ARLINGTON, Texas — A little less than three years ago, the new head coach for the Texas Longhorns hosted a local quarterback for an important meeting.
Days before, Tom Herman took the job in Austin. Years before, Sam Ehlinger grew up a Longhorn, then had to mature quickly following the tragic death of his father during a triathlon in San Francisco.
In the moment when Ehlinger first walked into Herman’s office, the Texas head coach had a realization that continues to reverberate through the program. It was love at first sight.
“He’s transitioned or translated that maturity into this really dynamic leadership quality he has,” Herman said in 2017. “He’s an alpha male. He walks in the room, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, Sam’s here.’ I mean, he’s a competitor. I just love that about quarterbacks.”
How good of a competitor is Ehlinger?
Good enough that respected longtime college football analyst Bruce Feldman told Burnt Orange Nation last month that Ehlinger is the best competitor in college football.
As is often the case, however, the love affair between Herman and Ehlinger is past the honeymoon period — that’s the inevitable result of having an alpha head coach and an alpha quarterback. Herman likes it that way, though.
“Mutually respectful but also mutually frustrated,” Herman said at Big 12 Media Days. “There are times when he frustrates me and I’m sure I frustrate him, but we respect the heck out of each other. I would want that guy in my foxhole any day of the week.”
One particular anecdote shared by Herman helps put the relationship into perspective, but also provides insight into a 2018 season characterized by narrow victories, even after establishing big leads.
In one such moment, when the Longhorns stretched the margin following a touchdown, Ehlinger did what a competitor does, asking for a long leash to keep the pressure on the opponent.
“He’s feeling himself, and he goes, ‘Are we gonna keep the foot on the gas or are we gonna get all conservative again?’“ Herman said, as recounted by Sports Illustrated. “I said, ‘Hey, listen here. You play. I’ll coach. All right?’”
The exchange highlights the fundamentally different objectives of a competitive quarterback and a head coach focused on the bottom line of winning — Ehlinger wanted to play to knock the opponent out and Herman merely wanted to manage the team to a victory, even a close victory after giving up that big lead.
Texas played plenty of those type of close games last season, with 10 outcomes decided by one possession or less, including contests against Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Georgia that featured substantial leads narrowed to much smaller margins.
The twist on this is that when Herman was asked about giving up those leads in Arlington, he assigned some of the blame to the offense for being too conservative and not coming up with those critical first-down conversions in fourth quarters.
Does that self-assessment by Herman sound familiar? It certainly echoes the criticism that Ehlinger made directly to his head coach during that unnamed game. So it’s possible that Ehlinger could force an evolution of his head coach, even if the quarterback’s innate aggressiveness causes friction during the heat of the moment.
Regardless, Ehlinger’s progress to a large extent made him the on-field architect of last season’s 10-win season, the first in a decade for a program that fell on hard times before Herman returned and Ehlinger finally arrived.
All of it has earned the respect of his head coach.
“Whatever cliche you want to use — in a bar fight, whatever it is, I want that guy by my side in times of adversity,” Herman said. “But we do butt heads at times, but that’s a testament to how much I trust him and how much I believe in his maturity level, that we can quite literally argue on the headset during the game and then we’re hugging after the game.”
Now it’s almost time for more arguments, more hugs, and perhaps even a more evolved head coach as a result.