FRISCO, Texas — Tom Herman smirked Tuesday as he sat down for his first Big 12 Media Days interview. “I’m a little disappointed,” the Texas coach said. “No Justin Bieber.”
Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury got saddled with the Biebs for walkup music Monday. Herman got something generic, but he wasn’t about to leave a pop culture curveball hanging. A line in Herman’s opening statement explained why. “Our recruiting and social media staff have done an excellent job this first eight months on the job in terms of kind of rebranding Texas football a little bit,” he said. “They’re making sure that we are one of the really cool places to come and to get your education at and to play football.”
Herman and his staff have indeed worked hard on the rebrand since Herman took the job in November. The output has been impressive, and Texas does indeed look cooler.
But as Herman’s session went on, it became clear that he understands cool videos on Instagram and Twitter can only go so far. Only one thing will truly make Texas football cool again: Winning.
“These 16-year old kids that we’re recruiting—since they were 10 years old, they’ve seen two winning Texas football seasons. Two,” Herman said. “And they’ve seen four losing Texas football seasons. So the Texas that they know is a lot different than the Texas that people in my generation know. So it's our job to show them what Texas is capable of, what Texas has been in the past, and what we're planning on being again in the future.”
That will require retraining a group that has lost 21 games the past three seasons. “In our first team meeting, I said raise your hand if you’ve been on a winning Texas football team, and three people raised their hand,” Herman said. “We have three redshirt seniors, one of them is here today in Naashon Hughes, that were on Coach Brown’s last team. So we don’t know how to win really well right now.” This, naturally, doesn’t square with what Texas fans want from their program. “They love to throw on their burnt orange sunglasses and have all these crazy expectations,” Herman said. And while he understands those expectations, he knows he and his staff have some basic groundwork to lay before they can even begin to think about meeting those expectations.
Perhaps the best evidence that Texas players don’t know how to win is last year’s loss at Kansas. With their coach’s job on the line against a team that hadn’t won a Big 12 game since 2014, the Longhorns gagged away an 11-point fourth-quarter lead and lost in overtime. The players had spent months saying how much they loved Charlie Strong, but when they had a chance to help him, none of them stepped forward to lead. Perhaps none of them knew how.
Herman understands that his biggest early challenge will be teaching the members of this group to lead. He seems encouraged that the losing hasn’t sapped the Longhorns of their pride. “I feel good that these guys are willing to do whatever we ask them to coming off the three-year stretch that this program has had. They don’t want that to be their legacy,” he said. “They want to be remembered as the team and the group that turned this thing around.”
Besides the mental challenges, the Longhorns also face practical ones. Strong left Herman a much better roster than Mack Brown left Strong, but there are some holes. Monday, Herman was asked about quarterback depth behind starter Shane Buechele and backup Sam Ehlinger. “There isn’t any,” Herman said. A package for quarterback-turned-receiver Jerrod Heard is the nuclear option if Buechele and Ehlinger get banged up, but the Longhorns hope to keep Buechele upright. They’ll try to do that with a line that features junior left tackle Connor Williams, who should be the first Texas offensive lineman drafted since 2008.
More than anything, Herman worries about dispelling the attitude that it’s O.K. to lose. He has borrowed plenty of motivational techniques from former boss Urban Meyer—who in turn borrowed them from former boss Earle Bruce, who borrowed them from Woody Hayes—such as better meals or special T-shirts for players who win internal competitions. Herman has added his own flourishes. He’ll let units compete for a championship belt at practice. All of this seems small, but the point is to emphasize the difference between how winning feels and how losing feels on a micro level so the players want to avoid the macro feeling of a loss on Saturday at all costs.
“I think losing has to be awful,” Herman said. “That is one of the biggest maybe downfalls of a lot of teams is you get used to losing. Losing is awful. It’s awful. It’s not just, ‘Oh, well, we’ll get them next week.’ No, this is like ‘The sky is falling’–type stuff. And so every time we have a competitive situation, we’re going to make sure that the people that don’t win in that competitive situation feel awful about it and that it’s not funny and it’s not hokey or corny. It’s really, really bad for them to lose, as well as it being very, very cool for the guys that win and very rewarding for the guys that win. Because that’s what happens on Saturdays.”
Herman knows that no matter how snazzy his staff’s Instagram or Snapchat offerings are, his program won’t be cool again until his players feel the same way he does about winning and losing. Whether he can make them adopt that view is the toughest question he’ll have to answer.