Arizona State and Texas A&M never met on the football field before, but the coaching staffs are quite familiar with each other.
The head coaches -- Todd Graham and Kevin Sumlin -- battled annually in Conference USA for a short period when they were at Tulsa and Houston, respectively, and there are several existing friendships between some of the assistants on each staff.
The most visible connection is between Graham and Sumlin. They met three times in C-USA between 2008-10 -- Sumlin won twice, Graham once. They meet again Saturday night in the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff at NRG Stadium in Houston.
"It seemed like all those games took four hours or five hours," Sumlin said of the past battles between the two ... "The way he's done things, those were always fun and electric games for the fans and for our teams to play in. Most of those games did have an effect on the C-USA West [Division] champion."
Both offensive coordinators crossed paths in Tulsa in 2008: Mike Norvell was an offensive graduate assistant there from 2007-10 under Graham and Jake Spavital was the offensive quality control coach in 2008 before leaving to join Sumlin in Houston in 2009.
Sumlin and Arizona State defensive line coach Jackie Shipp were on Bob Stoops' Oklahoma State staff together. Shipp was the Sooners' defensive line coach from 1999-2013 and Sumlin was on the offensive staff in various roles from 2003-2007. Sumlin also noted that he and Arizona State co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Chris Ball were roommates when they were graduate assistants at Washington State under Mike Price in 1989-90.
"There’s a lot of familiarity in this game," Sumlin said.
Shawn Slocum, son of former Aggies head coach R.C. Slocum, is Graham's special teams coach. Graham, a former Texas high school coach, long admired R.C.
"If you asked me who is the coach that I most looked up to growing up as a high school coach, it's R.C. Slocum," Graham said. "Getting an opportunity to come into this state and compete against Texas A&M means a lot to me personally."
There are some similarities between the head coaches. Both were college defensive players (Sumlin was a linebacker at Purdue; Graham was a defensive back for East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma). They are of similar age (Graham is 50, Sumlin is 51). Though they are known in coaching circles for strengths on opposite sides of the ball (Graham is considered a strong defensive mind and Sumlin is a longtime one-back spread offense devotee) both tend to successfully gamble on young or inexperienced offensive coaches.
Graham hired David Beaty and Chad Morris straight from the Texas high school ranks to his staffs at Rice and Tulsa, respectively. Both are now head coaches, Beaty at Kansas and Morris at SMU. Graham also hired Gus Malzahn after Malzahn’s one season as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator (and one year removed from high school football) and Malzahn led the Golden Hurricane to the No. 1 offense nationally two consecutive years before leaving for Auburn. Bill Blankenship, an offensive analyst for Memphis, joined Graham’s staff as a receivers coach after a career coaching high schools in Oklahoma, and Blankenship later succeeded Graham as the school’s head coach.
Sumlin hired two extremely young offensive coordinators in his time as head coach: Kliff Kingsbury was 30 when Sumlin gave him the keys to the offense at Houston in 2010; Spavital was 28 when Sumlin named him the Aggies’ offensive coordinator prior to the 2014 season.
"That's just something about being comfortable and having trust in the people that work around you," Spavital said of Graham and Sumlin’s willingness to hire young or inexperienced coaches. "I think both of them lean on that."
Beaty, who worked for both Graham and Sumlin, called each of them "courageous" for their willingness to make bold moves.
"One thing I'll take my hat off to Todd Graham on is, if you go back and look at the number of guys that worked on his staff that just needed a shot ... Gus Malzahn ... Chad Morris ... Major Applewhite. He knows talent when he sees it and he's courageous, because a lot of people won't do it, because of perception," Beaty said. "Kevin Sumlin, the guy's got courage and I don't know that people associate that word with Kevin as much as they should, but he doesn't do it the way everybody else does it just because it's always been done that way."
Graham and Sumlin have won a lot of games, but neither has won a conference championship as a head coach, something they would like to change soon.
"They're both winners, that's for sure, if you look at their track record," Spavital said. "I have a lot of respect for both of them. When it boils down to it, this is a profession about winning and they both win."