HOUSTON — The story, as Tom Herman tells it while tucked deep down in his office couch, goes something like this.
Before he won a national title with a third-string quarterback at Ohio State as the program’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, before he led Houston to a 13-1 season in his first year as head coach, before he was known as one of football's most coveted natural resources, Herman was the offensive coordinator at Rice.
This was his dream job. And to prove his worthiness, it was up to him to convince one of the area's most exceptional quarterbacks to stay close to home.
The player he was after was a senior at Stratford High in Houston named Andrew Luck—the same Andrew Luck who signed the most lucrative contract in NFL history earlier this summer.
Luck had deep family ties to Rice. Deep enough that an unlikely bond had some steam behind it. The campus was practically in his backyard. The academics aligned, too.
Herman, having followed head coach David Bailiff to the program, served as the school's primary contact with Luck.
"It was down to Stanford, Northwestern and Rice," Herman remembers.
Rice's facilities at the time were still a work in progress. Because of this, Herman and the staff had to be creative.
Each time Luck visited, certain pathways would be blocked off. Televisions would be wheeled into rooms of significance. The building would be temporarily made over where it needed it. All imperfections would be hidden the best they could be.
One day, though, Luck and his father arrived unannounced. They phoned Herman from the parking lot, wondering if they could look around. Herman couldn't say no, even if he wanted to.
"It was the worst three-hour visit," he says. "I couldn't hide all of the warts. Shortly after, [Luck] went out to Palo Alto for a visit. I knew what they were going to be able to show him. When I went home that night, I wanted to vomit. I knew then it was over. I could tell when I shook his hand we were out."
Luck, of course, eventually committed to Stanford—a scholastic giant that has since blossomed into a perennial football power, thanks in large part to his presence. Rice was left wondering what might have been.
"He could have changed that program forever," Herman says.
"From that day forward, I made a promise to myself that every day, when I get out of the car, whether it's at 6 a.m., 7 a.m., whenever, I always ask myself, What if?
"What if Andrew Luck shows up today?"
|Tom Herman since 2012|
|2012||Ohio State||Offensive coordinator||12-0|
|2013||Ohio State||Offensive coordinator||12-2|
|2014||Ohio State||Offensive coordinator||14-1|
That question is what drives the borderline obsessive preparation of a coach who has won 51 of his last 55 games.
It also shows that Herman has seen the limitations of a program teetering in and out of relevancy—that no matter what you do, no matter what efforts are made, it may not be enough to compete with a Stanford, an Alabama, an Ohio State.
In many ways, this is why the college football world has been bracing for his departure, why we're just waiting for that one day when the bottom line tells us where he's going.
It is why last fall, as a sea of jobs opened, we assumed Herman would spend 2016 on a different sideline. It's why he had to shoot down, vehemently, more coaching rumors on his vacation in July.
It's why even after Houston committed dollars and zeroes to its head coach in a way few non-traditional powers ever have, many outsiders still believe a team with means and history will gobble Herman up when it's time.
That's the way this has worked for as long as the game has been around.
Surrounded by enough football treasure to fill a bank vault, Herman sits up from his leather couch. Once again, he is being peppered with questions about his future—a familiar ritual for a coach in such high demand.
"It would take something unbelievable—some unbelievable opportunity—to leave," he says, tossing aside coach speak without an ounce of worry. "We're making Power Five money. We're recruiting Power Five kids.
"We f--king love it here, man."
Beneath his red polo, concealed from the crowd hanging on to his every word and the parents gleefully recording his prophetic wisdom with their cellphones, Herman's left shoulder thumps in pain.
The two incisions, each still 24 hours young, are products of a repaired labrum and biceps tendon he decided to address after a string of painful, sleepless nights.
With his prescribed sling resting off to the right, his arm droops as he parades back and forth—not enough for those without knowledge of the operation to know any different, but enough that those who look for it can see all is not well.
Despite the discomfort, donning the sling never crosses his mind. Not now. Not as he greets more than 150 Texas high school football players and their parents for Houston's football camp.
That, in his eyes, would be a tell. Herman doesn't wish to generate any unnecessary negative impressions, as unreasonable as they might be. It's why he parades the Houston hallways every morning as the sun rises, searching for blemishes. It's why the artwork on his office wall is hung precisely where it needs to be.
What if Andrew Luck shows up today?
"How do I know you're listening to me? Because you're looking at me," Herman says to the room, breaking the trance. A few heads dart upward. "We don't recruit hair twisters or guys that look at the ground. They're done. Off our list."
Despite his physical predicament, Herman's energy does not come off as manufactured. His voice still crashes off the first level of TDECU Stadium, the building he has yet to lose a game in.
Herman has dreams of building Houston into a Texas football fortress—authentic visions of watching it grow into a spectacular, brutish power, just like the ones up the road.
Coming off a victory over Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl—a game few thought the Cougars could compete in—everything has changed.
The coverage. The expectations. The price tag. The recruiting. The entire assembly line that makes this sport run looks different now.
The perception has changed, too. And this room chock-full of football players hoping to make a Texas-sized impression over the next few hours can't help but be drawn in.
It's easy to forget Herman has only been the face of a program for a year with the way he commands a room.
In one moment, he is the governor with a billboard smile. In the next, he is the cutthroat CEO gazing into board members' souls. Some of this he acquired. Most of it is natural. It is gift, regardless.
After 10 minutes, Herman walks off the stage to a rousing applause. The players dart out the glass doors and into the 95-degree heat. Parents finally halt their recordings and kiss their sons farewell.
Herman, feeling his body betraying him, slowly slithers back into his sling. He shakes a few more hands and slips back into his car, back to his office. The madness subsides, if only momentarily, as he slowly and carefully eases into his front seat.
The smell of fresh leather overwhelms the senses almost immediately. Trophies and rings and belt buckles and even a celebratory grill with the red "UH" plastered on the front—more on that in a minute—shimmer under jewelry-store lighting.
The office feels like it belongs to someone who has spent their entire life chasing trophies. And Herman has. His chase has simply been more of a sprint for the time being.
Still just 41 years young, Herman is the architect of his own operation. His only disappointment, he jokes, is that he's no longer mentioned as one of the top coaches under the age of 40.
"I don't know what list I'm on now, 'cause I'm certainly not on the list of 10 best coaches under the age of 50," he says. "It gets a little crowded up there."
Everything is strategically placed for the eye to see.
Near the entryway of the office, next to a case of watches he's earned over the years, is a case that houses his rings. The national championship ring he won at Ohio State glistens. His Peach Bowl ring, an item he didn't imagine would come in Year 1 at Houston, dances. There are pieces from Sam Houston and other stops as well—from before things got wonderfully out of control.
Next to these items is his most prized possession to date: his custom grill, which was fitted by Houston rapper Paul Wall and local grill aficionado Johnny Dang. The ring case had to undergo a minor operation to ensure it would fit.
"The grill really is such a Houston cultural thing," senior linebacker Steven Taylor says.
Its existence is the product of a promise Herman made during the year. If the team won a conference championship, Herman would get the grill.
"He followed up on [his promise]," Taylor says. "He's a man of his word. I really respected that."
Near his office door is a time machine. It's a snapshot of his former life. Standing shoulder to shoulder is a startling amount of quarterback talent from a single roster: Braxton Miller, Kenny Guiton, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, all of whom Herman coached at once at Ohio State.
Herman still has relationships with all four. Guiton is on his staff as an offensive graduate assistant. The rest he keeps up with via texts and the occasional visit.
The photo of the four QBs is easy to glance past in a room that overwhelms the senses, but more than anything else there, it speaks to the coach's greatness.
Winning a championship using three quarterbacks in a single season ultimately won Herman the Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in the country. That, too, can be found here.
"The reason my office looks like this is not because I want to see this," Herman says, "I can work on an egg crate and wire spool. I'm good. It's recruiting. I want a parent to walk in here and feel good about it."
This is not unusual in major college athletics—and specifically college football. It's why Alabama's locker room has a waterfall. It's why Oregon's football operations building looks like a spacecraft from the future. It's why so many schools are dumping millions into beefing up their appearances.
Everything is part of the sales pitch—part of selling prospective players and their families on your school.
What if Andrew Luck shows up today?
This is a program with significant means; don't let the lack of major conference affiliation fool you. This is also something that could change in the foreseeable future, with conference realignment suddenly upon us yet again and the Big 12 looking for new dance partners.
But Houston is not Texas. Or Florida State. Or Alabama. Or Oklahoma, the team it will play in the 2016 opener. It doesn't pretend to be, either.
The potential to become that type of program is there—Herman truly believes this. Committing to such a movement demands more.
One night during Herman's first few months on the job, he grew tired of looking at the aged floor outside the locker room. After bringing it up a handful of times, he visited Home Depot to gather supplies.
"I'm ripping this f--king floor up," he says, looking back on the night. "I'm not above the dirty work. You need me to do whatever, and I will do it."
Yancy McKnight, who serves as Houston's director for football sports performance and worked alongside Herman at Rice and Iowa State, saw his boss kneeling on the ground as he was leaving the building.
Herman told McKnight and a handful of other staff members to go ahead and leave. But they didn't. They couldn't. By 4 a.m., the floor that Herman despised was nothing more than exposed concrete.
"You got the head football coach at the University of Houston with a scraper, pulling up flooring in the middle of the night," McKnight says, breaking into laughter. "That's him, though."
The scribbles are barely visible. The Gatorade bath has forever washed some of them away.
But many of Herman's thoughts from Houston's 24-13 win over Temple in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game are preserved on the small, ragged scrap of paper that spent the majority of that day in his pocket and is now framed in his office.
Instead of simply holding onto his feelings during the moment, Herman has a habit of writing them down during games.
The bold red ink is faded now, but a few words are still legible:
"IT IS TIME"
"BROTHER'S LOVE AND EFFORT FOR YOU"
"SET THE TONE"
"IT'S NOT GOOD ENOUGH"
"THEY AREN'T TRAINING LIKE YOU"
"THEY DON'T LOVE LIKE YOU"
This mindset did not emerge suddenly. It was with him when he was a wide receiver coach at Texas Lutheran. It followed him to Sam Houston State and Texas State. It made the voyage to Rice and Iowa State, where he coached alongside McKnight.
"You do it long enough and get around coaches, you can identify stuff and see qualities in guys," McKnight says. "That guy has something about him. I felt like that really early on when Herman was there. Just the way he talked to the players and how he was."
On January 12, 2015, Herman met with his new team hours after Ohio State won the national championship. Running on caffeine and emotion, he set the tone immediately.
"The first time we met him, he got up in front of us and told us that this would be the hardest offseason in the history of college football," tight end Tyler McCloskey says. "We kind of thought, 'Well, we'll see.' But it was. He lived up to it."
Playing in one of the nation's most competitive conferences last season—the only league outside the SEC to have four teams in the Top 25 for multiple weeks, a point Herman is not shy about sharing—they surpassed his lofty expectations.
Houston is no stranger to football prominence. Art Briles led the Cougars to a 10-win season back in 2006, shortly before departing for Baylor. Five years later, Kevin Sumlin won 13 games before being hired away by Texas A&M.
It can be done here. It's about sustainability.
There is no shortage of talent to pick from. In his first season, Herman landed the commitment of 5-star defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a Houston native and one of the best players in the class of 2016.
He's the kind of player who can make a team's recruiting cycle. Houston, knowing what his commitment meant, aligned itself brilliantly to close the deal.
Despite the rough patches—the lean years in the '90s—this is a job with more history and curb appeal than it gets credit for.
"I coached against Tom at Iowa State and recommended him to places he has coached," former Texas head coach and current ESPN college football analyst Mack Brown said. "The thing I would tell anybody—and especially someone I am close to like Tom—is that the grass isn't always greener. You just got there. You got a great start. I would look toward staying before I would look toward leaving."
Houston has done its part in making sure Herman looks toward staying. After only one season, his salary was more than doubled.
Herman will now make $2.8 million annually. While the board of regents approved an annual contract of $3 million per season, Herman decided to allocate the $200,000 to his assistant coaches' salary pool.
He is the highest-paid coach in the American Athletic Conference and the highest-paid coach working outside of the five major conferences in the country.
"This is probably really bad bargaining, but we had decided to stay before they came to us with a new contract," Herman said. "Did we know we were going to get a raise? Yeah. Did I know how much? No. I've turned down a lot of jobs that never made it out there, that people on the inside probably rolled their eyes at, wondering why I didn't take it."
Like the trophies, rings and grills scattered throughout his office, the inquiries will continue to mount.
This sport has too much money. Teams searching for that one coach to finally wake a sleeping giant will kick the tires on perhaps the most obvious candidate, albeit one about to start his second season as a head coach.
He's a phone call and Brinks truck away. That's the perception.
But what if Herman decides to buck the trend of recent Houston superstars and instead builds something spectacular? What if Houston is playing in the Big 12 this time next year and able to add a few more numbers to its head coach's salary?
What if, above anything else, he's happy right where he is?
"In your lifetime," Herman asked, "would you have ever thought that the University of Houston would pay its head coach $3 million a year and its defensive coordinator $520,000 a year?"
Perhaps that dream opportunity will come next offseason. Or perhaps it won't.
It doesn't mean he will spend the rest of his coaching life transforming Houston into Ohio State; it doesn't mean he will lead the team out onto the field come 2017.
But there is something at work that is bigger than money. That may seem difficult to comprehend given the way college football is fueled.
"We're tickled to death that we had the opportunity to stay here long term," he added.
The noise has finally subsided temporarily, even with the vacation interruptions. The season approaches.
To prepare, Herman has banned all Peach Bowl clothing from workouts and practice. Those two words are forbidden as well. He doesn't want his players dwelling on their past successes, as fresh as it all still might feel.
He wants to make sure his team and his program are looking toward the future and preparing as obsessively as ever.
Although he leans less and less on his former boss at Ohio State, Herman still reaches out to Meyer in times of need. Recently they discussed the difficulty of parlaying one brilliant season into another, something Meyer knows plenty about.
Complacency is a concern. The idea isn't to forget where you come from; it's more about bottling up what made it possible and recreating it over and over again.
The proclaimed hardest offseason in the history of college football has gotten a worthy encore as a result. The culture has changed; now it has to endure.
During weightlifting testing this spring, Herman bounced around the gym, metal chains wrapped around his neck.
He yelled alongside his friend and strength guru; he tossed weights and balls around the room. He got nose-to-nose with players during each rep, pushing them to take their bodies further.
"There's not a day that goes by where he lets his guard down," Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. said of Herman. "This offseason has been just as hard as last offseason. We've all embraced it. We've seen how the hard work and dedication can pay off."
Whether this translates to a win against Oklahoma, a College Football Playoff team from a season ago and a popular choice to repeat that result, remains to be seen.
A victory could mean everything to this program in the midst of a powerful transformation—the kind of revolution it hopes to hold on to a while longer.
The stage itself will be so grand, so significant, that a quality performance could propel Herman to rarefied coaching air. It could insert him prominently in those "Under 50" lists.
Having gotten the appropriate time to rest his shoulder, Herman eases himself off the couch. It's time to go to camp. He will wear his sling as long as he can—until he watches a few of the local quarterbacks throw with the little energy he has remaining.
He glides out of his finely furnished office, leaving the chamber of shine and leather behind. He goes down the stairs and past the locker room, looking more comfortable with each step.
The unpleasant tile that was there a year ago is gone. So is the exposed concrete.
The floor is perfect. If Andrew Luck were here to see it, he'd be blown away.