Behind the scenes at Houston: 11 things to know about Tom Herman, Ed Oliver and the Cougars program
HOUSTON — To report on Houston's game against Oklahoma on Saturday, I spent the week embedded with the Cougars football program. Along with veteran SI photographer John McDonough, who joined me Thursday morning, I got to experience the manic, Red-Bull-fueled, wise cracking University of Houston football experience.
The Cougars' tempo and swagger on the field certainly carries over to their daily activities, as at times it felt like a dance party masquerading as a football program. The Houston football experience is an assault on the senses, as the high-energy Herman sets a quick-twitch tone on the field and a quick-witted one off it.
Here are 11 things from the cutting-room floor from my SI magazine story from behind the scenes with the Cougars.
1. Since the story looked at Houston holistically instead of dialing into the Xs and Os, I didn't get too much into Houston's staff. It would be surprising if there's a better mid-major staff in the country, as both offensive coordinator Major Applewhite and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando project as future head coaches. And likely soon.
Tom Herman somehow convinced Orlando to stay on staff despite Wisconsin, Orlando's alma mater, courting him to return as defensive coordinator in the off-season. Texas A&M and Oklahoma both tried to land defensive line coach Oscar Giles, who decided to stay with Houston. Both Orlando and Giles turned down more money to stick around.
Much of the allure is working for Herman, who said he's made a conscious effort to remain "one of the guys" while still being motivating, demanding and clearly in charge. The only coach who left after the 13–1 debut season was Drew Mehringer, the receivers coach who left for Rutgers and a raise from $120,000 to $450,000 and play calling duties. "As ballyhooed as this 2016 recruiting class was," Herman said, "the best recruiting we did was keeping eight of our nine assistants."
2. Orlando's defense led the country in takeaways last year, which may not be the most impressive statistic from his unit. When a defensive coordinator is paired with a tempo offense, it forces the defense to play more possessions. That's why Orlando's unit finishing in the top 20 in scoring defense is so surprising. (But it's really part of his track record; in Orlando's two seasons at Utah State, both of his defenses finished in the top 12.)
Houston knows exactly what it has, which is why Orlando is paid $526,000, a high amount for a non-Power 5 school. This spring, I asked Orlando why he stuck around, and he gave an insightful answer.
"This profession is so unique because during the season you spend 15, 16,17 hours a day with somebody, so you better get along and you better really enjoy the people you're with," he said. "More than anything else, it's Herm himself because he allows you the creativity and he trusts people. Just go do your job. It's not micromanaged. And that, to me, is—you can't really put a dollar amount on that. You do this for living, you can make $1.5 million, if you're miserable every day—to me, that's not worth it."
The bromance is mutual, as Herman raved all week about Orlando on and off the field. "I haven't been around some of the gurus out there, the million-dollar guys," Herman said. "If there's one better than T.O., you're gong to have to prove it to me. Not just on-field résumé, how he cares for his kids, investment he puts it into his players."
3. One of Herman's laments was that as quarterback Greg Ward Jr. rose to prominence last year, Herman got a majority of the credit for Ward's development. (Herman's work with Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones makes him Houston's quarterback guru by default.)
Herman is certainly hands on with the Houston offense, as he sits in the meetings, watches film and talks through play sequences. But after I observed the Cougars' attack much of the week, it was clear that Herman was more of the architect of the offense and Applewhite the hands-on, day-to-day construction manager. Applewhite calls the plays, with little meddling from Herman, who believes strongly in empowering his employees.
Ward developed from a wide receiver to start the 2014 season to one of two quarterbacks to both rush and pass for 1,000 yards last year. (Clemson's Deshaun Watson was the other.) He beat Oklahoma with his arm Saturday after the Sooners played press coverage, crowded the box and dared him to beat them. Ward obliged by throwing for 321 yards and two touchdowns as Houston beat the fifth straight ranked opponent it faced.
Here's what Ward said this summer about Applewhite's role in his development: "He understands what us quarterbacks go through," Ward said. "He played the position. Last year he was very detail-oriented. I mean, it was a whole new offense for all of us. You have to spend more time in the film room. He is a big film guy. He always wants me to come in and watch film. It don't matter if I just got done watching film. That's the type of guy he is. He's very, very competitive."
To wit, Applewhite thanked the team after the game Saturday, admitting that beating the Sooners meant a lot to him. (Applewhite, of course, is a former Texas star.) He drew interest from two Group of Five schools for head jobs last year—he makes $375,000 at Houston—so his head coaching career won't be far off.
4. It's pretty obvious after one game that Ed Oliver is going to emerge as a dominant player in college football the next three years. Oliver is Houston's five-star blue chip nosetackle who was the centerpiece of Houston's dynamic 2016 recruiting class. Now he's the centerpiece of the Cougars' defense, as he finished with two sacks and seven tackles against the Sooners.
While it was easy to predict stardom for him on the field, it's also easy to project he'll emerge as one of the sport's endearing characters off it. (Strength coach Yancy McKnight called him a "butterfly chaser" for his penchant to get distracted.)
At dinner this week, Oliver was chatty and colorful when talking about his love of Houston. He'd like to play in the NFL for the Texans someday and wants to start a trend of local stars staying home. "Houston has too much talent, too much talent," he said. "If everyone on Houston stayed here, you can put a university for (the rest) of the United States and we could still beat them. Houston is just that good. We have everything."
Oliver also enjoys the city's lack of pretense. "Houston is come as you are," he said. "I love Houston. They don't even judge or nothing."
5. Player-for-player and pound-for-pound, Houston's front seven on defense is every bit of a unit that could roll out in a Power 5 league. Senior outside linebacker Steven Taylor led the American Athletic Conference in sacks last year (10) and was second in tackles for loss (18.5). Junior inside linebacker Matthew Adams had nine tackles, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry against Oklahoma.
The defensive line is unusually deep for a Group of Five team. That's epitomized by second-team All-AAC nose tackle B.J. Singleton (6' 4", 314 pounds) coming off the bench. Oliver is flanked by a strong group of ends, including veterans Cameron Malveaux (6' 6", 270 pounds) and Nick Thurman (6' 4", 290 pounds). Sophomore end Jerard Carter had two tackles in his first career start against Oklahoma.
The difference for non-Power 5 teams usually comes in the trenches, but Houston's defensive front certainly looks the part.
6. In the head coach's locker room before the game, Herman admitted that his nickname in college was "Pepto" because he'd get so worked up before games he'd guzzle Pepto Bismol. Herman then spoke freely about the three trips to the bathroom he'd already taken that day. It was about 10:15 a.m. At halftime, I checked in on the nerves. "They went away when the game started," he shrugged. "Always do."
Herman's other tick is the incessant shaking of his feet underneath the table during staff meetings. When I did an all-access story from Ohio State in 2013, Herman did the same in the press box on game day: "Herman's right foot thumps the ground as if he's playing bass drum for Iron Maiden."
But that isn't game day exclusive. "I'm like that when my wife and are at dinner in March," Herman said, "and there's nothing going on."
7. Much of what Herman does, especially organizationally, has been swiped from Ohio State. He wrote a first-person piece for Sports Illustrated last year, saying he wanted to turn Houston into a "mini-Ohio State."
So far, it appears to be working well. The signage around the building is even the same, including Urban Meyer's "Core Values" and "Plan To Win." (These signs have also been spotted at Texas, Boston College, Mississippi State and many, many other schools over the years).
There are also plenty of familiar faces from Columbus, which has become one of the country's top coaching incubators. That list starts with football operations director Fernando Lovo, who is the most indispensible off-field member on the Cougars' staff. Other familiar faces include director of recruiting Derek Chang, offensive graduate assistant Kenny Guiton and defensive graduate assistant Dan Carrel. Recruiting assistant Weston Zernechel worked as an equipment intern in Columbus.
Herman's assistant director of operations, Tori Magers, also came from Ohio State. She had the week's most apt observation when she described enduring the Houston summer heat and moisture as "living in a crock pot."
8. Herman beamed with pride at one point while rattling off the former players and coaches under him who've begun their ascent in the coaching business. Mehringer was one of Herman's quarterbacks at Rice and served as a graduate assistant under him at Iowa State and Ohio State. In the industry, there's buzz about his future because no one knows Herman's system better.
Former NFL tight end James Casey, who played under Herman at Rice, came off as one of the sharpest coaches in the Houston building. His seven-year NFL career ended in 2015, and his coaching future appears bright as he's in his first season working as an offensive football analyst. Guiton, the affable former Ohio State quarterback, is an offensive graduate assistant who also has intimate knowledge of Herman's offense and the Buckeyes' culture.
Former Iowa State lineman Roosevelt Maggitt is a Cougars defensive graduate assistant. "It's not a tree yet," Herman said of his coaching group. "More of a shrub."
9. If Houston does win a spot in the Big 12 expansion derby, the Cougars' roster should be ready. Houston has an impressive internal recruiting operation, with six staffers dedicated to different facets of recruiting. "It's more than we had at Ohio State," Chang said, "when I started there in 2012."
A big piece of that will come at quarterback, where former five-star Kyle Allen, a transfer from Texas A&M, should take over next year. (Houston's quarterback commitment for 2017, Bryson Smith, hails from Greg Ward Jr.'s high school, John Tyler High in Tyler, Texas. He has an offer from Purdue and interest from Oregon.)
Beyond quarterback, Houston's overall recruiting appears to be in strong shape. The Cougars have a class of 17 2017 commitments, which projects to again rank as one the best, if not the best, among Group of 5 schools. It is currently No. 35, according to Scout.com, trailing Western Michigan by one slot.
Along with Chang, there's two assistant directors of recruiting, Alex Brown and Grace Muscarello. There's also two recruiting assistants, Zernechel and Bryan Carrington, and a director of high school relations, Ed Jones, who is heavily involved.
They had a busy week, sending more than 5,000 letters via snail mail to 2018 recruits. Five of the recruiting staffers stayed in the office until nearly 2 a.m. Thursday morning, as they could begin direct messaging and texting 2018 prospects at midnight. Recruiting never stops.
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10. Other than his wife, Michelle, and three kids—Priya, age 12; T.D., age 9; and Maverick, age 2—Herman's inner circle is made up of three college buddies from his playing days at Cal Lutheran. Jeff Barry, who played basketball there, and two of Herman's former football teammates, Zack Hernandez and Christian Masegian, all flew in for the game. This is Herman's crew, who were frequent guests during his time as a coordinator at Iowa State and Ohio State.
The biggest laugh of the weekend came from Herman's story from Houston's bed check. Herman's buddies get a kick out of how Herman goes room-to-room to individually tuck the players in the night before games.
The teams' specialists started a tradition last year where they'd essentially do a skit for Herman when he arrived. The specialists may have outdone themselves Friday night, as former Houston punter Logan Piper surprised Herman with an oversized gift.
To: Coach Herman
From: Your old punter
Piper asked Herman to unwrap the gift. Inside was Dane Roy, a 6' 6" 27-year-old freshman who is Houston's starting punter this year. He was wearing his old Australian Rules football uniform, which is basically a singlet and short shorts.
11. With stories like that, it's easy to cast off Herman as a swashbuckling wild card. But the reality is there's a strong baseline of discipline throughout the Cougars program.
At an academic meeting Thursday, it was announced that no players were on academic probation (under a 2.0 grade-point average). The football staff cheered. Herman cut them off: "That should be the expectation."
When the staff arrived, more than 10% of the team was on academic probation. This summer, only one 'F' was handed out to a team member. The summer before Herman arrived, that number was eight.
This spring, Herman's team had the program's highest overall GPA, highest one-semester GPA and the most semester hours ever passed in a spring term.