The scene looked like it came straight out of the Macho Tough Guy Meathead school of coaching football.
Before Saturday’s pivotal game against the Baylor Bears, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman, who again is the head coach and also the primary offensive play caller, head-butted senior defensive end Malcolm Roach multiple times. Roach was wearing a helmet. Herman was not.
Tom Herman is AMPED. pic.twitter.com/S7EVkIwy57— Longhorn Network (@LonghornNetwork) November 23, 2019
The clip went viral as the Longhorns fell to the Bears in an absolute debacle that also resulted in the rare post-game discussion about whether the head coach concussed himself before the game.
Love to wonder if the head coach should be in concussion protocol.
In the post-game press conference and during Monday’s media availability, Herman tried to cast it all as a return to his roots as a coach.
“My head is fine,” Herman said. “If the nation had been paying attention they would have realized, I did that my three years at Ohio State, two years every game at Houston so that was nothing new for me. Like I said, postgame, in my old age I had kind of gotten away from it. But I was pretty pumped up about the game and I know our guys were, too, and spur of the moment hit me.”
Aside from concerns about actual concussions or the long-term impact of sub-concussive impacts from the pre-game meathead routine, the unsuccessful performance by Herman and his team also put into perspective some of his immature moments at Texas — mocking Missouri quarterback Drew Lock during the 2017 Texas Bowl and mistakenly yelling at Mike Gundy last season in a misguided attempt to stand up for his players.
The reminder is that Herman is a 44-year-old head coach with five years of experience in that role who sometimes struggles with his maturity. Certainly, there is room for growth.
And the time for that growth is now. Two of Herman’s favored expressions come to mind.
Herman took the head coaching job at Texas three years ago after only two seasons in the same role with the Houston Cougars, he sold a vision of total alignment — the people were the only thing that could derail the plan.
“I fight like hell against human nature every day,” Herman said this summer. “As human beings, we gravitate toward things that are easy, convenient, self-serving, pain free. To build a winning football team, we have to do things that are difficult, that aren’t convenient, that are selfless, that are painful,” he said. “We all have that demon in our head.”
Following losses in three of the last four games, it’s clear that while Herman has taken ultimate responsibility for the failures in his program, he’s not going anywhere this season. A questionable contract extension given to him during the offseason ensures that.
The problem is that the people are failing the plan and that means a need for change on Herman’s coaching staff. When he arrived at Texas, he sold his plan for total alignment by hiring nine assistants with previous experience working for him. The vast majority of those assistants were with him at Houston. Only when the NCAA expanded the on-field staff to 10 did Herman hire a coach he hadn’t worked with before — co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Herb Hand.
With the 10-win season in 2018, appearance in the Big 12 Championship game, and win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, Herman’s plan for total alignment, which included more than 100 years of combined experience recruiting Texas, looked as if it was working.
Then the cracks started to appear this season. The defense struggled to find an identity, create a consistent pass rush, and avoid costly breakdowns in the secondary. The offense started strong, only to regress, with Herman admitting that the game plans by the staff weren’t good enough the last two weeks against unusual defenses built to take away the base elements of the Texas offense.
“I think we have not done a good job as a staff of walking that line, of making adjustments based on the uniqueness of that defensive structure and still being able to execute at a very high level,” Herman said.
Perhaps the issue is too many different voices involved in the game-planning process. If that’s the problem, then offensive analysts Larry Fedora and Andre Coleman moving on this offseason could represent addition by subtraction.
“I’m obviously in big-time evaluation mode of everything throughout our program,” Herman said. “I’m not going to bury my head in the sand. It’s my job to make sure we play to the right level that is expected at the University of Texas.”
Scapegoating Fedora and Coleman, however, neglects the reality that this is Herman’s offense and he was hired because of he was considered one of the best offensive minds in college football. To be sure, the offense is still ranked No. 12 nationally in SP+, making it one of the best in recent Longhorns history, but that adjusted metric doesn’t negate the recent failures that have emerged just as the defense started to finally play at a higher level.
When the subject of Beck’s play calling came up early in his tenure, Herman initially said that he was worried that calling plays would distract him from his other responsibilities as a head coach. With Texas ranking No. 119 in penalty yards per game and suffering from multiple special teams mistakes caused by a lack of in-game coaching, it’s fair to wonder whether Herman was right all along.
Or perhaps Herman’s offensive acumen was simply overestimated when he was hired — the 2014 national championship was about two decades ago in modern college football evolutionary time.
Those two possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive, but another specter hanging over Herman’s tenure in Austin is the emerging set of evidence suggesting that he’s not even among the top half of head coaches in the Big 12.
The quick turnaround orchestrated by Baylor head coach Matt Rhule stands in sharp contrast. Rhule has benefited from having Bears team ranking in the top 20 in returning production over the last two seasons, but that doesn’t fully explain the apparent chasm that existed in quality of coaching throughout the season and particularly on the McLane Stadium field last Saturday.
Rhule, as is common knowledge, inherited a program beset by scandal and with only one commitment in the 2017 class when he arrived. The first visit from Rhule went to Round Rock defensive lineman James Lynch, who quickly committed to Baylor after never receiving an offer from Herman or Charlie Strong. Now Lynch is leading the nation in pressures after almost single-handedly destroying the Texas game plan.
Getting out-coached by Rhule and failing to offer his best defensive player isn’t the only cause for concern, either — the credentials of Herman and his staff recruiting the state of Texas were some of the biggest selling points for hiring Herman and allowing him to bring most of his assistants with him from Houston.
And yet, in a survey conducted by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football this summer, Texas high school football coaches said they trusted Rhule more than any other head coach in the state other than TCU’s Gary Patterson. To put that into perspective, Rhule came to Texas three short years ago without any significant experience recruiting the state.
“It’s remarkable to me how a guy who has no roots in Texas has come to our state and ensconced himself in the culture down here,” Rockwall head coach “It’s just amazing. It’s just amazing that he’s done that.”
Yeah, it is amazing. It’s also disappointing and perhaps even an indictment of Herman’s personality that his deep ties to the state haven’t resulted in a higher level of trust with high school football coaches.
It’s not just Rhule, though — Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley unexpectedly took over at Oklahoma in the summer of 2017 and has orchestrated a seamless transition from the Bob Stoops era. He’s now 3-1 against Texas as a head coach and has coached circles around Herman in terms of offensive innovation, including revamping his entire approach to fit the skill set of graduate transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Riley also made the difficult choice of firing Mike Stoops last season and then make the right choice by bringing in Alex Grinch to lead the defense, resulting in Oklahoma jumping from No. 84 in SP+ to No. 41.
If Herman is going to consistently get out-coached by Riley, Rhule, and Patterson every year, his tenure in Austin isn’t going to last much longer. Nor should it.
So, assuming that Herman hasn’t actually given himself CTE by head-butting his players over the years, it’s abundantly clear that he needs to fight against his own human nature, admit that his attempts at total alignment haven’t worked so far because the people failed the plan, and make the necessary changes.
As he said on Monday, he still thinks that he’s the right man for the job, because what else can he say?
Time is running out to prove it.