On November 19, 2016, the Charlie Strong era came to an effective close with a devastating loss to the Kansas Jayhawks in Lawrence, a defeat that made the Texas Longhorns the laughingstock of college football.
A week later, the Longhorns fired Strong and almost immediately replaced him with one of the rising stars in college football — former Texas graduate assistant Tom Herman, who had just guided Houston to 22 wins in two seasons, including victories over Florida State, Louisville, and Oklahoma.
The move didn’t come without risks, as Herman only had two years of head-coaching experience when he took the high-profile job in Austin, but he did understand the culture at the school and in the state. He’d formed the structure of his program during three yeas the offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Ohio State.
Herman immediately assembled a staff of assistants that he knew from Houston and previous stops — offensive coordinator Tim Beck was the only coach that Herman hadn’t worked with directly. Two years later, all of those assistants are still on staff, with co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Herb Hand standing as the lone addition due to NCAA rule changes that allowed a 10th assistant coach for the first time. Each of the position coaches on two-year contracts have at least earned consideration for extensions.
The facilities quickly received a revamp — Herman secured $10 million in renovations, including a new locker room with state-of-the-art lockers, an upgraded weight room, and an upgraded training. Aging graphics in the football facilities were replaced.
The next big projects are a Hall of Fame for the north end zone of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and the $175 million south end zone project that will also include further upgrades for the football facilities.
In a change from previous administrations, Herman secured the budget to hire an extensive support staff. One of his first hires didn’t create a big splash, but the addition of former Houston Assistant Director of Player Personnel had a big impact on the recruiting trail, as Bryan Carrington emerged as one of college football’s top recruiters in earning a promotion this year to a role as the Director of Recruiting.
The hires also included two new social media staffers to create graphics and other content to engage recruits fans.
A buzzword quickly emerged — alignment, a concept that Herman learned under Meyer. The idea is to ensure that every single person who has contact with the program buys into the same vision, from the assistant coaches to the janitors.
“I think I wouldn’t be standing here today if President Fenves and Mike weren’t committed to aligning every part of our athletic department with what we believe is a championship formula,” Herman said in his introductory press conference. “I thank them for that, for committing to being aligned with our plan.”
Herman and his new staff quickly established a plan, taking a “calculated, patient” approach to landing recruits in the transitional 2017 recruiting class. During coaching changes, Herman discovered that those transitional classes often feature a high level of attrition because of a variety of problems — drugs, social problems, academic issues.
So Herman focused on adding recruits the staff had already vetted, including current starting right tackle Sam Cosmi, the nation’s No. 2014 offensive tackle, who had been committed to Houston.
Thanks to Herman’s Director of Player Personnel, Derek Chang, the staff also made the decision to take a smaller class in 2017 because there were so many talented recruits in the 2018 class who planned on enrolling early.
The strategy paid off, as Herman and his staff used their Texas ties, especially in the city of Houston, to sign the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class in 2018, a group that included nine early enrollees. Four of those early enrollees — safety Caden Sterns, safety BJ Foster, cornerback Anthony Cook, and punter Ryan Bujcevski — have become significant contributors in their first season.
As a first-year head coach, recruiting always receives a boost from decreased expectations as a result of the transition, but Herman and his staff showed improvement in 2018 despite numerous injuries on offense and the need to implement a new culture along with new schemes on both sides of the ball.
Texas only won six games during the regular season, including a disappointing home loss against Texas Tech. After missing bowl eligibility for two straight seasons, that represented an improvement in and off itself, though the biggest changes came in the margins. In the 2000s, the average margins of defeat for the two former head coach, Strong and Mack Brown, stood at 20 for Strong and 17.2 for Brown. On the sidelines, players would comment, “Here we go again.”
As Herman worked on installing his culture, a process that included attrition and benchings for talented players like wide receivers Armanti Foreman and Collin Johnson, the Longhorns translated better effort into closer games.
Four losses during the regular season had a total margin of only 14 points, three coming against programs ranked in the top 12 entering those games. The annual loss to TCU featured a reduced margin from years past — only 17 points.
Despite the disappointments of the regular season hid amid the improvements, Herman survived rumors of discord behind the scenes during preparation for the Texas Bowl and guided his team to a 33-16 destruction of a Missouri team that had rampaged through the back end of its SEC schedule.
“I think tonight, Coach Herman won the locker room, 100 percent. He now has our hearts as a team. It’s like you hit the light switch, and everything has changed... It’s definitely up from here,” fiery defensive end Breckyn Hager said after the win.
Culture growth, a second offseason under strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight, the addition of a talented recruiting class, and some rare continuity on the offensive coaching staff paid dividends during the 2018 regular season.
For the first time since 2012, the Longhorns ran the same offense for the second season in a row. The only other time in the last decade that Texas maintained that level of continuity? The 2009 team that appeared in the national championship game.
The continuity paid off, as the offense vaulted from No. 99 nationally to No. 26 nationally in offensive S&P+ as Beck did a remarkable job developing sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger and Herman took a larger role in play calling. Hand’s addition paid off, too, as the two wide receivers coaches developed Johnson and fellow junior Lil’Jordan Humphrey into consistent threats.
At running back and offensive tackle, the staff made key additions on the graduate transfer market, with Tre Watson and Calvin Anderson both quickly earning roles as starters and providing an increased level of play from 2018.
And though the defense has struggled at times after losing numerous major contributors, including the Big 12’s co-Defensive Player of the Year, Defensive Lineman of the Year, and a Thorpe Award finalist, it’s been good enough to win games.
Many of those games haven’t featured a large margin — five wins by seven points or less and three losses by a total of 10 points.
So the progress is evident, as Texas won nine games in the regular season for the first time since 2009 and earned a spot in the conference championship game for the first time since that same season. In 2013, the Horns competed for the Big 12 title, but it was a soft competition, as the Bears blew out Brown’s final team in the final week of the regular season. In the Alamo Bowl, Oregon blew out Texas, too.
The first step was becoming competition and the second step was about finishing and developing, the two buzzwords throughout the offseason. Texas did both.
“Yeah, I think you can talk about the two subjects, being 1-0 and the progress of our program and not be misaligned,” Herman said last Monday. “We’ve come a long way. We’re by far not a finished product.”
And that’s the exciting thing. Hand has improved play along the offensive line, but it’s not a dominant group in terms of creating movement at the line of scrimmage. Better play there and at the running back position should produce more explosive plays next season. Same with the passing game as the group adds some impressive talent, especially top-100 prospect Jake Smith, an Arizona product who will instantly become the type of home-run threat that the offense doesn’t have this season.
The defense is in good hands with the highly-regarded Todd Orlando and assistants with significant track records of development at their positions like cornerbacks coach Jason Washington and defensive line coach Oscar Giles. Next season will be a challenge due to the departures of numerous starters, but there’s talent on campus and talent headed for the Forty Acres in the form of the nation’s No. 7 recruiting class.
With a Big 12 title still on the line and the potential to win 11 games, Herman understandably feels positive about the direction of his program.
“I think we’ve got some pretty good players, but we’ve got a lot of guys that know how to play team football, and we’re overachieving, and that’s the sign of progress is when your culture can take over and win some games,” Herman said. “We’ve got some young talent that we’re developing, so I’m excited about our progress.”
And that’s fair, because the progress in only two years is exciting and the future appears bright from the top of the program to the bottom.