Thanksgiving night of 2016 is going to be remembered as a critical turning point in the history of two sputtering blue blood college football programs. For LSU and Texas, which are both facing high profile coach openings, the immediate trajectory of their hundred-million-dollar football programs will be linked back to the actions of Thursday night.
There's two ways Thanksgiving 2016 will be remembered.
Either LSU badly outflanked Texas to hire Houston coach Tom Herman, executing one of the most cunning hires that college football has seen in more than a decade. Or it will be known as the night LSU's interest in Herman ended up being used as leverage to force Texas into hiring Herman. Rarely in college sports have the stakes been higher, with two elite programs, one promising coach and the entire college football world riveted at what could happen.
On Thursday evening, Chip Brown of HornsDigest.com reported that Herman is close to being named the next coach at LSU. Multiple sources confirmed to Sports Illustrated on Thursday night that LSU has been aggressively pursuing Herman, and there's a confidence on the LSU side that a deal could get done soon. It's certainly feasible that Herman could be LSU's coach in the next 48 hours.
But the simultaneous glee from Tiger nation as the team blew out Texas A&M on the field and potentially beat out Texas for a coach off it stalled in the fourth quarter. That's when ESPN reported what had been the reality all along—that Herman would be open to an offer from Texas, the school that has long been considered his definitive preference.
So here's the stakes. If LSU executes the Herman hire, it will go down as the savviest athletic department maneuvering since Jeremy Foley and Florida completely outfoxed Notre Dame to hire Urban Meyer in December of 2004. But if LSU got hoodwinked into thinking it had Herman only to be used as leverage for his preferred suitor, it'd be taunted for years in SEC circles by letting Herman's representative use it and ESPN's Bottom Line ticker to motivate Texas.
For athletic department officials at LSU, there'll either be a Mardi Gras in November or an Uber to the unemployment office. The extremes are so distinct here, there's little room for gray area. The theater is exponentially more exciting than anything either program has produced on the field in recent years.
If LSU lands Herman, there's a chance this Thanksgiving night haunts Texas for a long, long time. Think about how long it took Notre Dame to overcome whiffing on Meyer, as it stumbled through the Charlie Weis experience. Thanksgiving night of 2016 in Texas could be this decade's punch line equivalent to Weis's "schematic advantage" at Notre Dame.
The indictment of Texas here isn't that it may not hire Herman, it's that it appeared to not even be savvy enough to put itself in position to try. Herman isn't Urban Meyer or Nick Saban, but he's widely considered in the industry the most promising coach who'd definitively say yes to Texas. And on Thursday night, as the news of Herman's potential departure to LSU whirled past on the Bottom Line during the Texas A&M-LSU game, the biggest embarrassment for Texas is that to just give itself a chance it needed to scramble to put together a plan.
Right now, the leadership at Texas consists of a president, Greg Fenves, with an engineering background who knows nothing about sports. He's suddenly getting advice from University of Texas system chancellor, William H. McRaven, a four-star Navy admiral once considered a candidate for Hillary Clinton's cabinet. The athletic director is Mike Perrin, a former trial lawyer the university brought in to soothe feelings after Steve Patterson's ugly ouster in 2015. All are inordinately bright men who are decorated and accomplished in their fields. But the problem here is that none of those fields is collegiate athletics. "Not confident in the process," said a high ranking Texas official earlier this week. "You have an admiral, an engineer and a lawyer in charge. Nobody has ever hired a football coach."
Perrin is a bright man and a nice man, but we've learned in the past 18 months that he's as qualified to be an athletic director as someone who watches Law and Order reruns is to be a trial lawyer. Perrin messed up Texas's baseball search so badly that people in the athletics industry talk about it in the same whispered tones—the baseball search—your grandmother speaks about when she mentions a sick relative.
The problem with Texas for a majority of the past decade is that its weak leadership and dysfunctional athletic department have consistently and persistently undermined the vast power of the Texas brand. Texas has its own cable television network, the country's most fertile football recruiting base and arguably the best college town to recruit to. Yet the Longhorns are 30–31 in the Big 12 since 2010. They are a pedestrian 46–41 overall in that time. Since losing to Alabama in the 2009 title game, the Longhorns have been a toxic combination of arrogance and incompetence. That below-.500 Big 12 record has been indicative of far deeper problems than just with coaches and players.
For weeks, the biggest question in the college sports industry has been a simple one: could Texas actually mess up hiring Herman? The answer appears to be a resounding yes, as it is teetering on the cusp of getting embarrassed by LSU. (And let's face it, no one from the LSU athletic department has been invited to do a TED talk recently, considering the flurry of administrative blunders it has endured with Les Miles's flubbed departure and forcing the Florida game moved to Baton Rouge.)
Let's not forget, Texas is capable of missing a layup. In 2013, Texas hired Steve Patterson over Oliver Luck as athletic director. Luck was the obvious choice with the superior resume and wanted badly to go to Texas. But Texas administrators got charmed by Patterson in the interview, and that hire turned out to be beyond disastrous.
Certainly, there are other coaches out there that Texas could hire, and good ones too, as the name Jon Gruden is expected to surface if the school doesn't hire Herman. But Thursday night exposed it yet again as overmatched and desperate. If it's going to hire a high-end coach like Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, it's going to end up paying upwards of $8 million per year. There are certainly still good coaches who can win at Texas, but the administration has so continually proven its incompetence that it's difficult to imagine a truly established coach embracing all that dysfunction. (Not to mention the outdated football facilities, unrealistic expectations and billionaire boosters who patronize new coaching hires as "a great position coach.")
The bottom line for Texas is that the handling of Charlie Strong's dismissal provides a microcosm of its problems. It's a complicated issue being handled by administrators completely unequipped to handle them. Fenves's decision to not announce Strong's firing last week after the Kansas loss invited all sorts of problems. Credit Strong for delivering a Kissinger-caliber press conference and his players for rallying around him. Fenves adores Strong personally, which is easy to understand because of Strong's ideals and integrity. But personal feelings at Texas this week have gotten in the way of an obvious business decision.
Giving Strong that forum on Monday to rally support distracted Fenves and Texas administrators from searching for a new coach. They found out just how far behind they were on Thursday night. The race to catch up could well end up determining the immediate trajectory of two of college football's elite programs.
Forget Ohio State playing Michigan this weekend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. LSU and Texas going head-to-head for Tom Herman may end up just as riveting.