OU football: Lincoln Riley, Tom Herman enter first Red River Showdown as different coaches with similar goals
NORMAN — We won’t get the top-10 matchup or the undefeated records. There’s no “College GameDay” or beaming national spotlight.
What we will get, though, is powerful regardless of the circumstance.
There’s fair food and frenzy, a Golden Hat and a Governor’s Cup. There’s crimson and there’s burnt orange, there’s Oklahoma and there’s Texas.
Although the preseason prophesies of a return to the truly great days of OU-Texas haven’t quite come true, this is the Red River Rivalry, and for the first time since Bud Wilkinson and Blair Cherry in 1947, both programs will face off with new head coaches.
“You could have a couple of people off the street coaching Texas and OU, and people would be interested in it,” Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley said this summer.
Both Riley and Texas’ Tom Herman are men of prodigious ability to lead players and execute plays, but they are also coaches with different styles and contrasting brands of swagger.
When Riley was announced as Bob Stoops’ successor on June 7, he was then only 33 years old, the youngest head coach in major college football. He was the whiz from West Texas, with Mike Leach roots and small-town charm. For as relaxed as Riley can be, he was also the natural choice for the job. He carries an understated confidence along with the energy of a young man and the wisdom of an old soul.
Players call him Lincoln, or even “Linc.” They say the biggest change that came from Riley’s ascension to head coach was him finally upgrading his Toyota 4Runner to a Cadillac Escalade.
Riley is the son of two Texas alums and grew up rooting for the Longhorns. He went to school and coached at Texas Tech, where he was Michael Crabtree’s position coach the year Crabtree caught a last-minute touchdown to beat the Longhorns and seal the most epic victory in school history.
When Riley coached his first Red River game two years ago as OU’s offensive coordinator, he understood the magnitude, though he admits it’s tough to truly know until you experience it.
“You can sit there and explain it to people, and I watched it growing up and all this and that,” Riley said. “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.”
Herman, on the other hand, seemed like the hand-picked candidate to replace Charlie Strong well before last season was over. There was no element of surprise in his hire.
Herman, 42, has a mix of Midwest edge and California cool. His biggest leap to coaching stardom came as offensive coordinator for Urban Meyer at Ohio State, where he helped perfect the Buckeyes’ unique power-spread. He moved to head coach at Houston, where he led the Cougars to a 13-1 record in his first season.
In Year 2, Houston started the year by defeating Oklahoma, sacking Baker Mayfield four times and letting quarterback Greg Ward throw for 321 yards.
Herman was named head coach at Texas on Nov. 27 and immediately raised expectations for a fallen program.
“The University of Texas is a place, a special place, that deservedly holds a seat among college football elite,” Herman said that day. “We will win championships.”
Herman carries himself with a more proclaimed aura of assurance. At his first appearance at Big 12 Media Days, Herman made a dramatic stroll to the stage for his press conference, looking ahead with a slight grin as a horde of cameras followed his every move.
At Texas, he slammed a wall with a sledgehammer as UT worked on its new team facilities. He punished a player for leaving his water bottle in a meeting room, demanding an old-school approach to toughness and work.
Herman is a member of the high-IQ society Mensa, one of the smartest dudes on Earth. He has the intensity to match.
Herman, too, has been part of two Red River games, as a graduate assistant at Texas in 1999 and 2000.
“Excited to play in this rivalry,” Herman told reporters in Austin this week. “It’s one that I have been a part of. … One very fond memory, one not so fond memory, 63-14. I still remember that score. It’s been embedded into my brain.”
This week, the two coaches with similar traits yet vastly different styles will meet with teams and programs also on changing trajectories.
The Sooners are 4-1, ranked 12th nationally but coming off one of the worst home losses in history after falling 38-31 to Iowa State. Suddenly Riley’s honeymoon is over and the Sooners’ season is at stake.
The Longhorns are 3-2 and unranked. They looked miserable in their opener against Maryland, but they took USC to overtime, then showed promise in victories against Iowa State and Kansas State.
Both coaches have played mind games to some extent this week. Despite quarterback Sam Ehlinger staging one of the best statistical performances in UT history against KSU, Herman hasn’t named Ehlinger the starter over Shane Buechele.
“I don’t know what good it does me to tell Mike Stoops and Lincoln Riley what I feel about my quarterback situation,” Herman said.
Riley, at least as of Wednesday afternoon, has played even more coy than usual about his injury situation. Receiver CeeDee Lamb and running back Abdul Adams are questionable for game day.
“It’s a different game,” Riley said. “It’s a different atmosphere. It’s closer to a bowl game to me than anything else. And I think you’ve got to have the kids in the right mind frame for it and the right mindset, and you’ve got to be there as a coach, as well, and understand regardless of what you’ve seen on tape from either team it’s going to be the best and hardest that those teams probably play all year.”
That’s where we get to the biggest common element. Although this could be the first of many meetings between Riley and Herman, there’s no doubt both coaches want, and perhaps desperately need, a win against their biggest rival.