It isn’t as if Tom Herman didn’t have other job options when he graduated from California Lutheran University in 1997. He had a degree in business administration and had been working in TV and radio production in Los Angeles while in school. He also had taken — and passed — the test to become a member of Mensa because he thought it was something that might look good on a résumé someday.
“It did come in handy once,” Herman said Tuesday afternoon with a laugh. “When I was an assistant at Texas State, my boss, David Bailiff, was interviewed for the Rice job. He came back and said to me, ‘Hey, Tom, you still in that Mensa thing?’
“I said I was, and he said, ‘Good, because I told the Rice people that my offensive coordinator is so smart he’s in this Mensa thing, so he can really relate to the kind of smart kids who go to Rice.’ ”
It occurred to Herman that he hadn’t paid his Mensa dues for a while. “It had been three years,” he said. “Fortunately, I was able to go online and re-up so that I didn’t make a liar out of David.”
Bailiff got the job and took his really smart offensive coordinator with him. That was in 2007. Nine years later, Tom Herman doesn’t need his Mensa membership card or, for that matter, a detailed résumé. All he needs people to know is this: He’s in his second year as head coach at Houston with an overall record of 14-1, including a win over Florida State in last year’s Peach Bowl and a win to start this season over then-No. 3 Oklahoma.
Houston is one of the approximately 47 schools trying to join the Big 12. Perhaps Oklahoma — and Florida State for that matter — should apply for membership in Houston’s American Athletic Conference.
“All I know about this Big 12 thing for sure is that I have absolutely no control — zero — over whether it happens or doesn’t happen,” Herman said. “That’s for presidents to decide. It’s a waste of my time to give it even a minute of thought.”
One thing is certain: If Big 12 coaches were consulted, there is no way Houston would be admitted to the conference. No one wants to play the Cougars these days.
“That much is true,” Herman said, laughing again. “We’d have no chance. None. Zero.”
Why? Because the Cougars have become the Butler (circa 2010-11) of college football, the so-called little team that could. Since it’s not part of one of the Power Five conferences at the moment, Houston’s presence in the Peach Bowl meant it was a party-crasher. The big boys don’t mind letting one team from the Group of Five — the current euphemism for non-power conferences — come and play in their bowl games. But they aren’t supposed to humiliate one of the elite, in this case Florida State, by a 38-24 score. And they aren’t supposed to back it up by opening the next season with an equally impressive 33-23 win over Oklahoma, another iconic football school.
Like every football coach, Herman talks about his team’s culture. Herman’s culture is built on a fairly simple building block: “Belief that influences behavior influences results.”
“If your players believe in what you’re telling them, no matter how trivial the subject, no matter how important the subject, then it influences the way they behave, and that will influence results,” he said. “I’m not honestly sure if I read that somewhere or if I just thought of it, but it’s what I brought here, and, so far, the kids have bought in.”
Herman has worked for some big-time coaches: Mack Brown at Texas and Urban Meyer at Ohio State. He says he learned things about organizing a staff from Meyer and about recruiting in Texas from Brown. But it may well have been Bailiff, who he worked for at Texas State and then with those really smart kids at Rice, who influenced him the most.
“The kids who played for him loved him,” Herman said. “I think most athletes want to be told when they make a mistake. They don’t want to be coddled. They can deal with criticism, especially when it’s valid. David was never afraid to kick someone in the butt. But he also made sure to tell them when they’d done something good or improved on something. I think coaches who don’t coddle but praise players when they deserve it get the best results.”
There’s certainly no arguing with Herman and Houston’s results these days.
He and his players have people talking about the unthinkable: crashing the very private party that is the College Football Playoff.
Naturally, Herman wishes the subject wouldn’t come up.
“Look, I’d be an idiot if I thought my players don’t read what people are writing or hear what people are saying,” he said. “But I think they’re reminded often enough of the benefits of just worrying about this week. They saw the results last year. They heard nine months of hype leading to the Oklahoma game, and they didn’t buy into it. They just prepared the way they needed to, and even though we didn’t play a perfect game by any means, we played well enough to win.”
Because he’s only 41 and because of the remarkable short-term success he has had, Herman’s name is going to be connected to almost any big-time job that opens. That may explain why Hunter Yurachek, Houston’s athletic director, sent him a memo last season — an unofficial addendum to his contract — informing him that if Houston is admitted to a power conference while he’s the coach, Herman will receive a $5 million bonus.
“If it happens and it’s the best thing for the school and the city, then I’m all for it,” Herman said.
Of course he’s the father of three young children, so the bonus certainly wouldn’t hurt. For the moment though, he’s very happy to be making $3 million a year at Houston as the hottest young coach in the country. Does he ever wonder what might have happened had he pursued a career in TV or business?
“Every once in a while it occurs to me that my hours and lifestyle might be a little more sane and a little better for my family,” he said. “But overall, I’d have to say things have worked out pretty well.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.