When LSU backed off firing Les Miles last November, it simply prolonged a festering problem, namely that it had a coach who was turning A+ talent into B+ results. LSU realized its error after the Tigers started 2-2 and exhibited the same issues that have plagued LSU for years.
The timing of the firing had at least something to do with Miles’ Rasputin-like ability to avoid the grave ...
Word is #LSU made the move now bc there was a feeling Les Miles might temporarily save his job again & program would keep going in circles.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) September 25, 2016
... but also surely with the fact that there is going to be a race for Tom Herman, head coach of the Peach Bowl champion and current AP No. 6 Houston Cougars. (Herman’s denied reports that he’s already in touch with LSU.)
LSU should want to get a leg up on the other major programs who are likely to be in the market for a new coach. Auburn, Texas, and USC are all potential players in the Herman market, and even Notre Dame could be in need of a new head coach, if Brian Kelly were to leave.
While no coaching prospect is certain to succeed, Herman is the best prospect since Urban Meyer was going unbeaten at Utah. Assuming LSU has already identified Herman as its first target and would be willing to wait through Houston making the Playoff if need be, it was right to do what Jeremy Foley did in 2004 to land Meyer: Axe an underperforming coach early in the season, so as to be first in the market.
Here is why Herman is unique.
1. He combines both of the profiles for a top coaching candidate.
Broadly speaking, there are two profiles for major hires.
The first is someone who won on a lower level, like Meyer, Jim Tressel, Chris Petersen, Justin Fuente, or Hugh Freeze.
The second is a championship-grade coordinator, like Jimbo Fisher, Bob Stoops, or Mark Richt.
Herman is fairly unique in that he has both credentials. He understands what it's like to coach at a major program, based on his time at Ohio State; he understands what it's like to build a program, like what he's doing at Houston.
2. His teams are great on his side of the ball without being weak on the other.
There are some coaches who are great at scheming on one side of the ball. There are others who are good at CEO functions. Herman is both.
His offenses have been consistently terrific, both as a coordinator and then as a head coach, but he has also shown in a year and a third at Houston that he is not just an offensive schemer who wins shootouts.
"I want great teachers [on defense],” he told Bill Connelly before the 2015 season. “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."
Houston’s defenses are legitimately good, as evidenced by the fact that Houston finished eighth nationally in run defense in 2015 and is first in 2016. Herman’s Houston teams have allowed 93 yards rushing per game at 2.87 yards per carry.
An offensive-minded coach who neglects defense would not have had teams that shut down Dalvin Cook and then Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon in consecutive games. Likewise, an offense-only coach wouldn’t have a Group of 5 team eighth in Defensive S&P+, which is where the Cougars sit today.
3. He's an excellent recruiter.
Some coaches win on a lower level based on being able to scheme against teams with similar talent, but then can't take advantage of moving to a major power because they struggle to recruit at a high level.
Herman had a reputation as one of Ohio State's ace recruiters when he was in Columbus, and now he's making inroads at Houston. For instance, five-star freshman defensive lineman Ed Oliver might be the best recruit signed by a Group of 5 team during the recruiting rankings era.
Herman is universally lauded for his ability to get along with and relate to players, and this trait shows.
4. He's geographically diverse.
One might worry about hiring Chip Kelly in the SEC because Kelly has never coached anywhere other than the Northeast and Pacific Coast. The reverse would have been true for a Pac-12 team interested in Richt.
One would not have the same concerns with Herman. He went to college on the West Coast and has then coached in Texas and the Midwest. Maybe you'd have a few concerns if you hired him to coach in Georgia or Florida, because those programs would be far from where he's been before, but like Urban, he's been all over the country.
And his ties in East Texas should be especially attractive to LSU, as that region supplements the Tigers’ already bountiful in-state recruiting.
5. He coaches a style that gives fits to Nick Saban (and everyone else).
Compare Alabama's defensive performances in the semifinal and final of the Playoff last year: The Tide shutout pro-style Michigan State, then gave up 40 points (and had to resort to an onside kick) against Clemson and Deshaun Watson.
And that's before you get to the fact that Herman's offense went wild against Bama in the Playoff the year before, or the fact that Bama has struggled against the Ole Miss offense for the past three seasons and previously had a hard time with Auburn when Nick Marshall was under center.
This is not a unique problem for Alabama. Everyone struggles against an offense that has a quarterback proficient at both running and throwing.
But if you're LSU, Herman's ability to coach the run-based spread comes with the potential of being able to beat the one team that stands between you and the division title. The facts that LSU already has dual-threat quarterbacks on the roster and its fans have been driven crazy for years by offenses that did not take advantage of their quarterbacks’ potential are just icing on the cake.
And now for the challenge: Herman’s position is unique.
Aside from his outstanding credentials, the most interesting aspect of the Herman Derby is that he holds more leverage than any candidate in recent memory. Herman might be the key to Houston getting into the Big 12, a move that would mean tens of millions of dollars in TV revenue for his current school. Herman already gets a $5 million bonus if the Cougars move to the Big 12.
There's a reasonable argument for Herman staying at Houston if (to use a soccer analogy) the program achieves promotion from the second division to the first. That promotion has potential value for both Houston and the Big 12, a league that has a strong chance of missing the Playoff for the second time in three years and currently sits last among the five power conferences. Houston has a strong incentive to shell out millions to keep Herman; the Big 12 has some incentive to make those millions available to Houston.
All this means LSU would be bidding on a candidate who is anything but the flavor of the month. Herman has substantial leverage, more so than the average hot commodity. He doesn’t need to move, his employer will likely offer him a large raise, and there are going to be other suitors.
The courtship of Herman will take on aspects of NBA teams chasing LeBron James or Kevin Durant. LSU paying what it would take to secure Herman would be unseemly, at a time when the state government is going through a budget crisis. However, if there are private donors willing to meet Herman’s terms, he’d likely be a successful investment.