He was at UH for one year, 11 months and 10 days. Then he was gone. The Tom Herman era ended abruptly this weekend, when the University of Texas ponied up $19 million for the chance to sign the hottest coach on the college football market. In Austin, Herman will make $5 million annually, and will attempt to restore the Longhorns to their “rightful place” atop the sport. What the move means for UH is anyone's guess.
Why’d He Leave?
In the end, it was totally foreseeable, if not predetermined. Way back in May, I watched as UH boosters and supporters anxiously badgered Herman about his career ambitions, months before his “dream job” in Austin opened up. The Big 12 voting against expansion in October likely sealed the deal. The margin for error at a school like UH is minuscule; qualifying for the College Football Playoff from a mid-major conference requires “the perfect season, the perfect schedule and the perfect storm.” UH could offer Herman a new stadium, a new practice facility, love and adoration. What they couldn’t guarantee was a clear path to a national championship, which the polished and competitive 41-year-old wants to win. “I wanted to be first in my class,” he told me this spring. “I wanted to beat my grandmother in tiddlywinks.” The pressure at UT will be greater, but so will the opportunities. If he can do for the Longhorns what Jim Harbaugh is doing at Michigan, they’ll erect a statue of him outside Memorial Stadium by 2020.
His UH Tenure
Herman coached 26 games in Houston and lost just four of them. (His predecessor, Tony Levine, finished 21-17 in his three years on the job.) His teams shined brightest when the stakes were high, finishing 6-0 against ranked opponents. In Herman’s first year, which ended in a Peach Bowl victory, the Cougars arguably overachieved. They experienced some regression to the mean in 2016, a season in which they dropped two difficult road games (by a combined 10 points) and played inexplicably flat against SMU. (When you’re coaching 20-year-olds, that’ll happen from time to time.) By advanced metrics, UH ranks 28th in the country, which feels about right; Herman assembled a talented squad without quite enough depth to overcome the occasional blip.
The encouraging news, for Cougars fans, is that Herman has not left the cupboard bare. His 2016 recruiting class ranked 36th nationally (per 247 Sports). His 2017 class currently sits at 35th. It’s not necessarily at the level of the blue bloods, but UH is now drawing more top prospects than every other school outside the Power Five conferences. For a university committed to gridiron success, that pipeline is crucial.
UH, 2017 and Beyond
In the immediate future, UH still has a bowl game to win. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will take over as interim head coach for that December contest, which Fox Sports predicts will take place in Florida, possibly against Appalachian State. It’s not quite the Rose Bowl, but it’s worth fighting for nonetheless.
From there, the UH staffers who didn’t follow Herman to Austin will need to hold onto the players and recruits they’ve already signed. One already decommitted, though freshman phenom and hometown hero Ed Oliver eased concerns on Sunday with this timely tweet: “My city got me and i got my city i ain't going nowhere.”
UH administrators, meanwhile, will have to hire a new head coach, and they’ve enlisted a search firm to assist in the process. Names so far linked to the Houston job include Orlando, offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen, California's Sonny Dykes, and Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. (If they actually pursue the disgraced Art Briles, a TDECU Stadium boycott would be appropriate.) CBS Sports calls it “the most interesting job opening in the country.” Indeed, Herman’s departure does not erase most of the structural factors that made UH an appealing place to coach in the first place—the facilities, the fan base, the recruiting pool, the salary. They’ll miss Herman deeply, but odds are they’ll find a suitable replacement.
Over the weekend, mega-rich UH Board of Regents chairman Tilman Fertitta reiterated this point, telling reporters that he and his colleagues are “committed to making University of Houston stay a powerhouse in football.” He also promised he'd make it harder for the next head coach to bolt town: "We're going to write the contract differently."
Unlike its conference affiliation, the terms of a new offer are something UH can actually control.