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Tom Herman still learning how to properly motivate his Texas team

A halftime speech ended up backfiring on the fourth-year head coach.

Tulsa v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

“Have fun. Just realize that Saturdays are the reward for a week’s worth of really hard preparation. Go have fun, let it loose, cut it loose, and let your training take over.”

Following a tense start to the season opener last weekend, the message from Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman to his team before the start of Saturday’s game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane was clear.

The team responded.

On the first play from scrimmage, freshman safety Caden Sterns came up with his first career interception to set up a short field for the Longhorns.

The offense responded, too, as a 36-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger to junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey set up Ehlinger’s short touchdown run on the next play. Two more touchdown drives pushed the Texas lead to 21-0.

“Was really excited about the way that our players responded to what we challenged them to do after last week, which was to come out and have fun and they did,” Herman said after the game. “They played loose. They played free. They played with a smile on their face in that first half, and I was really, really proud of that.”

But the Horns had missed an opportunity at the goal line when sophomore tight end Cade Brewer missed a key block that resulted in a loss of a yard on 3rd and goal from the 1-yard line. The fourth-down conversion failed when Ehlinger rolled left and couldn’t find one of the two receivers in his progression.

When the Tulsa offense failed to take advantage of its own opportunities by missing three field goals, along with another miss negated by penalty, Herman went into halftime upset with his team. In doing so, he forgot his own pre-game admonitions.

And so he took the blame for his mistake.

“To be honest with you, a lot of the responsibility for the way that we played in the third quarter and probably early fourth, was on me,” Herman said.

“You know, I wanted to make sure that we didn’t get complacent at half-time; I wanted to make sure that we came out and played hard. I was pretty hard on our guys at halftime, and I think you sensed a little bit of that pressing again. So I’ve got to remember what brought us to that point of being up 21-0, and that was playing loose and playing care free.”

The Longhorns are clearly a team that is still trying to learn how to win and how to finish consistently. In Herman’s narrative, it isn’t about effort — it’s the tension of wanting to get things turned around and a desire to play well for their teammates.

“I don’t think they are struggling to handle pressure. I think pressure, again, is the uneasy feeling you get when you’re not prepared. I think they know that they are prepared. I don’t think it’s the pressure of Texas. I think it’s more of the wanting so badly to play well for their teammates that, you know, we tense up a little bit.”

Texas ultimately responded in the fourth quarter when Tulsa cut the lead to one score, going on a 13-play, 75-yard drive that gave the defense some needed margin for error. With the game once again hanging in the balance, the Horns were able to run out the final 4:53 with 10 plays.

The team’s response in the fourth quarter was one of the key positive takeaways from the game, but the lesson that Herman learned reflected a willingness to quickly identify and take responsibility for his mistake.

All the hype during Herman’s short tenure at Houston and his attention to detail often overshadow the fact that he is only in his fourth year as a head coach. He’s 43 years old. There’s still plenty to learn about how to successfully run a program like Texas, even if he did spend three years as an apprentice to Urban Meyer at Ohio State.

When Meyer was at the same stage of his career, he was coaching Utah in the Mountain West. Nick Saban went 6-6 at Michigan State in his fourth year as a head coach and lost his second straight bowl game. The next two years, Saban went 7-5 and 6-6, losing another bowl game in the process. Dabo Swinney went 10-4 in his fourth season, but only after going 6-7 the previous year.

Mack Brown was a head coach for 14 seasons when he arrived in Austin. In his fourth season, he went 6-6 at Tulane, which was good enough to land the North Carolina job, a major rebuilding effort that included 1-10 seasons in each of his first two years.

There certainly aren’t any guarantees that Herman will eventually be as successful as any of those coaches — the odds aren’t in his favor — but it does provide some perspective on the trajectory of successful head coaches in periods where their learning curves are likely the steepest.

Herman is already ahead of the previous two head coaches at Texas because he’s assembled a strong support staff, upgraded the facilities, and didn’t have to fire two of his assistants after his first season and a play caller after the first game of his second season like Charlie Strong.

Even if the infrastructure and administrative support is there, Herman is still learning on the job, and that’s hardly surprising for a fourth-year head coach.