My education as a head coach: What has gone into starting to reshape Houston's program
Houston hired former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman as its head coach on Dec. 15, 2014. In the last eight months he has received an education on the life of a head coach—in advance of his debut 52-24 victory over Tennessee Tech on Sept. 5, he did everything from speaking at a local rodeo to ripping up tiles in the Cougars' athletics facility to putting in the foundation for a 2016 recruiting class that ranks No. 44 nationally, according to Rivals.com. Herman revealed to Campus Rush everything that goes into a coach's first head job, and the progress of his attempt to build Houston into "a mini–Ohio State."
When I was the offensive coordinator at Rice in 2007, there was an elite quarterback coming out of Stratford High in Houston. He made it very clear: If Texas didn't offer him a football scholarship, he was going to go to an academically minded school. So, his final three schools were Northwestern, Stanford and Rice. We were on his list for three reasons: He's from Houston; his dad was the president of MLS's Houston Dynamo; and his mom and maternal grandparents graduated from the school. Long story short, he had been on campus a couple of times, and I had always known well in advance he was coming.
Rice didn't have very nice facilities, so I knew which hallways to walk him down and where to hide him—I knew what doors to keep closed so he did not see certain things. Meanwhile, we planned any way we could to polish up the facilities. But during the spring my office phone rang and it's the quarterback's dad. I'm thinking, "Great!" I take the call, and he says, "Coach Herman, my wife and son and I are in the parking lot. Can we come up and spend some time with you?" I said, "Of course," but I'm thinking to myself, "Oh no! Oh god! What do I do?"
So, I spent the next two hours fumbling around, and the kid saw all our warts. I went home that night feeling terrible—a combination of wanting to vomit profusely and curl up in the fetal position. I knew he was getting on a flight to Palo Alto the next day to visit Stanford. I knew what they were going to show him. And I knew that we were done. We had failed. Would we have gotten him? Probably not. But we failed. We did not put our best foot forward.
That quarterback was Andrew Luck.
I've told that story every day since I arrived at Houston. Every day when I roll into the parking lot, close my car door and start walking into the football facility, I say to myself, "What if Andrew Luck shows up today?" And I walk in, pick up gum wrappers and inspect the floor. We need new paint on the walls, new pictures, all sorts of things. In the city of Houston, there's a very real chance that the next Andrew Luck could show up in our offices today. It's almost a mantra for our coaches: Your offices better stay neat. You better have a highlight tape ready, a recruitment presentation ready, all your spiels ready, because there are 10 five-star prospects living within 20 minutes of us and they can show up at any time. Before I got here this building was not seen as a recruiting tool, but as a place to house employees. We're slowly but surely changing that.
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When I took over this program, it wasn't broken. The team went 8–5 the past two seasons. But a lot of things inside and outside of the program needed to be updated and upgraded. It all starts with the players. This is a players-first program, and there's a lot of talent here.
The thing that I began focusing on in the spring—and I learned a lot of this from Urban Meyer at Ohio State—is establishing the foundation of program. I'll be honest, I've taken about 90% of the foundation of the program from Urban—conditioning, class schedules and structure of the program. This place is like a mini-Ohio State. I'm sure Urban, when he got his first job at Bowling Green in 2001, he didn't just invent all this stuff. He got it from somewhere and twisted and turned it. So, my job is to take what works, what I like, what I thought was great, and add maybe a few little personal beliefs to it. Two of the key components of Urban's program are the strength coach and football operations. I took Fernando Lovo from Ohio State to run operations, and hired Yancy McKnight, who I worked with at Iowa State, as my strength coach. Those guys are like co-head coaches. I treat them that way and the players treat them that way.
Right when we got here, we needed to overhaul not just the motivation, but also the psychology of motivation. It's one thing that Urban is the best at, and I learned a ton from him about how to motivate players. I think I can be good at it, too, but I've had to change. I was the fun guy. I wanted everyone to like me.
One thing that not enough coaches know how to do—but the thing I learned from Urban that is fantastic—is how to use public praise and criticism. By public, I mean within the team, where you can say to one of your best players, "You stunk today," or, "What you're doing is unacceptable." It's something they didn't have around here. We run the program like a family. Families are honest, families are open. When you mess up, you're going to know it and so are all your brothers. You test positive for a drug test, the entire team—trainers, coaches, everyone—will know, there's no whispering behind each other's back. And you can't always criticize the second-team outside linebacker and not the quarterback.
One of our best players is William Jackson III, a defensive back from Houston. Earlier this spring, I called out our cornerbacks: "Last time I checked, William can't play left corner and right corner in the same game. So, someone in that group has to step up." Not long after, one of the corners showed up 45 minutes late for one of our summer workouts (where we can work with the kids for two hours a week). I went over, stopped the corners' drills and ripped the whole group, not just the kid who was late—ripped the position coach and William Jackson, too. Then I went over to the safeties and told them that their group had no leadership. I told the defensive backs that I don't trust William Jackson. I learned from Urban, who is just a phenomenal motivator, what truly inspires someone—he digs deep into that. William Jackson wants to be a great leader. I promise you he does, and when you call him out in front of his team and his peers, William Jackson has two ways to go. Either he goes in the tank or he responds. Later that day I had a meeting with him and built him up and told him how much I love him. That's a little peek behind the curtain.
One thing that I've gotten much better at is confrontation with my assistant coaches. I've learned that it's O.K., you just can't ever make it personal. I think that's one thing that you learn from someone like Urban, or if you've heard Nick Saban talk. It's never personal. It's never, "You stupid jerk, why did I hire you?" The way to handle it is, "You're not doing your job. This is what we need you to do. Get it done. These are the expectations."
As far as on the field, the first thing that comes to mind is that in spring ball I didn't know what to do. It's an odd paradox that I'm in charge of all of this, but I'm really not in charge of any of it if you think about it.
On the first day of spring practice, I barely knew the players. We got done stretching, and I'm excited because I'm coaching the punt team. The punts were the very first thing. Then everyone broke off into individual drills. I turned to Yancy and asked, "What am I supposed to do?" At practice, I joke that all I do is walk around and yell at people, whether it's good or bad. I encourage them, I get on them. That was difficult, having been working for 20 years as an assistant with my small groups. I was always focused on, "This is what I have to get done today with QBs."
People make a big deal about the system you run. But I've learned though the years that your system has to marry your talent. One of my proudest seasons is when we went 12-0 in my first year at Ohio State in 2012. Philosophically, we wanted to be balanced. But we couldn't throw the ball. We had a good line, a beast at tailback in Carlos Hyde and a freak at quarterback in Braxton Miller. It was one of my proudest achievements in coaching. We didn't try to fit a square peg in a round hole. And that's how we're going to approach stuff at Houston. You start with a vision of, "Here's who we are. Here's our beliefs. Here's how we play." What our vision may be is going to be entirely dependent on the players we have.
The Cougars ran a Texas Tech-style Air Raid offense last year. It was an easy transition from that to the tempo, no-huddle and spread mentality we're going to have. But we needed to do a 180 with the physicality. For 100 years in football, no one has won a game because of their finesse. I don't know any team that ever won a championship while playing soft. So, when we got here, physicality was nonnegotiable.
All the buzz we've received in recruiting started with a local offensive tackle from Richmond, Texas, named Joshua Jones. Once I got to campus after the national title game in January, there was a mad dash to Signing Day. We put the full-court press on Josh. Really, all 10 coaches on the staff did. We sat around and tried to figure out, "How are we going to sell this city?" I have no idea who came up with it and I really don't care, but we came up with, "Your city is calling." And when Josh flipped from Oklahoma State to Houston last February, he tweeted: "My city was calling my name, so I had to answer it." Everything took off from there. Everyone talks about putting a fence around their city. We say it about Houston and Chad Morris at SMU says it about Dallas. Josh, a freshman this fall, was the first stake in our fence.
It also gave our staff a confidence that we could battle with top schools on the recruiting trail and win. From there, social media has really helped us. There's a tweet quota that you have to have on our staff. I'm not going to say what it is, but Twitter is free marketing, and everyone on our staff has to do it. To not use social media would be a huge mistake. Our target audience stares at their phones nine hours a day. Why would you not put the UH logo in front of them as many times as you can?
The ESPN 30 for 30 on "The U" at Miami also gave us inspiration. We said, "If they can do it at a private school in Miami, why can't we do it in a football-rich city like Houston?" We made our own version of "The U" with spliced-up video, and had a screening of it, inviting the top 40 players in the city. About 30 of them showed up. We inserted clips of Andre Ware, David Klingler and Case Keenum. That took hold. That led to the whole "H-Town Takeover" slogan. Houston is a much different city than Dallas is. Dallas is transient. No one is from there. Dallas to me is like Phoenix. In Houston, you have third- and fourth-generation Houstonians. There's a real sense of pride. We've just tapped into that. The ten of us on the staff have recruited the state of Texas for 126 years. We've signed more than 324 guys from Texas high schools. The connections were there. The big momentum swing for our 2016 class came from the verbal commitment of a top recruit in May. (Editor's note: NCAA rules do not allow Herman to comment on specific prospects until they are signed.) The big shoe dropped with a highly ranked player, and everyone suddenly said, "This is real." Just getting that verbal commitment gave us credibility, and it snowballed from there.
I've had some fun with recruiting, too. Every time we get a commitment, I put up a GIF on Twitter to celebrate. There's a player we got from Texas who we beat out two Big Ten teams for, and I told him, "This is a first in history, you can pick your own GIF." It took him a while. He wouldn't announce until he had his GIF. I was a little nervous. Ohio State tweets out, "BOOM!" when it gets a commitment. Texas A&M tweets out, "YESSIR!" I'm going to have my own, so I get a funny GIF from the Chive app. It could be J.J. Watt celebrating in the end zone, the "Shake and Bake" from Talladega Nights or anything from Anchorman. They make me laugh. I keep a few tucked away in reserve, just in case.
There's a hallway floor in our facility that is 25 years old. It rains a lot in Houston, so who knows what's under it by now. But a few months ago, the little rubber tiles started to peel up like a potato chip. I said, "Hey, this isn't safe for our athletes." After 10 or 15 emails, I said that I would pay for it. I went to Home Depot, bought a bunch of scrapers and spent a night peeling the tiles back. I was fully prepared to spend my own money to put a floor down. It was for my guys and for recruiting. I peeled up the floor myself because if somebody was going to be angry about it, I didn't want anyone else to get in trouble but me. It actually didn't take me that long, like three or four hours. I stacked the tiles up in the locker room. In a few weeks, we ended up with new floors.
I think TCU is a great model for growth here at Houston. While the Horned Frogs were winning in the Mountain West, their football program built an indoor facility, renovated its locker rooms, renovated its weight rooms—renovated its everything within a six- to eight-year span. So, then when expansion came to the Big 12, TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte went to DeLoss Dodds at Texas and said, 'We're ready.' He went to Joe Castiglione at Oklahoma and said, 'We're ready.' And the Horned Frogs really were ready. It's not all about wins.
The first thing this athletic department needs is a new basketball arena. We'd get laughed out of the Big 12 if we tried playing a conference basketball game in Hofheinz Pavilion. If we joined a power conference, we'd be the only football program that shares a weight room with 17 other varsity sports. We need our own weight room and indoor facility and all that, but until then, we have to change the culture around here of just throwing our hands up and saying, Well, there's red tape and a purchase order on a bid. I'm like, "I get it." I'm like Urban. I get all the problems. Tell me how I can help. I'm ready. You want me to come in at five in the morning and sit on the purchasing guy's front stoop and bring him a shirt and a hat? I'll do that. But tell me what you need. I'm a servant. Use me. Our new athletic director, Hunter Yurachek, has been really good in that area. We need things like a new weight room and a new floor in the hallway and he's said, "Just go."
I've really made an effort to drum up interest in Houston football since taking over. I've said yes to every possible speaking engagement I could. I spoke at a rodeo. I was at the Bear Bryant coach of the year award. I've played in a lot of golf tournaments. But I was most fired up about speaking at Houston's commencement. I spoke without notes. I spoke from the heart. I told a story about the kids we're raising in society, and how all these soccer moms from Dublin, Ohio, don't want to keep score in kids' games. They were looking at me like I was jerk because I said that I taught my kid to keep score. Are you kidding me? I'm not the one who is messed up here. They're going to keep score in life. It's O.K. I've failed hundreds of thousands of times. I probably failed 100 times today. But winning is not supposed to matter to me? I don't know if I'll ever be able to grasp that. Forget the awards. You should want to be the best at whatever your chosen field is. I want my kids to win. Winners get the corner office, the big house, the hot wife, the whole nine. I said that at commencement. Then I said that the people who don't win, they get cubicles, the hoopty ride, the not-so-hot wife.
That was a joke, and it didn't go over so well with some folks. But it underscores the intangibles we're going to represent philosophically here at Houston. If you're going to be in the Peace Corps, be the best Peace Corps worker in the world. If you're going to be a teacher, be the best teacher on the planet. Winning isn't just about the material things you attain, it's about being your best in all you do. After my speech, I got a few anonymous emails from people complaining. Everyone else, they ate it up. There were 8,000 people there and only two anonymous emailers complained, I consider that a win. We plan on doing a lot of winning at Houston.