For the first time since 1947, Oklahoma and Texas will enter their annual rivalry game each having a first-year head coach.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and Texas coach Tom Herman will lead their teams into the Cotton Bowl on Saturday for a game that’s more important than any other on the regular-season schedule. What happens in the Red River Showdown often lives on for years.
Here’s a look back at five key moments in each of their respective tenures and how each coach has navigated their jobs leading up to this week:
For Tom Herman, it was a homecoming. Just hours after the school announced the firing of Charlie Strong, Herman, the one-time Texas graduate assistant was tabbed as the guy to lead the Longhorns back to national prominence. He was their one and only target. And it was Herman’s dream job, the one he longed for from the moment he left the Forty Acres following the 2000 season.
“Now we are home, and I can’t wait to get started,” Herman said last Nov. 27, the day he was officially introduced as the Longhorns’ new coach. “The University of Texas is a place, a special place, that deservedly holds a seat among college football elite. We will win championships.”
Nearly 11 months before his first Red River Showdown as head coach, there were no questions about the Sooners, but the talk of high expectations and Herman’s mantra of physical and mental toughness was a consistent theme.
“You’re going to be the most physically and mentally tough team on the field,” he said.
For a program that was 16-21 in the three seasons preceding his arrival, Herman was tabbed as the savior.
For Lincoln Riley, the change was as abrupt as it was shocking. There was no end-of-season vacancy to be filled, no winding coaching search for Oklahoma. Bob Stoops stunned college football, deciding to step away on June 8, 2017. Sooners brass had his successor already in mind, a 33-year-old (now 34-year-old) offensive wunderkind from Muleshoe, Texas.
Riley had been a candidate for other head coaching jobs following the 2016 season but decided to stay in Norman. He embraced the challenge. The Sooners, winners of a national championship, 10 Big 12 titles and owners of 14 double digit-win seasons under Stoops, expect success.
“Would you rather take over the [school] that’s struggling, so maybe the standards are a little bit lower? Or, the one that’s better?” Riley pondered this summer. “I’ve always envisioned it being more like this. Of course, you get the pressure with it. Of course, the expectations are there to win. But that’s something that I enjoy. If you don’t enjoy that sense of pressure and those expectations, [Oklahoma] is probably not the place for you.”
While the hires were in stark contrast to each other, so were their head coaching debuts. On Sept. 2, six weeks before heading to the Cotton Bowl, Riley’s opener was a layup, a 56-7 home win over UTEP on Sept. 2. The result was never really in doubt.
“It was fun,” Riley said. “Not because it was my debut, but because it was a great moment for our team. And again, our first chance to do this and we’ve all — the whole team, the whole program — has been through a lot in the past few months and so to finally just get out there and do what we love to do, to get a chance to compete together and do it the first one here at home was fun.”
Meanwhile, in Austin, Herman’s honeymoon came to a screeching halt. The Longhorns, who were favored by 18.5 points, were beaten by Maryland 51-41. It was a game that Texas scored three non-offensive touchdowns and still lost.
“Not the result that any of us wanted or expected,” said Herman, his first words after his first game. “It was a really, really, weird game. … We responded well with the right kind of energy and enthusiasm. There was no doubt, there was no ‘here we go again,’ there was no bad body language, which I am proud of. But we’ve got to play better.”
That was an understatement.
The first road games for each coach were immense challenges, matching the sport’s bluebloods. Herman’s task seemed nearly impossible: attempt to defeat the then-No. 4 team in the country, USC, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Longhorns didn’t win — they lost 27-24 in double overtime — but fighting the Trojans tooth-and-nail with a true freshman quarterback (Sam Ehlinger) leading the way spoke volumes of what the Longhorns could be and provided optimism despite a 1-2 record.
“It’s amazing how many mistakes you can overcome with attitude and effort and we made our fair share of them,” Herman said on Sept. 16. “I told [our players] in the locker room, there are no moral victories in college football. They don’t put ‘Loss (yeah, but they played really hard).’ That doesn’t happen. We lost. But if we can’t hold our head high and learn from all of the good that came from this game — to go into the No. 4 team in the country’s house, a team that’s won 11 or 12 straight games, and be up by three with 30 seconds left after everything that had happened … I think that says a lot about how far we’ve grown up as a team the last two weeks.”
The week before, the Sooners went into Columbus, Ohio, and upended then-No. 2 Ohio State, a preseason College Football Playoff favorite. Suddenly, after three Baker Mayfield touchdown passes and a flag planting at midfield, Oklahoma was now in the playoff conversation.
Riley, well aware of how difficult running the table can be, cautioned his team and the public not to hit the fast-forward button.
“I told [the team] in there, we’ll be disappointed if this is the highlight of our season,” he said on Sept. 9, 35 days before OU faces Texas. “It’s two games in. Everybody is going to want to anoint us now. We’ve got a long ways to go. But obviously a great win and one that’s very special to us.”
A bump in the road was still to come.
Riley’s biggest fear came to life last Saturday, when Iowa State — which was without its starting quarterback and had a walk-on, Kyle Kempt, running the show — went into Norman and pulled out a 38-31 win.
It was a game in which the Sooners led 24-10, but gave up 25 second-half points and 368 passing yards. The Cyclones did their own flag-planting at midfield of Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium and the stunned Sooners were left to ponder what happened.
It was Riley’s first big meeting with adversity as a head coach. He approached it with the same even-handed tone that he did the win over the Buckeyes: by focusing on what’s ahead.
“Going forward, this team still has a ton in front of them,” Riley said Saturday. “We’ve seen the blueprint around here for the last two years of a disappointing loss and what you’ve got to do to rebound from that either early or mid-season. So, we know how to do that.
“But knowing how to do it and doing it are two different things. We’re going to have to coach a lot better. I have to do a better job of getting our team to maintain the momentum that we’ve had early in games. We’ve obviously not done a good job of that at all. We’ve got a disappointed group in there right now, but a group that’s very hungry. You can see the disappointment on their faces, but they’re very hungry to correct the things we need to correct and excited about getting back on the field next week.”
Herman has had plenty of issues to deal with. The loss to Maryland on Sept. 2 provided what remains as his most vivid quote of his early tenure.
“I told our guys to never get used to this feeling,” Herman said. “But, that if we all thought we were going to come in here and in nine months, sprinkle some fairy dust on this team and think that we’ve arrived, then we’re wrong. And the only way we know how to fix things is to work harder.”
That created its own story, when Urban Meyer, whom Herman worked with at Ohio State, was critical of those comments, telling CBS Sports, “Players read that.”
“C’mon man. I don’t know where that came from,” Meyer said. “It’s like a new generation of excuse. [Herman] said, ‘I can’t rub pixie dust on this thing.’ He got a dose of reality. Maryland just scored 51 points on you.”
Herman, asked by reporters on Sept. 7 for his response to those comments from his former boss, he refrained from returning criticism.
“I don’t have any [response],” Herman said. “I don’t have time to worry about comments made by somebody else. … I’m worried about our program and winning a game. Anybody that’s been around me and our staff for the last nine months knows that we’ve never disparaged the previous staff or our current players.”
Asked if he thought he threw his players under the bus with the fairy dust comment, Herman shot back “Next question.”
Welcome to Red River week
And now, the week is here. The Red River Showdown is Saturday. The page has been turned from the previous week’s games — Oklahoma’s loss to Iowa State and Texas’ double-overtime win over Kansas State — and full attention is now on the rivalry game.
In addition to the rivalry, the game itself, as it often does, has significant implications in the Big 12 standings. Texas is one of two Big 12 teams with unbeaten conference records so far (TCU is the other) while Oklahoma is in a logjam with five other teams at 1-1 in league play. What’s more, the Sooners can’t afford a loss if they’re going to keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive and keep themselves in good position for the Big 12 title game.
Riley, who has been part of two of these games as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator — one win, one loss — said nothing can really prepare you for it. Stoops didn’t try to prime Riley for the game before his first one.
“He didn’t tell me a whole lot before it, honestly,” Riley said. “I almost think it’s one of those things you have to experience a little yourself. You can sit there and explain it to people, and I watched it growing up and all this and that. But until you’ve actually truly been a part of it, it’s difficult to explain. Bob was pretty good about not making anything much bigger than it was. That was kind of his approach to these games. But you can tell that this one was always a little bit different. I think I learned that. I listened to him before, but after going through a couple of them, you certainly respect it even more.”
Coming off the Iowa State loss, there’s no need to get his team motivated, because of the stakes of the game. Regardless, Riley’s looking for his team to rebound.
“We’ve got to bounce back, got to respond,” he said. “That’s part of college football these days. … I think in the past after a tough loss — we haven’t had many around here — but when we’ve had them, we’ve been able to respond regardless of who we’ve played. I would hope that we have enough pride — and I feel we do have enough pride as a team — that we’d be motivated to go play Norman Junior High this week.”
Herman has been part of two of these games in his time as a graduate assistant in 1999 and 2000. In his office, he has pictures of his times working then at Texas, as well as other artifacts from his first stint in Austin. There’s no doubt that as he prepares to play this team as the coach of Texas, it means more.
“It’s pretty cool,” Herman said Monday. “I spent this morning in this office with a recruit and showing him pictures of me from when I was a GA, and pictures of me and my then-girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife, at the Holiday Bowl, and pointing at my [master’s] degree on the wall. So, yeah, any time you get a chance to get your dream job and then take that dream job into its biggest rivalry game, it’s pretty cool.”
Minutes earlier, at his news conference, asked of his feeling of leading his team into this game, given how much it defined the tenures of previous coaches, including Stoops and Mack Brown, Herman said: “Responsible is probably the word that comes to my mind.”
“Leading this program is a responsibility unto itself,” he said. “But I would be naïve not to tell you that this rivalry is important to a lot of people.”