Major Applewhite’s road to Houston OC job went through Ohio State
HOUSTON — Fifteen years ago, he was the cocky, freckle-faced, undersized star QB sparking one of the most storied programs in the game’s history. Eight years ago, he was the wunderkind offensive coach rising up the ranks faster than anyone in the business. One year ago, he’d become a ghost in the same town where he had been the beloved hero quarterback. Suddenly, he’d turned into the guy folks didn’t know what to say to and was "treated like a leper."
"There’s been things that have happened in terms of my marriage, my child; successes, major failures that have allowed me to look at myself as a person and say, ‘Is this who you are?’ Is this who you want to be?’" Applewhite told FOX Sports last week. "There was some real soul-searching at times where you look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Are you pleased with what you see?’ And the answer is no. So there’s changes that you have to make in your life. You have to constantly hold yourself accountable."
Applewhite and his wife sized up his options. They talked about staying in Austin and him getting a 9-to-5, but he knew he loved coaching too much.
"I love the game and everything that comes with it, the camaraderie of the staff, the competitiveness of it and always trying to find new pieces," he said. "My wife was very supportive and said, ‘Whatever makes you happy. Lila [their 6-year-old daughter] and I will make it work. We’ll figure out a way to make it work.’"
Those tough questions also prompted the 36-year-old to re-examine his coaching career. Though ultimately, it would eventually get re-ignited by an old friend from the former QB’s glory days in Austin.
Back then, Tom Herman was an anonymous graduate assistant, a California kid not much older than Applewhite. Last August, Applewhite visited the buddy who had since become the offensive coordinator at Ohio State and spent a week in Herman’s basement, picking his brain and studying how the Buckeyes head man Urban Meyer coached his coaches and taught his players by harping on the details, like exactly how crucial field position can be.
Since it was during the grind of training camp, there were long days, but when the two got back to Herman’s home, the 39-year-old Buckeyes OC and Applewhite retreated to the basement, had a beer and talked ball for 45 minutes. Then it was see you at 5:30 in the morning. Some five months later, when Herman was hired at Houston as the Cougars’ new coach, he asked Applewhite to be his offensive coordinator.
"Those four days were kind of the interview of what he knew and believed in and could learn, all of that stuff," said Herman. "In the back of my mind, … it was, ‘Put him high on the list.’"
Applewhite grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the guts of LSU country, as an Alabama fan. His soul was shaped by a brother 11 years older who wouldn’t let him win at anything. It’d be 138-2 and his big brother still wouldn’t go soft on him. At nights, the younger Applewhite jumped rope for 45 minutes to improve his footwork. In the summers, he went to every QB camp he could — 25 in all, he once told me. He also trained with speed coach Boots Garland, whom he had met at the Manning Passing Academy. Garland dubbed him "Peyton Jr." because of his preparation and tenacity.
"I grew up in that kind of environment as a highly competitive kind of guy," Applewhite said, "and when you’re not the fastest, not the strongest, not the tallest, you’re not the prettiest recruit, you don’t have a lot of stars by your name and you don’t get in this magazine, I think it continues to drive you."
To say Applewhite had an edge would be a massive understatement. It rubbed more than a few people the wrong way. Then again, it probably was also a big part of why he won Nick Saban’s confidence to get hired as his offensive coordinator at Alabama when he was just 28. Or how the year before, Applewhite, as the youngest OC at the FBS level, guided Rice to the most points the Owls had ever scored in one season and to their first bowl in 45 years. Or how in his first two seasons at UT, Applewhite rallied the ‘Horns to six victories in games in which they trailed or were tied late in the fourth quarter.
As much as his persona is tied to the days when he was the unheralded quarterback holding off the much more hyped Chris Simms and rallying the Longhorns to bowl wins, Applewhite has tried to keep that part separate from his home life. "I don’t have a ring box or bowl watches," he said. "If you went to my house, there’s nothing in there that (shows) I played football. This isn’t ‘Major Applewhite, the Quarterback’s house.’ It’s ‘This is the Applewhites’ house,’ and I want to keep it that way."
The biggest thing Applewhite says he’s learned in his year away from coaching is balance.
"I’m a passionate guy. Most times your strength can be your weakness and I was out of whack. Taking work home with me," he says. "I thought about it, ‘If I do have an opportunity to get back into it, I’m going to have balance.’ It’s a word I say to myself every morning. Balance. Yes, these young men you coach are very important, but so is that wife and so is that daughter. If you have a bad day (at work), you have a bad day. But when you walk back in that house, it’s done. It’s left at the doorstep and then you’re playing kid Monopoly or Candy Land or whatever it is."
Ask Applewhite how frustrating it was living in Austin and being around all the postmortem of how Mack Brown’s program fell off, both from in the media and out, some of that edge resurfaces.
"I don’t pay attention to the so-called experts," Applewhite said. "There’s a lot of people out there with opinions. I just didn’t pay attention to that because very few of those people have actually coached or recruited. I’ve watched ‘Law & Order’ for 20 years but I’m not a frickin’ attorney, so I don’t pretend to be that. I’d always take that with a grain of salt and so it’s not like these people know what they’re talking about. I know what our strengths were and what our struggles were at Texas. You get in social situations and someone’s like ‘Yeah, man we just needed to be tougher.’ You know we did beat Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma all last year with a back-up quarterback. You just don’t listen to it. You can’t.
"There’s not ‘one thing.’ There were just a lot of things. Sixteen years at any one place these days is pretty impressive. It’s pretty much the movie business now. It’s all entertainment. Can you get people to the box office? You’re seeing guys fired now after two seasons. You’re seeing coordinators fired at midseason. If you’re not entertaining and meeting their expectations, that’s the bottom line. People in Austin had high expectations and deservedly so. They’d grown accustomed to 10 and 11-win seasons and BCS bowls every other year. We got in a situation where Vince (Young) and Colt (McCoy) hid a lot of things. They can touch up a lot of blemishes. And then all of a sudden you lose those transcendent players and then these weaknesses start popping up that, hey, maybe we’re not as good as we thought we were at certain positions now that we don’t have a great college QB. We were getting eight and nine-win seasons. Defensively, we lost some great players. Emmanuel Acho, Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro and then the next great one Jordan Jeffcoat gets injured. It was a culmination of a lot of different things."
Applewhite also wasn’t about to sit around and listen to the critics. He took his daughter to and from school and tried to absorb as much family time as he could because he knew he’d soon get back on "the crazy train" with all the odd hours and not be able to see his kid awake for days in a row. He also hit the road a few days visiting other college staffs. At Clemson, he wanted to learn about how Chad Morris ran his QBs and what he does on sweeps. At Georgia, Applewhite wanted to see how then-Bulldogs OC Mike Bobo spoke to his quarterbacks in meetings and on the field because he was impressed by the development of Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray. At Texas State, Applewhite wanted to observe how they practiced and rotated groups in because head coach Dennis Franchione "has a rep for being able to get an ungodly amount of reps in during a practice." Applewhite also went back to Alabama to check in on his old boss.
"I had never seen anybody practice like that, having three separate groups so there was very little standing around," he said. "It’s not like the other 60 guys are just watching 22 play. They’re all going at one time. I wanted to see what they had changed. Also, Lane (Kiffin) was a guy who’d always done a great job in the play-action game with nakeds and stuff. I wanted to see what he was doing with movement throws and easy throws to get a QB going on rhythm."
Those visits were all last spring. Right before the season, he went up to Columbus, Ohio, to see Herman and the Buckeyes. Herman had climbed up the coaching ranks after leaving UT, going from one under-the-radar program to another before catching the eye of Meyer. At Ohio State, Herman showed he could make an offense sizzle with anyone he put in at quarterback, with four Buckeye signal-callers (forced into action due to injuries) thriving in the past two seasons. In 2014, he helped lead the Buckeyes to the national title and won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant.
Herman said the biggest thing that sold him on Applewhite was that he was willing to learn and adapt.
"It’s not Major Applewhite’s offense. It’s not Tom Herman’s offense. It’s the University of Houston’s offense," said Herman. "When you get at our point in our careers, a lot of guys go, ‘Well, this is how I do things.’ Well, I need a guy that can take what we’ve done — whether it was at Ohio State, Iowa State or Rice — and say here it is, learn it and if you have something that fits within our core beliefs and values and can make us better, I’m all for it. …
"He’s called plays everywhere from Rice to Alabama to Texas so that stage on game day was not gonna be too big for him. And he’s also a guy who’s played quarterback at the highest level of college football and coached some guys at the highest level."
At Houston, Applewhite and Herman take over what was an inconsistent offense that ranked 55th in yardage, 85th in Red Zone TD percentage and 93rd in third down conversions. Applewhite described their offensive philosophy as "taking two-back principles to spread formations and being able to apply those to a tempo world." Herman said Applewhite will call plays.
"(Herman) knows I’m not coming in here to ‘Bill Walsh’ the deal and saying I know everything about football and I don’t need your help," said Applewhite. "I told him on the interview, I’m not interested in taking this boat too far from shore."
They do inherit some good talent from Tony Levine’s old team, which finished last season 8-5. In speedy junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr., the Cougars have a dangerous running threat who also completed 67 percent of his passes in 2014. Ward, a 5-10, 175-pound former wideout, figures to lean heavily on DeMarcus Ayers, a shifty slot receiver, and bruising running back Kenneth Farrow.
Applewhite is Ward’s third offensive coordinator in three seasons, but he’s excited to work with someone who excelled at the position he’s playing: "He’s actually been out there. He’s seen it. He’s done it. We just have to listen to him. He’s real laid-back, but from the first time I met him I thought, I’m going to be coached to the potential that I hadn’t even dreamed of. We just have to buy in."
The coach Ward and his teammates are dealing with, however, is much different than the former star QB or even the guy who coached at Texas just a couple of years ago.
"I’m as open and honest and transparent with my players as you can imagine," said Applewhite. "I try not to be the guy who lives in the glory days. I think the players appreciate where you’re coming from. I think there’s a level of understanding. I’m not here to judge them. I talked to them about that just yesterday. I’m not here to judge your personal life. I’m here to help you. When the tape comes on I am here to judge because only one guy can play.
"So much of what we do in coaching in general is overcoming adversity. That’s what really defines your great players."
And, as Applewhite has learned, that’s what often defines us as people, too.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.