HOUSTON — Tom Herman accepted his first coaching job at Texas Lutheran in 1998 on the promise of a $5,000 annual salary and a dining hall meal card. He took it sight unseen, having never even visited Texas. His girlfriend at the time, Michelle Tatarakis, drove with him from Southern California, where they lived together, to rural Seguin.
Tom wouldn't let Michelle come with him full-time, as he couldn't make enough money to provide for them. They were in their early 20s, had dated since college, and Michelle cried the entire ride. An omen came when they took a 70-mile detour in Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon. It was closed thanks to zero visibility.
These days, Tom Herman's coaching career holds a much clearer forecast. He's 20–3 in his second season as the head coach at Houston, routed Florida State in last year's Peach Bowl and won a national title as Ohio State's offensive coordinator in 2014. With an opening at LSU and possible openings at Texas and Oregon, Herman has emerged as the top candidate outside the Power 5 conferences to land at a glamour program.
But the essence of Herman's coaching journey comes from a road that began with a teary drive out west. Tom Herman knew he wanted to be a coach, even writing down his "Life Goals" to be a Division I-AA coordinator or Division I position coach by age 30 and a head coach by 40. To attempt to get there, Tom needed Michelle to ride shotgun through dingy apartments, remote towns and uncertain nights filled with considering moving back to California to sell widgets. "He's really proud," said Zack Hernandez, Herman's close friend and former college teammate at Cal Lutheran. "He's not a silver spoon kid. He's done it his way. He's taken every little step on the way."
Memory lane looks funny in the rearview mirror but felt bumpy in real time. Michelle can only laugh, as the stories over a lunch earlier in the season came out one after another.
There's the time Tom almost took a job at a roadside fireworks stand to make $1,000.
The time she lived in a Red Roof Inn, six months pregnant and with a 3-year old, for four weeks when Tom left Texas State to coach at Rice.
The time Tom bought her $4,000 diamond earrings, and she forced him to take them back.
On Tom and Michelle Herman's first date during their freshman year at UC Davis in 1993, he opened up the glove compartment of Michelle's car in search of gum. Tom found a bottle with cherries on it, assumed it was breath spray, and squirted it liberally in his mouth. When Michelle returned to the car, she found Tom manically coughing after ingesting her air freshener.
Even after Tom Herman caught his big break—catching on as graduate assistant at Texas in 1999— he couldn't catch a break. The first time Texas coach Mack Brown acknowledged him in a staff meeting, he referred to him by the wrong name, "Coach Harmon," from the wrong school "Trinity."
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Herman got the coveted position because he'd already applied and been admitted to graduate school there. He admits perhaps being too ambitious at the time. He winces while telling the story of asking Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis to make a call for him for a job he was completely unqualified for—the wide receivers coach at USC. "Looking back on it," he said, "I'm so embarrassed for my young self. What an idiot."
Herman's best friend, Jeff Barry, recalls going with Herman to buy a used bed on a visit to Texas at one of his early trips out there. (Who buys a used bed?). Michelle moved to Austin for nine months, but returned to Los Angeles for a higher paying job and to plan their wedding. Michelle sent money back from Los Angeles so he could pay rent. "She carried me," he said, "for a long time."
Tom and Michelle wed in 2001, with Tom flying back to Texas the day after the wedding. He'd just taken a job coaching receivers at Sam Houston State for $10,000 per year, and Michelle left her high paying job at a Los Angeles investment firm and apartment in Hermosa Beach to join him in Huntsville, Texas. From 2001 to 2004—the longest the Hermans have lived in one town—she worked jobs in a day care, non-profit organization, bank, the college of criminal justice and as a waitress serving muffuletta sandwiches at Humphrey's, the local college bar.
Possums waited at the doorstep of their first apartment every night, and roaches the size of saltshakers roamed freely. When Tom killed a bat with a broom one night, they decided they needed to move out. Their upgrade? They moved into government subsidized low-income housing.
But the vision to become a big-time coach never wavered, nor did the appreciation of the opportunity to coach. By the end of their time in Huntsville, duct tape held together his Honda Civic's muffler. But when they drove past the town's famous 67-foot statue of General Sam Houston, Tom made Michelle salute. Why? "He pays our bills," Tom insisted to the person who actually did.
After Herman's fourth year at Sam Houston, things finally started to come together. Michelle was getting her master's, and they were finally stable financially. She and Tom both made around $35,000 per year. They'd found success on the field, as Sam Houston lost to Montana in the semifinals of the Division I-AA playoffs. "I sobbed after that loss," he said. "I was so invested, you know?"
But Sam Houston coach Ron Randleman retired, and Herman didn't get retained by the new staff. He pondered taking the offensive coordinator job at Cyprus Falls High School in Houston, which he told Michelle would be his last shot before they'd move back to California. "He would stay stuff like that," she said. "I'd say, 'You are full of crap.' We'll figure it out. You're not going to be happy."
Before Herman had to take a high school job, David Bailiff called Herman to join him as the offensive coordinator at Texas State in 2005. Herman was 29, beating his deadline of being a Division I-AA coordinator by a year. He worked two seasons there before following Bailiff to Rice for his first full-time FBS coordinator job.
That began Herman's ascent to Iowa State (2009) and Ohio State (2012), a path forged by the hard years in Huntsville the Hermans recall as some of their favorite. Herman also beat his other deadline, as Houston hired him as head coach at age 39. These days there's three kids, a $3 million salary and national notoriety. A decade of odd jobs, cockroaches and lean times forged a deep appreciation. "I wouldn't change," Michelle said, "anything about it."
Herman knows the real reason he's on the cusp of rarest air in coaching. "She's the rock of our family," he said of Michelle. "Her support, love and understanding are the main reasons why we are where we are today. None of this would be possible without her."