When Tom Herman took over at Houston in 2015, he found it hard at first to convince players, administrators and even fans that the way the program operated had to change — in a big way. What did he know, anyway? Here was a guy who had never been a head coach telling a team that had been 8–5 and had used a remarkable fourth-quarter comeback to beat Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Bowl that he had a better way. The folks at UH knew what worked, at least when the Cougs weren’t losing to Texas State and UTSA.
But Herman knew a little bit, too. He had built record-breaking offenses at four other schools and had helped Ohio State win the 2014 national title, despite using a third-string QB during three postseason games. Herman had a simple message for the Houston crowd: 8–5 is nice, but I can do better.
“Those guys kind of thought, ‘We know what we’re doing, and you’re crazy; let us do it the old way,’” Herman says.
No chance. Herman brought his blend of high-level accountability, off-center sense of humor and unwillingness to accept just good enough to South Texas and promptly went 13–1. Included were a conference title, a 38–24 win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl and the No. 8 spot in the final AP rankings, the school’s highest position since 1979, when the 11–1 Cougars finished fifth. Guess Herman wasn’t so nuts, after all.
After two years and 22 wins at UH, Herman brings his madness to Austin, where the good news is that everybody realizes the Old Way just doesn’t work. Herman didn’t have to convince everybody that the facilities were outdated, the standards were not high enough and that not a single high school player in the state of Texas cared about Vince Young, Ricky Williams or Woo-Woo Worster, for that matter. Longhorn football is nothing like what it was, or frankly, what it should be. The flagship program in the flagship state for American football should not be losing seven games in three straight seasons.
“The kids here are genuinely embarrassed,” Herman says. “And that gives them added motivation for how hard they work and the ease and immediacy of their buying in. They know that whatever they were doing before was wrong, and they want to change it.”
From the outside, it would appear as if the UT job is the best and easiest in the entire FBS galaxy. Lone Star high schools produce enough talent to stock a dozen big-time programs. The Longhorns play in front of 100,000 fans each Saturday and boast a tradition unequaled throughout the Southwest. The UT athletic department spends more money than any other in the country. And the network of former players, alumni and fans extends from the Dallas boutiques through the Hill Country, the West Texas Scrub and to the deepest reaches of the Rio Grande. When the roll of football royalty is called throughout the U.S., Texas is always mentioned. It’s just plain good for the sport when the Longhorns are successful.
So, what happened? It would be easy to throw this all on Charlie Strong, whom AD Mike Perrin fired last November after just three seasons. But the Longhorns’ descent was more the result of an institutional attitude that had allowed the program to act as if it were better than the team’s play on the field indicated. The facilities had grown outdated; while schools like Oregon and Clemson were building palaces designed to dazzle 18-year-olds, UT’s football building looked like it was more suited for Waylon and Willie, with a western motif straight out of a roadhouse. Relationships with high school coaches had eroded somewhat, and the lack of winning had directed top recruits’ attention to more successful, hotter programs. There was no concerted social media presence to promote the program to fans and high school players, and the Texas recruiting staff was smaller than those at most top-caliber programs.
Everybody liked Strong, but he was caught in a vortex of arrogance that had kept Texas from joining the 21st century. Texas may have looked like a great job, but it was really the college football equivalent of a Potemkin village. Behind the veneer, there was little in place to help a coach win against the country’s more forward-thinking programs.
“The guts and size of the [football] building are actually really good,” Herman says. “The problem is that everything from the carpet to the wallpaper to the audio/visual equipment — you name it — was outdated. Eventually, we’re going to have to blow everything up and start from scratch. But we’re doing a multi-million dollar facelift that will get us into the top 10.”
Herman brings a decidedly modern approach to Texas’ program and has the talent, ideas, drive and connections to the state to return the Longhorns to prominence. He understands that Texas shouldn’t just be looking to win the Big 12, although since the program hasn’t topped the conference since 2009, that would be a good place to start. Herman wants much more, and his time at OSU taught him that achieving big things such as CFP berths requires a systemic commitment to attracting the best recruits in the nation, many of whom can be found in Texas. To do that, UT must have shiny facilities and plenty of wins. As Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari once said, “Tradition to an 18-year-old is three years.” If that’s the case, this year’s crop of high school seniors looks at the Texas program as one that loses seven games a year. They might as well go to — gasp! — A&M.
“Texas kids know a different Texas than [the Longhorn coaches] do,” Herman says. “When the class of 2018 looks at the last six years, they see two winning seasons.”
When Mack Brown was offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 1984, then-Sooners coach Barry Switzer told him that one day Brown would have a big job like OU and would “create a monster” by winning.
“[Switzer] said that you have to keep feeding the monster, because no matter how fast you throw food into its mouth, it comes out the back end faster,” Brown says. “You can’t keep it fed.”
Switzer’s “monster” refers to the many constituencies that a big-time head coach must address and satisfy. At Texas, that combination of fans, alumni, former players, parents, media, university regents, UT administrators and high school coaches may not seem any different than their counterparts at other Power 5 schools. But in a state as football mad as Texas, their influence is felt more directly, and their ability to create trouble is unmatched.
For instance, if a Texas coach recruits a player from out of state at a position in which a state high school coach happens to have a blue-chip player, the Longhorns boss runs the risk of alienating that coach and many others, thanks to a perceived lack of loyalty. And you can bet that that prep coach will show up at practice to see whether the interloper is indeed better than his player. Fans are so excited about their team that autograph sessions can turn into marathons. Brown says he had to spend an hour a week signing memorabilia and another hour a week answering emails from fans.
“I convinced myself that it was pride, not pressure,” Brown says. “The fans want Texas to win so badly, and they are so proud of the team when it wins. When we lost to Texas Tech in the last three seconds [39–33, in 2008], I felt like I let the whole state down.”
Former Texas coach Darrell Royal used to say that the Longhorn program was like “a box of BBs.” When they are all neatly packed in a box, things are good, and everybody is pulling for UT. When the team struggles, all of those “BBs” scatter and can be nearly impossible to get back into the box. Win 10 games — as Brown did every year from 2001-09 — and everybody loves you. Start to stumble, as the Longhorns did during his final four seasons in Austin, and things deteriorate quickly. Texas fans weren’t screaming for Strong’s ouster as the 2016 season wore on, but it was clear that by the time Texas lost at Kansas on the season’s penultimate weekend that a new direction was needed.
Bill Little, the venerable former sports information director at Texas who now serves as a special assistant to Perrin, is a walking encyclopedia of Longhorn football. He can tell you all about why Blair Cherry resigned in 1950, despite compiling a 32–10–1 record in four seasons (ulcers and insomnia caused by fans’ high expectations) and how Dave Allerdice quit in 1915 after going 33–7, because of “the super critical nature of the Texas fans.” He understands that Herman’s job comes with a level of expectations found at few other schools.
“The Texas fan settles for nothing less than winning them all,” Little says. “It’s a very hard job and a very demanding job. You have to be so many things to so many people.”
In 2014, when Connor Williams was a senior at Coppell High School in suburban Dallas, he had plenty of opportunities to play football at big programs other than Texas. In fact, Herman was his recruiter for Ohio State. But Williams’ uncles “bled burnt orange,” and his sister, Morgan, graduated from UT in 2013. “This was a place I needed to be,” he says.
Williams was named All-America at offensive tackle last year, a bright spot in a dreary season. He says the Longhorn players were excited when Herman was named new coach, thanks to his “track record at Houston.” That brought credibility. But it’s rare that a program — especially one with Texas’ huge personality — hires someone who hasn’t been successful at his previous stop. What Herman has done since arriving, beyond his design work, is build a bond with Williams and his mates.
Like his mentor, Urban Meyer, and other members of the OSU coach’s assistant tree (like Rutgers’ Chris Ash), Herman is about process and perfection. Nothing is done without a reason, and only success is tolerated.
“His attention to detail is the most impressive thing,” Williams says. “Everything in this program is happening for a reason. Everything has a purpose. And that carries on for us to have a purpose.”
However, Herman mixes in an enthusiasm and whimsy that make him different from the demanding Meyer and the hyper-intense Ash. There are certainly consequences for those who don’t do their jobs, whether that is on the field or in the classroom. But Herman has a lighter side. During winter conditioning drills, Herman would call out position groups that had particularly strong days and celebrate with them. Williams disputes the assertion that Texas isn’t a “cool place” to be for recruits, although ESPN rated the Longhorns’ 18-player signing class 33rd nationally, and only one of the top 20 Lone Star prospects will play for the Longhorns. (The Buckeyes took three of the 20.)
Despite his belief that Texas can compete for the Big 12 title this year, Herman understands that the job ahead is big. He’ll change the culture and improve the work ethic. He’ll make the Longhorn brand more exciting to prospects. He’ll help the school move boldly into the next decade in terms of facilities and attitude. It can’t all be done in one year, but there is hope. Four of the losses last year came by five points or fewer. Eight starters, including QB Shane Buechele, return on offense, and all sorts of experience returns on the other side of the ball, although UT ranked 94th in total defense last year. Don’t be surprised if Texas wins eight or nine games.
That’s a good start, but as we all know, eight or nine wins aren’t enough in Austin.
“The expectation is that you have to win 10 or more games every year,” Brown says. “I did that for nine years, and when we dropped down to eight or nine, the boosters weren’t happy.”
Because this isn’t Houston.
Written by Michael Bradley (@JonSolomonAspen) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.