Every time Jamar Cain steps into his office, it’s third and one.
Not literally, but Oklahoma’s new outside linebackers and defensive ends coach is planning on approaching every aspect of his new job with the same sense of urgency and aggression he does when his team lines up for a third down stop.
It’s a philosophy Cain, who joined OU’s staff on Jan. 31 after Ruffin McNeill stepped away from football to help his ill father, learned when he was the defensive ends coach at North Dakota State from 2014 to 2016.
In his three-year stint in Fargo, North Dakota, Cain coached his way to two FCS national titles in 2014 and 2015, and amassed a 40-5 record.
Six years and two jobs later, Cain is bringing that mindset to Norman.
“I told Coach (Lincoln) Riley and I told Coach (Alex) Grinch when we talked — I said, ‘Listen, at North Dakota State when you walk into that building, it’s third and one,’” Cain said. “One year we didn’t win the national championship and went 13-2, it felt like we were 2-13. And that’s what you get when you come to Oklahoma. That’s what I want and that’s what I miss ... That sense of urgency every day when you walk into the building is what we have to have in here if we want to get to the next level.
“Every day when I walk into that building, it’s going to be third and one. My back is against the wall, and we have to get a stop.”
Oklahoma is getting exactly what it was looking for in a position coach in Cain: He’s proven to have a knack for developing talent, he’s proven to be able to fit into a program with a winning culture and, perhaps most importantly, he’s proven to be an elite recruiter.
“His name got brought to me by a couple of people that I really trust in the business, as did a lot of other names,” Riley said. “I just started researching, and No. 1, I found a guy that had success everywhere he’s been. And then when you look at what he’s done recruiting-wise the last few years, and when we looked at those two things, we knew we had to at least talk to this guy.”
According to those who have worked with, played for and grew up with Cain, his recruiting talent stems from a genuine desire to get to know people and earn their trust.
While some coaches may come across as insincere, Cain steps into a room with a level of genuineness that draws prospects to him and helps him land elite classes.
“He’s up to date, and he can just walk in anybody’s home and be honest with the children,” said Cain’s older brother, Willie. “He just has that 'it' factor, and when he comes back home to Sacramento to visit or recruit, everybody knows him. The kids trust him, and he's a straight-forward person, and he's gonna tell you exactly how it is and what he's doing in the future.”
Before all the success at North Dakota State, Cain bounced around at various jobs for brief stints on the defensive side of the ball. From 2006 to 2008 he was at Missouri State, from 2009 to 2012 he was at Cal Poly, and he was at Wyoming in 2013. After time with the Bison, he coached at Fresno State from 2017 to 2018, and his final stop prior to Oklahoma was one year at Arizona State.
Despite his success at his previous stops — he landed three four-star recruits in his one cycle at Arizona State — the prestige, finances and infrastructure of a program like Oklahoma may empower him to have more success as a recruiter.
“I came up from the mud when it comes to recruiting ... I used to drive seven or eight hours to go see a kid for 20 minutes or go do a home visit and drive straight back,” Cain said. “There were no flights. I came up the hard way, and I think people should come up that way ... I appreciate my time at Fresno State, Cal Poly, North Dakota State and all those small schools. In Wyoming I drove through blizzards. And now here I can pop on a flight? Shoot, this is easy.”
Of the seven schools Cain has coached at in the last 12 years, North Dakota State is unequivocally the program that best mirrors Oklahoma in terms of success on the gridiron.
While the Sooners have reached the College Football Playoff in three consecutive years prior to Cain’s hiring, the Bison won three consecutive FCS championships in the years prior to Cain’s hiring in 2014. Yes, the level of competition is more difficult for Oklahoma, but his ability to instantly come in and contribute to a winning culture could prove valuable to his adjustment with the Sooners.
“There's a lot of similarities in the program. You just go throughout the years, whether it's (Bud) Wilkinson or (Barry) Switzer, (Bob) Stoops — OU’s been successful,” said Justin Swanson, who was North Dakota State’s assistant athletic director for marketing and fan engagement. “We have multiple coaches that have won national championships at NDSU. So I think there's definitely parallels there and you look at both NDSU or Oklahoma.”
If his transition to Norman is anything like his transition to Fargo, Cain will be able to fit right in with the Sooners’ standard of success.
“Coach Cain was here for three years and had no affiliation with NDSU beforehand, but he came in and people immediately gravitated toward him,” Swanson said. “He takes the time to sincerely get to know people and in the role I was in ... you really have to go out of your way to get to know the staff and administration if you’re a coach, and Coach Cain did that. To only be there three years and build the relationships that he did really speaks to the guy he is.”
The secret sauce for Cain’s ability to relate and generate strong relationships with coaches, players and administrators is that he takes the time to understand each of them as individuals and how he can best help them succeed.
“I think the biggest thing is that he has a knack for figuring out what works for different people, and he kind of knows different people have different things,” said Greg Menard, who played for North Dakota State from 2014 to 2017. “He knows when to press people’s buttons, then he knows when he has to sit down and have a serious talk.”
But Cain’s success as a coach goes beyond fostering meaningful relationships and signing highly recruited players, as he’s shown a track record for getting the most production out of his players.
In Menard’s case, he came to Fargo from Lakeville, Minnesota, in the 2014 class and wasn’t recruited by Cain, as he was already committed to North Dakota State when he was hired. But when he arrived on campus, Cain helped him maximize his potential, and by the end of his career Menard was an AP Third-Team All-American selection.
“He expected the most out of his players. And he could see the potential in every single one of his players,” Menard said. “I mean, he knew that I could be a great player before I knew I could be a great player, and having someone have that confidence in you, and kind of believe in you, kind of makes you want to succeed for them.”
Even though Cain has been able to have success at smaller programs like North Dakota State and Arizona State, coaching at a program like Oklahoma brings some added pressure.
The Sooners want to land a top five class every year, and to do that they have to recruit nationally and against some of the best recruiting programs such as Ohio State and Alabama. But the prestige of Oklahoma and the challenge it presents is enticing for Cain, who always strives to compete at the highest level.
“I would have to say he just wants the challenge of playing at a higher level,” Willie said. “I’m not saying the Pac-12 isn’t a high level, but my brother’s always had that 'it' factor. That next challenge presented itself to share and teach others, and I think that challenge really brought him to the University of Oklahoma.”
With the parallels in place and the challenge ahead of him, Cain has an important job to deliver. Junior Ronnie Perkins and redshirt sophomore Jalen Redmond return at defensive end, and redshirt sophomore Nik Bonitto and sophomore David Ugwoegbu return at outside linebacker, meaning Cain has a talented group to work with before he flexes his recruiting muscles in Norman.
“It was the right fit at the right time, and we know how competitive the defensive line, defensive end and outside linebackers are," Riley said. "With those types of bodies, there’s the least of them, they’re the hardest to find and everybody wants them. You have to be an elite recruiter, you have to be an elite developer of talent and as we got to know Jamar and his family, they fit in with our culture and our family atmosphere here. They checked every single box.”
Even though the Sooners made dramatic defensive strides in their first year under Grinch, their 63-28 loss in the College Football Playoff to LSU proves they have work to do.
And Cain just might have what it takes to help them get over the hump.
“It's Oklahoma," Cain said. “You can't tell Oklahoma no.”