Is Tom Herman Finally Bringing Texas A Recruiting Grand Strategy?

Tom Herman. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Tom Herman. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Herman talks a lot about alignment. We debate what it means and what is or isn’t aligned behavior…until it starts to sound like a chiropractor CME seminar.

I think he means sound tactics informed by smart strategy.

Tom Herman may have finally brought to Texas what I’ve been hoping to see for years – a strategic approach to football recruiting. Most recruiting talk, effort and analysis is overly focused on tactics – the means of gaining an objective.

Who was at Junior Day? What did he say? What’s his top 5? Where is he ranked? Will we get him? When? How? Is he scared of our depth chart? What’s LSU telling him? Percentages?

Tactics are great, but they’re limiting without a broader strategy to guide them. I don’t think we’ve done much strategically in recruiting since 1998 when Mack Brown introduced early recruiting. Sadly, that innovative strategy degraded into a mindless tactic – get recruits early, whoever they are, instead of a measured tool to disrupt the status quo. One could argue, given that, it was a tactical innovation, not a true strategic understanding.

Strategy can be a very different conversation from tactics. What are we trying to achieve overall? What’s the larger landscape? What will this yield years from now? Wait, why are we doing this again? Are the assumptions we used to get here still holding true?

Very quickly into the tactical recruiting process folks turn off the part of their brain asking the bigger, more important questions. Questions such as: are we sure this is who we want to recruit? Not just the player asset judged in some SPARQ/HUDL vacuum where we decide Player A is “better” than Player B as a junior in high school, but how he fits what we want to do, his likelihood of maximizing in our culture and what he achieves for Texas in the bigger picture.

Strategy is concerned with identifying the proper objectives and standards in an overarching, coherent way, presumably with some degree of elegance, efficiency and proper resource use. It’s the guide star for tactics. You can always look up, see it, and be reminded of the proper end game. The reminder to ask: what are all these tactics serving?

Tactics teaches the use of forces in the engagement; strategy, the use of engagements for the object of the war.Clausewitz

Less high falutin’ than quoting Clausewitz is the wife who informs the husband that they’re driving the wrong direction and he says,”Maybe, but look at the great time we’re making!”

We’ve seen tactical recruiting mastery at Texas before. Mack Brown could win Mama over faster than a Publisher’s Clearing House check and Charlie Strong was tough to beat when he turned his singular focus on building rapport with a young man directly (which half of his staff used as an excuse to ignore both strategy and tactics). Unfortunately, Mack increasingly chose the wrong Mamas to charm and absented himself from establishing a program guide star and Strong tried to run a complex operation by doing his staff’s jobs for them instead of thinking about larger, overarching problems. Inattention to detail also ran rampant, which compromised both tactics and strategy.

Pure tactical brilliance ain’t always enough. The most brilliant pure tactician of any age – the great Carthaginian general Hannibal – didn’t have a grand strategy to bring down Rome beyond continuously routing its armies in battle. In Hannibal’s defense, that usually did the trick. However, Rome was made of sterner stuff. So Hannibal camped out in Italy for years without siegecraft or statecraft and slaughtered Roman armies until my posting namesake gained control of the legions and matched Hannibal’s tactical brilliance enough to allow a superior grand strategy to win. He left Hannibal in Rome, cut off his supply lines in Spain and landed on Hannibal’s North African shores. Outflanked, Hannibal scrambled home to defeat with a weakened army.

Tactics absent strategy meant Carthage lay in ruin and a civilization lost. About how I feel every time I see us losing to Baylor, Kansas or OU.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. - Sun Tzu

Mack let the artificial borders of the state of Texas define all high school age talent on the planet and he allowed early dubious recruiting rankings and a willingness to say yes early to supersede standards.

Mack, isn’t that the wrong player? Maybe, but look at the time we’re making!

What does it mean to claim you signed a Top 5 QB in the state when the level of quarterbacking is down that year and there are ten kids in California better than your #1? It’s the noise before your own defeat.

Of course, we’ve also seen bad tactics, even with some strategic awareness. Mackovic understood that not every good player on the planet lives in the Lone Star State and we had Ricky Williams, Bryant Westbrook and Pat Fitzgerald to thank him for it. However, Mackovic using an in-home to explain to Gary Baxter why he wasn’t good enough to play at Texas was a particular highlight of clueless tactics. Mackovic RB coach Bucky Godbolt complimenting country boy TE recruit Dan Campbell on all of the beautiful deer that he saw while driving on to his property, only to be informed that those “deer” wore bells, were behind a low fence and are actually called goats is also solid work.

There’s also an aspect of want-to. Even the great DKR ran hot and cold on the recruiting trail. He didn’t like recruiting, preferred that the program speak for itself, but saw its necessity every time his talent diminished. He was strategically and tactically aware, but wooing 17 year olds was something he had to make himself do.
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Which brings us to Tom Herman. My West Point graduate, former Army Ranger father remarked to me that he thought Herman would have made a very good officer. I asked why. His (paraphrased) response was scrupulous attention to detail without being constrained by them; he pays mind to the little things, but still sees the big picture and knows what the little things serve. Seeing every level at the same time.

Make your bed, says Chancellor McRaven.

It’s still very early, but I’m seeing evidence of a real strategy underpinning our tactics.

1. Has the nuts and bolts of recruiting nailed down in mutually reinforcing ways.
2. Highly organized.
3. Knows what he wants and recruits to that objective, irrespective of other pressures.
4. Encourages staff to take risks and cast a wide net, but keeps them focused on why.
5. Defines standards and upholds them. The relative rankings in the state in any given year are meaningless. If local talent doesn’t meet standards, find talent that does.
6. Articulates a clearly defined offensive, defensive and special teams identity with enough flexibility to incorporate special talents.
7. Staff debate. Alignment is what the public sees outside of the meetings. Meetings are a free-for-all for frank discussion, constructive debate and disagreement.
8. We don’t shut down recruiting at a position when need is met. We actively seek back-up plans or upgrades.

It’s way early, but I think we may have a coach who gets it.