After months of remaining silent on the future of Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman, athletics director Chris Del Conte finally broke that silence on Saturday by releasing a statement.
“There’s been a lot of speculation about the future of our Football coach. My policy is to wait until the end of the season before evaluating and commenting on our football program and coaches. With the close of the regular season, I want to reiterate that Herman is our coach,” Del Conte said.
“When I look at our Football program right now, I see tremendous young men and promising talent. Our student-athletes are developing, and they play their hearts out. This has been an unprecedented year for all of us, and we’re all disappointed that we didn’t meet our expectations. Like the many fans that follow and support our program, I can’t help but think what would have been in 2020. There’s still more work to be done, but I’m excited to watch our players and program move forward.”
The statement notably declined to explicitly state that Herman will return as the head coach in 2021, but Del Conte did confirm that Herman will receive another season in a phone call with the Austin American-Statesman.
So, he’s back.
The news comes after months of speculation about Herman’s future as the program’s behind-the-scenes pursuit of former Ohio State and Florida head coach Urban Meyer became extremely public, but ended last weekend with Meyer declining to make his return to coaching due to health concerns.
The 56-year-old FOX analyst is an uncommon behemoth in the college football world — a three-time national champion who represents one of the surest opportunities in the sport to compete for and win national titles, while still being young enough, apart from his health issues, to conceivably coach a program for a decade or more.
For the Texas big-money donors willing to write the checks to pay for Herman’s $15 million buyout and to potentially spend $10 million more to buy out the guaranteed contracts of Herman’s assistant coaches, the possibility of landing Meyer was too much temptation to resist.
But with Meyer out of the picture and reports that Florida’s Dan Mullen and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell aren’t interested in the job, either, the willingness to spend that money quickly dried up.
Even a coach like Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, a name also floated as a potential candidate to replace Herman, has a buyout of more than $5 million.
Ultimately, in the midst of a pandemic that has decimated athletic revenues across the country, the heavy price of replacing Herman was simply too much with Meyer out of the picture.
Now Herman will enter the 2021 season with little margin for error — after going 8-5 last season, Herman turned over seven of his 10 assistant coaches, including replacing both coordinators, an admission of failure in his initial attempts at alignment with a staff largely brought with him from Houston.
Despite the pandemic forcing the cancellation of spring practice, keeping new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and defensive coordinator Chris Ash from installing their respective schemes, Herman continued to talk about the high expectations for the 2020 season with a peaking roster that featured a senior quarterback, a potential first-round pick at left tackle, and enough defensive talent to give Ash a shot at a quick turnaround.
Based on how frequently Herman began to talk about the difficulties of meeting those expectations without a full offseason of preparation following a 2-2 start to the season, he seemingly began to quickly regret his previous optimism.
Following a two-point loss to TCU and a four-overtime loss to Oklahoma — and after needing an improbable comeback to beat a bad Texas Tech team in Lubbock — the program was engulfed in a firestorm of controversy that made national news when Ehlinger was spotted after the rivalry game standing alone in the Cotton Bowl singing “The Eyes of Texas.”
Combined with the disappointing performances, the image was enough to send donors in pursuit of Meyer, leaving fans demanding change and daydreaming of a quick turnaround under the legendary head coach. Dueling narratives emerged about whether Del Conte or Herman deserved the blame for the apparent show of disunity.
Meanwhile, Del Conte remained silent, declining to use his normally-active Twitter account to show support for the football program and declining interview requests from the media, eventually leaving Herman forced to give himself a vote of confidence as Del Conte’s proxy in a bizarre press conference in mid-November.
“I couldn’t be more aligned with with our athletic director (Chris Del Conte), my boss, again, who we meet with constantly, who has assured me of his support and the support of university leadership and has even commended me and the staff and program for how we have handled the craziest year in college football history,” Herman said in a midst of a five-minute rant that included condemnations of sourced reporting he believes was used to negatively recruit against him.
As the speculation around Herman’s future and potential to land Meyer swirled around the program for weeks, a strange thing happened — Texas started playing better. The team didn’t fracture. The Longhorns upset the then-No. 6 Cowboys on Halloween and held off a tough Mountaineers team for a three-game winning streak.
Hopes of winning the Big 12 remained alive.
A post-Thanksgiving loss to Iowa State ended those hopes as questionable game-management decisions by Herman revealed how much growth he has yet to make as a head coach. But in the aftermath of the loss, he did wisely decline to make any more excuses for his failures.
“I think any answer I give you right now is going to come across as an excuse,” Herman said on a Zoom call with reporters following the loss to the Cyclones. “So I’m going to focus on Kansas State and an opportunity to go 1-0.”
What’s clear now is that with a 31-18 record and without a conference title in four seasons, Herman does not have any more room for excuses as he attempts to save a subpar 2021 recruiting class that lost one of its most talented commits in two-way Denton Ryan standout Billy Bowman — to Oklahoma no less — and make some belated progress in a 2022 class that no longer has a particularly high ceiling after No. 1 quarterback Quinn Ewers bailed on his own pledge after two months.
Back in November, Herman said that Del Conte had offered to call recruits on his behalf. Now Herman may need that public support from his athletics director on a day when even the statement of support from Del Conte was lukewarm enough to need clarification and key five-star defensive tackle target Shemar Turner committed to Texas A&M.
But even recruiting success may not convince a frustrated fanbase that Herman is the right person to lead a program that hasn’t won a conference title in more than a decade. And winning on the field next season might not do it either.
On Saturday, however, Herman received the opportunity to try, for better or for worse.