On a crisp November night at a sold-out TDECU Stadium, Memphis kicker Jake Elliott trotted out onto the field with seconds remaining in the game. It would be up to the junior from Western Springs, Illinois, to act as the human fire extinguisher, to squelch the furious comeback that the University of Houston Cougars had mounted in the fourth quarter.
Mere minutes earlier, the Cougars had trailed 34-14, but thanks to a combination of guts and Memphis turnovers, they now led 35-34. Elliott, though, could erase Memphis’s egregious errors of the previous 15 minutes with one swing of his right leg, and in the process hand the Cougars their first loss of the season and head coach Tom Herman the first loss of his young head coaching career.
The snap was good, the hold was smooth, but the kick went wide right, and the Cougars celebrated. They’d officially completed the comeback, the biggest in a fourth quarter for any college football team all season. The box score, which merely read “Elliott missed 48 yd FG,” can never fully convey the impact of that missed kick.
In today’s college football world, relevance is a fixed pie, and only a small portion of it gets doled out to the non-Power Five conferences, like the American Athletic Conference, in which Houston and Memphis reside. Despite a season in which they’ve knocked off a good SEC team in Ole Miss, that missed field goal slammed Memphis’s window shut.
The Cougars, on the other hand, through toughness, opportunism and a little luck, lived to fight another day. The Cougars aren’t just relevant, they’re compelling. And they’re winning. Welcome to the Tom Herman era of Houston football.
When Herman arrived in January, he brought with him a championship pedigree, having just finished a three-year run as offensive coordinator for the defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes. Waiting for him in Houston was a roster with some talent but very little direction. Herman’s predecessor, Tony Levine, was a nice guy who had an exasperating knack for doing two things — making questionable hires on his coaching staff and losing enough close games to get him fired.
As is usually the case during a regime change, the new head coach brings an energy that is the polar opposite of the previous head coach. Herman ran a training camp heavy on contact and accountability and short on patience. Results came quickly, as the Cougars were able to get a huge win by a field goal against an ACC foe in Louisville in the second week of the season, a Louisville team that lost by an identical margin to top-ranked Clemson the following week.
The Cougar train rolled unblemished through September, October and that cool November night against Memphis, the only loss being a three-point setback last weekend at Connecticut. They did it, generally speaking, using holdovers from the Levine era. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was a Levine recruit and is now a Heisman Trophy candidate. Cornerback William Jackson III was a Levine recruit, and he might be the first cornerback taken in the NFL Draft this spring. Hell, running back Kenneth Farrow is in his third year as a captain.
So what’s the difference? Why is this same group now winning these close games against good teams, and, for the most part, destroying teams they should be destroying? Well, a lot of tactical reasons, but Herman boils it down to one simple, prevailing principle — love. The members of this team love each other, and in a typical legendary Herman soundbite, the head coach defined exactly what “love” means.
“It’s a ‘kiss you on the cheek, squeeze you real right and tell you that you have my heart in your hands’ kind of love, brother,” Herman clarifies. “Not ‘Love ya bro,’ or ‘Love ya dawg’ with the one-handed, ass-out hug. We’re not into that around here. We’re into real genuine love.”
As is usually the case, Herman finds the perfect way to convey his message with a combination of humor and logic. Having just been part of a championship team, he knows the importance of team chemistry.
“I’ve seen really, really talented teams that don’t care about each other and are average, or maybe above average is about as good as you’re going to get,” Herman said.
Now, let’s not forget that the Cougars have been down this road of relevance fairly recently. If you go back in time and cross the treacherous bridge of the Tony Levine era, you land in 2011, the final season of current Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin’s four-year run as head coach of the Cougars.
That season, on the strength of a prolific, video-game-style offense built around Case Keenum’s right arm, Houston went undefeated through the regular season before getting smoked in the C-USA title game by Southern Miss. By the time that team was beating downtrodden Penn State in a January bowl game, Sumlin had already moved into his office in College Station.
This iteration of Cougar football, though, seems better equipped under Herman to take on the monsters of college football when that day comes, because, quite simply, Herman cares deeply about defense, something Sumlin always seemed to view as a speed bump on the way to the next offensive series.
When asked to compare the various facets of his team to children, Herman quipped, “The defense is, by far, my favorite kid. Let’s make no mistake about that, I love great defense. Every championship team I’ve ever coached or been on has had a championship-level defense.
“No team ever accepted a championship trophy and said, ‘We won this because we out-finessed the competition.’ That’s never happened in this sport, and hopefully it never will.”
You don’t go from average to great with a mere personality makeover, though. The football gods don’t operate that way. Adversity strikes, and Herman’s ability to manage within chaos has been perhaps his most exemplary trait. When the offensive line was ravaged by injuries early in the season, he and his staff coached up a handful of true freshmen who’ve kept the offense moving.
“Six months ago they were having to figure out what tie to wear to the prom,” Herman joked. “Now they’re blocking college football defensive linemen.”
Managing on the fly in games has been a Herman strength as well. In that Memphis game, the Cougars’ best player, and perhaps the best quarterback in the country, Ward, went down with a leg injury in the first half, so in stepped transfer Kyle Postma, who’d been running routes as a receiver earlier in the season. All he did was throw for 236 yards and score the winning touchdown.
Of course, Herman is no stranger to substitute quarterbacks playing like stars, having been the offensive coordinator for Cardale Jones’s magical three-game run to a title in the 2014 postseason at Ohio State.
For Houston, the most difficult part of the Tom Herman era will be extending it for as long as humanly possible. Just two months into his first season on the job, Herman’s name was already showing up on media “short lists” for high-profile jobs like USC, Miami and South Carolina.
In recent years, Houston has served as a launch point for head coaching careers, specifically Sumlin at A&M and Art Briles at Baylor. Truth be told, that’s not the worst thing in the world. There are maybe a dozen programs in the country that can sleep at night knowing their coach is theirs and nobody else’s. Everyone else is on some form of constant notice, keeping one eye open knowing a pile of money could lure their guy away.
The University of Houston is one of those schools, and there’s no shame in that. Other schools wanting your coach means that you hired well.
However, the school doesn’t have to take outside interest in its head coach lying down, and to that end, the University of Houston Board of Regents struck a pre-emptive blow to Herman suitors last Thursday, approving an increase in the head coach’s annual salary from $1.35 million to $3 million. The raise would easily make Herman the highest-paid coach outside of the Power Five conferences.
In the meantime, the best way to keep Herman over on Scott Street is to keep winning games and keep scheduling strong matchups outside of the conference. To that end, the Cougars open 2016 at NRG Stadium against the University of Oklahoma. If they finish 2015 strong, with a New Year’s Day bowl win over a Power Five conference foe, could they start the 2016 season in, say, the top 15? With Ward returning for his senior year, it’s not just possible, it’s likely.
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For now, the Herman Plan is being executed flawlessly in 2015. The Cougars’ incoming recruiting class may be one of their best ever, and ticket sales are brisk. The Memphis game was a sellout, and the game against Navy on November 27 is already sold out as well. In perhaps the ultimate sign of relevance, J.J. Watt was spotted on the sidelines during the Memphis game. (Herman’s weekly invitation to Beyoncé remains open.)
The Cougars built TDECU Stadium to send a message about how serious they are about having an elite football program. A few months in, it appears Herman may be an elite head coach taking the program to places they haven’t been since the Southwest Conference existed.
And who knew that all you need is love? Well, love and defense.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.