By Jim Carlisle
At age 42, Tom Herman ’97 has what many would call a dream job: head football coach at the University of Texas.
This season is only his third as a head coach, and the casual observer might think of him as an overnight success. But the journey has been a long one.
Herman’s quest began more than two decades ago, when he was an all-conference wide receiver at Cal Lutheran.
“I remember sitting out in Mount Clef Stadium with him one day,” said former Cal Lutheran football coach Scott Squires, “and I asked him, ‘Well, hey, what are you going to do when you graduate? Because you’re a smart guy; you could probably go to work for anybody, virtually.’”
Herman already had his answer. Right after getting his business administration degree, he drove 1,400 miles to Seguin, Texas, to join former Kingsmen assistant coach Bryan Marmion in starting an NCAA Division III program from scratch at Texas Lutheran University. After one season as receivers coach, Herman networked that job into a graduate assistant position at Texas under Mack Brown.
From there, Herman went to Sam Houston State and Texas State, then to the next level as offensive coordinator at Rice University, where, in 2008, he helped the Owls to their first bowl victory since 1954.
Three seasons as offensive coordinator at Iowa State (2009–11) led to two bowl appearances for the Hawkeyes. That caught the attention of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who hired Herman to be the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2012 to 2014. In that final season, injuries forced Herman to play third-string QB Cardale Jones. Jones led Ohio State to the national championship over Oregon, and Herman won the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach.
The next year, Herman’s reputation as a “quarterback whisperer” landed him his first head coaching job at any level, at the University of Houston. The Cougars immediately went 13-1 in 2015, winning their first conference title in four years, and then 9-3 in 2016.
So, at the end of last season, with a record of 22-4 as a head coach, Herman was on the A-list for top colleges looking for a new coach. He opted for familiarity with Texas, signing a five-year contract reportedly worth $5 million a year.
Definitely successful. Definitely not overnight.
“I’ve moved my wife and family six times in the last 11 years, if that’s any indication of the instability as far as a family life and home life can be in this job,” Herman said. “In 2006, 11 years ago, I was a [Division] I-AA coach. I’ve coached at a lot of different levels: I went from Division III receivers coach to Division I graduate assistant to I-AA assistant to I-AA coordinator to Group of Five coordinator to Power Five coordinator to top 10 coordinator to Group of Five head coach and now Power Five head coach.
Herman said his NCAA Division III experience at Cal Lutheran had elements he wishes he could implement at Texas.
“My experience playing Division III and coaching Division III was great,” he said. “I didn’t know any different. I think there’s a lot of things that can be taken from the Division III model. I had a lot more free time then than a lot of the players I coach, so I was able to be active in student government. I held internships and jobs and was active on campus. I think with a lot of our student-athletes [at Texas], it’s school and football and that’s about all they have time for.”
Now considered one of football’s best brains, Herman was known for his sense of fun as a student.
“Initially, I would say goofy,” Squires said. “Let me rephrase that. Let me say charismatic. He was a fun guy to be around, always had a smile on his face, a prankster a little bit. He was just fun and I know a lot of our team gravitated toward him because he was that way. He even used to be an announcer at the basketball games in the old gym and he’d get everybody going” — Herman was known to jump onto the scorer’s table and dance during timeouts — “and next thing you know, you’d see him at a dance, or at least I would hear of him at these dances, doing the same kinds of things. So he could get people to gravitate toward him because he was kind of an electric personality that way.
“As a football player, he could be goofy and all of that, but he’s incredibly smart, a really great business student when he was there, like off-the-chart kind of smarts. Just a really headsy guy, and that carried over to our football team and the football field. So when Tom would come to me as a player and say, ‘Hey, I think if you did this or that,’ I knew he’d put in the time, saw the film; he always had educated things to say. So, his football IQ was high.”
Just as evident were Herman’s determination and energy. As a player, he endured 13 knee operations and four shoulder surgeries. In addition to public address announcing for basketball, volleyball and baseball, he also did an internship for a sports talk radio show in Los Angeles and worked as an NFL highlight coordinator for Fox Sports. Another of Herman’s odd jobs was working at a Subway restaurant. He recently told Fox it didn’t last very long.
“I ate myself out of that job,” he said. “They had this big walk-in refrigerator and I went in there and I just started pulling cold pastrami out and just shoving it in my mouth.”
The owner showed up unexpectedly, found Herman with pastrami dangling from his lips and told him to get out and not come back.
Herman’s first coaching job at Texas Lutheran paid just $5,000. His furniture consisted of rejects from the university housing department. During that time, Michelle, his wife-to-be who already had an MBA from UC Davis and a job in L.A., supported him financially. “She was my sugar mama,” Herman would later tell the Houston Chronicle. “She was my rock. She would send money, even though we weren’t married, to help me pay rent.”
When he maneuvered his way into a graduate assistant job the very next year at Texas (where he slept in the locker room), he hedged his bets by making sure he also earned his master’s degree in education. Good thing, too: In his very first game with the Longhorns, he forced the team to use a timeout by misreading a play chart.
The journey has taken him back to Texas, where he’s running the whole show and trying to make it his own, balancing the desire to win quickly with the desire to win for years to come.
“Our goal continues to be to develop a culture that is sustainable,” Herman said, “so when this season is over, you’re into next season and the season after that and 10 seasons from now, that we’re able to continue to compete for championships on a regular basis. That takes time, but we are sensitive to the fact that everybody wants to win, no more so than the people in this building. So we accelerate the process as fast as we can.”
The most thrilling early highlight in Herman’s first season turned out to be a loss — a 27-24 double-overtime defeat to No. 4 USC that impressed many people. Texas had a No. 23 preseason ranking, but Herman had downplayed it. Sure enough, the Longhorns started out with a 51-41 loss to Maryland.
“One, we hadn’t done it,” Herman said. “This is a program that’s had three straight seven-loss seasons and so we haven’t proven anything. And two, I was really concerned about our depth. Obviously, I had a little bit more to be concerned about [like] making sure that we eliminate mistakes and play some clean football without as many penalties.”
Despite the spotlight his new job brings, Herman wants to maintain the humility of his early days.
“You surround yourself with great people,” he said. “I’ve got my wife, Michelle, and my two closest confidants — my head strength coach, Yancy McKnight, and my chief of staff, Fernando Lovo. When I first got this job, I said, ‘Your job is to make sure the split second you see me change in whatever direction, you tell me and you point it out to me,’ because I think the way that we’ve been able to do things throughout our journey up the ladder in coaching, if we stay the course and do our things our way, the right way, then good things will eventually happen.”
Jim Carlisle is a former sports columnist and reporter for the Ventura County Star. He has been the public address announcer for Cal Lutheran football since 2001 and lives in Simi Valley.