Alex Grinch met with Oklahoma’s defensive staff Sunday morning and used a magic word.
It’s unclear just how many times Grinch uttered the term “urgency” toward his new co-workers, or how often he mentioned it six days earlier in individual meetings with players.
But the Sooners’ new defensive coordinator repeated it seven different times during his introductory press conference — three times in a row at one point.
Urgency, urgency, urgency.
“On our part,” Grinch said, “we have to understand that we have to raise the bar very, very quickly. And we have to make sure — it’s one thing to raise it, it’s another thing to reach it.”
Wearing a white OU windbreaker on his back and a stern expression across his face, he was publicly introduced in a role that is not only difficult in the offensive-driven Big 12 conference, but also at OU, where the defense sunk to historic lows this past fall.
Grinch recognized his is a long-term job with a short-term goal of improving, fast.
According to the Tulsa World, he is expected to become OU’s highest paid assistant coach in school history when the board of regents meet in late January to discuss approval of new salaries, a move that would recognize how important better defense is to the program.
The Sooners’ shortcomings in two straight College Football Playoff appearances have been pinned on their inability to stop opposing teams from piling up yards and points. OU finished 2018 ranked 114th in total defense, the worst figure in school history and 34 spots lower than 2017, following three consecutive seasons finishing 74th or worse.
Grinch, 39, was in a similar position at Washington State, where he helped turn a 96th-ranked total defense into one that ranked 16th under coach Mike Leach in 2017. In addition to coordinating OU’s defense, Grinch will oversee the safeties in a secondary that ranked last nationally (129th) in passing yards allowed last fall.
It’s no simple task.
One of Grinch’s main defensive philosophies is emphasizing turnovers, which OU forced just 11 last year. But more than scheme, he impressed OU coach Lincoln Riley with his thoughts on mentality and culture. That led to what Riley called “a pretty easy” decision to hire him away from his role as Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator.
Riley had spoken with Leach about Grinch in the past, but didn’t bother this time he said. In conversations with other references and former co-workers, the feedback about Grinch — who according to new OU cornerbacks coach Roy Manning is famous for his halftime speeches — was consistent.
“Having the chance to visit with him personally and get a feel for that, it made complete sense on every single level and addressed the issues I think we need to address and bring in a guy I think is going to be an absolute difference maker for us,” Riley said.
Grinch took a no-excuses approach during his introduction. He hasn’t paid specific attention to OU’s defense the last few years, he said, but called it a “work in progress” that faces “a challenge ahead.”
OU will replace just two defensive starters, but returns five players who recently completed their first or second collegiate seasons. A number of freshman reserves are expected to make significant jumps.
This isn’t an experienced group to polish, but rather a young one to mold. Grinch wants to give players a clean slate and asks that for his staff in return.
“In college football, it’s hard to play defense in 2019. What we have to be willing to do is not make excuses for poor performance. The Big 12 is known for offense, I understand that,” Grinch said. “What we can’t do is waste a lot of time in the feel-out phase; we’re feeling them out or they’re feeling us out.
“We have to make sure we dive into this thing so we’re not wasting a day. We’ve got to get there quick.”
With a high-profile graduate transfer quarterback in Jalen Hurts on the way and talented offensive skill players already in the fold, the Sooners are positioned for another national championship run if other pieces fall into place.
One of those pieces is Grinch, who delivered a 389-word answer when asked how quickly he can turn OU’s defense around.
“Probably a long answer,” he said, “but the magic word ‘urgency,’ we’ve got to feel it.”