Max OlsonESPN Staff Writer
AUSTIN, Texas — Rip your heart out. Give it to your coaches.
Former Houston players remember that one fondly. It’s a favorite saying of Tom Herman’s — one he passionately demanded while breaking the Cougars down and building them back up in his first year as head coach.
If you do that, take hard coaching and give everything you’ve got, you’re going to love this guy. But with Herman, this is absolutely a non-negotiable agreement.
The way former Houston captain and offensive tackle Alex Cooper describes it, you’re either all-in or you should get out. His warning for the Texas players who are about to find out what Herman is all about: Get ready to get humbled.
“He definitely came in and dominated the room and dominated the entire team at UH from day one,” Cooper said.
This is the head-on collision Longhorns players are about to face in their first winter under Herman. They’ll have to fully embrace their new head coach’s blueprint and his proven methods for winning if they want to survive this offseason. His methods are unique, but he proved in his 22-4 run at Houston that they pay off.
“This program is going to be really hard,” Herman said. “Winning is hard.”
The veteran leaders of Herman’s 2015 Houston team absolutely love the man. They did not love what he and his staff put them through in their first offseason together, but they probably wouldn’t have gone 13-1 with a conference title and Peach Bowl victory in that first season without it.
The Herman era at Houston truly began with 4:30 a.m. winter workouts. Herman locked the locker room until his players earned it. He banned them from wearing UH apparel until they earned it. The workouts felt like pure grunt work, designed to weed out which players weren’t mentally tough enough to play for the new coaching staff. You did up-downs until you did them perfectly, and then until you did 30 perfectly.
Players were constantly reminded that their program is based on meritocracy. Everything is earned. In Herman’s world, you’re either a champion or a loser. Champions get cool stuff. Losers get nothing. You better learn to hate losing.
“I’ll be honest with you, it totally brainwashed me,” former Houston fullback Luke Stice said. “Winning is contagious. It makes you sick to your stomach to see things being done the wrong way.”
The champions in a morning of offseason drills got chicken and waffles and an omelet bar for breakfast. Safety Trevon Stewart said his group ended up with the losers’ breakfast one day: intentionally burnt biscuits and watered-down eggs.
“He made you feel real uncomfortable,” Stewart said. “You had to step outside your comfort zone.”
The identification of champions and losers didn’t stop there. Herman sorted his team into distinct groups. Gold players were trusted leaders who handled their business like grown men. You didn’t have to worry about them. Red players were still figuring it all out but on the right track. And blue players? You did not want to be a blue player.
This wasn’t just immature, young players — some seniors were blue guys in Herman’s first year. Blue players got daily 6 a.m. wake-up calls from their coaches. They got rigorous study hall schedules. Some were made to live on campus with a curfew. They had to be checked on at all times.
“It was nothing crazy. It was nothing we thought was ridiculous,” said former Houston captain Kenneth Farrow, now a running back for the San Diego Chargers. “Everything had a purpose, so it was no surprise we had the success we had.”
But there are good reasons for Herman’s tactics. To stay hydrated, players must carry a gallon of water around at all times. Get busted without your bottle, and you’re doing up-downs. But that’s why they never get soft-tissue injuries. Herman is so devoted to detail, that he once paused practice and gathered his team to angrily rip a receiver (“he was a blue guy,” Cooper said) who was wearing the wrong cleats. It wasn’t just a pair of shoes. It was insubordinate behavior.
“I would describe Coach Herman as a highly functioning addict. He’s addicted to winning,” Cooper said. “He knows nothing besides winning. Anything short of it is not acceptable.”
His abrasive approach was a shock to the system for many Houston players. There were times they got fed up early on in that first offseason. But then they figured out the true purpose of it all.
“He played these mind games with us,” Cooper said. “When he came in, he broke us down. He made us hate him. He took everything away from us. We joined together and we hated him. Nobody was happy. But from the hatred, we learned to bond.
“And you could almost see the light go on in our heads: ‘Aw man, he’s doing this on purpose.’ So that we can become closer. So that, when it’s fourth-and-1, I look at the guy next to me and say, ‘Damn, he put in that work with me all summer, so I know he’s got me.’ That hate, for whatever reason, it begins to turn into love.”
So much of Herman’s head coaching philosophy comes from working for Urban Meyer at Ohio State, but Rice coach David Bailiff saw these traits in him early on. During their four years working together at Texas State and Rice, Herman always knew how to strike the balance between playing good cop and bad cop.
“He’s one of those guys that really knows how to be demanding on people, but they still enjoy being around him,” Bailiff said.
How quickly he succeeds at Texas will depend on how quickly the Longhorns learn to love those demands. Three straight losing seasons is sufficient proof that the way they’ve been operating does not work. As at Houston, Herman takes over a group of experienced players eager to finally get big results. They have no choice but to trust their new coach’s plan.
As Farrow pointed out about Houston’s 2015 team: “The players who were out on the field the year before didn’t change. It was the same guys out there. The culture and standards he forced everybody to go by put us over the top.”
One concern that Herman’s former players bring up: Their 2015 team was built on a strong senior class that embraced his methods and affected change. Texas might not have many senior starters next year. The program’s best senior leader by far would have been All-American running back D’Onta Foreman, who entered the NFL draft. Texas needs new gold guys to step up.
Herman’s system and style are not for everybody, and that’s exactly the way he likes it. The veteran players who helped lead Herman’s first Houston team did offer this advice for the Longhorns: Buy in.
“They can’t be entitled,” Stewart said. “If you want to be successful and really turn your team, your program, your university and your city around, just buy in and listen to him.”