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Tom Herman, Lincoln Riley and the fight to save the Big 12

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Herman uses chicken and waffles as encouragement (2:11)

Texas head coach Tom Herman joins SportsCenter to share how he's going to return the Longhorns to prominence, starting with a winning breakfast as motivation. (2:11)

AUSTIN, Texas and NORMAN, Okla. -- In the hallway around the corner from Texas' newly renovated locker room, a digital clock is pinned atop a panoramic placard of the Cotton Bowl. The clock counts down the days until the next Red River Showdown.

Consider it a countdown to a new era in the iconic rivalry, as well.

Not since 1947 have Texas and Oklahoma had new coaches in the same season. And for Lincoln Riley and Tom Herman, two of coaching's budding stars, the stakes couldn't be larger.

For them. Their programs. And the entire Big 12.


Lincoln Riley's palatial office overlooking Norman's bustling Lindsey Street to the south feels like it was erected for a coach with 10 conference championships and a national title to his name.

That's because, well, it was.

The same day of Bob Stoops' stunning retirement, Riley moved into the office Stoops had personally helped design and only recently moved into himself, as part of the $160 million makeover Oklahoma just completed to the south end of Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

The office includes vaulted ceilings, plush leather furniture and five separate seating areas, not including Riley's desk. Despite being on the job only two months, Riley, the youngest coach in FBS at 33, has done well to fill out the shelves. But on a table in the southeast corner, Stoops has yet to remove his wooden case of bowl and championship rings, watches and jewelry -- a tangible reminder of the big shoes Riley will be expected to fill, as well.

"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?" said Riley, who became the heir apparent after orchestrating the nation's No. 3 and No. 4 scoring attacks in two years as Stoops' offensive coordinator.

"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."

Those expectations, and poor performances against the rival Longhorns, gobbled up the previous two Sooners coaches who attempted to adequately succeed legendary predecessors.

Gomer Jones, Bud Wilkinson's longtime top lieutenant, lasted just two years after winning only nine total games. Gary Gibbs resigned, as well, six seasons after taking over for Barry Switzer. Exasperating their demises, Jones and Gibbs went a combined 1-7 record against Texas.

Riley takes over with an Oklahoma fan base conditioned again to expect victory in Dallas. Stoops went 11-7 in the Red River Showdown, and his stunning 49-point rout of the Longhorns in Year 2 helped propel Oklahoma to the national title.

Like Stoops, Wilkinson dropped his first matchup to Texas and fellow first-year coach Blair Cherry in 1947. But then Wilkinson won three straight and the Oklahoma dynasty of the 1950s was launched. Cherry, meanwhile, resigned amid criticism four years later, despite going 9-2 in his final season.

Riley, too, has seen how the Red River Showdown can define a coach or a player. The son of Texas alums, Riley's earliest memories of the game while growing up in Muleshoe, Texas, were of Peter Gardere. The Texas quarterback had an otherwise unremarkable career. Except, he remains the only quarterback on either side to go 4-0 as a starter in the series.

"I understand the game and how important it is," said Riley, calling the pressure in Dallas "its own monster."

"But in that sense, it's no different than any other expectation that we have, or opportunity that we have."


Tom Herman hasn't been in his office much longer than Riley. But already, he has put his stamp on it, placing -- appropriately -- a horn shark inside the aquarium he inherited, which he loves showing off to visitors.

Since his first stint with the Longhorns as an offensive graduate assistant under Mack Brown in 1999-2000, Herman has held six different jobs, most recently as the head coach at Houston. Yet the only business card he saved all these years was from his time as a Texas graduate assistant.

"I kept that, I kept my picture that was hanging outside my office -- I kept a lot of things from this place. It's really the only place I have," Herman said. "When people say dream job, that's what this is for me. I was always hopeful I would have the opportunity to come back."

Throughout his career, Herman noted that when looking at houses, he and his wife Michelle would always focus on resale potential. Because they knew they'd be moving again for his next job before long.

When they moved to Austin, it was different.

"It was, 'Go buy your dream house,'" he said. "If we don't screw it up, there's nothing that's going to take me away from that."

With his return, Herman has been charged with resuscitating the Longhorns after the worst seven-year stretch in program history. That has included four losing seasons and last year's demoralizing defeat at Kansas, which effectively ended Charlie Strong's tenure at Texas.

To change a culture in need of a transformation, Herman has installed competition in virtually everything. Consequences are almost always attached for the losers, including cleaning the weight room, down to the last barbell. Herman has also stripped away any sense of entitlement from his players, while mandating they focus on the smallest of details.

"This staff has opened our eyes to being accountable for one another," said safety P.J. Locke, who faced punitive conditioning just for going home without his team-issued water bottle, which he left in the players' lounge. "That focusing on the small things can lead to big things."

After recently finding trash and food wrappers left lying around their lounge, Herman barred the players from the new locker room at the start of fall camp, forcing them to dress in the visitors' locker room instead.

"We have to figure out how to act like grown men," he said. "And when you're given nice things, to take care of those things."


Though Herman and Riley have yet to coach a game for their new schools, the young coaches have already been making their mark -- a promising, perhaps, sign of what's to come for the rivalry.

Thanks to a torrid summer, Herman and his staff have Texas on the verge of its first top-five recruiting class since 2012.

Under Riley, the Sooners have also been on fire lately on the recruiting trail and now sit with what would be just their second top-10 class in six years -- and second in a row.

Riley's first commitment as the head man turned out to be a salvo at Texas, as the Sooners flipped Oklahoma City defensive end Ron Tatum from the Longhorns.

Texas, however, drew blood first, plucking away quarterback Casey Thompson of Moore, Oklahoma, son of former Switzer wishbone quarterback Charles Thompson, just a few miles from the Sooners' backyard. Texas followed that up by convincing Oklahoma quarterback commitment Cameron Rising to switch to the Longhorns.

Such recruiting battles have led to a series of trash-talking exchanges over Twitter among the two staffs, harkening back to a time when Switzer and Darrell Royal publicly sparred over top talent, then waged war in the Cotton Bowl for national supremacy.

"When there's great competition between two schools," Riley said, "there's going to be some of that."


Despite its celebrated history, and recent recruiting upticks, the last time the Red River Showdown was a matchup of top-10 teams was 2008. It's no coincidence that the reputation of the Big 12 has taken a substantial hit in the years since.

Texas has been the primary culprit, but the Sooners have entered the game as a top-five team only once since 2008, when they traveled to Dallas ranked No. 1.

"The conference is better off when both of us are good and winning and nationally relevant," Herman said. "We're both better off."

The Big 12 can only hope that the Red River Showdown can become nationally relevant again soon.

In three years, the Big 12 has tasted the College Football Playoff only once, when the Sooners qualified in Riley's first season as coordinator. The league, however, is still the only Power 5 conference searching for its first playoff victory.

Such struggles on the field have damaged the Big 12 off it, too.

In February, the Big 12 signed only one of the top 10-rated players from the state of Texas (in 2011, the Big 12 collectively inked 17 of Texas' top-20 rated recruits).

In April, the Big 12 had only 14 players selected in the NFL draft, the fewest in league history and one fewer than the American Athletic Conference. (In 2010, the Big 12 had nine players go in the first round alone.)

As the smallest Power 5 conference, having lost four members since the turn of the decade, the Big 12 is becoming increasingly vulnerable again. The college football landscape could be heading toward another potential round of realignment as conference TV rights near their expiration, beginning with the Big Ten's in 2022-23.

If the Big 12 keeps failing to make the playoff in December, and keeps failing to sign the top recruits from its footprint in February, its members -- Texas and Oklahoma, especially -- could begin to look elsewhere for a more satisfying conference affiliation.

Yet if the Red River flagships rapidly return to playing for national titles, the Big 12 could forge a path to long-term stability. Especially if Oklahoma and Texas turn their annual Dallas meeting into a de facto national quarterfinal again.

"Oklahoma and Texas are important enough to the Big 12, obviously, that, yeah, anytime both are good, it's going to be good for this league," Riley said.

Herman saw firsthand what a national championship -- and the restoration of a rivalry to prominence -- can do for an entire conference.

As Ohio State's offensive coordinator in 2014, he helped the Buckeyes navigate through a series of quarterback injuries to slip into the playoff, then capture the national title with convincing victories over Alabama and Oregon.

Previously, the Big Ten had been as viewed as too slow, its style of play too archaic, to compete with the SEC powers. But after Ohio State's magical run, that narrative radically changed. Which is why last season, the Buckeyes' victory over a resurgent, third-ranked Michigan proved enough to catapult them back to the playoff, even though they didn't win their own division.

Given its resources, Herman sees the same turnaround potential for Texas. Which in turn, would help achieve the same for the Big 12.

"I don't think that should ever be anyone's expectation," he said. "But it can happen."

No matter what happens, much is on the line for a new era of the Red River Showdown.

Sixty-eight days away, and counting.