On a steamy August morning, hip hop music blares loudly from gigantic speakers, and blends in seamlessly with the constant cracking of plastic on plastic, plastic on flesh. With Houston’s hardscrabble Third Ward as the backdrop and the hope for an even brighter future in a Power Five conference as the shadow, Year Two of the Tom Herman Era has begun for the University of Houston football program.
In an NFL city where most of the fans and media have been weaned on Houston Texans’ summer practices — essentially glorified two-hand touch football — the hitting and the realism of a Herman practice are the difference between mono and surround sound. Just watch ten minutes of this version of the Cougars practice, and it’s readily evident that everything with Herman is about speed — speed of process, speed of execution, speed of comprehension.
There’s nothing Herman can do to slow down the calendar. Between now and September 3, and perhaps the most important game in the program’s history at NRG Stadium against Oklahoma in the Advocare Texas Kickoff, there is much work to be done. All that hitting is part of Herman’s process to find out, essentially, who’s in and who’s out.
“Beat ’em down, teach ’em how to run through the wall, how to not get run over by the wall,” Herman describes this phase of training camp, in a raspy voice ravaged by the camp’s first two weeks. “After that, for the next two weeks, we’ll worry about getting them fresh for September 3rd.”
Just 20 months ago, Herman was taking over a program with ample talent, but one that had settled into a mistake-laden, stagnant malaise under former head coach Tony Levine. The school’s leadership, including Landry’s Restaurants’ CEO and UH Board of Regents chair Tilman Fertitta, had the foresight to make a hard left turn, jettison Levine, and bring in Herman. That decision has made all the difference.
This time last year, though, Herman was still educating everyone in the program (and, quite frankly, at the school and in the city) on what his culture was all about. That was a time-consuming process that he no longer has to do on his own, top down. The existing players know it, live it, and can help teach it. This opens up far more time to prepare to, well, actually play football.
“From last year to this year, it’s like night and day,” says Herman. “We’re not teaching culture, or teaching just how to practice — we’re teaching football. That’s how you know you’ve taken the next step as a program, when the culture is so engrained that it’s not a constant time-taker-upper, if that’s a word. We get to teach fundamentals and technique, rather than basic things like ‘Finish through the whistle.’”
Thankfully, for Herman, his 2015 group was full of quick studies, quick enough to navigate the schedule with a 13-1 record, an American Athletic Conference championship, and a 38-24 rout of Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. This wasn’t the first time the Cougars had gone 13-1. In fact, they did it just four seasons before under Kevin Sumlin. However, this iteration of Houston football did it against a harder schedule of opponents and with more sizzle than the Case Keenum-led group of 2011. The hashtag #HTownTakeover became the slogan for a brand embodied by sideline appearances from local celebs like James Harden and Bun B, and social media welcome videos to recruits from the likes of J.J. Watt and Paul Wall.
Which brings us to September 3, the season opener against third-ranked Oklahoma that is the gateway to so much for so many. From a football standpoint, an upset of the Sooners will trigger rampant conversations about the possibility of the Cougars’ becoming the first non-Power Five school to crash the four-team College Football Playoff. With each subsequent win, the drum will beat louder.
Bigger picture, though, a University of Houston win over the Sooners will embolden the school’s yearslong campaign for membership in the Big XII, a door that reopened over the summer when the leaders of the Big XII voted unanimously to explore expansion. The potential tenfold increase in television revenue aside, membership in the Big XII would presumably give the program a better chance to retain Herman long-term, as he has become, far and away, the hottest name when big-time coaching jobs open up.
For his part, Herman’s greatest skill, among his many superb skills, is his ability to insulate his players from the noise and himself from the speculation. If you ask him about things like the College Football Playoff, Herman points you back to his frequently spoken goal for the program — simply to win the American Athletic Conference.
“Our goal is exactly the same as it was last season,” Herman says, matter of factly. “It’s to win the American Conference, and the beauty of it is that the AAC has separated itself from other conferences outside the Power Five[, so] that, barring a miracle season from some other team, if you win the American, you’re going to a New Year’s Six bowl game.”
If you ask Herman about Big XII membership, he defers vertically to those in a “pay grade above” his (an ironically worded deferral, given his nearly $3 million annual salary after a massive, well deserved 2015 raise). If you ask him about other schools’ coming after him, he defers horizontally, saying that he can’t control what others in the media or on the Internet say, and he spins the attention on him personally as an overall positive for the program.
Honestly, it’s a program flush with positives right now, including perhaps the most talented freshman class in school history, a celebrity buzz that has a Hall of Famer like Jerome Bettis gladly willing to come speak to the team during training camp, and a quarterback in Greg Ward who is not only a dark horse Heisman candidate, but also Herman’s on-field eyes and ears.
“Greg’s done a fantastic job just talking, cheering on his teammates, getting on them when they need to hear a firm voice, but also knowing when to encourage them,” Herman says, smiling. “He is light-years ahead of where he was last year.“
So while, for the rest of us, it all comes back to mentally putting all of our 2016 Cougar eggs in the September 3 basket and the Oklahoma game, Herman will have none of it. In an interview with the Tulsa World, Herman cited a conversation he had with Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson at a golf event prior to the Peach Bowl.
“[Johnson] said he had this big game, a national game, rivalry game once,” Herman recalled in the interview. “Basically, from the January after the previous season throughout spring ball, they were doing one extra jumping jack for this opponent or one extra pushup for this opponent, and everything was centered around that game. Well, they lost, and he said it was a good month before he had his team back because they were crushed. They had spent upwards of nine months getting ready for this one game. And they lost it and they didn’t know what to do.
“That’s not gonna happen here.”
Indeed, that won’t be the Cougars, Herman insists. They will focus on what they can control, not the substantial magnitude of what’s happening and could potentially happen around them. “We will focus on going as hard as humanly possible every snap we’re on the field,” Herman says. “How hard do you go, how much do you love it, how much do you love the guy next to you, and are you willing to give everything for him? That’s our focus.”
Herman’s ability to simplify the complex, to boil things down to the basic tenets of love, trust, and commitment might be his greatest skill. Those are languages everyone can and must speak in order to be a brick in the Cougar wall. Simply put, Herman has a process. Follow it. Do the little things.
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For the head coach of the Cougars, after that thunder dome of a practice, it’s off to that day’s next little thing for him in his continued efforts to sell the program. It’s move-in day for the rest of the student body, and Herman is quickly whisked off from the post-practice media session to go push dollies and hand trucks with incoming freshmen.
It’s an act of manual labor that would be beneath most college head football coaches, that utterly belies a walking tour de force like Herman, on whose shoulders rests the future of an entire athletics program. For the Cougars, though, the blue-collar hard work of Herman and many others is what’s put them on the cusp of so many special things.
So, from that standpoint, Herman's literally pushing those dollies, helping young Cougars into their next phase of life, is metaphorically appropriate. Quite frankly, it’s perfect.
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.