The unlikely rebuild: With Texas behind on and off the field, Tom Herman’s overhaul begins
AUSTIN, Texas — At 10:30 p.m. on the night of Nov. 25, Tom Herman interviewed for the head coaching job at the University of Texas in an undisclosed location between Houston and Austin. Sometime after the clock crept past midnight on the morning of Nov. 26, Texas President Gregory L. Fenves made a pitch to Herman that’s become a mantra for his new job as Texas football coach: “Tom, this program is broken, and we need a CEO to fix it.”
Herman took Fenves at his word. And he soon discovered a program rich with tradition but shallow on infrastructure, teeming with potential but stuck in the past and with little clue how to match its competitive desires with 2017 realities. In essence, Tom Herman arrived at mighty Texas to find the unlikeliest of rebuilding jobs.
The changes at Texas are coming rapidly. There’s nearly $10 million in aesthetics changes planned. There’s hundreds of thousands more spent on new staff members. There’s a complete cultural overhaul predicated on accountability. “To President Fenves’s credit, both he and our athletic director, Mike Perrin, have said yes to me at every turn since I took the job,” Herman said. “We’ve all come to the realization that we have some catching up to do.”
The first changes that will be noticeable at Texas are the cosmetic ones. There’s the football offices, which currently look like a knockoff of an Teddy Roosevelt hunting lodge. They include chairs in some assistant coaches offices covered in cow skin and giant murals that romanticize steer. In the area around the team meeting rooms, the wallpaper gives off all the modern vibes of a YMCA swim center. Mercifully, the wallpaper with orange cubes straight from the Atari era has already been ripped down.
The immediate visual changes include $2 million in graphics, $3 million to upgrade the locker room, $1.5 million to update the weight room and $1 million to upgrade the training room.
Walking around the Texas facility recently brought back memories of Florida’s atrophying facilities during the end of athletic director Jeremy Foley’s tenure the past few seasons. An institutional complacency, combined with a dash of arrogance, led to an attitude of, “Well, we’re Florida.” Blinded by success and ambivalent to the notion of rising competition, Florida finds itself chasing schools like Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Florida State in the facilities race and at times the standings.
That same attitude permeated at Texas, which became glaring as the school sputtered through the end of the Mack Brown era and Charlie Strong’s three uneven seasons. Herman walked into a football program with fewer support staff members than he had while the head coach at Houston. Somehow, a school Texas fans derided for decades as “Cougar High” had built a better infrastructure in its football program than the state flagship.
Texas Longhorns year-by-year record
As new facilities sprout up around the Big 12 in places like Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma, Texas stayed static in a figurative hunting lodge. As programs beefed up staff with specialized positions in recruiting, graphics and sports science, Texas carried on with the same attitude found in Gainesville: “Well, we’re Texas.”
On the field, these days, that aura could be interpreted as an insult. Austin hasn’t seen a 10-win season or conference title since 2009, and there’s been four seven-loss seasons since 2010. The 16-year old recruit Texas is targeting for the 2018 recruiting class was in about third grade the last time Texas found itself contending for the national title. For a generation with a well-chronicled attention span deficit, that’s a lot of Snaps ago. To put the four losing seasons in the past seven years in perspective, Ohio State went 114 years between seven-loss seasons, 1897 to 2011.
Herman and his staff found out the reality quickly on the recruiting trail as they scurried to get together their 2017 class. The five-stars weren’t exactly swooning. Texas finished No. 28 in Scout.com’s recruiting rankings, the program’s worst in the recruiting site’s history. “We can’t walk into a home visit with a recruit anymore and say, Hey, we’re Texas,” Herman said. “And all of a sudden the recruit is going to raise his hand and become a Longhorn. We’ve got to work our tails off.”
Some of that also means working smarter. Five new positions were created and filled in Austin in the first two months. That includes forming an entire creative media department within football, as the school dedicated $200,000 in salary to three positions to tailor graphics, video and social media toward the fleeting attention spans of teenage recruits. Herman also added two new support positions in recruiting. Texas is also in the process of hiring a sports science position and one in high school relations. “I can’t credit our administration enough for realizing we have some catching up to do and approving all of our requests,” Herman said. “We were behind most top 25 schools in terms of staff infrastructure, and these hires are helping us catch up.”
Herman views the impending overhaul at Texas as similar to what he faced when he walked into the University of Houston nearly two years ago. He found atrophying facilities, administrative inertia and a talented but underachieving football team. A complete cultural overhaul commenced soon after Herman’s arrival, with everything from him personally ripping up a floor in the facility to demanding better conditions for his players. (That included upgrading their eating area from a garage). Houston went 22–4 over Herman’s two seasons, including upsets of Oklahoma, Florida State and Louisville (twice).
“There’s no secret offense or secret defense, and they just didn’t have it,” Herman said of Texas. “It’s a cultural accountability, hard work issue. It’s not a talent issue. Kansas doesn’t have better players than Texas, and Kansas didn’t call better plays than Texas when they beat them last year. It’s how they played, why they play.” The bedrock of Herman’s planned transformation of Texas starts with accountability. In the first few weeks, players missed three tutor sessions and 38 meals. Herman took away their gear, with the workout uniform of logo-less gray sweats and white cotton T-shirts giving the Longhorns a look from the Fred Akers era. “It’s been a culture where if somebody is messing up in academics, well let’s go yell at the academics guy,” Herman said. “If someone isn’t making weight, let’s go yell at the nutritionist. If a guy isn’t lifting enough, let’s go yell at the strength coach.”
The word alignment will be used frequently in Austin, much as it was during the three seasons that Herman worked under Urban Meyer in Columbus. That means a clear funnel of accountability, as position coaches are responsible for everything their players do, from punctuality to on-field development to academics. It’s the assistant coaches’ job to know their players, their families and lives so well that they can see potential issues on and off the field before they develop.
With the aesthetics, staffing and culture all beginning to evolve, Herman stresses that the vibe around Texas won’t be militaristic or mundane. At Houston, Herman set out on what he called the Grand Experiment—turning around a football program while singing Ace Hood lyrics, quoting Anchorman and leaving every day with the spontaneity of a Second City improv skit. The hard work and toughness came with hugs and belly laughs, as loving a teammate should resonate as players’ fundamental motivator.
The first signs of change can be spotted around the facility, everything from the crumpled balls of antiquated wallpaper to the new staff to the cotton work-out gear. A new CEO has arrived, and the message is clear that at once-mighty Texas there’s a lot of catching up to do.