Herman era: Coach forms family culture with heartbreak, joy
At the end of the 2016 regular season, the Cougars found themselves in an all-too-familiar position: looking for a new head coach. After two years of bringing the Cougars to places never before seen by the school, Tom Herman took the head coach position at where his coaching career started — the University of Texas at Austin.
In the final part of the series as spring football comes to a close, The Cougar looks back over the past two seasons, examining the highs and lows of the Herman Era at the University of Houston.
Creating a Culture
After leading the Ohio State University offense to a national championship, Herman had his sights set on bringing UH a championship from day one. He knew he had a talented team that was underperforming under Tony Levine.
“I have always admired this program from afar,” Herman said in his introductory press conference. “There will be some bumps in the road — that I can promise you. I do feel like the pieces are in place here to compete for a championship.”
One of the most important first steps that needed to be done was changing the team culture. Learning under championship-winning coach Urban Meyer taught Herman how culture can lead to success, but the most significant teaching moment happened when he was an offensive coordinator at Rice University.
In a 2015 guest column for Sports Illustrated, Herman told a story about how a highly sought-after Houston quarterback prospect was visiting the Owls. During the visit, Herman was trying to hide the dirtier parts of the facilities from the quarterback’s family.
The recruit ended up seeing all of Rice’s “warts” and ultimately chose to go to Stanford. He eventually led the Cardinal to an Orange Bowl victory and became the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. But this experience taught Herman the importance of always putting the program’s best foot forward. At Houston, that started with the players.
“Right when we got here, we needed to overhaul not just the motivation, but also the psychology of motivation,” Herman said. “We run the program like a family. Families are honest, families are open. When you mess up, you’re going to know it and so are all your brothers.”
Herman envisioned a trajectory similar to the one Texas Christian University had recently undergone: winning the Mountain West Conference every year, upgrading facilities — and preparing for an invitation to the Big 12.
A new mantra was born: the H-Town Takeover. Looking to make a splash in a city that has long been dominated by the UT Longhorns and Texas A&M University Aggies, Houston quickly took to the slogan. The school blasted it on advertisements all over social media and billboards.
“This is our town, this is our city,” Herman said. “We plan to make sure that we defend this city, too, from people coming in and trying to recruit our city like they have in the past.”
The #HTownTakeover made Houston football fun again and gave UH a larger recruiting voice in one of the nation’s hotbeds of high-school football. It paid immediate dividends May 22 when five-star defensive tackle Ed Oliver gave a verbal commitment to the Cougars and became the first-ever five-star recruit to join a Group of 5 school.
Herman’s impact and culture were felt immediately as the Cougars won their first 2015 contest, a 52-24 drubbing over Tennessee Tech University behind a three-touchdown performance from quarterback Greg Ward Jr. Known as a quarterback whisperer, Herman transformed the one-time receiver into one of the most successful and dynamic signal callers in Cougar history.
Ward threw three touchdowns the following week in a 34-31 win over University of Louisville. Highlighted by a kickoff return for a touchdown by cornerback Brandon Wilson in the third, the win projected a new message about the team: Never count out the Cougars, no matter who the opponent is.
“We have a bunch of guys that love each other,” Herman said. “When you’re doing it for yourself, it’s easy — you just move on to the next thing. But when you’re doing it for somebody you love and you know they love you back, it’s impossible to give up.”
The Cougars started the season 10-0, becoming ranked for the first time since 2011 and became the nation’s Group of 5 darling. Despite decisive victories over Texas State, Tulsa, SMU, Tulane, Central Florida and Vanderbilt, it wasn’t all easy for the Cougars in 2015.
The Houston defense, which had dominated all season up until this point, faced a true test on Nov. 7 against Cincinnati. They held off a comeback against the Bearcats for a 33-30 victory but not before quarterback Gunner Kiel threw for 523 yards and four touchdowns against them.
They faced their biggest test of the season thus far the next week when they hosted No. 25 Memphis. Ward was injured late in the second quarter after Houston fell behind the Tigers 20-0. Kyle Postma came in for Ward and led the Cougars to one of the greatest comebacks in school history.
A late 30-yard touchdown pass to Linell Bonner brought the Cougars into halftime down 20-7. Each team scored once in the third. The Cougars entered the fourth quarter down 27-14. Memphis added another score nine seconds into the period to take the lead up to 20.
Scoring on three of their next four possessions and two Memphis turnovers, the Cougars completed the third-largest comeback in school history and largest over a ranked team. Postma finished the game 21-for-33 for 236 yards and a touchdown. He also added 6 rushes for 49 yards and one touchdown, the 7-yard game-winner.
“That is something that is engraved in our program now — that everybody prepares as if he was the starter,” Herman said after the game.
With Ward sidelined the next week for the match against University of Connecticut, the Cougars suffered their only loss in the 2015 campaign, 20-17. They couldn’t wallow for long, though. No. 16 Navy came to TDECU the next week, with a spot in the AAC Championship Game on the line.
With Ward back, the Cougars clinched the West Division title with a 52-31 win over the Midshipmen. Ward went 26-for-35 for 308 yards and three touchdowns in the air and 83 yards and one touchdown on the ground. With the win, the Cougars returned to a conference title game for the first time since 2011.
The Cougars played host to the first ever AAC Championship game, outlasting No. 20 Temple 24-13, securing their first conference championship since 2006. The win also secured them the spot as the Group of 5 representative in a New Year’s 6 Bowl. The next day, they were selected to play No. 9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
Behind three total touchdowns and 305 yards from Ward, the Cougars dominated the Seminoles 38-24, their most prestigious bowl victory since beating No. 7 Nebraska in the 1979 Cotton Bowl. They completed the transition from underachievers to powerhouse that Herman first envisioned when he took the job a year before.
“The players and the love that they have for each other and the trust and the love that they have in the staff,” Herman said after the game. “They have truly reenergized not just a program, they haven’t just rejuvenated this program, but really reenergized an entire university and to a certain degree an entire city.”
Lost that loving feeling
With the win over the Seminoles, the Cougars thrust themselves into the national and college football playoff spotlight. If the Cougars could go undefeated with a season opener against No. 3 Oklahoma University and a November match against Louisville, they could have had a slot as one of the final four. The nation was watching.
In December, former No. 1 rated quarterback prospect Kyle Allen announced his decision to transfer from Texas A&M, and on Jan. 5 he officially joined the Cougars. He committed to a 2016 class ranked No. 41 by Rivals.com, more than 50 spots ahead of their 2015 class. H-town had been taken over.
It wasn’t all hugs and puppies though, as rumors quickly circulated about Herman potentially leaving to take a head coaching job at University of South Carolina. He stayed at Houston, but seeds of dissent had been planted.
All things seemed to be going great as the Cougars upset the Sooners on opening weekend at NRG Stadium. Highlighted by Wilson’s 109-yard field goal return for a touchdown, the Cougars left NRG on top the world, beating the Sooners 33-23 and ranking No. 6 in the AP Poll.
The Cougars handled their business over the next month, beating Lamar, Cincinnati, Texas State and UConn by an average score of 47–8.25.
The next week, against Navy, the wheels started to come off.
In the midst of Hurricane Matthew, the Cougars gave up 306 rushing yards and turned the ball over twice to the Midshipmen, losing 46-40. With the loss, the Cougars’s dream of a spot in the College Football Playoffs were gone.
The Cougars held off a late rally from Tulsa to win the next week, but the mistakes from the Navy game were still apparent. After taking a 38-31 lead on a fumble return with 1:21 left in the fourth, it took a goal-line stand as time expired to avoid overtime.
It was all for naught. The Cougars lost to SMU the next week, giving the Mustangs their first win over a ranked team in five years. In the 38-16 defeat, all hopes for a spot in the AAC title game were out the window.
The loss was the worst one under Herman, and the Cougars went on to lose three of the final seven games Herman coached. Despite the embarrassment of a performance against the Mustangs, Cougar fans were given one last fond memory of the Herman Era on Nov. 17.
In Ward’s final game at TDECU Stadium, the Cougars were unstoppable, especially defensively, as they routed No. 5 Louisville 36-10. The Third Ward D held eventual Heisman winner Lamar Jackson to 33 rushing yards, sacking him 11 times.
Herman’s tenure closed on a sour note as the Cougars lost their regular season finale to Memphis 48-44.
The next day, Herman accepted the head coaching job at Texas.
While not openly expressing vitriol, many Cougar players eluded to being misled in the wake of Herman’s choice. Receiver Chance Allen told the Houston Chronicle that Herman told the players he wasn’t negotiating with anyone. Oliver vented his frustration on Twitter, tweeting —and subsequently deleting — a message.
“Why you lie to us coach?” Oliver’s tweet read.
Building the future
Overall, the Herman Era can be seen as one of building for the Cougars. They were brought into the national spotlight and are always at the forefront of conversation when it comes to joining a Power 5 conference.
Cut to Fall 2017: A new indoor practice facility will open as Houston continues to build the infrastructure needed to match up against other top tier programs in the state. Behind Oliver and Allen, the Cougars have a recruiting base that shows other prospects that they can be highly ranked and successful at Houston.
As the Cougars start a new era under Applewhite, players and fans can look at what Herman helped to build here and expand on it, not letting the H-Town Takeover die and creating a culture of their own.