HOUSTON — Sitting on a stage in NRG Stadium, flanked on each side by helmets of two of college football's premier programs, it might be easy for Todd Graham and Kevin Sumlin to forget their humble beginnings.
Sumlin's Texas A&M Aggies have yet to lose more than five games in the three seasons Sumlin has been in charge, despite being newcomers to the SEC, a conference that is also home to the likes of Alabama, Auburn, LSU and host of other household names. Meanwhile, Graham resurrected a program that was stuck in neutral under Dennis Erickson and has turned ASU into perennial conference title contenders.
Yet, it didn't take even five minutes into their dual news conference — a day before the two would face off on national television in an NFL stadium — for Graham to address their Conference USA history.
With Sumlin at the helm of the Houston and Graham Tulsa, the two's Conference USA tenure overlapped from 2008-10. In that time, Graham's Golden Hurricane edged Sumlin's Cougars by three games overall. But it was Sumlin who had the slight upper hand head-to-head.
But in that first matchup in 2008, the upper hand wasn't so slight.
"They kicked our butt really good," Graham said. "It's been hard to forget that one."
Sumlin's squad hung a crooked 70 on the scoreboard against Graham's not-so-vaunted defense (at least back then) en route to a 40-point blowout. "But that one wasn't as bad as the second one," Graham remembered.
It was back and forth all game before Sumlin made the bold but necessary call to go for — and recover — an onside kick.
Then, "they kicked like a 50..."
"Three. Fifty three (yard field goal)," Sumlin interjected, to a room full of laughs at how vividly the coach, now six years removed, remembered the game-winning kick.
Graham finally got his revenge in their final season together in Conference USA, with a 28-25 victory.
Despite having a brief history with each other, and Sumlin's ribbing about stealing recruits from within the walls Graham's tried to build around the state of Arizona, the coaches seemed to have a pleasant discourse. This coming as the two sat just feet apart, while in just over 24 hours, they'll be standing on opposite sidelines on the field that lies a brief walk down the NRG Stadium tunnels in the underbelly of the Houston Texans' home stadium.
Certainly, a scene less awkward than the last time Graham shared a stage with a fellow coach, on SportsCenter with Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, with whom Graham has an even more extensive history.
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