Houston head coach Tom Herman would love to talk to you about the undefeated Cougars and recruiting to the city. He will meet you in an empty barbecue restaurant outside the security line of Hobby Airport at 5:45 a.m. the morning after a UH night game, working on two hours' sleep.
"Too much adrenaline, maybe too much caffeine. Probably got to sleep around 2, 2:30?" he says, ordering a water instead of coffee.
Seven hours ago, Houston (now 5-0, 2-0 in the AAC) beat SMU, 49-28. The Cougar offense is 11th nationally in yards per play (6.96) and fifth nationally in scoring (46.4 points per game). Against the Mustangs, UH quarterback Greg Ward Jr. ran for four touchdowns, tying him with LSU’s Leonard Fournette for the national lead entering Saturday.
In one hour, Herman will take a Southwest flight to Dallas and visit three high schools by himself, meet up with defensive line and assistant head coach Oscar Giles to visit four more, go to a game, then catch the last flight leaving Dallas home to Houston.
As the weekend progresses, Herman's name will rise even further as a go-to candidate for any number of potentially open jobs. The former Ohio State offensive coordinator is sorely missed by fans of the defending national champions, who've struggled to show the dominance Ward has unleashed. Plug the name "Tom Herman" into Twitter, and he's the pick for Maryland, Miami, Texas and now USC.
This is despite the fact he's a morning removed from his fifth game as a head coach.
He's working out the non-football intricacies in real time.
"We played poorly on defense early in the game. If we’re going to live in this AAC world and play on Thursday nights, me and the strength staff need to really examine how we prepared for the week and see if we had anything to do with that poor play."
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."
Thursday night has become a sweet spot for the ever-transitioning AAC.
Two weeks ago, undefeated Memphis beat Cincinnati in a shootout, and then the Bearcats beat the Miami Hurricanes the following week. Comissioner Mike Aresco, who was at TDECU Stadium, wants to revamp the conference's image as a stepchild to the Power 5 with a twofold plan: national exposure in conference play, and winning as many games as possible against the powers.
"We ought to be designated a P5 for quality. Generally, our league can compare favorably with a good part of the P5 anyway. It just does. When Rutgers was in our league, a lot of our teams finished ahead of them regularly," Aresco said.
"When we started two years ago [as a new conference from the Big East's aftermath], I thought we had good teams, but we didn’t necessarily have a flagship program, because people didn’t really know how good UCF was."
With realignment momentarily stable, the AAC doesn't need saving. But it needs defining. Houston might provide a bona fide frontrunner, that flagship capable of sweeping quality conference foes to then go upset a power program in a major bowl, redefining the perception of the league. In Houston, the AAC might have a Boise State inside a major media market and the state of Texas. If Aresco can help it, Herman will be trying to manage a midweek schedule as much as possible.
"We all understand how important these [weeknight] games are. We get Navy at the end of the year on a Friday. Thanks, commissioner," Herman jokes.
The AAC is enjoying a small renaissance, with unbeaten Houston, Memphis, Navy and Temple at the forefront to win the non-power bid to a major New Year's bowl. In a year's time, Aresco's PR push has benefitted from three major hires: Clemson OC Chad Morris to SMU, Baylor OC Phillip Montgomery to Tulsa and Herman. Herman has paid off immediately, working less of a wholesale rebuild of Tony Levine's roster and more of a psychological overhaul.
"I don't mean to disparage our school by saying this, but we won't ever have the budget of an Ohio State."
"So it's the little things," Herman says. "Treating kids first-class. I feel like I'm reminding people in the athletic department all the time that we're in the sales business. We're selling high school recruits on what we have to offer and the current players on how we're going to treat them. I think somewhere along the line, that got lost at the University of Houston, and it became just a place to go to work."
Then there's the fan base. UH competed Thursday with both an Astros playoff game and a Texans home game. When the NFL unveiled its Thursday slate, there was an attempt to swap UH-SMU with another AAC game to avoid the market saturation. It didn't happen, but the late-arriving crowd (the unanimous sentiment is congestion, not fan apathy, hurts a 6 p.m. kickoff in one of America's worst traffic cities) filled in admirably by the second quarter.
"I think at a job like this, in a huge city like this, if you look at the American Athletic Conference, you're talking about teams that are in cities," Herman says. "We're basically all city schools. I think you have to come in part coach, part carnival barker. 'Come one, come all, come see the main event.'"
"The [amount of publicity] wasn't the most surprising part of being a head coach, but it might be the most exhausting."
An offensive line already with one season-ending injury lost three starters Thursday, with only one (left tackle Marcus Oliver) expected to return. Houston has nine healthy offensive linemen on scholarship, and that includes a JUCO transfer who enrolled the first week of the fall semester.
"I mean, holy ... I've never seen anything like it. We were thin before and very green. We had seniors, but our O-line coach is their fifth in five years," Herman said.
What's differentiated Herman from his rookie head coaching peers early on is the influence of his old boss, Urban Meyer, who has an obsessive, macro approach to micro issues. Offensive line thin? Gotta recruit more depth. Need to recruit better on a budget? Gotta make sure the entire experience is above and beyond.
And that's how, 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."