HOUSTON—Players went silent Saturday morning as Tom Herman set the final matchup. Houston’s offense stood on one side of the circle. Its defense occupied the other. The only sound was the buzz from a drone flying overhead packing a GoPro camera to record the one-on-one clashes that would decide which unit got to raise the knockoff WWE championship belt that goes to each day’s champion.
Then someone screamed.
Put the belt up!
The players roared as the belt was hoisted to the sky, where it would hang in the balance as star senior tailback Kenneth Farrow took on redshirt junior linebacker Steven Taylor. That Herman chose two players who could be captains in the fall was no accident; Herman learned the psychological aspects of this drill while working at Ohio State for Urban Meyer, who also used the drill at Florida, Utah and Bowling Green. Meyer called it the Circle of Life in Gainesville. The “Of Life” part seems to have disappeared in Columbus and in Houston, but the concept remained the same. Two players face off while encircled by their teammates. The winner is the one who either pushes his opponent out of the circle or puts him on the ground. In the minutes leading up to Houston’s scrimmage, the offense had staged a furious comeback. After losing the first two matchups, offensive players had won the next two. Farrow and Taylor would break the tie.
When the players collided, neither had a clear advantage. The winner would have to fight his way into better leverage. Farrow’s feet chopped. His hips dipped. After three seconds that felt more like three minutes, he worked his hands into Taylor’s armpits. Farrow drove Taylor out of the center of the circle, and the rest of the offensive players mobbed him. The belt was theirs.
They could only celebrate briefly, though. Less than an hour later, the belt was wrapped around a goalpost as junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. lined up on fourth-and-goal from the one-foot line. Ward bobbled the snap on the sneak and got stuffed short of the goal line, earning the defense points toward a win that forced the offense—and the offensive coaches—to run gassers.
Everything is a competition in Houston, just as it was when Herman worked in Columbus. Herman and strength coach Yancy McKnight have taken motivational techniques from David Bailiff and Paul Rhoads, their former bosses at Rice and Iowa State. Herman and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, who met when Herman was a Texas graduate assistant and Applewhite was the Longhorns’ quarterback, have borrowed organizational philosophies from Mack Brown.
All this familiarity has led to a head coach who is far more at ease three months into the job than he thought he would be. “I’ve been surprisingly relaxed,” Herman said. On Saturday Herman interrupted a fire-and-brimstone pre-scrimmage speech to poke fun at his newness and razz senior offensive tackle Zach Johnson. Herman had spent the previous few minutes talking about the demon of self-doubt that creeps into tired bodies. His point: Players face tougher opposition from themselves than from the man across the line of scrimmage. “I care how you do today against Zach Johnson,” Herman said, pointing at Johnson. “Or whatever your name is. Is it Zach Johnson?” “Yes sir,” Johnson replied as his teammates giggled.
How loose is Herman? His old coworkers in Columbus occasionally call him, put him on speaker and ask him to tell a joke to liven up staff meetings. It’s a safe bet that when Meyer left Notre Dame to become Bowling Green’s head coach in 2001, the Fighting Irish staff didn’t dial up its former receivers coach for comic relief.
Herman is sure the comfort level comes from his familiarity with his staff. The only person he brought over from Ohio State is Fernando Lovo, the Cougars’ assistant athletic director for football operations. Yet other than defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who came from Utah State, and tight ends coach Corby Meekins, who was previously a successful head coach at Westfield High in Houston, Herman worked with everyone else at some point during a career that began in 1998 at Division III Texas Lutheran and led to him juggling three quarterbacks during a national title season at Ohio State before leaving to run his own program. Bouncing up through the college football ranks may not have been fun, but it allowed Herman to craft a list of potential assistants to call when his first head-coaching opportunity came along. “It’s a blessing,” Herman said. “My wife’s probably not real happy that we moved every three years, but the fact is I was able to develop my dream staff, if you will, based on the guys that I’ve worked with, the guys that I believe in, the guys I know are right for this job.”
This is a dramatic shift from the last time Houston hired a head coach. In 2012 Tony Levine inherited a program riding high thanks to previous coaches Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin. But Sumlin had taken much of the staff—on-field and support—with him to Texas A&M. Levine didn’t have as thorough of a list. He wound up hiring offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt from Stephen F. Austin without any real connection to the man who would take over an offense that had been crafted by Sumlin, Dana Holgorsen and Kliff Kingsbury. How bad was the fit? Nesbitt resigned under pressure two days after Houston’s first game, a 30-13 loss to Texas State.
There should be no such fit issues for Herman’s assistants, who have plenty of Lone Star State recruiting experience and a clear idea of what Herman wants. Making sure the assistants fit into the head coach’s preferred culture is another concept Herman swiped from Meyer, although Herman should get partial credit because his hiring at Ohio State is the model Meyer now uses when considering new assistants.
Now, the Houston staff must make the players understand what is required of them. This group is criticizing the Cougars more and forcing them to compete more often. Applewhite said the culture shock reminds him of when Brown took over at Texas in 1998. Applewhite knows Brown—his boss from 2008-13—has been cast as a grandfatherly caretaker of a football country club in recent years. But that was far from the truth when Brown came to Austin from North Carolina. “We were up at 5 o’clock in the morning with 50-pound weight vests on running 1,000-yard shuttles,” Applewhite said. “I’ve got a 50-pound weight vest on and a D-lineman has a 50-pound weight vest on. I’m wondering, why does he get to wear a 50-pound one when I have to wear a 50-pound one? When we broke Nebraska’s 47-game home winning streak up in Lincoln [in October ’98], all of a sudden it clicked.”
Applewhite doubts the Cougars will truly grasp why their new coaches are being so hard on them until later. “They won’t understand it,” Applewhite said, “until they have a taste of success.” Houston will get that chance early. The Cougars will play at Louisville on Sept. 12.
Houston's roster has talent. The aforementioned Farrow averaged 5.6 yards a carry last season, and he probably watched Ohio State tailback Ezekiel Elliott’s playoff performance with great interest. Ward, the quarterback, took the job from since-transferred John O’Korn last fall and is competing with Utah transfer Adam Schulz. Boundary corner William Jackson looks and plays like someone bound for the NFL, and the Cougars should have fun in Orlando’s defense, which mixes up looks to bring pressure from radically different places from play to play. But the offensive line, a weak spot last season, has to get better. The entire offense must master the scheme. It isn’t enough to know how to get lined up. The group must avoid procedure penalties that plagued it during last weekend’s scrimmage. “It’s an ongoing process,” Applewhite said. “You see two steps forward, one step back.”
But coaches believe the Cougars are moving forward. That could be another reason for Herman’s inner peace. The first-year head coach is sure he’ll tighten up as the season draws closer. “I know I will,” he said. “It’s inevitable.” Still, Herman thinks he knows how to keep from getting wound too tight. He just has to keep being the guy the coaches in Columbus call when they want to crack up, because that’s who Tom Herman is—whether he is a coordinator or a head coach.
“I’ll try to stay myself. I think that’s the key,” he said. “Don’t be somebody you’re not. Take everything you learned from the Urban Meyers and the Mack Browns and the David Bailiffs and the Paul Rhoadses of the world. Take all the good stuff you learned from them, but don’t try to be them, either. Be you.”