Jalen Hurts is the most experienced quarterback in college football and among the most successful in the history of the game. When he takes the field for No. 6 Oklahoma on Saturday (noon ET, FOX), Hurts will play in his 48th collegiate game. He is 31-2 as a starter. He played in three national championship games at Alabama.
Until the Sooners dropped to No. 6 in Week 5 of this season — punished for the crime of taking off Week 4 — Hurts had never played for a team ranked outside the top 5.
But as long as his college football résumé is, Hurts has never played in the Red River Showdown. He has never descended that concrete ramp in the Cotton Bowl on the second Saturday in October and been coldcocked by that wall of sound.
Four decades have passed since Thomas Lott played quarterback at Oklahoma, and when Lott starts talking about playing Texas, he is 20 years old again, wearing a bandana underneath his helmet, running the wishbone for Barry Switzer and the Sooners.
“Walking down that ramp, and walking into that stadium, when you step onto that field, and that stadium erupts, there is no feeling in the world like that,” Lott said.
There’s the setting, smack in the middle of the State Fair of Texas, beneath the benevolent gaze of Big Tex.
There’s the 50-50 split of fans in the Cotton Bowl, 75,000 Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners proving what anyone who isn’t colorblind already knows: Burnt orange and crimson clash off the field, too.
There’s another characteristic unique to the Red River Showdown: So many Texans cross the border to play for Oklahoma. It is a sign of the sheer amount of football talent in Texas, a sign of the credibility that Oklahoma established after World War II and maintains to this day, from Bud Wilkinson to Chuck Fairbanks to Barry Switzer to Bob Stoops to Lincoln Riley.
For decades, Oklahoma has had more native Texans on its roster than it has had, to coin a lyric, Sooners born and Sooners bred.
Hurts, for all his experience, has never taken the field as a Texas native wearing the crimson and cream of the Longhorns’ biggest rival. Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who grew up a Sooners fan in Austin, Texas, trying to keep his head afloat in a sea of burnt orange, said it’s “absolutely” a different experience.
“I think if you’re born around it, and you know how much it truly means to the people that are invested in it every year,” said Mayfield, who went 2-1 in three starts against the Longhorns, “I think it means a whole lot more.”
Hurts grew up more interested in Texas A&M than he did Texas or OU, and, of course, he spent the past three seasons at Alabama more interested in the SEC than the Big 12.
“I see it. I hear it,” he said this week of the hum of Texas-OU. “I respect the tradition here at this school. Obviously, people care about it a lot. I care about winning. I’ll approach it that way. Try to go out there and handle business.”
If that sounds anodyne, bloodless, well, Hurts has some inkling that Saturday will be special. He knows the history of the Cotton Bowl and the 50-50 crowd.
“I’ve never been to the State Fair,” Hurts said. “When I drive home to Houston, I ride by the stadium and get a glimpse of it. Any of my family members that have driven from Houston [to the Oklahoma campus], they always mention passing the stadium.”
Knowing that the Cotton Bowl isn’t just any stadium will help. Hurts, like former Aggie Kyler Murray, transferred into this rivalry and will get only one shot at it. Murray, now with the Arizona Cardinals, said this week, “It’s different than any other game.”
This season will mark the sixth consecutive season in which a Texas native has started for OU, from Trevor Knight of San Antonio (2014), to Mayfield of Austin (2015-17) to Murray of Allen (2018) to Hurts of Channelview, 15 miles east of Houston. In the six decades before that, for all the Texans who played for Oklahoma, there hadn’t been a whole lot of quarterbacks.
The most famous spiriting of a Texan across the border occurred in the fall of 1967, when a young Oklahoma assistant named Barry Switzer became an unofficial member of the Mildren family in Abilene as he pursued Jack Mildren.
“I spent every Thursday night in Abilene, Texas, with Larry and Mary Glynne [Jack’s parents],” Switzer said, “and ate with them, and I sat in the easy rocking chair and watched Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton with Larry Mildren.”
Mildren signed with Oklahoma and never looked back. He started at quarterback when the Sooners converted to the wishbone in 1970, started for them as a senior in 1971 when Oklahoma went 11-1 and finished second to Nebraska. Mildren put down roots in Oklahoma and the state rewarded him by electing him lieutenant governor in 1990. He died in 2008 at age 58.
Switzer, as an assistant and, by 1973, as the Oklahoma head coach, became renowned for signing African-American players out of Texas while his counterpart in Austin, Darrell Royal, dithered. Switzer signed Lott out of San Antonio in the winter of 1975, even though, on signing day, Switzer had to improvise. Wendell Mosley, the assistant recruiting Lott, didn’t bring the national letter of intent.
“We get ready to sign him,” Switzer said, “and all of a sudden, I asked Wendell, ‘Hey, Wendell you got the papers?’
“I said, ‘Wendell, the head coach doesn’t bring the damn national signing papers.'”
Switzer stalled the Lotts for four hours while a plane carrying no passengers delivered the paperwork from Norman to San Antonio.
By his sophomore year, 1976, Lott debuted as a starter against Texas.
“We knew that the players we were playing against at the University of Texas were some of the best players in the state of Texas because we had played against them,” Lott said. “We had played with them. We respected the players. It was the university. The university was the problem we had. That burnt orange color. The Longhorn emblem on the helmet.”
Paul Thompson, who grew up just north of Austin, started at quarterback for Oklahoma as a fifth-year senior in a 28-10 loss in 2006. Thompson turned down a scholarship offer from Longhorns coach Mack Brown because the Texas staff wanted Thompson to move to wide receiver.
“He had a nice one,” Thompson said. “Vince [Young] was coming in. We were the same year.”
But once Thompson committed to Oklahoma, he said players on the other side of the line of scrimmage called him “traitor” and “Okie.”
“It was kind of weird,” said Thompson, 35, now an entrepreneur in Edmond, Oklahoma. “I was the one out there, I was the one sacrificing my body. All my friends back home? If they wanted to call and talk noise, at the end of the day, I’m the one who has to go out on that field. You can just bump your gums and yap and you don’t have to actually produce anything. So you get to the point where you mute your phone. Leading up to that week, it was personal.”
Bob Stoops, who coached Oklahoma from 1999 through 2016, signed Thompson and many other future Sooners stars out of Texas.
“There’s a little bit of, ‘Where are your parents going to work if you go up there to Oklahoma?'” Stoops said. “I used to tell kids if that ever did come up, ‘This is America. You don’t need a passport to get up to Oklahoma. What are you going do if the New England Patriots draft you in the first or second round? Are you going to tell them you can’t go? You gotta stay in Texas?'”
On the other hand, Stoops didn’t sign his last quarterback, Mayfield, as a recruit. Mayfield showed up as a transfer, as did Murray, as did Hurts. The three of them took a more circuitous route from Texas to Oklahoma. And on the second Saturday in October, they return to Dallas, right at home in a crimson helmet.
Jake Trotter and Josh Weinfuss contributed to this story.