As Ohio State prepares to take on Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman racing back and forth between his obligations to Ohio State and his new role as head coach at Houston.
NEW ORLEANS – The last legitimately good night of sleep for Tom Herman was not as long ago as you might expect, though it also requires a broad interpretation of “night.” After two days at Houston tending to his future job as the Cougars’ head coach, Herman returned to his current life as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator on the night of Dec. 23. But his flight north was delayed, so he didn’t arrive at his house until nearly 2 a.m. At this point the 39-year-old expertly called for a fade pattern: Trundling down to the basement, collapsing on the couch and eventually dozing off around 3 a.m.
The following morning, his wife, Michelle, continued her candidacy for sainthood by keeping their three children upstairs and far away from the scene of the crash. Herman finally awoke at 1 p.m. It was Dec. 24, and at least one creature spent most of the day before Christmas not stirring.
“I felt like a college kid,” Herman says. “Just grab a blanket and a pillow. It didn’t take much, I can tell you that.”
As he recalls this, he’s just finished watching video and plans to script a Buckeyes practice as a College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama on Thursday draws nearer. Then he would like to nap for 30 minutes before dinner. The life cycle of Tom Herman is more like a spin class: all speed and noise with only the smallest allowance of rest. His eyes are fixed on a national championship, starting with the Sugar Bowl. And when they’re not fixed on that, they’re examining spreadsheets for staff payroll. Or the cell phone digits for recruits. Or the smiles of expectant Houston benefactors. Rarely are they closed for long, as Herman is the latest coach to start a new gig as he finishes an old one, to move on while staying put, exhausting all resources -- most notably himself -- to do right by both.
Typically these scenarios involve a build to one game and then a release. The possibility of Herman, the 2014 Broyles Award winner, coaching two games amplifies the strain a bit. It’s a stress apparently worth bearing. “We understood that completely going into the interview process with him,” Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades says. “You understand it, and maybe even more so than understanding it, you respect it. I think it’s a good thing for Houston, the fact that Ohio State’s offensive coordinator is our head coach. I didn’t have a favorite going in, in terms of the four [playoff] teams. But now I have a favorite.”
Between an extended recruiting dead period that limits contact with prospects, no on-campus visits until after the national title game and Houston starting classes later than most on Jan. 20, Herman has caught some breaks that give him time to compile a staff and prepare a winter conditioning plan. “I’ve been lucky, as far as that’s concerned,” he says. And being stationed in New Orleans mitigates the push-pull between jobs; preparing for a one-and-done matchup with the No. 1 team in the nation actually alleviates some pressure, as it turns out.
Otherwise, there have been few minutes left unfilled for since Herman agreed to take the Houston job. Back in Columbus, Herman would wake up around 5 a.m. to spend a couple hours organizing his thoughts about his new staff with the Cougars, his approach to recruiting, his program needs and more. Then, around 7 a.m., it was into the Ohio State staff room for practice planning or game-planning or whatever was on the docket for that day. Practice followed. After that, Herman dove into the video of the workout, usually finishing up his evaluation around 9:30 p.m ET. With Houston running on Central time, he was, uh, blessed with an extra hour to work. So Herman would call recruits and shift his focus to other Cougars-related issues for another 60 to 90 minutes.
To be clear: His future employer expected Herman to put in the overtime. Cheery as Houston is about Ohio State’s prospects, and as self-evident as the work is for a fledgling head coach, Rhoades put a claim on any available minutes. Herman couldn’t start from scratch in January, and Houston couldn’t afford him to do so. “As much as you’d like to say, ‘Tom, you deserve some off days,’ I certainly expected those off days were filled with some focus on the University of Houston,” Rhoades says.
The days in Houston were no sleepwalk, either. Herman and his family flew to the city on a private jet the day before a Dec. 19 introductory news conference. (An Ohio State staffer even tagged along as a babysitter.) That night, Tom and Michelle joined a party of 16 at Vic and Anthony’s Steakhouse. In attendance were Rhoades and his wife, another athletic department staffer and his spouse -- and several key football supporters. As he dug into a ribeye, Herman also dug into bridge-building with donors. “It’s similar to recruiting,” he says. “You get your game face on and make sure you put your best foot forward.”
“You can never be off,” Rhoades says, “and he was terrific.”
And he was in the office at 8 a.m. the next day, meeting with Rhoades and holding his news conference and accomplishing as much as he could before 5:30 p.m. -- including a human resources orientation jammed into a 30-minute window – when he flew back to Columbus for weekend practices. Herman then returned for 48 hours during Ohio State’s pre-holiday off-days. “We had him running,” Rhoades says. He met with every staff member, down to operations workers and administrative assistants. He met with prospective staff members, as did Rhoades. He met with multiple current Houston players and reached out to others, all as that team in transition prepped for the Jan. 2 Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth.
The meetings presented a different sort of challenge. As hurried as Herman was, he had to be mindful of the profound uncertainty everyone else felt and treat many of those conversations with a delicate touch. “There are people that want answers or clarity as to what’s going on down there, so you just try to deal with what’s immediate and not look too far ahead,” Herman says. “I don’t know if awkward is the right word, but you want to make sure you tread lightly. The kids are enjoying the reward of going to a bowl game, and that staff deserves the ability to coach them and win that game without having to look over their shoulder.”
Herman has had help, of course. Tory Teykl, Houston’s previous director of football operations who is expected to remain on staff in some capacity, has been an on-site resource for Herman’s day-to-day concerns. Houston itself bore responsibility to communicate with the NCAA for waivers to have more than nine full-time assistants, given the transition, as well as processing paperwork for the imminent hires. Meanwhile, Michelle Herman called upon her MBA in finance and Excel wizardry to create spreadsheets for the coaching staff pool, what her husband can afford to pay and what needs changes.
Herman worries constantly about missing something. He is sure an issue will come up and bite him. Until it does, this appears to be going as well as he could imagine. “I know it’s not sexy,” he says, “but I think I’m right on track.”
His soon-to-be-former players concur. During one of the days without practice before Christmas, Ohio State players nevertheless convened to watch film. The quarterbacks temporarily took up residence in the offensive line room because Herman was tending to his future job hundreds of miles away. And that was it: That was the only time any Buckeyes player can recall noticing even a fractional shift in Herman’s approach.
Managing two jobs inherently threatens the quality of work done on both. The evidence just doesn’t convince Ohio State of that. “It’s weird to think that he’s leaving, but at the same time, all throughout bowl practice, all throughout since we’ve been here, it almost doesn’t even seem like he is,” receiver Evan Spencer says. “If nobody had told me he was leaving, I wouldn’t have known.”
Some relief came upon Herman when he read those comments and others. He has been in one world while somehow orbiting another since mid-December, and he will continue to do so until Ohio State doesn’t have a game left to play. “I understand my station,” Herman says, “and I want to make sure I give these guys here the best coach Herman I can.”
He’d rather not contemplate the havoc wreaked upon his body by a possible Sugar Bowl win and the ensuing 10 days of preparation for the national title game. He focuses instead on a Confucius quote: Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life. He focuses on schooling quarterback Cardale Jones, who is making just his second start, about whatever the Crimson Tide might bring. He is running on fumes, but he’s running. And there’s some simplicity in the rhythm of the last few weeks, really: Tom Herman has a job to do, and when he’s done with it, there’s another one waiting.