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ARLINGTON — Even after a 10-win season, a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia, and a quarterback that proclaimed “We’re back!” Texas coach Tom Herman remains laser-focused on the bigger picture; a national championship. The biggest jump in his third season on the Forty Acres is going from a coach-led team to a player-led program.
It’s said coaches lead good teams, but players lead winning teams. In his first two seasons, Herman and his staff began installing that mindset, hoping the seeds planted in 2017 would be ready to bloom in 2019 and beyond. Herman isn’t worried about people taking shots at his quarterback, Sam Ehlinger, who graces the cover of at least seven major college football magazines and wears the conference’s preseason offensive player of the year crown. Herman just wants that structure he brought from Houston in November 2016 to stay firmly in place. Brandon Jones might be a good example.
“We haven’t stopped,” said Herman after Jones told a story of how he gets up at 3:15 a.m. and drinks two bottles of water in preparation of the hydration test. “I mean we always have. When coach McKnight says, ‘you know, (Herman) is like a brick wall. You can keep banging your head against it, but you’re the one that’s going to get bloody,’ you know and that’s kind of kind of how we are. This is this what we do around here and we don’t take days off.”
That 1-0 mentality has become the mantra for this program and the players are starting to embody their head coach.
“It’s fourth and inches every time you walk in the doors of that building,” Herman explained. “There’s no, ‘I was almost hydrated.’ That means you were dehydrated and we live in a zero-sum business right? It’s like sales. ‘Well, I almost made my quota’, means you didn’t make your quota. ‘You know, well, we almost won the game or we should have won the game.’ You know what that means? You didn’t win the game, so, I mean, it’s literally in everything we do. It’s very evaluation friendly. You either did it or you didn’t. That’s it.”
“There’s no, as coach (Mack) Brown used to say, ‘there’s no partially pregnant,’ it doesn’t exist, and so it is exhausting as coaches. To be that thorough on your details and consistent with your follow-through of them but it is also necessary. It’s why there’s only one national champion at the at the end of the season and why there’s only been a few in the past decade.”
Call it culture, alignment, or any of the other phrases used throughout the program. It’s another part of Herman’s process. So is filtering out all of the unnecessary distractions of playing football in Austin. We know the outside noise is something this staff completely disregards, but does it surprise Herman at all to see people try to find reasons to take shots at his QB?
“It’s irrelevant,” Herman said. “Those comments, I mean I’d be lying to you if I didn’t hear him, but I don’t listen. You know, not to get too philosophical on you, but it’s part of the teaching of blocking out the noise. I think again, I’d be oblivious to if I told you ‘well, they can just turn their phones off and not see anything and not hear anything.’ But any animal with ears can hear. It is a unique human condition to choose to listen. It’s very different right? I can hear all the ambient noise even right here, right now, and all of that but what I’m listening to is your question, right? So it’s one thing to scroll your timeline on Twitter or whatever they call it and flip it. It’s another to make a conscious decision to listen to it and internalize it and so we spend a lot of time teaching our guys that listening is a choice. That you’re in control of that.”
“So at the end of the day, I could care. I don’t care Sam doesn’t care. You know, I mean, it’s irrelevant to how we’re going to play this season. It’s again, I think it’s really it’s kind of like some asked me about the Horns down. I mean, it’s flattering to know that we’re on people’s mind. Even when in the off-season, you know, that people, you know, even our rivals want to talk about Texas football, you know, that’s it’s flattering.”
Herman loves the fire in his junior signal-caller, Sam Ehlinger. Even when they get heated on the headsets during a game. But it gives ownership to the guy steering the ship on the field.
“There’s a few (conversations) that I want to keep private but there’s one that sticks out,” said Herman. “I can’t remember what game it was that we had a pretty good lead, you know, not obviously every game was close. Calvin Anderson played every offensive snap for us except one when his shoe came off. Think about that. That’s a 300-pound man that played 1,200+ plays and some odd snaps because we never put our backups in, because we couldn’t and so I think we get a lead by 10 or 17 or something like that. (Sam) gets on the headset and he was feeling upset. I think he had something to do with that previous score and he goes, you know, ‘are we going to keep the foot on the gas or we going to get all conservative again?'”
“I said, ‘Hey, listen here. You’ll play what I call.’ So then we hug when it’s over and you know it, but again, I want them to be like that. I want him to feel like he can express himself to us because you know, how else do you know what they’re thinking?”
Another change in Herman’s regime is sending more guys to the NFL, something that helps the university in many ways, especially recruiting.
“It comes up a lot,” said Herman about how important it is in recruitments. “You know, we’re very proud of our guys that got drafted this year and those that the signed as priority free agents. But there’s no debate at Texas that we’ve got to do more than that. There’s a lot of factors that factor into that; one is recruiting and recruiting talent, but it must be the right talent that’s going to work and want to be developed. Secondly, that’s development by us and coach McKnight, and third, that’s the one drive and desire of the young men (getting recruited).”
“My standard answer to any student athlete or any parent is listen, let’s not blame our staff for the last decade of Texas football before we got there. That’s not fair. You know, we take a lot of pride in what we’ve done in a very short period of time when it comes to development, you know, where the Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year (Malik Jefferson) at linebacker with one year under Todd Orlando after I believe his sophomore year. And you know Charles Omenihu worked his tail off in our program and went from a role player to a starter as a junior, to the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year in our conference. The development is there, we’ve got to recruit and continue to recruit the right kind of guys that have the measurables, the intangibles to be high-round draft picks and I think we’re doing a pretty good job of that thus far.”
Part of that comes from who UT signs. Going into his third full cycle in 2020, the young guys Herman has landed in Austin are learning and teaching.
“When leaders are correcting mistakes by other players in practice, weight room, and workouts before the coaches have to, that’s pretty cool,” said Herman.