Behind the scenes with Houston as it prepped to upset Oklahoma
This story appears in the Sept. 12, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
It's 9:15 a.m. on Saturday. Houston's two team buses pull up in front of NRG Stadium, where about 2,000 Cougars fans are lined up outside the gates. As the players disembark and walk past a sea of screaming followers flashing the three-finger paw sign, a scene normally reserved for an SEC or Big Ten school, coach Tom Herman asks with a smile, "Where were all these people for Texas State last year?"
Herman has spent the past 20 months at Houston with a simple goal: Change the world. And no game offers a better opportunity than the matchup with No. 3 Oklahoma, an 11-point favorite. After going 13–1 in 2015 and finishing No. 8 in the country, their highest season-ending ranking since 1979, the Cougars begin this season No. 15—high enough that they could crash the College Football Playoff. But there's even more at stake: Houston, a member of the American Athletic Conference, is eyeing a spot in the Big 12, which is exploring expansion. The university is meeting with conference officials in Dallas the week after the game, making it a potentially ideal showcase for the streaking program.
To show how far the Cougars and their coach have come, Herman tells a story about recruiting in Dallas as an assistant at Texas State in 2006. He got an invitation to have dinner at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse with a group that included Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. Herman, who made about $42,000 at the time, couldn't afford the meal, so he ordered a cheeseburger and drank water while, as he recalls, Stoops and his crew ate lobster tails and filets and drank $200 bottles of red wine. At the end, Stoops suggested everyone throw down a credit card to split the bill. Herman chipped in an equal share, $150, before calling his wife to apologize. "There's no way," Herman says, "I could be that guy [splitting the check] in front of Bob Stoops."
Ten years later Herman found himself across the table from Stoops again, and he gave Sports Illustrated full game-week access to see how the world has already changed.
"We're going to win the game. We're not going to win it because we outrecruited them. We're not going to win it because we have better facilities. We're going to win it because we love each other better. We're going to win the game. So relax."
—Tom Herman, Friday, Sept. 2
John W. McDonough
At 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, Herman struts into his office belting out Ace Hood lyrics: "I woke up in a new Bugatti." Safeties coach Craig Naivar wears an AC/DC T-shirt to a staff meeting because "my Guns N' Roses shirt is dirty." And after an offensive staff meeting ends one night when Texans receiver Braxton Miller shows up wearing a T-shirt adorned with action shots of himself, offensive coordinator Major Applewhite can only laugh and say, "There's not a tent big enough for this circus."
When Herman came to Houston from Ohio State, where he was the co–offensive coordinator, he told his football operations director, Fernando Lovo, he wanted to conduct an experiment: "We're going to win a lot of games, and we're going to have a lot of fun doing it."
Fun reflects Herman's personality: He named his two-year-old son Maverick after the character from
Top Gun, and he dubbed his nine-year-old Maddock Thomas Danger Herman so he could channel Austin Powers and tell girls, "Danger is my middle name." Before one practice this week Herman dances like an overserved wedding guest, an air doggy paddle to Icona Pop's teenage anthem, "I Love It."
An appropriate tune, since love is the other aspect of Herman's philosophy, which emerges from what he calls the "why." Houston's why is love, and players are encouraged to work hard and play for one another more than for themselves. All week Herman pounds home the message: "We genuinely love the guy next to us. When you line up against Oklahoma, you know your 'why' is better, your purpose is greater." All this frivolity and fondness is laid over a foundation Herman picked up at his previous stop. Herman and his staff are relentlessly organized and plan out every conceivable detail. "It's as if [Ohio State coach Urban] Meyer's program and Plan to Win is being executed by Tom Cruise's character in Risky Business," says graduate assistant Dan Carrel, a former Buckeyes aide. With all eyes on them this week, the Cougars plan to produce plenty of PDA and to dance as if no one is watching.
"To [the Oklahoma] coaches and players you are two-star recruits who didn't go on any of the trips that they went on."
—Tom Herman, Monday, Aug. 29
John W. McDonough
Five days before kickoff, Herman debuts a video that will loop in the facility and locker room all week. It shows goose-bump-inducing upsets: Boise State over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, Appalachian State stunning Michigan in '07 and Holly Holm beating Ronda Rousey.
The Cougars know underdogs. They have a 5' 10", 185-pound senior quarterback, Greg Ward Jr., who emerged on Heisman Trophy lists despite starting the 2014 season as a wide receiver. They have a 27-year-old freshman punter from Australia, Dane Roy, whom Herman teases about eating vegemite sandwiches. They have a starting tailback, sophomore Duke Catalon, who hasn't taken a live football snap in more than 1,000 days after a redshirt and a transfer.
But if there's one Cougar indicative of what the program could become, it's freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver. When Oliver verbally committed in May 2015, he was the No. 6 recruit in the country out of Houston's Westfield High. His pledge started a chain reaction that led to the 35th-ranked recruiting class, the best in school history. Oliver, who arrived on June 1 at 6' 1", 260, has since put on 18 pounds, and though he has a 40-inch waist he needs size 44 pants to accommodate his log-roll thighs. "When I wear a pair of pants," he says, "people are like, What's wrong with you?"
Otherwise, Oliver has been a great fit. Even with the added weight he has a 36-inch vertical leap, and he can squat 605 pounds. "His freak potential is unreal," says strength coach Yancy McKnight, and going into the Oklahoma game Oliver had earned a starting job, unseating senior nosetackle B.J. Singleton, who was second-team all-AAC last year.
Herman's recruiting game plan mirrors the one used by Miami in the 1980s: Tap into the local swagger. "If you put all the talent in Houston on one team," says Oliver, "you could beat the world, really." How would the locals react to an upset of the Sooners? "I think we'd flip the town," he says.
"When we were out practicing in a monsoon, they were practicing in their $50 million indoor [facility] and eating steak and lobster. They ain't been through what we've been through."
—Tom Herman, Tuesday, Aug. 30
At 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, the Ragin' Cajun restaurant is packed. Herman is broadcasting his weekly radio show, and as he does his wife, Michelle, picks at a salad and laughs about how they got here—like their first date, when Tom sprayed air freshener in his mouth, mistaking it for breath spray. Along the way she worked at a day-care facility, a nonprofit, a bank, a college of criminal justice and at a bar, serving muffuletta sandwiches to college kids. Possum waited at the doorstep of their first apartment in Huntsville, Texas, every night, and roaches the size of saltshakers roamed freely. They moved out after Tom killed a bat with a broom, and they considered it an upgrade to live in government-subsidized low-income housing. "I wouldn't change anything about it," Michelle says. "Nothing was handed to us."
These days, Houston hands Herman $3 million per year, and he's in line for a $2.5 million raise in each of the first two seasons Houston plays in a Power 5 conference. To school officials and fans, such an invitation would not be a leap up but a return to previous status.
Houston is the fourth largest city in the country, with a population of 2.2 million, and in the 1980s the university competed on the highest level. Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Carl Lewis roamed campus. Phi Slamma Jamma made two championship appearances ('83 and '84), and gunslinging quarterbacks such as Andre Ware, the '89 Heisman Trophy winner, and David Klingler drew huge crowds to the Astrodome.
But when the Southwest Conference dissolved in 1996, Houston got left behind. "This place fell asleep when the conference broke up," says athletic director Hunter Yurachek. "It was a huge blow, not just athletically."
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Before Herman arrived, Houston had already been transformed under president Renu Khator, who is overseeing a $1 billion campus renovation. With the new coach on board, the football facility has undergone a transformation too, including a new locker room and cafeteria and an upgraded academic center. In the past three years the university has opened a $125 million football stadium and a $25 million basketball practice facility; the $60 million basketball arena, the Fertitta Center, will be ready by 2018–19. "Every day I walk in this office," Herman says, "and I think about how different it looks from when I first walked in."
All of that effort and money has positioned the school well for its formal pitch to the Big 12, but none of it is any more important than its on-field audition. "It will change your life forever if you beat Oklahoma on Saturday," Tilman Fertitta, the chairman of the Board of Regents, told the team. "If you beat Oklahoma, you are on your way."
"If you think you've earned their respect, you have not. They don't respect you. To them, this is still Cougar High."
—Tom Herman, Monday, Aug. 29
John W. McDonough
At 9:30 p.m. on Friday, the lights dim in a theater at the team hotel. A television clip from a Thursday ESPN studio show flashes up on the screen, with analyst Danny Kanell previewing the Oklahoma game. Herman has spent the week searching for any embers of slight or morsels of disrespect. "I think they're going to be overmatched by Oklahoma physically, from a talent standpoint," Kanell says. "I love Gary Ward, what he does at quarterback. . . ."
Herman homes in like an unblocked defensive end. "That guy didn't even know our quarterback's name," he shouts at his team. "Think he messed up Baker Mayfield's name? Think he messed up Deshaun Watson's name? He doesn't even know our quarterback's name! The guy who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated! Gary Ward?
"What does that tell me? We have to make them respect us."
As the Cougars poured out of the film room and headed to their hotel beds, teammates teased Ward relentlessly: "Let's go,
Gary! Where you at, Gary!"
"Trust our training. Don't ever think on the field. Ever. That's the fastest way to get beat."
—Tom Herman, Friday, Sept. 2
John W. McDonough
At 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, the Houston locker room has become an impromptu dance party, until Herman cuts the music and asks all the players to take a knee. He summons Applewhite, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and special teams coach Jason Washington to the front of the room to help him recognize the top players from the 33–23 shocker of the Sooners. Nearly every player called up tells his teammates he loves them, that he played hard for them. Among those saluted is Oliver, who had seven tackles and two sacks in his debut.
No one gets a bigger ovation from his teammates than Ward. Oklahoma's defense dared him to beat them with his arm, and he happily obliged, completing 23 of 40 passes for 321 yards and two touchdowns. When Applewhite called him to the front of the room, his teammates chanted, " Ga-ry! Ga-ry! Ga-ry!"
With Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby in attendance, Houston delivered. Carl Lewis attended the coin toss, and Herman gave Rockets star guard James Harden a bro hug during a television timeout. About 70% of the 71,016 fans at NRG stadium wore Cougar red, as opposed to Oklahoma crimson. Perhaps most important, the game, on ABC, got a 12.8 rating in the Houston market, which blew away the highest-ranked regular-season college football game in Houston in 2015, an 8.5 for Texas A&M vs. Alabama. The world, indeed, is changing.
The biggest moment of Houston's big day came in the third quarter, when defensive back Brandon Wilson returned a missed 53-yard field goal for a 26–17 lead. Wilson began with his heels centimeters from the back of the end zone and hurdled one of his teammates along the way to score what has to be the longest touchdown in college football history.
Now there's no telling how far the Cougars can run. Besides AAC showdowns at Cincinnati and Memphis, they have a Nov. 17 home game against No. 19 Louisville to boost their playoff candidacy. While all that's a long way away, Ward perhaps summed up the immediate legacy of this historic win, for himself, his program and university: "They're all going to know my name now."