AUSTIN — They were too outrageously young to realize how outrageously young they were. They entered Texas from the west, opposite of how much of American history entered Texas. They stayed in an El Paso motel with a double-digit price.
Then in that February of 1998, the two Californians — a 22-year-old Tom Herman and his future wife, Michelle — merged again onto eastbound Interstate 10 and into the tortilla-colored Texan outback, and the lasting memories would include the little funnels of red dust outside and a hush in the white two-door Honda Civic.
“El Paso comma Texas,” Herman said in his posh Texas football office last week. “But then you’re driving, and you’re driving, and there are [expletive] tumbleweeds, and I saw the little dust, not tornadoes, but the little, you know, when the dust kicks up and it starts spinning around in the sky. And I’m driving on I-10, and you’re out in the middle, you know, stop for gas in Fort Stockton, Texas, which is in the middle of nowhere. And there were times when she and I were looking at each other like, ‘If this is what Texas looks like, this is awful.’ ”
Before we get to the electric Herman’s bid to revive the monster Texas football program that has gone an undesired 46-42 since 2010, let’s acknowledge what Herman already represents. With his seventh Texan job at six Texas universities across two decades, and arguably the biggest Texan job of all the Texan jobs, he’s a beacon in a vast country with its rarefied interstate system, with its thousands of dreamers, streaming toward the unknown and the much-hoped.
Some of them might aim for Seguin (pop. 28,000-ish), in central Texas, and for $5,000 a year, although that might seem extreme. That’s an hour-and-change south of Austin, well into Texas’s Hill Country with its prevailing greenness from its many leaves to its prickly-pear cacti. That’s where a crazy-smart coach with no family connections to football headed in February 1998, with one of those cargo carriers atop his Civic and a dream of a teammate-for-life who would take her MBA back to her finance job in Los Angeles and help support him.
He also had all the attributes described by Scott Squires, his college coach at Cal Lutheran, whose lingering observations about his former wide receiver include, “He’s got that charisma thing,” and, “Guys wanted to gravitate toward him,” and, “He was fun, he was funny,” and, “I have never worried about him ever making it anywhere in football.”
Nineteen years on, here’s a Texas football luncheon in the basketball arena, the Hades of August outside, and here’s Herman telling the lunchers he can’t believe it’s him at the lectern and Longhorns dignitaries such as Edith Royal, widow of Darrell Royal, in the audience. (A standing ovation occurred just for her.)
Nineteen years on, play-by-play man Craig Way tells the audience, “There is an electricity. There is an excitement. This vibe. This energy,” all referring to a 42-year-old Herman, coordinator of Ohio State’s 2014 offense that withstood two huge injuries and helped the Buckeyes win a national championship with their third quarterback, head coach for two heady years at Houston. Nineteen years on, they’re all talking about how the players have spent camp sleeping at camp — literally at camp, on mattresses in hallways.
Nineteen years ago, Herman had one job offer: to coach wide receivers for Bryan Marmion, who had just moved from Cal Lutheran to Texas Lutheran, which hadn’t had football in 12 years. Off went Herman and Michelle, joining I-10 in Los Angeles. They had met early on at UC Davis, the first college for each. Briefly, he had missed her and jettisoned football to be “Joe Student,” until they decided they could proceed with both each other and football. They reached Flagstaff, Ariz., aimed to see the Grand Canyon, then failed to see the Grand Canyon as it rudely fogged up and closed for the day. Herman, who always took “my future interests very seriously,” had eschewed spring breaks, had done internships and jobs, had done public address for Cal Lutheran basketball, volleyball and baseball, had done a campus-radio show, had interned at a sports-talk show in Los Angeles, had been a “highlight coordinator” for “NFL on Fox.” They dined in Phoenix, stayed in El Paso, saw the red dust.
They calmed down in the green and reached Seguin (pronounced se-GEEN), a campus of several blocks with a steeple rising amid — still in 2017, one of those charmingly tidy Texas fields with hills behind each end zone and a sign on visiting bleachers noting RESTROOMS LOCATED IN BULLDOG CONCESSIONS ON HOME SIDE.
“When I got to Seguin, funny story, I actually had such little money that, I can’t believe I’m telling you this, I bought a used mattress, fifty bucks,” Herman said. “And it was used. So I guess what truckers do is they buy these twin mattresses, keep them in plastic, sleep on them for a few months in their cabs, and then when they get tired of them, they sell them back, and then somebody sells them again. ‘Hey, that’s used, but it’s still in the plastic!’ So I got one of those for, like, fifty bucks or something like that. Got my apartment furniture from the housing there at Texas Lutheran. They had surplus desks and dressers and stuff that they’re going to throw away or give away.”
A year later, Herman found himself in Austin as a graduate assistant, “overwhelmed by the enormity of this place,” for a team with Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, and at least once, he called up Squires and reported feeling overmatched. He failed to assume football could be a lifelong pursuit for him and so did not fail to get his master’s degree.
“I tell people I lived in Austin for two years and really didn’t do a whole lot, experience the city,” he said. “‘Oh, this is your second time back!’ I’m like, ‘I lived in the damned field house for a semester. I’d go home at midnight and come in at 5:30, but I wanted so badly to impress Coach [Mack Brown], Coach Greg Davis, the offensive coordinator at the time. I wanted to be the best G.A. they ever had.’”
Then, of course: Sam Houston State, Texas State, Rice (as offensive coordinator), Iowa State (as impressive offensive coordinator), Ohio State (as really impressive offensive coordinator), Houston and now this. Here in this unreal place that can eat up a coach, he has a little system designed to prevent detachment from reality. He has told three people — his football “chief of staff,” Fernando Lovo, and the strength coach, Yancy McKnight, and Michelle — that if they see him changing, they must say so straightaway. It dovetails with his capacity, while at Ohio State, to show the introspective guts to state humbly, readily and repeatedly that Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster outfoxed him that night of the upset in Columbus in September 2014. (It cost him sleep.)
“I trust that those three people in my life are never going to be yes men,” he said. After all, all three joined him for the Houston merriment of recent years, the clobbering of Florida State in the Peach Bowl. “It just seemed like the natural thing to do: Here’s the pitfall of a certain place. Here’s what I can do to help avoid that pitfall. I’m going to do that. I’m going to implement that, rather than being so arrogant as to ride off blindly into that pitfall.”
A man who once rode off semi-blindly to Seguin said this in his office as Texas football coach and all the commotion that entails, enough to make you think of American interstates out there, with all the dreamers driving along, maybe even in a two-door with their luggage atop.
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