In Tuscaloosa, Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban asks for trust in “The Process.”
In Austin, new Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman asks for trust in “The Alignment.”
At his introductory press conference in late November, Herman said that there were a “thousand things” that he learned from Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer during his three years in Columbus. The biggest lesson was alignment — “We are in an age now that our student-athletes are being bombarded with messages.”
During the season, college programs only have four hours a day to interact with student athletes. In the offseason, the number drops to two hours.
With limited time to spend with players, Herman believes that the alignment of an entire program revolves around making sure that every message they receive from the program lines up, from the head coach to everyone else who interacts with the players to everything in the football facilities.
“When they walk in the building, they have to be — every message that is thrust upon them, from a sign on the wall to an interaction with an academic counselor, the expectations and the management of the program has to be aligned because they're just getting hit left and right with all these messages,” Herman said.
“So from your assistant coaches to your strength staff to your support staff to your training room to the academic people to the expectations, it can't be okay to show up two minutes late for a tutor but not be okay to show up two minutes late for a position meeting. So you have to be aligned in everything that you do or else kids oftentimes have a way of going off the reservation a little bit.”
For Herman, one of the best ways to build the foundation for alignment is with his coaching staff — of the six hires so far and the expected hires of defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and safeties coach Craig Naivar, all of those coaches have previous experience with Herman and all of them worked with the new Texas head coach at Houston.
In fact, those coaches have a combined 30 years of experience working with Herman, experience that stretches across each one of his coaching stops after initially arriving at Texas in 1999.
As a result of that familiarity, there are already concerns that Herman is making of the same mistakes as his predecessor, Charlie Strong, who was seen as being too loyal to certain assistants. However, while Strong’s loyalty did cost him in several situations, it was an overall lack of fit on his initial and subsequent staffs that caused problems.
Doomed from the start
Within less than a year, Strong determined that two of the coaches with whom he had never worked were poor fits — tight ends coach Bruce Chambers and wide receivers coach Les Koenning.
Chambers was the lone retention from Mack Brown’s last staff and looked like a doomed decision from the start, as his supposed best attribute, his ties to Dallas coaches, had long gone stale.
Strong had known Koenning for some time, but had never worked with him. A former teammate of defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, Koenning’s ties to the school and state were supposed to help him succeed. Neither did, as his connections with high school coaches were also stale.
The initial offensive staff clearly lacked alignment overall and never gelled over the first two seasons while the Oklahoma State buyout lawsuit hung over the program and the duo of Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline.
As embarrassing as the lawsuit was in general, the depositions it produced provided an incredible look at the confusion behind the scenes, which revealed a staff that couldn’t even independently agree on the number of scripted plays it took into games.
The designation of Wickline as the offensive coordinator to avoid the buyout with Watson serving as the “one, final voice” in play calling as the assistant head coach for offense was absurd and doomed for failure from the beginning.
Whose fault was that? Perhaps athletic director Steve Patterson was pulling some string behind the scenes, but Strong ultimately has to take responsibility because he signed off on everything.
If Patterson wasn’t aligned with Strong’s vision of the program during the interview process and subsequently sabotaged the offensive coordinator search and Wickline buyout, Strong either got lied to by Patterson or should have stayed at Louisville if he had known Patterson wasn’t going to fully support him.
In any case, even into Strong’s first spring practice, the coaches were still working on piecing together the offense from the disparate pieces of their previous experiences. A year later, the process started over again with two new coaches in the mix — wide receivers coach Jay Norvell and tight ends coach Jeff Traylor.
The result? One report indicated the environment in the offensive meeting room in 2015 was “toxic.” According to that report, one assistant refused to take input from Traylor, the massively successful former high school coach, because his lack of experience at the college level.
Watson and Wickline also had significant issues:
Sources with knowledge of what went on in Texas' offensive staff meetings with Watson in charge talk about an attitude of "needing to prove he was the smartest guy in the room," as one source put it, coming from the former assistant head coach for offense. Tales of Wickline's tenure at Texas paint an unsavory picture of a coach who couldn't figure out which of his player's buttons were the right ones to push, all while being described as not being engaged to the point of seeming disinterested outside of practices and games.
Simply put, there was no alignment.
Defensively, there were concerns at the time of his Bedford’s hire about his failed tenure in his one previous defensive coordinator gig before linking up with Strong. However, the alignment between the two after six years seemed like it would be enough given the success that the two had at Florida and Louisville.
Even Bedford was eventually unable to align with what the former Longhorns head coach wanted him from his defense.
Bedford’s inability to speak with Strong’s voice to his unit resulted in his in-season demotion. Following the season’s only bye week, no less.
To be sure, Strong showed too much loyalty to Watson and Bedford, keeping both into seasons that resulted in their demotions, moves that imperiled Strong’s job security as much or more than any other individual decisions.
But the overall construction of each of his three staffs had flaws that ultimately proved fatal — Strong could never achieve the proper fit, and it wasn’t just because of loyalty, as hires of coaches he hadn’t worked with beyond Chambers and Koenning were ultimately failures, as well.
Defensive backs coach Chris Vaughn was a good hire, but he departed after National Signing Day 2016 due to his involvement in recruiting improprieties at Ole Miss. Defensive line coach Chris Rumph perhaps anticipated Strong’s demise and left for Florida after one season. Running backs coach Tommie Robinson opted for a mutual parting to return to USC after two years.
After 25 months on the job, Strong’s only initial hires still on staff were Bedford and linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary, the only assistant Strong didn’t fire or have depart before he himself was terminated.
Those failures were split between guys to whom Strong was too loyal and guess he brought in from elsewhere — he had never worked with five of his initial assistants. The failed tenure of Jay Norvell as the wide receivers coach and then play caller also fit that category. Throw failed defensive backs coach Clay Jennings into that group, too. He had never worked with Strong, either.
So let’s be clear here — Strong failed at Texas because he could not assemble an effective overall staff at any point in his three seasons, for multiple reasons. “Too much loyalty” is not an accurate assessment.
The proven value of alignment
Let’s also be clear about one important thing about Herman — he’s bringing so many Cougars assistants with him because they succeeded at Houston. Herman is at Texas because of those assistants.
There weren’t issues of fit. There weren’t conflicting egos and apathy. There was alignment.
"All four of our coaches were with us in Houston and have strong ties and relationships in the state of Texas, so they will be a huge asset in recruiting right now,” Herman said. “They're terrific coaches, as well, so they'll do a great job building and developing our team going forward.”
In roughly the same timeframe in Austin — just a little more than two years — Strong had turned over seven of his nine initial assistants. He was on his third wide receivers coach and third offensive play caller.
Herman didn’t have to fire any coordinators midseason and didn’t have to fire any assistant coaches during his time at Houston. Instead, he’s confirming that his initial instincts in putting a staff together were correct — all of his initial hires worked out, in large part because he knew what he was getting.
Even the risks that he took were well calculated.
Take defensive line coach Oscar Giles, for instance — Herman had only worked with him for one year as fellow graduate assistants in 1999, but Major Applewhite knew him well from their years together working under Mack Brown and Herman trusted Applewhite. Any further vetting could have gone through Brown himself.
Now Giles is back on the staff at Texas after continuing to turn out productive defensive linemen — just like he’s been doing now for a decade.
Then there was Orlando. A rising coach with previous stops at Utah State and FIU, Orlando was outside of Herman’s comfort zone, but was picked as the defensive coordinator at Houston because he played the multiple 3-4 defense Herman wanted. A better way of putting that might be to say that Orlando’s scheme and beliefs aligned with Herman’s vision for the Cougars defense.
When Herman spoke with SB Nation before the season, he said, “I've gotta tell you, I think I hit a home run in getting Todd Orlando."
He was right. Why should be stop being right about that?
Now think about the differences between assembling a staff like Strong did and assembling a staff in Herman’s manner, just in terms of getting alignment with the whole staff.
As Strong was getting to know his new players and new environment, he was also working to get buy in from his staff and combine different offensive systems together. It didn’t work out so well, as Wickline and Watson and then Wickline and Norvell could never create a coherent attack amid those clashing egos and apathy.
Not until Sterlin Gilbert and Matt Mattox installed the veer-and-shoot offense for the fourth time together did things begin to click for the Longhorns. And that wasn’t a coincidence.
When Herman and his new group start working with the players in January, there will already be staff alignment, so there won’t be wasted time in the staff meeting rooms figuring out how to work together or how the offense will look.
The optics of assembly
Is this the “greatest assembly of recruiters in the history of the state,” as one source described Herman’s intentions for the staff to Geoff Ketchum of Orangebloods hours after Herman negotiated his new contract with president Greg Fenves and Mike Perrin?
Following all the initial buzz around star Florida State recruiter Tim Brewster joining the staff that now seems all but dead, the widespread perception has become that Herman is being too loyal, that he’s more interested in his comfort zone than hiring the best.
Herman already made the argument that he is assembling an “all-star staff” — his goal is to build the best group of coaches he can put together. Why wouldn’t it be? That’s his job and that’s his intention.
To put the best possible staff together, Herman is saying through his hires that he needs to know how they will work with him and with each other and that knowing how they will work together matters more than making a series of unconnected but splashy hires.
The types of hires that Strong made with coaches like Rumph and Robinson and even Wickline, to an extent, a coach Strong hadn’t worked with in a decade.
The thing is, Herman thought that he’d already hired the best when he was at Houston. Those coaches helped build a program that won 22 games in two seasons and went 6-0 against ranked opponents during Herman’s brief tenure by playing physical and disciplined football on both sides of the ball.
The staff he put together landed the first five-star prospect in school history and found multiple early contributors through strong evaluations.
And assessing the quality of Herman’s hires merely through the lens of a source filtered through a website publisher to create the expectation that the Texas staff was going to filled with nine Tim Brewsters?
That’s as absurd as being unable to properly explain the play-calling process on offense two months into your tenure as the head coach at one of the winningest programs in college football history. And then still not being able to explain it a year later.
Don’t just blindly trust Herman to put together the right group of assistants — look at what he values in his program, look at the previous track record of success with the assistants that he’s bringing in, and consider that Strong failed because he wasn’t able to coherently build a staff and kept wasting offseasons on schemes that immediately failed.
There was no alignment during or after the hiring process in the Charlie Strong era.
Herman values alignment above all else and will have that with his coaching staff. That’s that blueprint. It works.