2016 Houston Cougar Football: Maintaining the Culture**By: Jimmy Schofield**
When Tom Herman was hired on December 16, 2015, his mission was simple; elevate an already winning program to that of elite status in the college football world.
After back to back 8-5 seasons, Herman is well on his way to accomplishing that as he helped to lead the Coogs to a 13-1 season last year, finishing the season ranked eighth in final College Football Playoff poll after winning the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship game over Temple followed by an impressive 38-24 win against Florida State in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl last New Year’s Eve. How did he transform the team he inherited into the force they would ultimately become?
“They were immediate buy-in guys. They didn’t ask questions, they didn’t ask why, they could not see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Herman said recently of his 16 seniors. “They just said we’re going to follow this staff and we’re going to follow this plan and see where it takes us.” Those seniors who received the most playing time included Alex Cooper, Carter Wall, Ryan Jackson, and Kenneth Farrow on offense; William Jackson III, Lee Hightower, Trevon Stewart, Adrian McDonald, Elandon Roberts and Tomme Mark on defense along with Earl Foster, Nolan Frese and Logan Piper contributing heavily on special teams.
“I think there was this sense that it was okay to show up thirty seconds late to a team lift, or it was okay to miss a class, or it was okay to set up a tutor appointment and say, oh, shucks, I forgot,” Herman said during a press conference before the Peach Bowl. “We needed to establish very early that that’s not okay, and that the little things matter. So when we got off the road that first Monday, we put giant chains on the locker room doors and padlocked them up and said we’ll see you at 4:30 in the morning on the turf field. It was nothing but can we do as many up-downs right as we can.”
Those early morning workout sessions also showed the players that they could be mentally tough which was just as important as physical toughness.
“We also found out who the leaders were and who the tough guys were, who the guys were that were mentally strong and could survive that kind of atmosphere. And then I think probably the biggest thing was then we established very early that we’re going to do things right.”
Teaching both that physical and mental toughness continued through the spring.
“Give me maximum effort, and we’ll get all that other stuff figured out. But as long as he’s going hard, I’m ok. It takes zero physical ability to hit the hardest. It takes no talent to be the most physically dominant team in the country. Zero. It takes this,” Herman says pointing to his heart while talking to his team during spring drills last year. “Ok? It takes a guy saying that I will not be beaten on this rep. You will not move me. I will move you. I will be 1-0 on this rep, over and over, and over and over and over again.”
The Coogs were 3-1 in games decided by three points or less last season, with all the hard work learned over their first off-season paying off in just the second game of the season at Louisville where they overtook the Cardinals 34-31 in a seesaw affair with the lead changing hands seven times (five in the fourth quarter alone).
“We trained for nine months for this moment. None of us in that locker room are surprised,” Herman said after the game last September 12. “We expected to come in here and use our training to the best of our abilities and we figured if we did that, we’d have a chance to win in the end, and we did. That’s just the culture of our program, is to battle adversity, respond when adversity hits very mindfully and on purpose, with really good thoughts and actions, and not to panic and not to try to do anything outside of ourselves. We talk all the time about going back to our fundamentals when things get tough. Effort and fundamentals are the easiest way to battle adversity. It’s not freaking out. It’s not trying to make the superhuman play. It’s going back to your fundamentals and giving a superior level of effort. And so, I’m not trying to make it sound easy. It certainly was not easy. It was in fact extremely, extremely hard. But, that’s why we train so hard and that’s why we push our guys so hard, is for moments like this.”
A huge role in last year’s success was also the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, running backs coach Kenith Pope, wide receivers coach Drew Mehringer, tight ends/fullbacks coach Corby Meekins, offensive line coach Derek Warehime, defensive line coach Oscar Giles, safeties coach Craig Naivar, Cornerbacks coach/special teams coordinator Jason Washington had 146 years of recruiting experience in the state of Texas. Mehringer is the only coach to leave over this past off-season, taking the OC role at Rutgers. With Darrell Wyatt replacing him that figure goes up to 155 years this season. With that experience, Herman and staff were able to secure the 35th best ranked class in the entire nation per the 247sports recruiting composite, and best of the non-Power 5 conference teams, including one Ed Oliver, a five star signee and the third best defensive tackle in the entire country.
“On our jersey it doesn’t say the University of Houston. It just says Houston, and that’s not by accident. We want to represent this university, but we also have the fourth biggest city in the country to represent,” Herman said about his program.
Coaching them up
On the field, the coaching staff did a better job than anybody could have anticipated (except of course the staff members themselves). Herman let Applewhite tailor his offense around the talents of the team, calling it “the University of Houston offense.” Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was only the second signal caller in the nation to pass for over 2,000 yards while rushing for 1,000 more (the other, Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson of Clemson). Complimenting Ward was the duo of Farrow and Jackson, as they rushed for over 1,300 yards behind a makeshift offensive line that had TEN different starting lineups, in 14 games.
Defensively, Herman hit a homerun in hiring Orlando as it was a perfect marriage of Herman’s hard hitting, in your face personality combined with Orlando’s aggressive attacking scheme that allowed his defense to hold opponents to 109 rushing yards-per-game allowed, their least allowed since 1999. Conversely, the offense’s 236 rushing yards per game was the most for any Coogs team since 1983, per Phil Steele.
As for the 2016 campaign and beyond? Herman spoke about the biggest fear to their success as being complacency. Coming off such of a successful season, will the players work as hard and put in the work needed to have an equally as successful season as they did last year? Director of Football Sports Performance, Yancy McKnight, on the dreaded ‘C’ word when I spoke to him earlier this off-season, “It is the enemy. We (Coach Herman and I) talked about it. This is not a lie, we talked about our program in 2016 on January First, the next day after the Peach Bowl” he says laughing. “And we came up with ‘complacency will be the enemy that we’ll fight every day.’ I sent that to Greg Ward because he sent me a text a few days after the game talking about how excited and how pumped he was to start the new year. And he agreed completely. Right now we don’t allow any Peach Bowl gear from our staff or our players in our building. We don’t wear it. It’s a new year, new team. The E-Rob’s of the world. The T-Stew’s, The A-Mac’s, the Alex Cooper’s. Those team captains; Kenneth Farrow. All those guys are gone.”
“That’s why we put the question marks on the backs of their shirts,” McKnight said in reference to the players having to earn their names back onto them. “We’re earning that stuff right now. We’re trying to figure out who we are and what we’re about. We’re trying to get bigger, stronger, more mobile, learning to be a good teammate and trying to get back that bond that we had last year and not let complacency creep in. Those are the things we work on every single day.”
“That goes back to our culture. It never stops. It’s like weeds. The second you don’t pick them, there are 20 more of them. We’ve got a target on our back now. We’re the hunted. That’s a different deal for us; trying to sustain and be better than what we did last year so we have to work harder at it.”
McKnight summarizing the culture that Herman and his coaching staff have established, “ID-ing these cultural issues isn’t just one guy. It goes for everybody from the head coach to the assistants to the players to the trainers to the equipment guys to academic personnel. Every person that touches our football program and players has potential to do good and harm so they all have to be held to the same standard. Coach Herman makes sure everyone understands that.”