It seems the University of Houston Cougars have found their lucky number. On New Year’s Eve, Tom Herman, the thirteenth coach in the team’s seven decade history, led the Coogs to their thirteenth win of the season, which also happened to be Houston’s thirteenth ever win over the Florida State Seminoles.
And up to the final gun of that convincing Peach Bowl victory, thirteen had been the Coogs’ peak ranking this past year, though that is certain to change for the better once the season-ending polls come out. It’s possible that the Cougars could wind up in the top ten for the first time since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, back when Bill Yeoman was bulldozing the Southwest Conference with his veer offense in the Astrodome.
A glorious day for the Coogs, indeed, but how long will it last? Even though his first season ranks alongside those of gridiron legends such as Barry Switzer, Ara Parseghian, and Urban Meyer, questions remain about Coach Herman. After all, ultimate disappointments like Larry Coker, Fred Akers, Terry Bowden, and Gus Malzahn came roaring out of the gates too (with other coach’s recruits), and did so in far more competitive conferences.
Here are a few of those questions, along with some possible scenarios for Herman’s (and Houston’s) future.
Can he do it with his own recruits?
In some ways, you could compare Herman’s season to Kevin Sumlin’s rookie campaign at Texas A&M. Like Sumlin (the last coach whose team won thirteen games on Cullen Drive), Herman inherited an electric quarterback from Tyler. No, Greg Ward Jr. didn’t win the Heisman like Johnny Manziel, but Ward was at least in the conversation for a time. And it wasn’t as if Herman’s predecessor Tony Levine left the cupboard bare elsewhere: his last Cougar team finished with an 8-5 record, and he bequeathed Herman seven starters on both sides of the ball, including Ward (who, granted, flourished like never before under Herman), a 1,000-yard rusher in Kenneth Farrow, experience and skill on the offensive line, and a ball-hawking secondary that picked off Florida State four times.
But can he bring in his own talent? So far, all signs point to yes, at least according to recruiting class ratings. Herman’s haul for 2016 ranks twenty-fifth in the nation, ahead of Texas and Texas Tech and trailing only Baylor, TCU and Texas A&M in the state. Whether Herman can hold on to those recruits through National Signing Day, successfully shepherd them in academically, and then coach them up remains to be seen. But that recruiting class will have at least one five-star recruit: former Aggie signal-caller Kyle Allen reportedly announced his intention to sign with UH on Tuesday. He’ll sit out a year per NCAA transfer rules while Ward completes his career, then he’ll have two years of eligibility remaining starting in 2017.
But Herman has other similarities with A&M’s coach. Like Sumlin, Herman has injected H-Town swag to the program—in fulfillment of a promise he made to the team for winning the AAC Championship, Herman was fitted with a grill made by rapper Paul Wall, jeweler-to-Houston’s-stars “TV Johnny” Dang, and a “grill committee” made up of some of his players.
Those atmospherics worked quite well for Sumlin and the Aggies until they didn’t, and now that the Aggieland honeymoon is over, player friendly innovations like his “Swagcopter” and practices serenaded by hip-hop DJs are as groused about in College Station as Mack Brown’s fabled cookies and orange slices were on the Forty Acres in the waning days of his era at Texas.
Which is not to say that Herman will repeat Sumlin’s downward trend, only that he could, only that we’ve seen this before. After all, Sumlin was the last coach to win thirteen games at UH. Sumlin bolted from the Third Ward for the greener pastures of College Station, rode a hot QB to twenty wins in two seasons followed by two more of mediocrity.
Sumlin’s Aggie program is now in turmoil, with two blue-chip quarterbacks defecting in as many weeks (one, as mentioned to UH, the other to Oklahoma), a bowl loss to underdog Louisville, the firing of his offensive coordinator, and rumors that 2016 recruits are reconsidering their commitments. Not to mention the latest Nero-like havoc wreaked by the program’s most iconic player since John David Crow: Johnny Manziel’s fiddling about in Vegas while Cleveland burned.
Four years ago, Sumlin was boasting “We Run This State.” Today it’s uncertain if he runs his locker room. Sure things can be anything but.
But for now, Herman is not resting on his laurels; that ice grill is already champing at the bit of next year:
“I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention or at least implore the recruits out there and the high school football players, that if you want to win championships, want to win New Year’s Six bowl games, win 13 games and kiss trophies and get really big rings and get a lot of nice things – better be coming with no strings – you can certainly do it at one of the finest institutions in the country, and in my opinion the greatest city in America.”
Which brings us to the big question: Will he stay or will he go?
So was all of that just elevated coach-speak? (Herman, a MENSA member, is about the only non-Ivy coach you’ll hear roll out words like “implore” on the regular in interviews. Then again, was part of that a Drake reference?!) Does he really believe UH to be one of the finest institutions in the country and Houston to be America’s greatest city? And even if so, does that equate to college football?
It has never done so up to now. Even when it was consistently a power under Yeoman and later Jack Pardee, UH football has never drawn well, save when the Aggies or Longhorns came to town, no matter whether they were playing their home games at Jeppesen/Robertson Stadium, Rice Stadium, or the Astrodome.
And despite their success this year and the new TDECU Stadium, that underwhelming fan support has continued. Indeed, Herman ripped the UH fanbase back in October, his words reading like a Joe Pesci Goodfellas diatribe:
“To me, we’re not selling out every home game. I would ask why? What more do you need to see? You need a better product on field or more exciting game? I’m confused when I ask Cougar Nation why are you not at every home game? I get some blank stares sometimes because the answer is ‘Coach, I don’t have a reason.’ There isn’t a good reason.”
Actually, there are any number of reasons, though whether they are good or not is debatable.
Houston is a commuter school, full of non-traditional, off-campus-dwelling students. The city is full of Aggies, Red Raiders, Longhorns, Owls, and LSU Tigers, not to mention a million or so immigrants, many of whom are as intrigued by college football as I am by a chukker of cricket. Some people are put off by traffic and parking, others by the stadium’s setting on the fringe of Houston’s Third Ward. The neighborhood offers little of the game day experience you might find in places like Oxford, Mississippi or Austin or Knoxville, Tennessee, or even crosstown Rice, with its adjacent bars and restaurants.
As with any other college football team located in a megapolis, there are lots of competing venues for entertainment time and money. And visiting teams like AAC rivals Cincinnati, Memphis, Navy, and Temple hold far less appeal for casual college football fans than in-state or regional foes like Texas, A&M, LSU, Tech, or Rice, who, sadly, dropped off the Cougars’ schedule in 2014. Not to mention that TDECU Stadium’s capacity is 40,000, less than half that of Darrell K. Royal, Kyle Field, or “the Shoe,” the Ohio State stadium where Herman earned his bones under Urban Meyer, so even a sellout must seem like a letdown to Herman.
Herman’s name was already being bandied about in connection with many a higher-profile gig even before the Peach Bowl triumph, and should he repeat that success next year, even more and bigger programs will come calling, pushing ever fatter stacks of cash his way. It’s happened that way with two of his three predecessors: Sumlin and Art Briles, a UH alum from Yeoman’s golden age. When Briles decamped for Baylor in 2007 it was a far riskier move at that time than many Herman (barring a meltdown next season) will have the opportunity to choose from after next year. Prior to Briles’s arrival in Waco, Baylor had burned through four perpetually cellar-dwelling coaches between 1993 and 2007, and the program seemed as much a graveyard for coaches as places like Syracuse, Minnesota, Illinois, or Kansas.
Again, Herman seems far likelier to be tossed the keys to a Ferrari of a program than the Kia Baylor had been, so it would seem that personal matters would have to matter more than professional considerations if Herman is to stay at UH. Or maybe it’s that his eye is on a bigger prize, a true blue-blood program. This past year, he shut down flirtations with two average programs in Missouri and South Carolina before they got hot and heavy. More on that later, but let’s say he stays…
Scenario #1: Gazing through Cougar red-tinted glasses
Herman continues to win. He proves to be the one to poke this sleeping giant of a program back to life, the one who finally, as UH athletic director Hunter Yuracheck put it, elevates the school from “stepping stone” to “destination.”
There is a precedent. Given its combo of sultry climate, fertile high school recruiting grounds, cosmopolitan setting, and citywide apathy towards the program, it’s easy to see Houston as very much like the University of Miami in about 1979, when Howard Schnellenberger arrived in Coral Gables.
Schnellenberger inherited a much bigger mess than Herman did at UH; there was open talk of pulling the plug on the program if he couldn’t turn it around, which he answered by winning a national championship in 1983, thus laying the groundwork for 20 years of Hurricane dominance.
UH has faced similar dire scenarios in the not-too-distant past. In 1986, Pardee was given five years to turn the foundering, scandal-ridden program around or preside over its demise, and after that brief run n’ shoot era of relative dominance, the program wandered lost under a succession of coaches. Around the time Briles arrived in 2003, the NCAA was threatening UH with demotion to the sport’s second division, along with all other schools with average attendances of 15,000 or below.
Back to Miami: Unlike Herman’s 2015 squad, the ‘83 Canes were indisputably the ruddy, mustachioed, pipe-chomping Schnellenberger’s team, one he assembled by walling off the “state of Miami” (his term for the three-county metro area) from rival schools, and only then looking further afield for recruits. Going forward, Herman is taking a similar approach: as part of his swagga-riffic “H-Town Takeover” campaign, 13 of 18 of his high school commits are from Greater Houston, and all but one of the remainder is a Texan.
But it won’t be as easy for Herman to fence off Houston. Schnellenberger had his state of Miami pretty much to himself circa 1980, thanks to its geographic isolation and that fact that neither Florida nor Florida State, the two closest big-time colleges, were yet powers at that time. Herman competes with established foes in Texas, A&M, LSU, TCU and Baylor. He’s holding his own so far, but it’s early days yet.
At any rate, with Power 5 conference alignments about as stable these days as North Texas geological plates, it could be that the Big 12 or some other conference could come calling. TDECU was designed to be expandable to 60,000 seats, which is about the same size as the fields of mid-tier squads like Oklahoma State and West Virginia, and larger than those of conference elite like Baylor and TCU, so the small stadium is not as much of an issue as it might seem. There’s also talk that the Big 12 wants to add two more teams – UH is one name in a hopper with schools like BYU and Colorado State to the west, and Cincinnati, Memphis, Central Florida and UConn to the east.
But would Big 12 schools like Texas, Baylor, Tech and TCU welcome the recruiting competition a Power 5 UH would bring? How many TV viewers does UH bring with them? And even with a rip-roaring UH in the Big 12, history would indicate that kindling white-hot fan interest would remain a problem. Consistently good, exciting UH teams under Yeoman and Pardee failed to light the town on fire, so….
Scenario #2: On the other hand…
Let’s say Herman beats Oklahoma in NRG Stadium in September, and then either runs the table or comes close next year, capping it all off with another big bowl win at the end of the season. And let’s say Charlie Strong or Sumlin or Auburn’s Gus Malzahn or LSU’s Les Miles stumbles to something south of eight wins next year. Come next December, all of those schools (or their boosters) will be dispatching private jets—full of fat cats bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh—to Houston. Meanwhile, Herman’s contract buyout is pegged to the progress (or lack thereof) of UH’s practice facilities, so the school will need to commit to $20 million worth of improvements or potentially lose their messiah to a wealthier school at a bargain price. And there’s that attendance issue, the one that really seems to chap Herman’s hide.
It’s a cutthroat business. Herman is widely rumored to regard Texas as his dream job. Inside Texas recently opined that Herman would “crawl on broken glass to Austin to be the next University of Texas head football coach,” and there is a vociferous contingent of Longhorn fans (at least on the Internet) that would walk the last rotten board over hell to get him there.
Meanwhile, Strong has been doing well on the recruiting trail, as the 2015 class proved on the field this year. Although the 2016 class is not as touted, yet, there’s still a lot of time between now and National Signing Day, and Strong seems poised to finish with a flourish. Nevertheless, and even though he inherited four dried beans from Mack Brown, Strong will be expected to win pretty big next year, and if he doesn’t, the next guy will be waiting in the wings. And that guy could be Tom Herman.