Houston football coach Tom Herman and quarterback Greg Ward Jr. have overcome serious doubts about each other to run, pass and shout their way into the playoff conversation.
This story appeared in the Aug. 15, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Read the rest of the college football preview and subscribe to the magazine here.
On a soggy April afternoon the soundtrack at Houston's spring practice includes the pounding bass of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," the rumble of a passing train and the buzz of a drone as it films the session. Over the din, coach Tom Herman screams to senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. a message that symbolizes the difference between college football's oddest couple: "I can't HEAR you!"
Ward is a preacher's son who's so quiet that his high school coaches nicknamed him Lester, after a ventriloquist's dummy. Herman is the once aspiring sports-talk host who runs his program with a shock jock's affinity for attention. When Herman took over in January 2015 and Ward became his quarterback, their success hinged on the flamboyant coach giving the laconic QB, well, a voice. "I didn't know if he had enough presence," Herman says. And Ward's first impression of his coach: "I thought he was insane."
What happened next was crazy. The Cougars went 13–1, thumping Florida State 38–24 in the Peach Bowl, and finished No. 8 in the AP rankings. Ward threw for 2,828 yards and rushed for 1,108, the only quarterback other than Clemson's Deshaun Watson to surpass the 2,000–1,000 combination last season. Houston's hyperspeed no-huddle offense averaged 40.4 points, up from 29.8 in 2014, and Herman leveraged that success to juice recruiting (from the 92nd-ranked class in '15 to No. 35 in '16) and increase season-ticket sales (now at 22,000, the most in school history by 7,000). By last winter Herman's name was associated with every big-time coaching vacancy, and Ward had become a Heisman Trophy candidate and a finalist for the Manning Award, for the country's best quarterback.
It was a stunning ascent for program, coach and player, especially considering that Ward began the 2014 season as a wide receiver. After turning backups J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones into stars during Ohio State's '14 national championship run, Herman, the Buckeyes' offensive coordinator and QB coach, earned a reputation as a quarterback whisperer. But the turnaround at Houston is the story of how he got the most out of a whispering quarterback.
Lunch is a brisket sandwich with a side order of sirs. "Nice to meet you, sir," Greg Ward Jr. says as he walks into Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q, a no-frills landmark in his cozy east Texas hometown of Tyler.
"It would truly be a blessing, sir," he says when asked what would it be like to be remembered alongside great Houston quarterbacks such as Andre Ware, David Klingler and Case Keenum.
Do you know your record as a starter? "No, sir, I don't." (It's 19–2.)
In all, he repeats the address 47 times in one day, a rectitude that's a reflection of his upbringing. His father, Greg Sr., hauls pipe during the week and speaks the Word from the pulpit at the Pentecostal Porters Chapel Church of God in Christ on Sundays. His mother, Mary, runs their modest ranch house while teaching her four boys to fear God, respect their elders and treat school as a daily opportunity. "Get the job done," Greg Sr. told his kids. "You don't have to be noticed."
But Greg Jr., the third of the quartet, couldn't escape attention at John Tyler High, the alma mater of Hall of Fame tailback Earl Campbell. Ward threw for 7,798 yards, 71 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions in his final two seasons, leading his team to Class 4A semifinal appearances in 2011 and '12.
Lions coach Ricklan Holmes calls Ward's elusiveness as a runner "a wiggle that you just can't coach," but the quarterback's leadership stood out as much as his moves. During his senior year two teammates got thrown out of a playoff game for fighting. Holmes ordered the culprits to show up on Thanksgiving weekend for a grueling workout that included barrel rolls, hill sprints and hybrid bear crawls called Lieutenant Dans. Ward showed up to join them.
Ward's only shortcoming was his size: 5'10" and 165 pounds. Despite his success behind center, recruiting services listed him as an "athlete" or a combination quarterback-receiver, and no Big 12 schools pursued him. His best scholarship offers came from Houston and Memphis, both of which offered a shot to play quarterback but no promises. He chose to stay closer to home.
As a freshman Ward played both QB and receiver—sometimes in the same game—throwing 29 passes, catching 10 balls and returning two punts. The next season he started the first five games at receiver, but when John O'Korn proved ineffective calling the signals, Ward took over at quarterback for the final eight games, during which he threw for 2,010 yards and rushed for 573. He admits now that he didn't know how much he didn't know: Standing at the line of scrimmage unable to diagnose a defense, he took flight at the first sign of pressure.
Despite a 7–5 season, Houston fired coach Tony Levine. Herman took over the day after the Buckeyes won the national championship and immediately changed the tempo on the field and off. His practice mantra is one of constant exhortation—GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!—and upon arrival he and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite administered a graduate-level crash course in quarterbacking. Suddenly Ward found himself accountable for every read and check. "Now I can tell how blitzes are coming because of a front or what the safeties are giving me," he says. "I wasn't really dialed in before [Herman and Applewhite] came."
The new staff even took on Ward's diet: He has to email pictures of all his meals to Houston's coaches and nutritionist. (He's up to 5'11", 188 pounds.)
Herman made the expectations clear: "I needed him to be a real dude." That meant the quarterback had to become more like his coach.
As an undergraduate at Division III Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, Calif., during the mid-1990s, Tom Herman starred as a wide receiver and did P.A. announcing for other sports. At a baseball game during his senior year he played the chime of a cuckoo clock over the stadium speakers to second-guess an umpire's call. The portly ump pointed at Herman in the bleachers and barked, "One more of those, and you're out of here!"
Herman didn't flinch. "I swear to holy heaven the very next [sound effect] on there was a pig squealing," Herman says, his green eyes twinkling, "and I pressed play." Herman mimics the oinking that blared through the park and cackles at the memory of the ump screaming, "You're out of here!"
That same willingness to create a scene has been evident at Houston. After winning the American Athletic Conference last year, Herman followed through on a bet with his team and got outfitted for a diamond-plated tooth grill by the local rapper Paul Wall. (He paid $1,000 out of his own pocket.) This spring two graduate assistants dressed as Easter bunnies squared off in the Oklahoma drill at practice. Both moments went viral, a point of pride with Herman, who figures the best way to reach recruits' hearts is through their smartphones.
Herman chose coaching over broadcasting in 1998, when he accepted a gig tutoring the wide receivers at Texas Lutheran for $5,000 and a meal card. His coaching odyssey before landing at Ohio State in 2012 doubles as a Lonely Planet guide to college football have-nots: Texas Lutheran, Sam Houston State, Texas State, Rice and Iowa State. (The notable exception was a graduate assistant job at Texas in '99 and '00.)
Herman's travels taught him that spreading the field and ramping up tempo could compensate for talent gaps. Even more important, he learned the value of instilling passion and camaraderie. At Ohio State he was known for assigning someone to come up with a joke of the day in quarterback meetings to keep everyone engaged. "His gift is his ability to connect with players on a personal level," says Jones, whom Herman coached for three years in Columbus. "There's not a lot of coaches like him."
Besides picking up the pace, Herman challenged the culture at Houston. He kicked the players out of the locker room because they couldn't keep it clean and initiated 4 a.m. workouts because of persistent academic and discipline issues. The regimen was so grueling that some players walked off the field and quit. "As a team," says Ward, "we thought [the coaches] were against us and didn't like us."
Everything changed in Week 2. The Cougars trailed 31–27 at Louisville with less than four minutes remaining and faced a third-and-five from the Cardinals' 15-yard line. Ward lined up in the shotgun and noticed the tells of an all-out blitz: corners in press coverage, safeties five yards off the line of scrimmage and linebackers on their toes.
A month earlier in practice Ward misread the same look and earned a tongue-lashing from Applewhite and Herman. This time Ward delivered exactly what the coaches had been coaxing out of him since they arrived—a loud, confident and decisive check. The quick-hit pass play to junior receiver Demarcus Ayers beat the pressure for an easy touchdown, and Houston pulled off the upset 34–31. "Had we not beaten Louisville, I might've fallen flat on my face because of how hard [we were on the players]," says Herman. Afterward, "all the fence-riders in the locker room came to the good side."
The ensuing run led to the Cougars' highest postseason ranking since 1979, sparked talk of a Big 12 invite and changed the calculus coming into 2016. They're now favorites to repeat as AAC champs, and Herman, who got a raise from $1.35 million to $2.8 million, is considered a shoo-in if the Texas, Texas A&M or LSU jobs open at year's end. The coach won't talk about other schools, but he's already campaigning for his current team, which opens against No. 6 Oklahoma at NRG Stadium on Sept. 3 and hosts No. 15 Louisville on Nov. 17. "If we beat those teams in the same year and win the AAC and that doesn't get us into the playoff," says Herman, "then the system's broken."
Testing that theory will rely on Ward's continued development. He finished last year 13–0 as a starter—in the team's only loss, 20–17 at Connecticut, he played sparingly on an injured left ankle—and made huge strides as a passer. "He has an impressive arm and the ability to deliver the ball accurately and with velocity," according to ProFootball Focus, "but also shows an impressive aptitude to vary his passes and throw with touch and arc." Ward finished ninth nationally in completion percentage (67.2) and threw just six interceptions against 17 touchdowns. His 21 rushing TDs ranked fifth in the nation. Along the way Herman coaxed a more authoritative voice out of Ward. "At first I was like, Why is he doing this?" Ward says. "But now I understand I have to exude that confidence."
And can he do that? Yes, sir.