Now that University of Texas head football coach Charlie Strong is all but out the door, and the implications of his ouster for UH's Tom Herman are unknown, it's worth taking a look back five years ago when the Cougars were in an eerily similar situation.
The morning of December 3, 2011, was a crisp, cool, gorgeous Saturday morning. The Robertson Stadium grass was a bit slick, but otherwise the field was in great condition, the stadium was packed, and the uniforms of the Houston Cougars and the Southern Miss Golden Eagles were bright, shiny and clean.
The Cougars were the No. 6 team in the country. A win over Southern Miss would guarantee a 13-0 season, the Conference USA title and a trip to a BCS Bowl Game. Southern Miss instead scored the first 14 points, led 21-14 at the half, then put up 21 points in the third quarter on the way to pulling off the 49-28 upset win over the Cougars.
Houston had been like a machine firing on all cylinders throughout the season. Always running up huge leads, dominating every team on the schedule. But things looked off that Saturday. The team looked a step behind, not so much lackluster as off-kilter. The Cougars appeared distracted at times, not concentrating on the game.
Things had been chaotic around the football program that week, primarily because of head coach Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin’s name was seemingly linked to every head coach opening in college football, with one school, Texas A&M, standing out above all others. The Aggies had just finished a 6-6 season, and head coach Mike Sherman’s overall record for four seasons was 25-25. Sumlin had ties to the Aggies, having been an assistant under R.C. Slocum. And on December 1, the Aggies fired Sherman.
The UH coaches will tell you the distractions were kept to a minimum and that the focus was on nothing but that Southern Miss game. The players said the same thing. Yet the Cougars lost, looked bad losing and went from a BCS bowl to the bottom-tier TicketCity Bowl played in the Cotton Bowl. And within a week of that loss, Sumlin was named the head coach of the Aggies.
Things are a bit different in 2016. The Cougars aren’t undefeated; they’re not battling for a conference title or for a New Year’s Six bowl. But the final game of the season is on Friday, and just as in 2011, the name of current UH head coach Tom Herman has seemingly been linked to every job opening in college football. And as in 2011, there’s a Texas university that has set its sights on Herman, only instead of the Aggies, it’s the University of Texas.
The similarities continue in that, as in 2011, UT has yet to formally fire its head coach, though it is expected by all that Charlie Strong will be fired this weekend after the Longhorns finish the season against TCU. And as in 2011 with Sumlin, there’s a link between Herman and UT, with Herman having been an offensive graduate assistant coach at Texas from 1999 to 2000.
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Herman’s name has been linked to the Longhorn job since last year — in fairness, his name has been linked to about every job since the middle of last season. UT is perhaps the prime job in Texas, and could be one of the best in the country. The school has money. It has facilities. It has its own TV network. And if Herman could go there and revive the program, he would be treated as a god. Boosters have made it known they want Herman, and there have been stories that boosters have pushed to fire Strong at various times this season so that the overtures to Herman could officially start.
As the Cougars prepare to end the season in Memphis on Friday morning, the question probably arises, just how does all of this affect the team (9-2 on the season)? The Cougars had a rough month in October, losing to Navy and SMU while barely hanging on to defeat Tulsa and UCF. A glimpse at the Cougar fan boards would leave one thinking the team quit on Herman at that time because the players were convinced he was leaving the team. That failed to take into account injuries to the offensive line and key defenders, along with a one-game suspension for another player.
The rumors have never really gone away, yet the Cougars recovered and played the most dominating game of the season last week again Louisville. But that was before Texas lost to Kansas, and before the "Charlie Strong fired" stories started popping up everywhere. Herman says his focus is on the Memphis game. Tilman Fertitta, chairman of the UH Board of Regents, makes it clear that UH is willing to match whatever UT is willing to offer.
Odds are that this time next week, Charlie Strong will be unemployed and Tom Herman will be the most popular kid on the block. What happens with Herman? What about the team? Will this be the ultimate distraction, or can the team toss it aside and defeat Memphis? It’s all just a matter now of wait and see.