Just days before recruits in the 2021 recruiting class were able to sign National Letters of Intent on Early Signing Day, Texas Longhorns athletics director Chris Del Conte released a statement of support for head coach Tom Herman that was so tepid it needed immediate clarification.
“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.
Del Conte was quickly forced to explain that he intended his statement to mean that Herman would return as the head coach in 2021. As questions swirled about Herman’s future, Del Conte had spent the previous months conspicuously silent.
On Saturday morning, however, Del Conte and the Texas administration changed their minds, firing Herman and quickly hiring Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian as his replacement.
In an interview with the Austin American-Statesman on Saturday evening, Del Conte explained some of the thinking behind a reversal that followed one of the more impressive bowl game performances in program history.
One passage stood out:
Current players are leaving, and recruits are looking elsewhere. Then, Del Conte learned that some players currently on the roster were doing negative recruiting, telling some not to come to UT. It’s not unusual for disgruntled, outgoing players to talk negatively about a coaching staff they don’t like, though.
Recruiting issues were one of the factors that pushed the Herman era to the brink in the first place — after a 7-5 regular season in 2019, Herman fired both of his coordinators and replaced five more assistant coaches, a complete restructuring of his staff that behind the Longhorns in a position of playing catch up with the 2021 recruiting class.
Hindered by the pandemic, Texas was never able to catch up with its rivals, forcing Herman to sign a group of prospects that represented the lowest-ranked non-transition class for the Horns in the modern era of recruiting.
In the 2022 class, the October decommitment of Southlake Carroll quarterback Quinn Ewers, a player considered a potentially generational talent at his position, not only represented Ewers rescinding the vote of confidence in the Texas program that he’d given only a few weeks before, it also destroyed the potential upside of the class under Herman.
During a bizarre rant in a Monday press conference in late November, Herman blamed sourced reporting for turning into negative recruiting fodder for other coaches.
“Very unfounded articles that again state opinion as fact,” Herman said. “That is very hard to defend against. If you are a competing recruiter what do you do? You press print. Then you say, ‘Look this is true, it must be true.’”
Notably, Herman suggested that dealing with those issues internally wasn’t particularly difficult.
“They know the truth,” Herman said. “That is the mitigating factor in this is there is a section of people in this. Which is our program, our coaches and people intimately involved in our day to day operations of our enterprise. They know the truth. And then there’s rumors.”
But according to Del Conte, those players knowing the truth didn’t matter. And to whatever extent anonymous sources impacted Texas recruiting as opposing programs used that reporting against the Longhorns, there are few things more destructive to a coaching staff than current players turning on the head coach who recruited them in their conversations with recruits.
As much as the on-field results provided plenty of justification for paying Herman’s $15 million buyout, the recruiting issues that happened so publicly and the negative recruiting by players behind the scenes clearly illustrated the need to make a change.