Building a Program, Tom Herman (Houston Football Head Coach)

Tom Herman, Campus Rush (

When I was the offensive coordinator at Rice in 2007, there was an elite quarterback coming out of Stratford High in Houston. He made it very clear: If Texas didn’t offer him a football scholarship, he was going to go to an academically minded school. So, his final three schools were Northwestern, Stanford and Rice. We were on his list for three reasons: He’s from Houston; his dad was the president of MLS’s Houston Dynamo; and his mom and maternal grandparents graduated from the school. Long story short, he had been on campus a couple of times, and I had always known well in advance he was coming.

Rice didn’t have very nice facilities, so I knew which hallways to walk him down and where to hide him—I knew what doors to keep closed so he did not see certain things. Meanwhile, we planned any way we could to polish up the facilities. But during the spring my office phone rang and it’s the quarterback’s dad. I’m thinking, “Great!” I take the call, and he says, “Coach Herman, my wife and son and I are in the parking lot. Can we come up and spend some time with you?” I said, “Of course,” but I’m thinking to myself, “Oh no! Oh god! What do I do?”

So, I spent the next two hours fumbling around, and the kid saw all our warts. I went home that night feeling terrible—a combination of wanting to vomit profusely and curl up in the fetal position. I knew he was getting on a flight to Palo Alto the next day to visit Stanford. I knew what they were going to show him. And I knew that we were done. We had failed. Would we have gotten him? Probably not. But we failed. We did not put our best foot forward.

That quarterback was Andrew Luck.

I’ve told that story every day since I arrived at Houston. Every day when I roll into the parking lot, close my car door and start walking into the football facility, I say to myself, “What if Andrew Luck shows up today?” And I walk in, pick up gum wrappers and inspect the floor. We need new paint on the walls, new pictures, all sorts of things. In the city of Houston, there’s a very real chance that the next Andrew Luck could show up in our offices today. It’s almost a mantra for our coaches: Your offices better stay neat. You better have a highlight tape ready, a recruitment presentation ready, all your spiels ready, because there are 10 five-star prospects living within 20 minutes of us and they can show up at any time. Before I got here this building was not seen as a recruiting tool, but as a place to house employees. We’re slowly but surely changing that.

The thing that I began focusing on in the spring—and I learned a lot of this from Urban Meyer at Ohio State—is establishing the foundation of program. I’ll be honest, I’ve taken about 90% of the foundation of the program from Urban—conditioning, class schedules and structure of the program. This place is like a mini-Ohio State. I’m sure Urban, when he got his first job at Bowling Green in 2001, he didn’t just invent all this stuff. He got it from somewhere and twisted and turned it. So, my job is to take what works, what I like, what I thought was great, and add maybe a few little personal beliefs to it. Two of the key components of Urban’s program are the strength coach and football operations. I took Fernando Lovo from Ohio State to run operations, and hired Yancy McKnight, who I worked with at Iowa State, as my strength coach. Those guys are like co-head coaches. I treat them that way and the players treat them that way.

Right when we got here, we needed to overhaul not just the motivation, but also the psychology of motivation. It’s one thing that Urban is the best at, and I learned a ton from him about how to motivate players. I think I can be good at it, too, but I’ve had to change. I was the fun guy. I wanted everyone to like me.

One thing that not enough coaches know how to do—but the thing I learned from Urban that is fantastic—is how to use public praise and criticism. By public, I mean within the team, where you can say to one of your best players, “You stunk today,” or, “What you’re doing is unacceptable.” It’s something they didn’t have around here. We run the program like a family. Families are honest, families are open. When you mess up, you’re going to know it and so are all your brothers. You test positive for a drug test, the entire team—trainers, coaches, everyone—will know, there’s no whispering behind each other’s back. And you can’t always criticize the second-team outside linebacker and not the quarterback.

One of our best players is William Jackson III, a defensive back from Houston. Earlier this spring, I called out our cornerbacks: “Last time I checked, William can’t play left corner and right corner in the same game. So, someone in that group has to step up.” Not long after, one of the corners showed up 45 minutes late for one of our summer workouts (where we can work with the kids for two hours a week). I went over, stopped the corners’ drills and ripped the whole group, not just the kid who was late—ripped the position coach and William Jackson, too. Then I went over to the safeties and told them that their group had no leadership. I told the defensive backs that I don’t trust William Jackson. I learned from Urban, who is just a phenomenal motivator, what truly inspires someone—he digs deep into that. William Jackson wants to be a great leader. I promise you he does, and when you call him out in front of his team and his peers, William Jackson has two ways to go. Either he goes in the tank or he responds. Later that day I had a meeting with him and built him up and told him how much I love him. That’s a little peek behind the curtain.

One thing that I’ve gotten much better at is confrontation with my assistant coaches. I’ve learned that it’s O.K., you just can’t ever make it personal. I think that’s one thing that you learn from someone like Urban, or if you’ve heard Nick Saban talk. It’s never personal. It’s never, “You stupid jerk, why did I hire you?” The way to handle it is, “You’re not doing your job. This is what we need you to do. Get it done. These are the expectations.”

People make a big deal about the system you run. But I’ve learned though the years that your system has to marry your talent. One of my proudest seasons is when we went 12-0 in my first year at Ohio State in 2012. Philosophically, we wanted to be balanced. But we couldn’t throw the ball. We had a good line, a beast at tailback in Carlos Hyde and a freak at quarterback in Braxton Miller. It was one of my proudest achievements in coaching. We didn’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole. And that’s how we’re going to approach stuff at Houston. You start with a vision of, “Here’s who we are. Here’s our beliefs. Here’s how we play.” What our vision may be is going to be entirely dependent on the players we have.

The Cougars ran a Texas Tech-style Air Raid offense last year. It was an easy transition from that to the tempo, no-huddle and spread mentality we’re going to have. But we needed to do a 180 with the physicality. For 100 years in football, no one has won a game because of their finesse. I don’t know any team that ever won a championship while playing soft. So, when we got here, physicality was nonnegotiable.

All the buzz we’ve received in recruiting started with a local offensive tackle from Richmond, Texas, named Joshua Jones. Once I got to campus after the national title game in January, there was a mad dash to Signing Day. We put the full-court press on Josh. Really, all 10 coaches on the staff did. We sat around and tried to figure out, “How are we going to sell this city?” I have no idea who came up with it and I really don’t care, but we came up with, Your city is calling.” And when Josh flipped from Oklahoma State to Houston last February, he tweeted: “My city was calling my name, so I had to answer it.” Everything took off from there. Everyone talks about putting a fence around their city. We say it about Houston and Chad Morris at SMU says it about Dallas. Josh, a freshman this fall, was the first stake in our fence.

It also gave our staff a confidence that we could battle with top schools on the recruiting trail and win. From there, social media has really helped us. There’s a tweet quota that you have to have on our staff. I’m not going to say what it is, but Twitter is free marketing, and everyone on our staff has to do it. To not use social media would be a huge mistake. Our target audience stares at their phones nine hours a day. Why would you not put the UH logo in front of them as many times as you can?

I’ve really made an effort to drum up interest in Houston football since taking over. I’ve said yes to every possible speaking engagement I could. I spoke at a rodeo. I was at the Bear Bryant coach of the year award. I’ve played in a lot of golf tournaments. But I was most fired up about speaking at Houston’s commencement. I spoke without notes. I spoke from the heart. I told a story about the kids we’re raising in society, and how all these soccer moms from Dublin, Ohio, don’t want to keep score in kids’ games. They were looking at me like I was jerk because I said that I taught my kid to keep score. Are you kidding me? I’m not the one who is messed up here. They’re going to keep score in life. It’s O.K. I’ve failed hundreds of thousands of times. I probably failed 100 times today. But winning is not supposed to matter to me? I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to grasp that. Forget the awards. You should want to be the best at whatever your chosen field is. I want my kids to win. Winners get the corner office, the big house, the hot wife, the whole nine. I said that at commencement. Then I said that the people who don’t win, they get cubicles, the hoopty ride, the not-so-hot wife.

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