NORMAN — Texas coach Tom Herman is in charge of America’s biggest college sports corporation and has backyard access to the cream of the annual crop in the nation’s most fertile recruiting grounds.
But Herman said Monday the Longhorns are just “a bunch of overachievers.”
Herman has the Longhorns back in the Big 12 Championship Game for the first time in nine seasons. UT finished the regular season 9-3 overall and 7-2 in league play, one game behind regular-season champ Oklahoma. The rivals meet again at 11 a.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas to determine this year’s Big 12 winner.
In Herman’s way of thinking, this season already has been a success for this Texas squad. He is finishing up just his second season, after all.
“We’re a bunch of overachievers right now,” Herman said. “… I don’t know which one of our guys are gonna be first-team all-conference. So we’re blue-collar kind of guys, we’re physical, we play hard, we play for each other, a culture of genuine love for the guy next to him.
“How did we do it? I don’t — I mean, it’s a complete 180 from what this place was. I would say we’re actually ahead of schedule, and I would credit the seniors, the leaders on this team for that, for buying in so quickly and so passionately to the way we do things, the way we expect our program to be run. And I think all the credit goes to them in terms of how we were able to do that so quickly.”
Texas has gritted out a handful of close victories this season, including a 48-45 last-second win over OU on Oct. 6 in the Cotton Bowl. That OU team has won three straight Big 12 titles and was an overwhelming preseason pick to win its fourth and, well, this week is a 7 1/2-point favorite to avenge its only loss of the season on Saturday.
“We’ve got a bunch of kids that are playing really hard … and being the most physical team in the Big 12, and one of the most physical in the country,” Herman said. “And when you play really hard and you hit really hard, you can mask and overcome a lot of talent discrepancies.”
Give both teams truth serum, then ask Texas how excited they are to have to play Oklahoma again after avoiding OU’s 21-point fourth-quarter rally and winning the last game by such a slim margin. Then ask Oklahoma. You’d likely get two different answers.
“I think Texas has had a tremendous year,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “They certainly deserve to be in this game without a doubt, and then we won the league outright again here in the regular season, so we deserve to be there, too. So I think it’s the two best teams in the conference going at it.
“It’s gonna have a different feel, though, because there’s always a lot riding on this game when you play it in October, no question about it, but there’s a lot of season left for both teams. This one, I think, I’m sure it’s gonna be heated, but I think it would have been heated no matter who the two teams were in there, just because of what you’re playing for: you’re playing for a championship. And to me, that trumps any of this.”
Texas won’t get a lot of sympathy for being “blue-collar” or being “overachievers.” That’s a hard sell. But not to Herman. He’s seen it up close, the buy-in and the attention to detail and the passion Texas players have devoted to his process.
“No, they’re overachieving,” he reiterated. “Our conference has a ton of talent. And we’ve got some talent too, don’t get me wrong. But we’re playing probably a little bit above our talent level right now.
“On our starting offense, our starting tailback’s a graduate transfer from an ACL reconstruction from Cal Berkley and our starting left tackle is a 277-pound grad transfer from Rice. … And we’re lucky and proud to have ‘em. They’re playing their tails off for us right now. But we’re definitely overachieving right now and it’s something we take a lot of pride in, too.
“Again, when you play with great effort and you play with great physicality and you protect the football, you’re always gonna have a chance to be in every game regardless of opponent.”
Herman and Riley both have stayed on the high road, but it’s clear that they’re adding to the storied rivalry.
Herman confirmed Monday that he’s tapping fired Kansas coach David Beaty as a resource to help in preparing for the game.
“More about just, ‘Hey, what did you see from us? What were our tendencies? What did you try to attack? Where did you think you could gain an advantage?’ Herman said. “So it’s pretty standard stuff. I don’t know why it’s that big of a deal. But he’s again, the snow there in Kansas City is making the actual physical appearance of David Beaty very difficult right now.”
Riley was asked whether he was utilizing any countermeasures.
“Coach Beaty can do what he wants to do,” Riley said. “I don’t like the precedent of it, of being able to bring in somebody from the league in the same year. I don’t think it’s good for the conference. It’s not against the rules, and if they want to do it, that’s fine.”
Any plans to put his brother, Garrett, who was on Beaty’s staff, to work this week?
“No comment,” Riley said.
It’s also clear that the Red River Rival quarterbacks don’t like each other. There was a bit of an emotional blowup during the postgame handshake at State Fair Park, with Texas’ Sam Ehlinger reportedly rushing up to Kyler Murray and, after being rebuked, ending the encounter by calling Murray a name.
“Um, you know, this is all I’ll say about it: If it was the other way around, I mean, I would’ve been with my teammates,” Murray said. “If we would’ve won the game, I wasn’t gonna run up to him in that moment.”
Well, at least Murray can say he respects Ehlinger’s game, right?
“I have no comment on that,” Murray said.
The fact that Herman and Riley are now squaring off with a conference championship on the line in just their second season is remarkable and absolutely stokes the Red River Rivalry fire.
“On the outside, I’m sure it adds a bunch of different intriguing storylines,” Riley said. “I think the league was good enough this year (that) … regardless of who the opponent was, it was gonna be teed up to be a great game. But I get the outside interest in it.
“It’s such an interesting deal with the way it’s all shaken out to kind of come back to this. It feels fitting, you know?”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.