How star head coach Tom Herman's still developing his style, piece by piece by Bill Connelly and Steven Godfrey

Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
This first portion was originally published as part of Bill's 2015 "7 major coaches explain what goes into game week" collection, before Herman's first game as a head coach.


"They've got Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick as their defensive tackles, and we've got kids that don't belong in the Big 12 talent-wise. You sit around all week thinking, 'Oh my god, how are we going to gain a yard? When your X isn't as good as their O, that makes for late nights."

Herman is talking about one of the crowning moments at Iowa State.

"We actually won the damn thing."

It came in 2009, 16 days after Suh had broken Missouri's Blaine Gabbert in half, six weeks before the Huskers would lose the Big 12 Championship to Texas by a tick of the clock. Iowa State forced an absurd eight turnovers, four inside the ISU 5, and with a redshirt freshman backup in at quarterback, the Cyclones took down the Huskers in Lincoln, 9-7.

Herman was Paul Rhoads' coordinator, attempting to figure out how an outmanned offense could move. Six years later, following an apprenticeship with the Urban Meyer machine at Ohio State, he is preparing for his first season as a head coach.

Week-to-week preparation was mostly the same in Ames and Columbus, but "you didn't have to worry about personnel matchups near as much at Ohio State.

"I think the situation dictates, but when you have a talent discrepancy, you know you're probably not going to drive the field on 10-play drives. You know you're going to have to manufacture big plays."

In Lincoln, his offense scored its lone touchdown on a 47-yard pass from Tiller to Jake Williams. The connection created 46 percent of ISU's passing yards.

Herman's rise from Cal Lutheran receiver to head coach was nothing if not organic.

Tiny school graduate assistant, big-school G.A., small-school position coach. Small-school offensive coordinator, mid-major O.C., power-conference O.C., power-power O.C.

Following his graduation cum laude from CLU, he looked nearby.

"I wanted to be a Division I G.A., but I didn't know anybody. I was a Division III kid whose dad wasn't a coach."

His opportunity took him 1,400 miles southeast, from Thousand Oaks to Seguin, Texas. CLU defensive coordinator Bryan Marmion became Texas Lutheran's head coach and offered to bring him along.

"They hadn't had football there in 12 years. He offered me $5,000 and a cafeteria card for one meal a day, so I packed up my Honda Civic and went, sight unseen."

After a year, Herman landed a bigger gig while getting a master's degree in education.

"I learned football from [then-offensive coordinator] Greg Davis at the University of Texas," he says. "That was back in the I-formation days, and they were handing the ball to Ricky Williams 35 times a game in iso and power. That's what I believed in."

After two years, Herman landed his first full-time gig at age 26: receivers and special teams coach at Sam Houston State. Ron Randleman, while ending a nearly 25-year stretch as SHSU's head coach, introduced a variable into Herman's belief system.

"There, I had some experience with a shotgun spread offense."

That changed everything.

"You've gotta run the football. Have to, have to, have to. We're just going to do it from the shotgun, from spread formations. We're basically a two-back run team that just happens to run from the shotgun. We gain an extra advantage with the QB."

Herman spent four years at SHSU, with his stay punctuated by an 11-3 season and a trip to the I-AA semifinals. Those Bearkats were pass-heavy -- they averaged over 350 yards through the air  -- but Herman was meshing his Ricky Williams beliefs with a shotgun scheme.

In 2005, Texas State head coach David Bailiff brought Herman to San Marcos as coordinator. He found his quarterback template in Houston transfer Barrick Nealy, who threw for 2,875 yards and rushed for 1,057, manufacturing 34 touchdowns and leading the Bobcats to a I-AA semifinal.

"Once we got to TSU, and I inherited Nealy in 2005, we jumped all in with the shotgun spread."

Herman spent three seasons at Iowa State before Meyer put a new band together. One of the best identifiers of talent in the country, the two-time national title-winner liked what he saw in the ISU coordinator.

Meyer had long been enamored with a power-spread approach, employing dual-threat quarterbacks from Bowling Green (Josh Harris) to Utah (Alex Smith) to Florida (Tim Tebow). Herman was smart and charismatic, and Meyer took him under his significant wing.

"We got surprised a lot at Ohio State. I don't know if it's because we were really good and people felt like they had to do something different. At Iowa State, not a lot. What you saw on film is what you got."

Herman's play-calling came together throughout his stops, brick by brick. As other coaches will tell you, he believes Saturday comes down to who, not what.

"I think if you're down, or if you're in a tight game, a lot of it is what players need to touch the ball and how we get it to them. You think about players and not plays."

Football isn't Tecmo Bowl, where there's a perfect defensive call for whatever the offense runs. Herman's offense intends to have built-in answers for whatever the defense tries.

"Offensive coaches will sometimes say, 'They had a better call than you,'" something Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop tries to exploit. "We don't subscribe to that. Every call we make has answers built in. Some are better than others, but we've got answers. We never go into a game, draw a play, or run any play that we're crossing our fingers about, hoping the defense doesn't make this other call."

You're going to be prepared for most of what the opponent does. And the opponent only impacts so much of the game plan anyway.

"You're going to do what you do, if you're any good. You're not going to invent stuff.

"Monday is a time to say, 'OK, who are they? What is their personality? What do they believe in? Big blitz team? Cover-4? Man to man?'"

And then they dial in.

"When they play base defense in this formation, we like plays X, Y, and Z.' We'll all agree on that. 'Now, are X, Y, and Z still good if they blitz? And if no, then what is our answer? Are we gonna throw a bubble screen? What happens if they're not in their base defense? Check out of it? Run it? Throw hot?' Et cetera."

The biggest change since becoming a head coach is that he's not just in charge of the offense. He's had to determine what a Herman defense should be.

"I want great teachers [on defense]. We've got to be great tacklers. I wanted a very sound base defense.

"I wanted to base out of a 3-4, because I knew it was always a big challenge for me game-planning against teams that were really good out of that.

"But I wanted to have a guy who knew how to pressure people and knew the strengths and weaknesses of different blitzes. I've gotta tell you, I think I hit a home run in getting Todd Orlando."

A former coordinator at UConn and FIU, Orlando spent the last two seasons maintaining one of the nation's best mid-major defenses -- probably the best mid-major 3-4 -- at Utah State. An Ohio State Lite offense merged with a Utah State-style defense can win games at TDECU Stadium.

When Meyer announced his hire of Herman in 2012, he said, "I wanted to have a guy that's going to not have an ego, has a good understanding of our offense and be extremely intelligent to learn what we do and adapt it to what he does."

"I had never met Urban before he hired me," says Herman, "but he's the strongest influence I've had. Just the last three years, the things we were able to accomplish there. From a game-planning standpoint, I didn't change much, but from Urban I learned how to be a head coach.

"I've had an unbelievable string of luck. Greg Davis, Ron Randleman, David Bailiff, Paul Rhoads, Urban Meyer. I would be remiss if I didn't mention all of them as influences."


Houston would go on to win the American and the Peach Bowl in Herman's first season. That's despite Herman figuring so much out on the fly, as he detailed to Steven Godfrey in October:

Herman hadn't coached in a weeknight game since he was an assistant at Rice in 2008. Houston goes full-pads once a week, but in a short window to prep for Thursday night games, Herman is doubting his approach after SMU scored 14 points in the first quarter and carried a tie game almost to halftime.

"I called 10 different guys to ask how they prepared. Thing is, you get 10 different answers. We played a 90-play game both offensively and defensively against Tulsa at 11 a.m. Saturday, then we're out there on Sunday practicing in pads again. I don't know; I gotta figure it out. To take the pads off our guys ... it's been 10 months of telling them how important prepping with a physical mentality for a game week is. You don't want to speak out of both sides of your mouth."

At 6 a.m. in an airport, Herman segues a conversation about efficient line play to why it's important to have the facility floors professionally cleaned at least every other week.

"I think to the credit of the senior staff now, they really get it. In the city of Houston, you never know when a five-star recruit could walk in the door. The American Athletic Conference won't like me saying this, but my new mantra is, what if Bob Bowlsby stopped by, or Mike Slive? Would we be ready, would we be proud? At that point, it's too late to clean the carpets."


After his debut season, the rising star head coach met with Bill and Godfrey this August to talk about the keys to winning an average game, starting below at 17:25:

"We only have four goals on our plan to win," Herman said. Here they are.

Goal 1: Play great defense

"That is everybody on the team," he said. "Offense, your job is to go out, take the ball, protect the football, make two first downs and then we'll jog out the best punt team in America. We'll punt it, 44-yard net punt, we'll jog out the best defense in America, hold ‘em to three-and-out and flip the field and go do it again. You can't win championships without playing great defense."

He added later, "We play great defense with special teams and offense as much as we do with offense."

Goal 2: Win the kicking game

"We need to be dominant in the field position battles, basically." Herman said.

Houston was fifth in the country in average defensive field position last year, with opponents taking the ball at their own 26-yard line. That was despite Houston being 43rd in drive efficiency, only averaging 40 yards per punt and having a relatively average placekicking game.

Goal 3: Win the turnover battle

"If you win the turnover battle, you're gonna win more than you lose — and quite a bit more than you lose," he said.

Goal 4: Score touchdowns in the red zone

"We don't kick field goals," Herman said. "We go for it on fourth down a bunch in the red zone, because the stats will tell you that the chance to get seven is worth the reward of just three, especially when you've got a good defense."

Herman's team scored 5.2 points per scoring opportunity last year, 10th-best in the country. That's defined by Connelly as any drive in which a team gets a first down inside the opponent's 40-yard line.

Fourth down conversion tries are risky, but Herman said his defensive assistants don't fuss about his offense trying them.

"You'd be surprised how many staffs I've been on or seen where the head coach will tell the offensive coordinator to go for it on fourth and 4 or from the 11, and they don't get it," Herman said, "and the defensive coordinator's over there cussin' 'em out."

The Cougars have what Herman called an "aligned staff," and if Greg Ward Jr. and the offense give the ball up going for a touchdown, his defensive assistants don't mind.

Herman's staff also charts out "explosive plays," which he classifies as passes of 16-plus yards and runs of 12-plus yards. The Cougars' were the 42nd-most explosive offense in the country last year, according to Connelly's IsoPPP metric.

"We call it the 'double positive' in our program," he said. If you win the turnover battle and the explosive play battle in the same game, you win it 98 percent of the time. Now, can you win it with only winning one and losing one? Sure, but if you lose both of ‘em, you only win 2 percent of the games where that occurrence happens."


Oh, and he helped his Cougars, who rank No. 15 in the preseason AP Top 25 ahead of a game with No. 3 Oklahoma, dominate Houston Rap Trivia.