When it became apparent the pandemic would shut down spring football for most schools across the country, Texas was one of the first teams I thought about that could be adversely affected — or, at least more adversely affected than the average team. The Longhorns return their head coach and the bulk of their roster, but they’re breaking in seven new assistants, including new coordinators in all three phases.
Turns out, I was a lot more concerned than Tom Herman.
I talked about coaching through Zoom, building a tough football team and other topics in this Q&A below.
FootballScoop: It seems like every time I check social media you’re on there serving meals. How often are you able to get away and do some volunteering?
Herman: Michelle and I probably get out, whether it’s the food bank — we visited a craft distillery that was started by a couple UT grads, they’ve repurposed a lot of what they’re doing to make hand sanitizer — we wanted to see what was going on there, Boys & Girls Club, Meals on Wheels. Probably once or twice a week.
FootballScoop: Have you been able to find a groove working from home?
Herman: We really feel like we can get a lot done on Zoom, whether it be staff meetings or player to coach meetings. The only thing where the technology hasn’t quite caught up, which make things a little difficult, is the video. When a coach is sharing his screen trying to watch video with a player, it gets kind of choppy over the Internet. We’ve got a great routine set up right now. We’re in finals, and the NCAA said we can’t meet with our players during finals, so our staff meetings have been a virtual retreat, if you will, with me going over our coaches’ manual. We’ve got a few new coaches so it was important to me to find some time to onboard them, if you will, to our standards and culture and expectations. We’ve been doing that this week, and we start meeting with our players again on Wednesday of next week.
FootballScoop: The hot topic right now is whether schools should be able to get players back on campus on June 1. What’s your opinion?
Herman: I think you’ve got to define what we’e talking about. I would love to get our weight room doors open on June 1 and keep the lifting discretionary — not mandate that any kid comes back if they’re out of town or whatever. We’ve got probably half of our team that’s here in Austin. In the state of Texas, weight rooms open up last Friday, and by weight room I mean the Gold’s Gym, Lifetime Fitness, all that. I feel like if our guys are here in the state of Texas and they’re tired of lifting the Home Depot buckets filled with concrete and working out with resistance bands, they’re going to naturally find a weight room to go to, and why not let it be ours? Still keep the lift groups under 10, still keep social distancing, but allow them to use the equipment that they’re used to using and be supervised from a health and safety standpoint by our strength and conditioning staff. We’ve got probably a much better plan, I would think, to sanitize things.
We’ve already planned, June 1, if they allow us to do it, we’ll split the weight room in half, kind of have a Weight Room A, Weight Room B. When guys are working out in Weight Room A we can sanitize Weight Room B and vice versa. We’ll have 8-10 lift groups of eight kids or more. That just makes sense to me, right? They’re going to find a weight room to work out in if they’re in a state that public weight room and workout facilities are opening, so why not let it be ours, under our supervision with our resources dedicated to the sanitization of said equipment and space.
We’re all hopeful that the first couple weeks in July we’ll be able to resume some mandatory team activities, get some of these kids that are out of town, get them back here, put everybody in one central location, quarantine the team, test in, test out, all that stuff, and hopefully get a season started on time. I think that would be the nirvana or best case scenario for everybody.
I think right now, because the Power 5 leagues did all agree at the end of March, all of these different stipulations on discretionary workouts, nutrition supplements that we can send, what’s permissible and what’s not, that expires here in 15 days. I think a lot of coaches are worried — obviously, the health and safety of our players, the health and safety of our support staff is the most important thing at this time — I think we also want to make sure that it’s not the wild west on June 1 and different conferences, different teams within conferences are doing things differently. I think we’ve got to have a unified vision of what June 1 and beyond is going to look like nationally.
FootballScoop: I’ve heard you talk a lot about culture in your four years as a head coach. How have you noticed your culture surviving during this stress test?
Herman: That’s a good way to put it. We talk a lot about, doing just survive, thrive. That’s a nice little idiom there.
It’s been great. When you’ve got a leader such as Sam Ehlinger and guys on the other side of ball such as Joseph Ossai and TaQuon Graham and Caden Sterns. Our players are not allowed to send us anything on their weight workouts, but the one thing they can do is send them to their teammates, so we’ve set up some accountability teams. Our leaders are really taking the bull by the horns, no pun intended and making sure to hold guys accountable.
To be honest with you, our guys are hard working dudes. You can’t survive in our culture if you don’t have a great work ethic. There’s a few that need a reminder every now and again from their teammates, but for the most part I’ve been extremely pleased with how our leaders have gone about keeping everybody accountable.
FootballScoop: How have you managed to implement new schemes without the chance to work through them on the field?
Herman: I think what people don’t realize is the NCAA relaxed what we can do as coaches with them in the months of January and February leading up to spring practice. We’re allowed to meet with them throughout the week, so starting in January we had two hours a week of install meetings. We had position-specific conditioning drills, so the players have now been coached by their respective position coaches, and then just a couple years ago they allowed us to have walk-throughs. And then now we’ve had two months of nothing but eight hours of meetings. I’m not worried about the knowledge of the Xs and Os, I think our guys mentally are going to be as sharp as all get out in terms of their knowledge base of the scheme. We just haven’t repped it in a full speed, 11-on-11 setting, but football’s football. If you can get the mental part of it down, the physical part is — there’s not a whole lot of what we’re asking any player to do on either side of the ball differently from a technique standpoint.
FootballScoop: What do you view your role as the head coach when you walk in the building each morning?
Herman: Keeper of the culture I think is probably the best way to describe it. I talked to our coaches today — when you get to the crux of what our job is as coaches, we’re fighting human nature every day. Humans gravitate toward things that are easy, things that are comfortable, pain free, things that self-serving. That’s who we are. We’re all built that way. We’re fallen creatures, whatever you believe. We’re trying to get 18-to-22 year old young men to do things that are hard, inconvenient, painful and selfless. It’s my job to make sure that, one, the staff is aligned. I miss being a position coach very badly at times because I miss that intimate relationship I had with our quarterbacks, and back when I was a wide receivers coach as well. I view my position group right now is our 10 assistant coaches. My job is to make sure that the messaging, the alignment and the culture, all of it gets disseminated within the 10 position groups accurately and succinctly, in the way that it needs to be for us to be successful.
FootballScoop: As the keeper of the culture, are you concerned at all about sounding like a broken record in trying to drive home your point?
Herman: I don’t think you should worry. I called Dabo prior to this previous season and I said, “Coach, I’ve been a head coach four years now but I’ve never been a head coach going into Year 3. I’ve got a lot of these kids that have heard the same message for the last two years from me. What did you do? Did you bring in guest speakers, did you change your message?” He said absolutely not. He said, “When they can mock you and they know what’s coming out of your mouth before it comes out of your mouth, that means they’re listening.”
I think it’s okay to be repetitive, and it’s okay to sound like a broken record, because eventually the kids are going to naturally understand how important some of those things that we talk about are on a daily basis.
FootballScoop: You’ve talked previously about the hire of Mike Yurcich allowing you to be more of a full-time head coach without having game-planning responsibilities on top of all the other stuff you have to do. Do you have any examples of stuff you’ve done this spring that maybe you couldn’t have done before? Do you have a plan for how you’ll use your extra time in the fall?
Herman: Sitting in a few more defensive staff meetings, for sure. I’ll always be involved in the offense. That’s my expertise and the reason, quite frankly, that I was given the opportunity to be a head coach was because of the successful offenses that we had. To be the primary play-caller requires so much more time than just being a position coach. It’s so much more film, so much more tendency study. To remove myself from that part of it should free up more time to pop in (with) the defensive staff a little bit more and make sure everything’s running smoothly there, but then also hopefully spend some more time in the dining hall, in the training room, in the locker room with the players and really get around them a little bit more too.
FootballScoop: How do you build a physical football team without wearing yourself out in practice?
Herman: Let’s make no mistake about it: you can’t get good at anything without doing it over and over and over again. You want to be a great tackling team, you know what you need to do in practice — tackle. You want to be a great blocking team, you know what you need to do in practice — block people. You want to be a really physical team on Saturdays, you need to be really physical in practice. Nothing in life can you expect, on the moment of truth — and for us that’s every Saturday — if you haven’t practiced at that level, for you to perform at that level. It doesn’t even make sense. You can’t practice soft and play hard.
What I’ve learned over the years, studying the analytics and the sports science of it, is time on the field is a big thing. We used to bang heads for hours on end. We haven’t ratcheted down the intensity of our practices one bit, but what we have done is we’ve been more efficient with our time so that we’re not on the field nearly as long. All of our major injuries happened in games last year anyways. Knock on wood we haven’t gotten hurt in practice in a while. Some of them last year were freak deals. Chris Brown, one of our starting safeties, broke his forearm. What exercise can you do in the weight room to prevent a broken forearm. That’s not a product of anything other than getting hit in the right spot at the right time. To succinctly answer your question, it’s time on the field but still maintaining your intensity level while you’re in that practice setting.
FootballScoop: In a day and age where quarterbacks transfer if they don’t win the job immediately, what was the thinking in taking two quarterbacks in your 2020 class?
Herman: Well, we needed to. We went through last year with only two scholarship quarterbacks because Roschon Johnson was playing running back. He thrived in that position and we think that’s a position that he’s going to be able to play professionally someday. We certainly weren’t going to move him back to that room.
Ideally, if you look at our best case scenario scholarship wise, we’d like to have five quarterbacks on scholarship in any given year. That’s probably very unrealistic. I think there’s ways — the four game redshirt rule helps. There’s certainly some distance in the classes, Sam being a senior, Casey Thompson being a redshirt sophomore, Hudson Card and JaQuinden Jackson both coming in, who knows, one if not both redshirt. We’ll figure that out. I think four on scholarship is a good number, especially when they’re spaced out evenly from a class standpoint. It’s hard to imagine any of those guys beating Sam out as a senior but I think when you look to 2021 you’re going to have a really good four-way battle between Casey Thompson, Hudson Card, JaQuinden Jackson and the quarterback that we sign in 2021 as well.
FootballScoop: If the goal is to have five scholarship quarterbacks on your roster, in long-term roster planning do you budget that you might need to take, say, eight QBs over a 5-year period in order to get five to stay at a given time? Or do you not think about it in those terms?
Herman: You never worry about that. I think if you get stuck and you’re really hurting for numbers at some point you look at the junior college, grad transfer market and all that. I think five is probably unrealistic in today’s day and age. I think four is probably more realistic. We’ll have four this season, we’ll have four in 2021 and 2022. We signed guys that can also possibly play different positions, too. It’s not a given that just because you lose a competition that you can’t add value to the team as well.
FootballScoop: In Year 4 of your program with a senior quarterback returning, what’s a fair expectation for Texas this fall?
Herman: I think like every year — we should expect to be competing for a conference title at the end of November. What are we, going on year six now of the CFP and the Big 12 has only missed one time, that being the first season.
FootballScoop: It’s missed twice.
Herman: It’s missed twice, okay. Which is on par with the Big Ten and certainly ahead of some other conferences. If we win our conference there’s usually a pretty good chance that you’re going to make the playoffs, so if we’re coming into those last couple weeks of the season and we’re in position to be playing for a conference championship I think that would mean that — we feel like our trajectory is certainly headed in the right direction. I don’t know what this season is even going to look like, I don’t know who’s going to get hurt, I’m not Nostradamus, I can’t predict the future, but I do know year in and year out, barring unforeseen circumstances, competing for a conference title at the end of November is our big picture goal.