For as long as almost anyone currently following college football has been alive, the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners have needed to know what the other team is up to.
A number of legendary head coaches have walked the sidelines of Campbell-Williams Field in Austin or Owen Field in Norman, Okla., and some have supposedly gone as far as espionage in order to acquire info on the rival program. Those coaches then faced each other in the Cotton Bowl regardless of whether the rivalry game was a conference matchup or not.
But with OU’s tabbing of Brent Venables to replace Lincoln Riley, a new dynamic exists between head coaches of the two schools that the Red River Rivalry hasn’t seen in decades.
Texas’ Steve Sarkisian carries a strong reputation for his offensive acumen in what is the second chapter of his career as a head coach. Venables, once the Sooner defensive coordinator before contributing to the tremendous ascent of the Clemson football program in the same role, heads to Norman with complete control of a program for the first time in his career.
Sarkisian is Texas’ offensive play-caller. Venables could be the same for the Sooner defense, but whether he is or not, his chops are on the defensive side of the ball. Not only will these two coaches face each other on the recruiting trail, their sides of the football will duke it out in Dallas once per year.
There’s more to individual football games than one side of the ball on one team. Both Sarkisian and Venables are head coaches of entire programs, not head coaches of the offense or defense.
But when they meet, a significant focus will zero in on their respective units’ performance against each other.
The two have collided on one occasion: the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship between Alabama and Clemson. However, Sarkisian was elevated to the Crimson Tide’s play-caller after Lane Kiffin accepted the Florida Atlantic job. Sarkisian wasn’t calling his own offense, he was pinch hitting for Kiffin.
It’s difficult to take a result from the 2016 season between two football giants as an indicator of what could happen the next time Texas and Oklahoma meet in the Cotton Bowl in 2022.
But when it happens, the accrued expertise on the side of the ball overseen by the two head coaches might exceed that of the closest analog to the current dynamic set by Texas’ John Mackovic and Oklahoma’s Gary Gibbs.
In 1992, 1993, and 1994, Mackovic, the former head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Gibbs, Barry Switzer’s defensive coordinator for nine seasons, faced off in the battle between Southwest Conference and Big 8 titans.
The Longhorns took two-of-three in those matchups. Gibbs resigned at the end of the 1994 season and took a hiatus from coaching. Mackovic remained at Texas for three more seasons, winning two conference titles before bottoming out in 1997.
The bona fides of Mackovic and Gibbs could very well be matched if not exceeded by Sarkisian and Venables. Venables has been a part of three national championship staffs, two at Clemson and one at Oklahoma. Sarkisian has helped win college football’s top prize at both USC and Alabama.
Along the way, they’ve produced national award winners, NFL draft picks, and even Heisman recipients. They’ve also collected one Broyles Award apiece, given annually to the nation’s top assistant coach.
No longer are these two up for the Broyles Award. They are leading their own programs, now tied at the hip ahead of a future move from the Big 12 to the SEC.
Sarkisian undoubtedly picked up a trick or two from Nick Saban during his brief time in Tuscaloosa about how to operate in the SEC. Though Clemson is an ACC program, the Tigers under Dabo Swinney operated on the same plane as the elites of the SEC, with two national championships to show for it.
The challenge both Oklahoma and Texas hope their men are up for is succeeding on their own in the new SEC, whenever the schools make the move.
Those will be difficult waters to navigate. Oklahoma has reached for a foothold on that elite plane for much of the past decade, but constantly ends up a rung or two away.
Texas in the past decade plus? Well, there’s been one ten-win season it needed 14 games to accomplish. And zero conference titles to show for it.
The program leadership capabilities of the head coaches in Norman and Austin are mostly unproven. Sarkisian’s exploits on the West Coast were a while ago, and the sport was in a different place. Venables has worked for national champion coaches, but has yet to venture out on his own.
It’ll be a test, but there is little to doubt about the schematic chops of both Sarkisian and Venables. Both across the Red River and the neutral zone, they’ll battle for recruits, wins, and yards.
Their record against each other may well be determined by the individual performances by their areas of expertise.