An unusually quiet offseason suddenly became much more explosive for the Texas Longhorns in the last two weeks, as a letter from wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey divided the fan base and a series of angry tweets from former safety DeShon Elliott raised questions about the coaching staff.
Last week at Big 12 Media Days, however, head coach Tom Herman had time in between the events to explain why he doesn’t need his players to like him. They just need to respect the plan that he’s put in place for his program.
“They can like me off the field, and I think a lot of them do,” he said. “I think there’s four examples here — [Patrick] Vahe, [Chris] Nelson, [Andrew] Beck, and [Breckyn] Hager — if you ask, ‘Do you like coach Herman?’ I imagine the answer would be yes. But you asked do they need to and the answer is no. They don’t need to like me or like the coaches.”
Herman certainly approached his first season with the Longhorns by making the most of that mindset.
For players on last year’s team, their previous relationship with Charlie Strong likely resulted in some issues adapting to the new regime. Players like Elliott were particularly close to Strong — Elliott dates Strong’s daughter — with the former head coach seemingly presenting himself more like a friend at times.
While that publicly earned Strong the support of players when his job was on the line, it never produced the necessary success on the field. Strong only lasted three seasons after Kansas secured its only victory against a Power Five team in the last three years.
When Herman arrived, he asked for players to give their hearts to the coaching staff, understanding that they merely needed to respect the plan, not like him personally. The process of doing so, of convincing players to go from compliant to committed, wasn’t always easy.
The infamous urine tests were instituted to hold players accountable for their hydration levels. Given the level of attrition that occurred, there were some clashes between the coaches and players. A handful transferred before playing a game for Herman, including talented players like defensive tackle Jordan Elliott and offensive tackle Jean Delance.
During the season, players lost opportunities for snaps in games due to practice performance. In particular, wide receiver Armanti Foreman fell out of the rotation for most of the season, prompting numerous Twitter rants from his father.
Herman butted heads at times with fiery players like Beck and Hager. In fact, the buy in from Hager didn’t come until a moment during the Oklahoma State game following a sack. Looking back on it all, Hager accepted full responsibility for his intransigence, having unexpectedly apologized to Herman in that moment.
“It was more more me than them,” Hager said. “They had to instill culture. I am always going to be real. I was just straight up being real with them. I am highly critical of people in their profession. So, I would just be real blunt. I was just being a weirdo. I didn’t do anything real wrong was just kind of being weird. I went through a stage where I felt this is maybe not what’s up.”
In terms of the relationship between coaches and players, Herman focused on building what he describes as a parental bond.
“Just like a kid doesn’t need to like his parent, he needs to respect his parent,” Herman said. “Respect the rules and expectations that the parent has set. In fact, when I’m asked to use a word to describe your program, I use the word ‘parental’ quite a bit. Meaning we’re going to shower you with unconditional love, we’re going to give you every tool and resource and education on the face of the planet in order to help you succeed. But we’re also going to hold you to some very, very high standards, and we’re going to hold you accountable if those standards aren’t met. Any good parent would say the same thing.”
The mother of freshman linebacker Byron Vaughns expressed a similar sentiment this week on Twitter:
A teen normally does not have middle aged friends, so let's be realistic about this YOUR COACH IS NOT REQUIRED TO BE YOUR FRIEND, they are there to get you to the next level. You have 2 things in common, football and the desire to win. Respect each other and get it done.— mUTha hustla (@NNVaughns) July 23, 2018
By the time that a depleted Texas team held in check a powerful Missouri offense to win the Texas Bowl, Hager had become a staunch public supporter of the coach. More importantly, he said his teammates felt the same way.
“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,” Hager said.
Then, despite the early departures for the NFL and Chris Warren III leaving the program, the rumored exodus never occurred, with the Longhorns suffering an unusually low amount of attrition following the bowl game. Only three players left. Two of them were fifth-year seniors who weren’t expected to contribute.
After a year of focusing on the culture, accountability, and simply installing the schemes on both sides of the ball, Herman and his staff worked on building relationships following that Texas Bowl victory that firmly aligned the players with the staff.
“We’ve also worked extremely hard in developing relationships, and I believe, and I know that our players that are here today and our players back home in Austin believe that we are as close of a team as Texas has been in a long time,” Herman said. “That’s not just player-to-player, but coach-to-player as well.”
Perhaps Herman is too prickly too succeed with the Longhorns, as some critics allege. Perhaps he turns out to be too egotistical.
Yet, he forged the roots of his coaching beliefs under a national championship-winning coach in Mack Brown and proved his ability as an offensive mind under another in Urban Meyer while winning his own national title. With a third-string quarterback.
In 38 days, the narrative will at last morph into some perspective on the issue. And in the end, the plan doesn’t fail, as Herman likes to say. Instead, it’s the people who fail.