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On demons, love and human nature: How Tom Herman builds a championship-level culture

Tom Herman has asked himself the same question that novelists and political leaders alike have spent centuries pondering -- what motivates people, fear or love? "I believe love wins every time," Herman said.

And in his program, love is spelled T-I-M-E.

"Our position coaches should spend more time with their players than anyone in the country," Herman told an audience of Texas high school coaches at the Angelo Football Clinic on Wednesday. "We hold the position coach responsible for everything in that young man’s life. If he’s making bad grades, losing weight, I don’t yell at the academic staff, I yell at the position coach."

Herman won a national championship as an offensive coordinator, but now as a head coach he's a step removed from game-planning -- in fact, he brought along wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Drew Mehringer to lead the Xs and Os portion of his presentation -- while he focuses on the big-picture issues of the program. Herman likes to say he's a graduate of Urban Meyer's Head Coaching Fellowship Program, and that was evident on Wednesday.

"You can drill the psychology of your student-athletes just like you drill an on-the-field drill. It’s just that, it’s a drill," Herman said. "You’ve got to stay consistent."

Herman's greatest opponent, he says, is not Oklahoma, or LSU, or (insert reminder that Texas no longer plays Texas A&M here). It's human nature.

"People ask me what I really do. I fight like hell against human nature every day. As human beings, we gravitate toward things that are easy, convenient, self-serving, pain free. To build a winning football team, we have to do things that are difficult, that aren’t convenient, that are selfless, that are painful," he said. "We all have that demon in our head. The great ones have found ways to beat that guy more times than that guy beats them. The guys that can push through that and not listen."

Another ally of the demon of human nature is noise -- positive noise and negative noise. Texas saw both ends in 2018, a season in which the Longhorns opened by losing to Maryland and closed by beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. When he first got to Austin, Herman found himself sending a contradictory message, telling players not to listen to what people say while at the same time proving them wrong. Hence, now Texas lives by the mantra, "Prove Us Right."

"The best we know how to tune out the noise is to tune up the volume within our building, of our teammates and coaches," he said. "It’s about proving to our teammates and to ourselves that our way of doing things was the right way, regardless of what the outside noise says about us."

  • Herman boiled his culture down into three major categories:
  1. Core values
  2. Pillars of the program
  3. Plan to win

The five core values are a staple of Meyer's culture. In fact, Herman joked that Texas saved money on signage upon his arrival, because Charlie Strong, a Meyer disciple from his Florida days, had them plastered on the walls throughout the Longhorns' facility. Those five core values aren't new to anyone (Honesty, Treating women with respect, No drugs, No stealing, No weapons) but, Herman said, all five bullet points funneled back to point No. 1. "Be honest with yourself, be honest with your teammates, be honest with your coaches and usually you’ll be okay," he said.

Herman says he has a 1-strike policy in regards to treating women with respect, perhaps in a lesson he learned from watching Meyer's mistakes. Herman doesn't try to save people, because he recognizes he's a football coach, not a mental health professional. "If you put your hands on a woman, I’m not equipped to counsel you out of that," he said.

  • The pillars of the program are broken into four parts:
  1. A 1-0 mentality
  2. Competitive focus
  3. Physical and mental toughness
  4. Unit pride

Nearly every coach in every level of football stresses a focus on the here-and-now above the far-and-then -- Never will you hear a coach say, "We're mainly focused on our season finale above everything else" -- and as such here's how Herman defines a 1-0 mentality: "If, over the course of the day, I haven’t done something to make myself a better coach, a better father, a better husband, then why did I get out of bed that day?"

To define competitive focus, Herman referenced Kenny Guiton, a Houston native (Herman made sure to mention that he didn't just come from Houston, but to state specifically that he played at Aldine Eisenhower High School) who played backup quarterback for Ohio State's undefeated 2012 team.

In the ninth game of that season, Ohio State hosted Purdue, lost starting quarterback Braxton Miller to injury, and found itself trailing the Boilermakers 22-14 with the ball on its own 39-yard line and 47 seconds left in regulation. Guiton maneuvered the Buckeyes into the end zone with three seconds to spare and then, to push the game to overtime, he completed a 2-point pass that, though the Buckeyes' starters practiced it each week throughout the season, Guiton himself had never physically repped, not even once.

Ohio State won the game in overtime, and Guiton is now the wide receivers coach at Louisiana Tech.

On physical and mental toughness, Herman said, "I tell our guys all the time, there’s never been a champion that, when the confetti’s falling and the reporter asks, 'Coach, tell us how you won this game?’ ‘We out-finnessed everybody,'" he said. "This game is physical. The great teams embrace that. I get it, you’ve got to have speed, you’ve got to have skilled athletes, but they’ve better be physical… It takes no talent to go run and hit on defense. It takes a lot of effort, and it’s painful, but (the great teams) fly around to the echo of the whistle."

Unit pride, to Herman, funnels back to his original point: love, built through time. "It’s basically that you love your unit so much that it’s impossible for you to take any steps that would let them down. If you love someone, really, truly love someone, you’ll go to the ends of the earth to make them proud."

  • Herman's plan to win is also broken into four legs:
  1. Play great defense
  2. Win the turnover battle
  3. Score and prevent touchdowns in the red zone
  4. Win the special teams battle

Herman believes great defense is not just the responsibility of his ends, tackles, linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks. Great defense is a team-wide responsibility, starting with taking care of the ball on offense and preventing big returns on punts and kickoffs.

In the same vein, ball security is not just an offensive player's problem. "We go crazy teaching ball security to our defensive players," Herman said. "Twenty-eight times a year a ball is going to be in a defensive player’s hands. There’s nothing more demoralizing than fumbling a turnover away."

Borrowing another Meyer-ism, Herman creates buy-in on special teams by making it a prerequisite to see the field on offense or defense. "If you’re an offensive skill player, you’re not allowed to touch the football unless you start on one unit of special team," he said. Here, Herman can cite another Ohio State example, where a future NFL leading rusher burst on the scene by making an emphatic tackle on a 2013 kickoff.

So there, in 30 minutes or so, is the thesis statement for how Tom Herman builds the culture that sustains a championship-level college football program. It's the players' and coaches' jobs to execute it, and his job to enforce it, through generating buy-in all the way from the starting quarterback to the part-time academic counselor. "Our job is to make sure that everybody that lays hands on your student-athlete has the same standards that you do in your football program. You can’t have a rule in your football program that says you’ve got to be sitting in a team meeting room five minutes early or your late, then let him show up four minutes late to a tutoring meeting," Herman said.

"Your messages better be concise and they better be aligned through every area that touches your student-athlete."

Herman believes in this culture-building formula like he believes in oxygen. But, he told the assembled high school coaches, he recently came upon a problem -- he's never been a third-year head coach before. The juniors and seniors in his program are now hearing him repeat the same talking points, the same phrases, the same speeches at the same time of year, for the third straight year. Isn't this a problem? Won't players start to tune him out? Shouldn't he change his message up?

To navigate this problem, Herman called a friend in the business who knows how to build a culture that lasts.

"I called Dabo and he said something I’ll never forget: If they can mock you, what you say and how you say it, that means they’ve listened. Do I need guest speakers, a new message? No. They’re listening. If they know what you’re about to say before you say it, that’s a good thing. That’s a really good thing."

Championship-winning cultures, it seems, don't go stale, they build upon themselves with repetition and reinforcement. All it takes is T-I-M-E.