Houston football off to 10-1 start in first year under Tom Herman
HOUSTON — It had been a long time since Tom Herman lost a game.
When Connecticut knocked off No. 21 Houston last Saturday, it was the first taste of defeat for the head coach since Sept. 6, 2014 — a span of 23 games.
He had won 13 straight with Ohio State to end last season with a national title and helped the Cougars to a 10-0 record in his first season as a head coach. To say that the 40-year-old took that 20-17 loss to the Huskies hard would be an understatement.
He was asked how he dealt with his first defeat in more than 14 months.
"Some things are unfit for print," he said with only a hint of humor in his voice.
Of all the things that Herman doesn't like, losing is probably at the top of the list. It "is not OK."
"We don't like losing around here and I don't like losing," he said. "Nobody likes losing so I shouldn't make it sound like we're any different than others."
A member of Mensa, the former offensive coordinator at Ohio State immediately started reviewing what went wrong. He didn't have much time to figure things out before No. 16 Navy and its triple-option running attack arrive for a showdown Friday. The American Athletic Conference's West division title is on the line.
"It is eye opening," Herman said. "You go into complete introspection mode when you lose a game like that. Then you ask a million questions to yourself about what you could have done better. I have pages of notes that I took within the 12 hours immediately after the loss of things that the staff, the players, and I can do better. Then you come pick yourself back up and go to work on improving those things."
He also reached out to his mentors, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and former Texas coach Mack Brown, for help on navigating what were uncharted waters for him.
"Those are the guys I lean on a little bit, and this was a first for me," he said. "This was my first loss as a head coach. I've been doing this for almost a year now, and I came across another first. I needed a little advice, but more confirmation than advice on how to handle it."
His reaction to the loss isn't surprising to anyone who knows him. The word he's used most with this team since he arrived in December, replacing the fired Tony Levine, is accountability.
"I think in today's society it's really easy, in fact sometimes it's even encouraged to point the finger at other people when things don't go your way," Herman said. "I think the one thing that we have in our program is a tremendous amount of accountability starting from the head coach to the assistant coaches on down to the players and leaders of our team that real grown, mature people say: 'Hang on, I understand something went wrong or we need to get better in this area and it's going to start with me. It's going to start with me and my improvement.'"
His approach has worked well so far and with one regular-season game to go he's already helped the team to two more wins than it had in each of the last two seasons. It's the best mark since the Cougars went 13-1 in 2011 in coach Kevin Sumlin's last season with Case Keenum leading the record-setting offense.
Houston is well aware that higher-profile programs are likely to be interested in Herman, who has a five-year deal. Last week, regents backed a plan that would more than double his salary to $3 million a year and increase his performance incentives. Herman now earns $1.35 million a year in base and non-salary compensation.
Herman has fostered this success with very clear expectations for his team.
"The program is more structured," senior safety Adrian McDonald said. "There are no grey areas."
His approach has changed the culture in this program and along with it the mindset of the players and what they expect from themselves.
"You've got to be tough," offensive lineman Alex Cooper said. "You've got to be able to finish. What happens to you — nobody cares, just work harder. Just work as hard as you can every single rep, every single play."
Cooper said Herman won him over by telling the team that that it would only be as good as the offensive and defensive lines were. It was a rare shout out to the big guys in the trenches whose work often goes unnoticed. Cooper beamed when recounting the story months later.
And even though Herman is hard on the team and doesn't bite his tongue, the players appreciate that they always know where they stand with him.
"He's very blunt," Cooper said. "He doesn't sugarcoat anything and he's all about us. He cares 100 percent about what we think, how he is seen in our eyes. He's very honest and very true, so that's a big thing to respect him for."
Though he's been coaching for 17 years, Herman isn't above learning from his team and talked about how often that happens.
"Every day," he said. "That's why I've got the best job in America. These kids teach — sometimes remind is a better word — me of things that I've learned in my journey through life that maybe sometimes you forget. Then you're reminded of it by the way they go about their business or approach certain things. But yeah, every day is a learning experience."