Inside the Rebirth of Texas Football

Matt HayesSenior National College Football WriterAugust 21, 2017

Sandy Carson / Special to Bleacher Report

AUSTIN, Texas — They didn't even know how to meet. Worse, they didn't really care.

Slouched in chairs in a team meeting room last December—days removed from what has become the deflating, accepted routine of another losing season—there was an odd sense of comfort on the Texas football team. They were stretched over their cowhide leather seats, feet propped up, making zero eye contact, flipping through phones when change walked through the door.      

This, everyone, is the ugly truth of what has happened to the Texas Longhorns.

"I stood up and looked around the room," head coach Tom Herman says of his first team meeting at Texas, "and thought, 'What the hell is this?'"

The very thing the college football world has wondered for seven years now while big, bad Texas has wandered aimlessly through season after season of mediocrity.

How do you restore Texas to its glorious past, you ask? It should be easy, right? Think of the inherent advantages the program has:

• The most revenue—by a long, long way—in all of college athletics.

• A uniquely fertile recruiting ground with more FBS recruits, more difference-makers, than any other state.

• The all-Texas all-the-time Longhorn Network.

And yet somehow, in a room of nearly 100 players, three hands went up when Herman barked his first all-important, all-telling question:

"How many in this room have experienced a winning season?"

"Not 10 wins, not 11 wins, not a conference title," Herman says when recalling the moment. "A winning record."

Let that soak in while comprehending the enormity of the job ahead for Herman, the 42-year-old savior with all of two years experience as a head coach.

They've tried to change since the sun quickly set on Mack Brown's glorious run on the "Forty Acres." They hired the first African-American head coach in school history (Charlie Strong), then did next to nothing to support him. Hell, they even threw $100 million at Nick Saban to see if he'd leave Alabama.

Now we turn to Herman, a sharp and charismatic can of Red Bull, a man who doesn't settle for fools and doesn't dance with political correctness. He is, in the parlance of all things 10 gallon, genuine Texan.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

He has the track record of rebuilding a middling program (Houston) and has coached the majority of his career in Texas. He doesn't drink sweet tea, and he sure as hell knows that BBQ is beef—and maybe pork.

He is the perfect fit they've been looking for in Austin since they somehow lost last year to something called Kansas.

"As an alum, I couldn't be happier [with Herman's hiring]," says Longhorns legend Major Applewhite, the quarterback who, in the early 2000s, helped set the foundation for Brown to resurrect the program.

Applewhite is Herman's successor and was his offensive coordinator at Houston. He knows firsthand what Texas is getting. He also knows what Herman is getting into.

"The desire to win is no different than any other school," Applewhite says. "There's just a lot more that goes into it."

When Herman arrived late in November after three straight losing seasons under Strong, Texas was a picked-over carcass on the range: Players with empty emotional tanks, and deep-pocket boosters with too much power. Faded facilities among the worst in the Big 12, and years of dysfunction from an administration that at one time was better than any other in college athletics.

If it were simply players and wins and losses, that's an easy fix. But to restore Texas glory is so much bigger than that.

"That beast," says one former Texas assistant coach, "has tentacles everywhere you look."


You restore Texas Glory by making Texas whole again.

Legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal once said the Texas program was like a box of BBs. If it breaks open, all the BBs scatter on the floor, and then you've got to "pick 'em all up and get 'em back in the box."

The box broke open in January 2010, a time when Texas could've been celebrating the biggest prize of all in college football. On the fifth snap of the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama, quarterback Colt McCoy suffered a pinched nerve in his throwing shoulder and was lost for the game.

Alabama beat Texas 37-21, and Brown was so distraught after the game—so sick at the idea that, in his mind, Texas would've beaten Alabama with a healthy McCoy—it would cost him and the Texas program for years. Moments after his postgame press conference, as he walked to the side of the dais, Brown was told, "Too bad we'll never know what would've happened" if McCoy were healthy.

"It wouldn't have been close," Brown snarled.

A year later, the Longhorns finished 5-7, Brown's first losing season in 13 years, including nine straight with double-digit wins. He admitted that he let the Alabama loss linger into the 2010 season and that it impacted the way he coached and the way he dealt with his players and staff. A moment of candid honesty from a true gentlemen of the sport.

"I didn't do enough to hold [the team] together," Brown said.

The box of BBs had broken open.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The loss to Alabama, and the ensuing breakdown the following season, impacted recruiting, which impacted the play on the field, which impacted Brown's untouchable stature at Texas, which impacted legendary athletic director DeLoss Dodds' impeccable standing because he firmly backed Brown, which finally reached the office of president Bill Powers, as beloved as any president in university history, who stood with Dodds.

All of that allowed deep-pocket boosters to make their move.

For years, Brown had corralled boosters from every area of the state, brought them into the fold and made them feel like they were as much a part of the program as anyone. As good as he was on the field with players, no one knew how to massage booster egos quite like Brown.

"My lasting memory of Texas is Mack sitting in a golf cart with one of those big boosters, during practice, during the season," says former Texas quarterback Chris Simms. "He said, 'Hey, Chris, come over here and meet so and so.' I can't picture Nick Saban hosting alumni or a booster in Week 7 of the season. Mack was a master at that. It's the animal at Texas, and that's where Mack thrived."

Until the losing began, and those same boosters who could put out fires after a 63-14 loss to Oklahoma because Brown was winning 10, 11 and 12 games a year, backed away. Dodds didn't want to fire Brown, Powers didn't want to fire Dodds or Brown—and all three eventually lost their jobs because of it.

That gave way to athletic director Steve Patterson, who one source who was with the program at the time told Bleacher Report, "single-handedly set this program back years." The former general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA, Patterson arrived at Texas with the idea of turning the program into a professional machine.

He cut costs and raised ticket prices, alienating fans in the process. He ignored aging facilities because Texas won before with these same facilities, so why can't it happen again?

When the pie-in-the-sky idea of Saban's leaving Alabama didn't come to fruition, Patterson went after Strong, who had built an impressive resume at Louisville. Despite initial reservations, Strong took the job after his mentor, Lou Holtz, told him he had no choice.

"I told Charlie these jobs don't fall off trees," Holtz says.

They just fall and crush you if you're not ready for it.

It didn't take long for Patterson's idea of treating Texas like a professional franchise to reach Strong. One industry source told B/R that Strong was told he had a specific salary pool for assistant coaches, and it was reduced once he took the job. On another occasion, Strong asked Patterson to use the NCAA student assistance fund to pay for suits for his players because he wanted them to travel to road games like it was a business trip. Patterson declined.

For his part, Strong has stayed above the fray when asked about his three years at Texas. "We didn't win enough games," he says.

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 08:  Head coach Charlie Strong of the Texas Longhorns at Cotton Bowl on October 8, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The reality is, Strong was set up to fail from the beginning. He didn't have Brown's ability to keep boosters happy and didn't have an athletic director like Dodds to keep everyone in line.

Case in point: Days after Strong's hiring, deep-pocket booster Red McCombs, who has given more than $100 million to the university and whose name is emblazoned on the exterior of the stadium, said that Strong would make a good "position coach or coordinator"—and Patterson failed to forcefully defend his coach or call out McCombs.

"DeLoss was the godfather. Everything ran through him," one former Texas administrator says. "That s--t with Red doesn't happen if DeLoss is there. [Patterson] came in with the idea of the pro sport franchise, and that turned off those big-money guys from the start. The new athletic director comes in, and he tries to be the new sheriff in town and swing the bat. Those [boosters] don't want to hear that. No one has told them what to do since their dad did."

When asked to explain the unique circumstances of the administrative process the last handful of years, Herman hesitates and begins by saying there's no good way of explaining it.

Finally, he admits, "There has been lot of upheaval around here for the last three-and-a-half years. Stability will be very much welcomed."


Naashon Hughes
Naashon HughesSandy Carson / Special to Bleacher Report

You restore Texas glory with a wildly overlooked but stunningly powerful idea: Love.

That's right: Love.

"I never told a man I loved him before," says Texas linebacker Naashon Hughes. "Then [Herman] shows up, and now I'm telling my teammates I love them. And I really do love them."

This isn't such a strange concept, but it was foreign for every player on the Texas roster when Herman arrived.

When you're emotionally bankrupt, when losing and apathy have seized control of the way you think and act, it impacts every aspect of your life. You don't push yourself to go beyond normal. You don't sell out when it's 3rd-and-long and you've got to have a first down late in the fourth quarter.

More telling, when you don't love your teammates, you don't respect them. You don't change who you are for them.

Herman's message in his first team meeting was this: We're all flawed creatures, but no matter who or what you believe, we've all been given the gift: the power to love.

When you have 46 wins in the last seven years, when you've lost more Big 12 games than you've won, that's when the search for something new—no matter how hokey or corny it initially sounds—is an opportunity for change.

"It's the human condition," Herman says. "We gravitate to what's easy, things that are comfortable, convenient, pain-free, self-serving.

"Let's say I'm charged with a task to chop a block of wood, and nobody is counting on me to do that. Nobody that I care about or that cares about me. The split second it gets hard or painful or inconvenient, I stop and move on to the next thing. And that's OK because I haven't let anyone down.

"Now you put [my wife] Michelle and my three kids behind me and they say, 'Daddy, you have to do this thing.' Or, 'Tom, you have to do this thing.' Then the dynamic completely shifts to now, you've got to kill me to stop me."

For months now, Herman and his staff have been drilling deep into the psyche of the Texas players, pushing them to grasp the idea that every single decision you make comes at the expense of someone else.

Sandy Carson / Special to Bleacher Report

It applies to everything from an extra repetition in the weight room to an extra push on the final sprint at the end of practice to something as simple as staying hydrated.

So, for example, strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight actually tracks the color of each player's urine to make sure he's getting enough fluids. And if he's not, the player's unit runs extra. Three days into fall camp, one of the eight Texas running backs wasn't hydrated. So at the end of a steamy morning of practice, all eight running backs ran extra after practice.

"You have to be accountable for you—and for the guy next to you," McKnight says. "It has to mean something to you, deep in your core. You might laugh at that, but I've seen it work."

Yancy McKnight
Yancy McKnightSandy Carson / Special to Bleacher Report

Don't believe it? In 2009, the same season Texas was rolling toward playing in the BCS National Championship Game and the game where everything changed, Herman (as offensive coordinator) and McKnight (as strength coach) were on the staff at Iowa State. The Cyclones hadn't won at Nebraska in 32 years, but ISU forced eight turnovers and beat the Huskers 9-7.

Minutes after the game, after an impromptu midfield celebration and after the Nebraska fans cheered Iowa State as it left the field, Cyclones first-year coach Paul Rhoads and his players had the love moment of a lifetime. It was all caught on a two-minute video clip, complete with ISU quarterback Austen Arnaud screaming, "We love you" to Rhoads before Rhoads screamed back, "I am so proud to be your football coach."

"If you get that love, that unbreakable bond of playing with and for each other right there in that postgame, with the players we can recruit here at Texas?" McKnight says. "Well, there's no telling what we can accomplish here."

When Herman got his first head coaching job at Houston two years ago, he ran into an identical situation. The program was adrift, and the players had gotten used to losing. By the end of the season, the Cougars had won 12 games and were the "Group of Five" participant in a New Year's Eve bowl game against heavyweight Florida State.

Cameras on game day showed the Houston team coming off the bus and walking into the locker room and Herman kissing each player and telling them he loved them. It's an odd moment for those who don't get it, but consider this: Houston maybe had few players who could've started at FSU and went on to humiliate the 'Noles 38-24.

"We were in the locker room before warm-ups, and I remember telling our coaches I don't want to go out there and have our guys see FSU," Herman says. "I mean, you're talking grown men: big, fast dudes all over the place. I didn't want our guys to see that and think we've got no chance. Then I thought, You know what, this is what we're built for. Those guys went out there and played a near-perfect game."


Sandy Carson / Special to Bleacher Report

You restore Texas glory by showing everyone that Texas is the place to be again.

Herman walked into his office behind the end zone in Memorial Stadium last December, and it may as well have been a stroll back in time. Nothing had changed from when he was a graduate assistant on Brown's staff in 1999-00.

Same furniture. Same fish tank. Same horns on the wall. Hell, maybe even the same carpet.

It got worse from there. Herman had seen better locker rooms in Texas high schools. The weight room was old and outdated, and the football office lacked 21st century pizzazz.

How in the world is he supposed to prevent schools from coming into Texas and luring away elite prospects—like quarterback J.T. Barrett, who Herman himself signed out of Wichita Falls, Texas, as offensive coordinator at Ohio State—if he can't compete off the field where it matters most for recruits?

"Clearly that had to change," says Texas athletic director Mike Perrin, an All-Southwest Conference linebacker under Royal in the late 1960s. "For whatever reason, things got a little dated around here."

Patterson had a tight grip on the athletic department budget. But for now, Herman has convinced Perrin and president Greg Fenves to spend money to make money. Or in this case, to win games. To the tune of:

• $3 million on a complete locker room renovation

• $2 million on updating graphics and signage throughout the facilities

• $2 million on a renovation of the weight room

• $1 million for the training room

• $250,000 for three new full-time staffers to promote the Texas brand, including video, graphics and social media

Sandy Carson / Special to Bleacher Report

One source with the program also tells B/R that the university has a feasibility study looking into expanding (closing in) the south end zone of Memorial Stadium as part of a larger renovation of the facility that currently seats more than 100,000.

All of that, and Texas hasn't even played a game under Herman.

The changes off the field will directly impact what happens on it and, more specifically, how Texas gets players to win games. Recruiting to Texas had become more difficult for Brown and Strong because as the college landscape was changing, Texas was standing still.

Rival Texas A&M joined the SEC and spent more than $500 million on stadium and facilities renovations. Baylor spent nearly $300 million on the same, and Oklahoma is in the final stages of a $350 million campaign of facilities renovation.

It also didn't help that Texas simply missed on players—or didn't develop them.

It's no coincidence that the most successful years under Brown came with the quarterback line of Applewhite, Simms, Vince Young and Colt McCoy. Texas hasn't had a quarterback lead the Big 12 in passing—that pass-happy, wide-open league—since McCoy's senior season of 2009. Four of the more notable misses in recruiting were Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Jameis Winston (who Texas didn't recruit) and Johnny Manziel (who was asked to play safety).

In their places were Connor Wood, David Ash, Case McCoy and Jerrod Heard.

"When I was there, we were rolling. We had good players," says South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, defensive coordinator at Texas under Brown from 2008 to 2010. "Then, in my opinion, we made some really poor decisions in evaluation, especially on the offensive side of the ball."

Says another former Texas assistant: "It's not hard to see how it fell apart. If you don't have a quarterback, you're not winning games. Average quarterbacks don't win big games. Then you've got fans and big-money boosters seeing Luck and Manziel tear it up at other schools, and the negativity just engulfed the place. Recruits see that and don't want any part of it."

Two years ago, Herman showed up at Houston for his first head coaching job, and the facilities were a mess. Recruiting was a hodgepodge of getting by on the scraps left by the FBS schools in the state.

He zeroed in on changing the social media voice of the program, came up with a catchy hashtag on Twitter (#HTownTakeover) and said Houston would never again lose an elite recruit from the city.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Then came Ed Oliver, a 5-star defensive tackle from Westfield High School in Houston. Nearby Texas A&M wanted him. So did LSU and Alabama and, yep, Texas.

How in the world was Herman going to keep Oliver, who could play wherever he wanted and could win a national championship with the right school, home to play for the Cougars?

"I always liked Houston before [Herman] got there, but it wasn't my dream school," Oliver says. "The more I listened to what he was saying, the more intriguing it became. Then they went 13-1 and beat Florida State. You could see what he was selling. There was no reason to leave home."

Herman had nine weeks to reel in his first recruiting class at Texas, and he signed a class ranked in the 30s by most recruiting services. Two weeks before the start of this season, Herman's 2018 class is ranked No. 5 in the nation by Rivals.com.

This year's recruiting class was born in 2000, and Herman is quick to point out that since they were 12 years old, those players have seen only five teams win the national title (Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama, FSU, Auburn).

Meanwhile, they've seen Texas go 41-35, with two winning seasons in the last six years.

"At the end of the day, it's players," Herman says. "Players will get you above average. To get to the elite, you need culture and leadership."


You restore Texas glory by making everything associated with losing painful.

Everything.

Herman spent his first few weeks at Houston simply trying to make the dilapidated facilities look presentable. You know, in case a major recruit decided to stop by (hello, Ed Oliver).

He traded emails with the administration about this particular hallway, where old flooring was peeling at the edges and was full of mold. They weren't moving fast enough, and in Herman's mind, that's losing.

So he bought the flooring himself, then spent the night tearing up the old stuff.

"Losing has to be awful. You can never get used to losing," Herman says. "That's one of the biggest downfalls to a lot of teams.

"It's not, We'll get them next week. It has to be sky-is-falling-type stuff. The key is…"

Sandy Carson / Special to Bleacher Report

He stops midsentence, his lips pursed, his eyes searing. What he bases his entire coaching philosophy on is on the table.

Any player can get to the best shape of his life. Any coach can recruit the right players and get them physically ready to play and prepare them mentally for anything they may or may not face. You can have a roster of elite recruits and still not win a championship. Or you can have a roster of overachievers—some developed into NFL players—and beat Florida State and Oklahoma and Louisville when you have no business doing so.

Herman has good players at Texas, and he needs to recruit more. He has a quarterback (Shane Buechele) who could be elite, but that's only part of the equation.

He takes a deep breath and continues: "The key is the constant struggle in the execution of it. I've never met a successful person in any walk of life—from Michael Dell to Peyton Manning to Barack Obama—that when you ask that person, 'Hey, how did you get here, and what was your road like?' They say, 'You know what? It was really easy. I slept in all the time, turned my papers in late, didn't pay attention to people and my surroundings.'

"No one does that. It's really f--king hard to be elite. The two great motivating factors in life are love and fear.

"And love wins every time."

Earlier this spring, Herman made a call to the parents of safety P.J. Locke III, a player he says has not only embraced his philosophy but has also become a leader and the undisputed example of the new face of Texas.

"I wanted to thank them for raising such a good son," Herman says.

Three months later, Locke was in the player lounge at Texas and when he left forgot his water bottle. And that, everyone, is losing on so many levels.

He left his bottle in the lounge and didn't clean up after himself and keep the lounge clean for the rest of his teammates. He left his water bottle, the one piece so important to Herman and McKnight (see: hydration) that it may as well be another appendage.

So there was Locke the next day, at four in the morning, doing air raids on the practice field. Every five yards an up-down, and Locke went 200 yards.

Later that day, he had to clean the weight room with 409 and a rag. Every weight, every station.

"[Herman] chewed me out later," Locke says. "He said, 'You're a leader on this team. If you do that, that means it's OK for everyone else to do that."

Sandy Carson / Special to Bleacher Report

The next day, Locke showed up at workouts with his water bottle tied to a string around his neck. Double-knotted.

"We talk all the time about the price of a championship," Herman says. "Every day—every single day—our players are in competitive situations on and off the field and in the classroom. The people that don't win will feel awful, and those that do will be rewarded.

"Because that's what happens on Saturdays throughout the season."

And that's where you restore Texas glory.