebacker. He loves to hit things.”
All these years later, Stoops recalled when Mayfield showed up unannounced after his team’s first spring meeting, saying it was one of the happiest days of his life. Stoops said he had heard a rumor that Mayfield might be leaving Texas Tech — where he had started five games but had not been put on scholarship — and was interested in Oklahoma but that it wasn’t confirmed.
“After a team meeting, a guy walks up to me and says, ‘Coach, I’m Baker Mayfield,’ and I looked at him and smiled and said, ‘You sure as hell are,'” Stoops said, recalling that the Sooners had just beaten Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and Trevor Knight, a redshirt freshman, was the MVP of the game.
“Baker decided, ‘I’m going to Oklahoma. I’m not asking who I’m going to have to compete against, that’s where I wanna be. Momma, come pick me up,'” Jones said. “And Gina went, picked him up and hauled him to Norman.”
Now there’s a 9-foot-tall, 2,500-pound version of Mayfield there forever, alongside some of those Sooners legends he idolized. Mayfield joined Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, Billy Sims, Jason White and Sam Bradford in Heisman Park, with Kyler Murray due for a statue next year.
Mayfield’s statue was originally supposed to be unveiled in 2020, but like most things that year, the pandemic delayed it. Oklahoma fan Mark Rayner thinks the timing worked out just right.
“I think if you took a poll in here right now, he would probably be voted as the most beloved Sooner, especially in recent history,” he said. “It’s a big day for him to get a statue. He’s been in a rough patch here lately with all the negativity coming out of Cleveland.”
Mayfield was embraced by the city upon his return. He stopped by one of his favorite restaurants, Tarahumaras, where the owners, 28-year-old Alex Romero and his father, Efrain, had a long-running joke with Mayfield before he ever started a game for the Sooners, letting him know he can always come be a busboy if nothing worked out for him.
“He still has a sense same sense of humor,” Alex said. “He came back [this weekend] and I thought there’s no better way to give him a good laugh and give him a warm homecoming than to say, ‘Here’s that job application. We actually misplaced the old one, but I hope we get another one from you.'”
Rayner said the excitement around Saturday’s ceremony and game combined to help the Sooners turn the page from an offseason of drama that began on Nov. 28 with Riley’s abrupt departure and was followed by the transfers of high-profile players, including Spencer Rattler, Caleb Williams and Mario Williams. Several recruits also opted to follow Riley to the Trojans instead of sticking with their pledges to Oklahoma.
“It feels like the official start of a new era,” Rayner said. “Everybody’s ready to move on from what transpired in the fall.”
Well, almost everyone. Rayner didn’t mention Riley, but he didn’t have to.
He was wearing a T-shirt celebrating the greatest coaches in OU’s history, from Wilkinson to Switzer to Stoops, with Venables joining the list. It read:
“Just a little jab,” Rayner said.
But that was old news, mostly. The history fans focused on was Mayfield’s. There was no quarterback controversy to debate this year, with Williams joining Riley at Southern California and Rattler departing for South Carolina. The new-look offense played fast and transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who arrived from UCF, looked efficient.
“This place is headed in the right direction,” said Mayfield, reassuring the masses at halftime during his statue unveiling. “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.”
After a long few months, the end of spring really did feel like a renewal.
“I don’t think we could have ended up in a better spot,” said Josh Walker, alongside Karen and Cannon. “Having Venables come back? Having Baker come back? Baker will find a home. It’ll be amazing. Yeah, we’re fired up.”