At the South End Zone of DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium, deep in the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletics Center, standing outside a conference room is a shadowy figure. An opaque film covers the window to the door, so it’s impossible to make out the identity of the tall, slender person clacking at the doorknob with urgency as I speak with Tom Herman, the man tasked with turning Texas football around after three consecutive losing seasons.
But it isn’t a disgruntled player, or an angry booster, or an anxious assistant coach. It’s Fernando Lovo, Herman’s right-hand-man and chief of staff, a position he held under Herman at their last stop, the University of Houston.
“Fern!” Herman screams at the door. “Hang on,” he says to me, turning back to the right, though by now the figure is gone. “Fernando! Mom! Meatloaf!” Herman yells even louder, this time quoting the 2005 film Wedding Crashers, specifically Will Ferrell, an actor whose lines are endlessly repeated throughout high school hallways and boardrooms alike, and, as I learn, wherever Herman and his always-trimmed goatee are at any given moment. Suddenly, another door on the other side of the room opens, and Lovo pops his head in.
“Another thing I thought,” Herman says.
“What?” Lovo says.
Herman takes one look at me, and one look at my recorder. That won’t work, so they disappear out the door through which Lovo entered. Ninety seconds later, they re-emerge. “I doubt he will, to be honest with you,” Herman says to Lovo, before his staffer departs. It’s a conversation I cannot decode.
Without missing a beat, he turns back to me and launches into an answer to a question I asked what feels like an hour ago.
“There’s a fit for scheme, certainly. If you’re an under-center, pro-style, two and three tight end offense you’re going to want a different tight end than what we want in our offense …”
During our time together, the 42-year-old college football wunderkind, who rose to power after winning a national championship as offensive coordinator at Ohio State in 2014, then subsequently turned tiny Houston into a fearsome slayer of giants like Oklahoma and Florida State, does not halt his mind, always racing in several directions at once. A beep goes off in the conference room, and he speculates on its origin mid-answer, after taking a FaceTime call with a player during our interview, and endlessly checking his phone, which buzzes and dings relentlessly. The entire time, though, he doesn’t fudge answers or seem distracted or cut anything short. His full attention is, somehow, with everyone at every moment.
Later, All-American junior offensive tackle Connor Williams will tell reporters gathered at Jerry Jones’ shiny new Cowboys practice facility in Frisco, Texas, for the annual Big 12 Football Media Days, “To understand the mind of Tom Herman is impossible.” He laughs and shrugs after he says it, but it’s clear he believes the statement.
Herman is unlike any head coach Texas has ever seen. He tweets (a lot), video chats with recruits, and has a digital media team for videos like the one from April 7 taken of him swinging a sledgehammer at old Texas lockers, almost falling down in the process. Those lockers are gone because, in Herman’s words, the facilities at UT lag behind stalwart programs like Alabama and Ohio State, where a $10 million upgrade included new artwork in the hallways and a new dynamic entryway to the field. Drones flit about practice, recording plays from every angle. He kisses every player on the cheek before games; he is notoriously strict and punitive about details as small and personal as the color of a player’s urine. He cracked a joke about wanting a Justin Bieber song played for his walk-up music at Big 12 Media Days; at Houston, he appeared on local radio for almost 30 minutes to argue with the hosts. At Iowa State, he lost 20 pounds in a week after a fellow staffer joked that he looked chubby coming off a recruiting trip; he’ll also put down a 2,880-calorie Round Rock donut on a dare. He’s a Mensa member; he routinely quotes Hansel from Zoolander at practice.
Herman is simultaneously a player’s coach, like his mentor Mack Brown, and a detail-oriented hardass in the mold of Nick Saban (if Saban didn’t take himself so seriously). A turnaround of this magnitude necessitates a complex figure. It also requires the undying faith of about 100 players and a complete 180 from the last three years.
“The definition of insanity is repeatedly performing the same act expecting different results,” Herman says.
He wants—he needs—his players, many of whom were in elementary school the last time Texas won 10 games, to change. If anyone knows about transformation, it’s Tom Herman.
Shortly after enrolling at UC Davis as a wide receiver in 1993, Herman realized he had to change.
“I wasn’t good enough, fast enough,” he says. He compares his game to a guy who runs a 4.8 40 with 14 knee surgeries, the latter of which is shockingly true. His knee bones, devoid of cartilage, bump up against each other now.
Instead of riding the pine for the Aggies, he transferred to Cal Lutheran, just northwest of Los Angeles. His story at the tiny Division III school is Rudy-esque (his favorite sports film, tied with Hoosiers): He kept returning to football even as the number of surgeries reached double-digits. In 2014, an ESPN.com story reported that doctors had to grow his cartilage in a lab in order to fuse the bones back together, and that his knees were so tender that he couldn’t practice during the week his senior year, but would gut it out on Saturdays, and make “a handful of circus catches,” refusing to quit despite all the evidence piling up against his playing career.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 2, 1975, his parents, high school sweethearts, divorced just a year later. His mom remarried, and his stepfather’s job took them to Southern California. A Mensa member since 1998—“I think my dues are all paid now,” he says—in elementary school they’d pull Herman and the other gifted students out of class for a couple hours a day, three times a week to study other subjects. By the time he reached sixth grade at Atherwood Elementary, he was in a gifted program all day.
“I never thought it defined me,” Herman says, pulling out his phone, firing off a text, and plunking it on the table in front of him. “I was never a big academician.”
After college, without any material ties to the Southwest, he caught on as a wide receivers coach at Texas Lutheran for the 1998 season before enrolling as a graduate student and graduate assistant at Texas under Brown. After receiving his master’s degree from UT in kinesiology in 2000, he quickly rose through the coaching ranks. He got his first offensive coordinator job at Texas State after making a reported $10,000 per year coaching wide receivers and special teams at Division I-AA Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas, from 2001-04. He was hired in San Marcos by Bobcats coach David Bailiff, on recommendations from Texas OC Greg Davis and then-Texas State DC Craig Naivar, now on Herman’s staff. When Bailiff left for Rice in 2007, Herman followed, calling offensive plays for two seasons. In 2008, his final season before departing for Iowa State, where Herman led the offense for three seasons, Rice finished tied for eighth in the nation at more than 41 points per game. Herman called Ames, Iowa, “Siberia,” a place he “did a three-year sentence,” to a consort of UH business students in 2016. Nevertheless, the Cyclones took down No. 19 Texas in Austin in 2010, beat No. 2 Oklahoma State the following year, and made two bowls during Herman’s tenure.
Then he met the coach who would transform not only his coaching style, but his entire mindset on how a football team was supposed to operate. Urban Meyer, newly hired at Ohio State in 2012, tapped Herman to run the Buckeyes’ offense. Herman says he thought he was ready to be a head coach during his time at Iowa State, but his time under Meyer put him over the edge in terms of preparation, and, most importantly, in the way of staff alignment.
“We joke and it’s like, ‘If coach does poorly, we’ll fire the coach, and the new coach will just come in and fix it,’” Herman says. “Well hang on. What about the administration? What about all the support services that go into touching the football player? They directly affect wins and losses—I mean, immensely.”
Herman is not a micromanager, according to Texas strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight, but he wants to know the miniscule details that make the team tick, whether that’s how much water a defensive back is drinking each day (hence, the urine), or how much an offensive lineman squats.
“That’s what’s going on in that brain. It’s churning—constantly,” McKnight says. “You have some head coaches who do that and some who don’t—they’re X’s and O’s—ball is ball and training is training. For him, it’s all about getting better: lifting, running, treatments, nutrition. He wants to know, to educate.”
This is what Meyer ingrained in him at Ohio State, that, according to Herman, “everything matters” when it comes to wins and losses. In Columbus, Ohio, Herman spearheaded an offense for a Buckeyes team that won a national championship despite losing its first- and second-string quarterbacks during the year, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. The latter was a highly touted recruit from Wichita Falls that Herman snagged from the state of Texas.
Before the inaugural college football playoff started, Houston gave Herman $6.75 million over five years to coach the Cougars. Houston Chronicle beat writer Joseph Duarte followed Herman to Arlington to cover the new Houston head coach as he completed his journey at Ohio State, which culminated with a 42-20 national championship win over Oregon on Jan. 12, 2015. A PR person from UH had sent a Cougars hat up to the Metroplex, and when the game ended, Herman proudly put it on his head. Five months shy of his 40th birthday, he had arrived. Except his long, arduous, emotional day wasn’t done. At 2 a.m., Duarte sat with him in an empty ballroom, but Herman didn’t look ready to call it a night.
“This guy had the look of someone who was ready to jump in,” Duarte says. “He was intent on making his first stop as memorable as possible.” Herman watched the sun rise, then hopped in his car and drove four hours straight to his office on the University of Houston campus, where he got to work immediately.
Herman’s Cougars started 10-0 in 2015, walloping AAC rivals and non-conference foes with aplomb. It was the most memorable first year for a head coach since Kevin Sumlin—himself a former Cougars head coach from 2008-11—guided Texas A&M to an 11-2 record in their first year in the SEC in 2012.
Immediately, though, Herman was linked to higher profile jobs in the SEC, at South Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri.
“It took away the honeymoon period for him,” Duarte says. “Here’s an up-and-coming first-time head coach—he’d barely decorated his office—and here come reports that he’s up for [another] job.” Houston more than doubled his salary during the season to $3 million in an effort to stave off the big schools for at least another year.
Then, Art Briles was booted out of Waco in the spring of 2016, leaving the Baylor job open. The prospect was even more intriguing with a familiar face heading the athletics department, Mack Rhoades. He was coincidentally rewarded with that position after hiring Tom Herman at Houston.
When Charlie Strong posted consecutive losing seasons at Texas, Herman’s name was immediately thrust forward as his replacement before the 2016 season, assuming there wouldn’t be a miraculous turnaround for the Texas coach. And why not? A young alumnus and Brown disciple who had almost two decades of experience recruiting in Texas, someone who had coached up not one but a trio of stellar quarterbacks—the weakest link in Strong’s resume at Texas—in Barrett, Miller, and Cardale Jones, and posted a 13-1 record in his first season in Houston made boosters and fans alike salivate. But then the Longhorns beat Notre Dame in overtime at home to open 2016. “The Longhorns are back!” screamed the masses in Austin. Without a magnificent collapse, the Texas job wasn’t open. And amid an ongoing flood of reports from the sexual assault accusations that forced Briles out of town, the Baylor job seemed too toxic to touch.
Then, a month into the season, LSU fired head coach Les Miles, and Texas dropped three straight. Notre Dame turned into a pumpkin, proving the Longhorns’ opener was less impressive than it seemed. Houston scrambled, reportedly offering another seven-figure raise to the man who, depending on who you believed, would be living in Baton Rouge or Austin in a few short months.
Duarte says it wore on Herman, who spent his time with the media after practices batting down reports of phantom “imminent deals” with Texas and LSU.
“I think the constant barrage weighed on him and was clearly a distraction for some of the biggest losses they had last year,” Duarte says, who was forced by his journalistic due diligence to ask Herman every time the rumors cropped up, as flimsy as they were.
Though Herman says it was “never overwhelming,” his position with the press had become, if not adversarial, woefully tense. In January of 2016, Herman called into SportsRadio 610 to set the record straight about a phone call he had with Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen. John Lopez, a former newspaper columnist turned radio personality, had previously reported that Allen and Herman had met in person in Houston. It was a matter of semantics, Lopez and his co-host Nick Wright asserted—a phone call versus an in-person conversation—but the wording had implications for NCAA violations and the recruitment of another quarterback.
What ensued was a terse, 22-minute debate, during which Herman questioned the journalistic integrity of the hosts, who replied that the show was just for entertainment.
Herman calls the interview “an ambush,” and says he’ll never call into a radio show for that purpose again.
“I had seen the ratings before that, and nobody was talking about their show before,” he says. “I played into their hands and gave them what they wanted. I was really angry and I let that get the best of me.”
The morning after Thanksgiving, Houston lost 48-44 to Memphis on the road. A few hours later, TCU demolished Texas in Austin, the death knell for Strong. The next morning, in quick succession, Texas fired Strong and made Herman the 30th coach in the school’s history with a five-year, $28.75 million- (plus bonuses) deal.
Herman was coming back to where his coaching life began. Shortly after arriving in Austin, he was asked to sign a painting that, among others, contained the signatures of Mack Brown and Darrell K Royal. It was a pit-of-your-stomach kind of moment for Herman. He carefully signed his name in tiny print in the right corner, almost off the edge.
“I didn’t want to devalue this painting,” he says.
After Herman was introduced to the media, a press conference attended by Brown, former UT Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds, and Edith Royal, he stormed into his first meeting with the players. In a stern voice, he told them to put both feet on the floor, sit up straight, and look him in the eyes. He repeated the exercise every 10 minutes or so, or when he saw a player slouching.
“We just endured the worst three-year stretch in Texas history,” Herman remembers telling the players, some of whom had threatened to boycott the season finale against TCU three days earlier. The approach, to an outsider, seemed like an optics nightmare, antithetical to the culture surrounding the players still in the program, many of whom had felt scorned by Strong’s firing. That, Herman says, was precisely why he did it: The culture was all wrong; the players didn’t care about losing anymore. It worked. Coming off three years of Strong’s even-keeled, steely, silent-type approach, Herman’s first impression, at least among the team’s vocal leaders, bonded them together.
“There was no resistance,” says junior punter Michael Dickson. “It was a tough transition, but everyone wants to win, so we just got together.”
Senior defensive end Naashon Hughes took the opportunity to step up. Like Dickson, Locke, and Williams, Herman chose Hughes to represent the Longhorns in Frisco not because of seniority, as is usual for Texas in these situations (Dickson, Locke, and Williams are juniors), but because of how they’ve responded to their new coach.
“Palms up, [that’s] a sign of defiance for us and our culture. There was no palms-up moment for us,” he says. “We wanted to get to that next level, and we knew Coach Herman could do that for us.”
On the subject of losing—Texas was 16-21 under Strong—Herman is unwavering. He says losing feels worse than winning feels good, period, end of story.
“You can never get used to losing. Losing is awful. It’s awful,” he says. “The sky is falling. It’s not funny, or hokey, or corny. It’s really, really bad for them to lose.”
Herman’s practices—and his culture at large—have become, as players call it, “training for chaos.” Everything is a competition, from wind sprints to GPA scores, and to the victors go the spoils. In Frisco, Connor Williams flashes a brand new pair of Kevin Durant Nikes, a coveted piece of swag that he and fewer than 30 other players on the roster won during a quarterly competition.
Senior cornerback P.J. Locke recalls that, earlier in camp, the winners of a certain competition were treated to a delicious breakfast, while he, a loser on that day, was forced to serve teammate DeShon Elliott ice-cold Gatorade after the latter strutted down a red carpet.
“Guys who won got good breakfast. Guys who lost got trash breakfast: burnt toast, cold pancakes,” Locke says. “I thought, ‘If I keep losing, I’ll be eating trash breakfasts. If I win … crispy bacon.’”
Herman is also, though none of the assistants or players I spoke with for this story agreed with this term, blunt. Now, calling out the defensive line as “fat guys” whose “effort as a group has not been to our requirements here in this program” on March 6 of this year is perhaps “brutally honest” or “pointed” or “brusque,” or whatever you want to call it, but, like many of his methods so far, it has been effective.
Defensive line coach Oscar Giles—who was a graduate assistant with Herman in 1999 and spent a total of 10 seasons at Texas under Brown–and McKnight both used the word “transparent” to describe this tactic.
“Coach Herman doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and I can appreciate that as a coach,” Giles says. “I told our guys to get used to it. They were like, ‘Whoa, he called us fat.’ Guess what, you are. Maybe that’s a wake up call.”
McKnight, tasked with slimming down the defensive line, kicked them into gear, with little resistance. “They can sit around and sulk and be mad or take it as a challenge, and they did,” he says. “There are things that are said that are strategic. But they’re also true.”
Giles, for what it’s worth, also saw Herman’s comments as a way to galvanize the defensive line, to get them into a troop mentality, and less focused on themselves than the vision Herman had set forth before them.
“It’s not just you,” Giles says. “When he called you fat, he called me fat. We’re all in this together. As your position coach, it’s my job to get you there. We got the problem; let’s find the solution.”
Locke, at Big 12 Media Days, told reporters that Herman “plays mind games like a wizard,” a comment that, when relayed back to Herman, elicited from the coach, decked out in a tailored gray suit and a pair of shiny brown oxfords, a loud cackle. By the end of the spring, Herman had mentioned to Giles that the defensive line was the hardest working group he’d seen, and McKnight told me he was pleased with how trim and strong the group had gotten.
The wizard’s trick, it seems, is simply telling the truth, brutal as it may be.
Now, about the kissing: Herman is probably going to plant a wet one on each and every Longhorn before games. He just hasn’t yet because, of course, the season hasn’t begun. He also tells the scrum of reporters in Frisco, with only a hint of sarcasm, that there are a few players that he’s not sure he loves yet. He also thinks it’s weird that everybody thinks it’s weird, especially because on recruiting trips, he tells players and their parents that he will treat them like a son.
“This is gladiatorial stuff—the consequence is not death—but here are these human beings putting on 10 pounds of armor, going into battle, going to run into each other 80 times in a three-hour span for the enjoyment of the masses,” Herman says. “If my son were about to go into that environment, you know what I would do? I would hug him, I would kiss him on the cheek, and I would say, ‘Son, I’m proud of you. I love you. Do your best.’”
Herman has two sons of his own—Thomas Danger (TD) and Maverick, plus a daughter, Priya—and, like most loving fathers, he kisses them. “I hope I kiss them until the day I die,” Herman says, his voice beginning to quiver. “Why that’s weird to people, I’m not sure. I view myself as a parent to these young men in a lot of different ways.”
Herman says he started doing this long before he arrived in Houston. He did it at Iowa State and Ohio State to his offensive players, but offensive coordinators rarely get screen-time in pregame warmups.
When a reporter asks Herman near the end of his 90-minute session with the press if his players fear him, he pauses.
“You gotta love ’em. You gotta believe in ’em. But you also gotta challenge ’em, hold ’em to really high standards, and you have to discipline them, too,” Herman says. “Is it fear? I don’t know. Respect … fear. There should be a healthy level of not wanting to disappoint that person.”
Cardale Jones, the Ohio State quarterback under Herman’s tutelage who became infamous in 2012 with a tweet that read, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS,” went on to lead the Buckeyes to the 2014 national title despite starting the season No. 3 on the depth chart. Jones says the preparation Herman instilled in him, to carry himself like he was the starter even when he wasn’t, led to the seamless transition when Jones had to step up. This May, Jones, now with the Los Angeles Chargers, graduated from Ohio State. Herman was the first person Jones invited to commencement, and he and his wife Michelle flew out to watch him receive his diploma.
“He stayed on me—not only honing my craft but getting my degree,” he says. “I know it meant a lot to him.”
The expectations, by the same token, are incredibly high for Herman himself, despite following a coach who failed to live up to the standards set before him. In fact, either by luck or by design, Herman’s two stops as a college football head coach have followed the unwritten coaching rule of: You don’t want to be the guy who follows a legend; you want to be the guy who follows the guy who follows the legend.
At Houston, Herman took over for Tony Levine, who, after three lackluster seasons with the Cougars is now an assistant with Purdue. Levine took over when Texas A&M poached his predecessor Kevin Sumlin, who took Houston to three bowls in four years, capping off his tenure with a 12-1 season, going undefeated in-conference. Sumlin made Houston relevant again, a coveted stepping-stone job for a young coach rising through the ranks, but Herman had the benefit of skipping a generation before stepping in. The team he took over was just OK, finishing 8-5 in 2014, meaning his 13-1 breakout season made him look even more like a mastermind than the cover of the most recent issue of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football proclaims.
Herman, of course, faces an easier task at Texas than his predecessor, Strong, who replaced the mythical Brown, winner of a national championship and a nominee for the 2018 College Football Hall of Fame class. Strong’s tenure began with famed Texas booster Red McCombs lambasting the hire in a radio interview mere days after the announcement, calling it a “kick in the face.” Strong was also the first black head coach—in any men’s sport—at The University of Texas, a notion he played down during his tenure but, after his firing, he discussed in detail with Fox Sports. “When you’re the first minority coach at a major university like that, you feel like there’s so many people counting on you,” Strong said.“I got upset at myself for not being successful, and I got upset at myself because you feel like you let a lot of people down. There are only so many African-American coaches, so when you get on a stage like that … ”
Herman is also inheriting a roster filled with three straight top-16 recruiting classes, one with two potential 2018 first-round NFL draft picks in Williams and linebacker Malik Jefferson. He is treating this not as cleaning up Strong’s mess, but rather as a completely blank slate, mentioning numerous times since his hiring that he hasn’t watched one minute of film from Texas’ 2016 season, refusing to pencil in any veteran as an automatic starter, and other various forms of coach-speak that are used as motivational tools to players in the bubble and on the bubble.
Back in Frisco, as the clock winds down, Herman is desperate to go, asking if he’s done soon. But first, a reporter, who mentions he’s a student, asks about the importance of the student section at DKR. Seasoned beat writers look at each other, aghast. One local reporter rolls his eyes. But Herman, deeply passionate about every facet of the football experience, embarks on a three-part answer. He gives two examples from his time at OSU and UH when a student section, in his words, “directly impacted winning and losing,” and also mentions that he is pushing for the section, currently split in two, to be merged into one raucous zone of frenzied orange and white fans in DKR’s south side.
“It’s not great,” Herman says. “We were not able to fix it when we got here. We’re going to rectify it for next season.”
His answer is as measured and thoughtful as if he’d been asked about his love for Cardale Jones or how many plates Malik Jefferson is power cleaning these days. That’s because it matters. In Tom Herman’s world, everything does.