Considering Caleb Williams
How are we to judge him for putting Sooners in college football purgatory?
Here’s the thing about Caleb Williams, Sooner quarterback (or not), entering the transfer portal.
There’s no place to begin, no place to end and no single prism from which digest it, because there are several.
Less than a week ago, one day after Oklahoma trounced Oregon inside the Alamodome, for my previous employer, I wrote this column, the gist of it being that Williams leaving Norman for greener collegiate pastures appeared very unlikely.
Not only did Brent Venables, after gloriously being passed the visor by Bob Stoops, invoke the future of Sooner football and Williams’ place in it, but Williams himself, in a postgame press conference, lauded Venables’ hiring, swore love for his offensive line and mentioned talking to incoming offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby each day since his San Antonio arrival, even as Lebby prepared the Ole Miss offense to meet Baylor at the Sugar Bowl.
Why say all that if the fix wasn’t in? Why go on about everything you love about Sooner football only to leave it?
Beyond that, one game away from Lincoln Riley’s direction and Williams played his very best game, completing 21 of 27 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns without a pick, while rushing for 30 on six carries and taking just 2 yards in losses, which meant, also free of Riley, he broke his worst habit: staying in the pocket so long, he eventually had no place to throw nor run.
Not only did all the sentiment — even his own — appear to have him staying, but the facts on the ground made the case he should want to, too.
Nonetheless, upon proofing that column a third time, a few of Williams’ words began to offer pangs.
“We lost a lot of coaches and we have a legend that comes back,” Williams said, referencing Bob Stoops. “We have [graduate assistants] stepping up. We have coach [Cale] Gundy. We have a bunch of guys like that [who] stepped up in a bunch of difference places.”
That sounded sounded terrific.
It was all we, we, we, we, we.
Yet, there was also this.
“I have the chance to be here,” Williams said. “All my guys that won’t be here next year, they go off on the right note.”
Just the chance?
“I think Oklahoma chose the right guy to come in here and be the head guy,” he said of Venables. “And we’ll see how Oklahoma does and how I decide.”
That’s the quote.
In it, “we” was no longer the Sooner program. Instead, “we” was now him.
Did Williams say “we’ll see how Oklahoma does” because he was expecting some sort of offer? Was he playing it cool or purposely drawing lines between himself the program?
Announcing he’d entered the transfer portal on Monday, Williams said, “as a student athlete, the only way I can speak with other schools and see who may offer the best preparation and development for my future career is by entering the portal. Staying at OU will definitely be an option as I begin this process.”
He may be the only player ever to enter the portal while explaining he may not transfer at all, so there’’s that.
OU then offered its own statement, attributed to Venables and athletic director Joe Castiglione, explaining “we will continue to be engaged with [Williams] and his family on a comprehensive plan for his development as a student and a quarterback, including a path to graduation and strategic leveraging of NIL opportunities.”
In a social media world equipped to handle one point at a time — if that — what’s rarely made clear is several things can be true at once; they can even be in opposition to each other and still be “right.”
That’s where we are.
• Is Williams threatening to run out on his team, his “brothers” and “family,” terms squads like to invoke as proof of chemistry and closeness when it suits them? Though he may be doing it nicely, yes, he is.
• If we’re to take issue with that, mustn’t we also take issue with every coach who’s ever walked out on a contract for a better, bigger and higher-paying job? Probably, though we never do. Instead, we wonder how those who stick with their original lesser job could ever choose to stay.
• Is Williams’ threat to leave OU, a university committed to doing about anything for him, a knock on his character, or does he have every reason to engage in every bit of due diligence on his behalf? (Likely the same due diligence we’d exercise when the decision we’re making is bound to have consequences for the rest of our lives.) Perhaps on the first one, because loyalty tends to be a virtue, but of course anybody would be crazy not to consider additional opportunities when demand’s at its zenith (especially when what we originally signed up for has changed).
• When opportunities to profit on one’s name, image and likeness quits being something an athlete might wrangle on his own or through representation and becomes something universities themselves enter into the business of engineering, are we not through the looking glass and have no right to judge anything beyond the future of a sport that’s become the Wild West? Yes, that, too.
It seems like, a thousand words into anything, the conclusion ought to be something less pithy than an often invoked cliché — don’t hate the player, hate the game — so we’ll give it a shot.
Where Caleb Williams finds himself has less to do with him and far more to do with what college sports have become in a transfer-portal, immediately-eligible, NIL world.
It’s a world that, given restrictions placed upon athletes previously, is long overdue; yet seemingly and simultaneously, a world determined to cannibalize itself out of existence.
All of which is to say, the Sooner quarterback (or not) is not a catalyst of the moment, just a product of the times.
It’s not very satisfying.
Nor is what college football’s becoming.