From about the time that then-University of Texas head football coach Charlie Strong lost his third game of the season, in early October, rumors that Tom Herman would become the next head coach at UT were evolving from assumed eventuality to fait accompli. Truth be told, that speculation hovered over Herman’s 2016 University of Houston squad like a burnt-orange cloud all season long.
So when the Cougars arrived in Memphis for the final regular season game of the year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and the University of Texas had been joined in the deep end of the Herman rumor pool by LSU, the world wanted to know just what in the hell was going on. To find out, ABC sideline reporter Cole Cubelic asked Herman on his way into the locker room that morning exactly how he addressed all those rumors of his leaving with his team.
Herman’s one-word answer? “Honesty.”
Fifteen seconds later, with a left eye twitch that screamed out like a bad poker tell, Herman denied that any of the rumors about his leaving the University of Houston were true. The Cougars would go on to play defense that afternoon against Memphis like a team whose head coach had one foot out the door, losing 48-44, and less than 24 hours later, we would find out that Herman’s brand of honesty is, at best, dreadfully skewed — that Saturday morning, Herman was named the next head coach at the University of Texas.
Herman’s departure was an outcome that rational Houston fans knew would happen someday; they just wished it had taken longer than two seasons to arrive. A large faction of the Cougar fan base understandably felt jilted, a tone captured from the top down as the chairman of the school’s board of regents, Landry’s owner Tilman Fertitta, vowed on my radio show on SportsRadio 610 that Houston would not be a stepping-stone for short timers anymore.
“[In] this whole college football thing, which the agents started a couple of years ago…[the school] can sign you to a five-year contract and if we fire you, we have to pay you. But if you decide to quit, [the school] only gets a little bit [of ]buyout. That isn’t happening again at the University of Houston,” Fertitta proclaimed emphatically.
Herman’s undying enthusiasm for all things #HTownTakeover turned out to be a double-edged sword. The love he verbally expressed for the city and school and that he demonstrated daily for his players probably exacerbated the pain of his leaving, but there’s no denying that it was that love that fueled Herman as the tour de force who left the football program in markedly better condition than he found it, bringing a level of relevance and crossover appeal — remember J.J. Watt and Paul Wall sending Twitter videos to verbal commitments last February? — never before seen over on Cullen.
Rob Sellers, currently a publisher for the scout.com network, has covered the University of Houston football program since Kevin Sumlin’s first season, back in 2008. “Herman took the program beyond the momentum where Sumlin had left it,” Sellers assesses. “In his two seasons, despite the agitation the fans felt over the constant threat of his departure, Herman was able to use the leverage it created to get school leadership to deliver even more new facilities, like the brand-new indoor practice facility for the football team.”
While at times his salesmanship could bleed into thin skinned-ness, Herman undoubtedly leaves behind a massive charisma void to fill, as well as a program that sits in an even more precarious position on the college football landscape than the one he took over in 2015. Overall, the Houston head coaching job has gotten better, but it’s also gotten harder.
The difficulty for the next head coach isn’t just in emerging from the shadow left behind by a head coach who went 22-4 and actually sold out games at TDECU Stadium, neither a small feat. Herman was operating a program that had the momentum of a pending sales pitch for Big XII membership in part aiding its enthusiasm in 2015 and early 2016. The next head coach will have to energize the fan base solely with the week-to-week product on the football field, with no dangling carrot of Big XII membership to shape the big picture or aid in recruiting.
Also, competing for a College Football Playoff spot, as Houston would have this season if it had remained undefeated (in large part because of wins over two Top 5 programs, Oklahoma and Louisville), will be increasingly difficult in coming seasons because Power Five schools will be saying “No thanks” to scheduling the Cougars, fearing an unnecessary loss. “We have a horrible time struggling to [schedule] playing the Power Five, because they know that Houston can come up and kick their butts,” claimed Fertitta. “It’s a huge issue for us. A huge issue.”
So with this increasingly challenging topography as the backdrop, on December 9, the University of Houston made its decision about who that next head coach will be, choosing Herman’s offensive coordinator, Major Applewhite. The search lasted a couple of weeks, and at one time, the job was reported as all but locked up for Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Like Herman, Applewhite is a first-time head coach, who stylistically will likely balance the flair Herman brought to the program with his own more understated, businesslike personality.
“The more I’ve heard Applewhite speak since his hiring, the more I am impressed by the ways he is slightly different than Tom Herman,” Sellers observed. “He will certainly keep the culture he and Herman were both key parts of building, but don’t expect him to be quite so braggadocious in his approach with the media and fan base. Applewhite has learned under a great set of head coaches (Mack Brown, Nick Saban, Herman) in his climb through the assistant coaching ranks. If he picks and chooses the right pieces of each of those mentors, he’ll have a solid base to grow from.”
If you’re wondering “Why Applewhite?” continuity is probably the surface-level reason, and a willingness to abide by Fertitta’s exit—prohibitive contract buyout philosophy is likely the underlying one.
“Texas high school football coaches bombarded our athletic director. They said, ‘We want our players to play for Major Applewhite,’” said Fertitta. “Here’s a guy who’s been on the big stage; he played quarterback at the University of Texas. He has a great relationship with the high school football coaches in Texas; Lane does not. That was a major ‘X’ against Lane compared to Major. Continuity in the program. The recruits today playing wanted Major Applewhite. They let it be known. It was just one thing after another that it steamrolled to Major.”
Contractually, Applewhite received a five-year, $7.5 million contract, about the norm for an upper-tier Group of Five conference job. However, the buyout for Applewhite to go to another school is the remainder of the deal at the time he chooses to leave, and if he leaves for another Texas school, the buyout increases by 50 percent. The only things missing in order to keep Applewhite in Houston are an electronic bracelet and a drone tailing him 24/7.
Applewhite, a Longhorn quarterback in the early 2000s, has a pedigree that includes time served as Nick Saban’s offensive coor-dinator at Alabama and Mack Brown’s at Texas. Had it not been for some outside-of-football trouble resulting from an inappropriate relationship with a student trainer at Texas while he was an assistant there, Applewhite might be the one wearing burnt orange on Instagram and wooing recruits as the UT head coach, not Herman.
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In short, this promotion is a logical, expected step in Applewhite’s career trajectory, and at his introductory press conference, the new University of Houston coach said all the right things.
“You want to be around something that continually wins,” Applewhite said. “It’s not about money for me. It’s about winning. I’ve been at jobs that paid more, but we’ve won more at Houston than those jobs that paid more. I’ve had much more fun winning than I have making more money. I think the money they are paying college football coaches, if you can’t raise a family off that, you’re crazy.”
Indeed, on Monday, Applewhite won that press conference. However, five days later, in his first game as the school’s head coach, Applewhite lost the Las Vegas Bowl, 34-10, to San Diego State. Quietly, Houston fans had to be thinking that it took Herman ten games before losing his first, 19 before losing his second.
Tom Herman may be in Austin, but his shadow is still cast over Houston, at least until Major Applewhite shows Cougar fans he can take over the #HTownTakeover as his own.
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.