David Bailiff, now the coach at Rice, was in his first season as a head coach at Texas State in 2004. In the midst of the whirlwind that engulfs all new coaches, Bailiff faced a daily badgering from Craig Naivar, his defensive coordinator.
“He’d walk into my office and say, ‘Interview Tom Herman,’” Bailiff recalled this week.
“Every day, it was ‘interview Tom Herman.’ I didn’t know Tom. I brought him and he was remarkable in the interview – young, energetic, intelligent.
“You learn in this business to hire people and I could tell the players would love him and he knew what he was talking about as an offensive coordinator.”
A dozen years later, the 41-year-old Herman has reached the pinnacle of his profession.
After two seasons at Houston, he was hired last Saturday to replace Charlie Strong at Texas. At each of his stops along the way, Herman has impressed the players he coached and the coaches he worked with.
Herman spent two seasons in Austin as a graduate assistant under Mack Brown from 1999-2000. Current Texas State coach Everett Withers was also on the staff.
“Tom was a bright, young, up and coming, aspiring GA at Texas,” Withers said. “I thought he was one of those guys who you knew was going to be a really good coach one day. You can tell with guys that are sharp, they understand the game and understand how to build relationships with players.”
Herman’s first real “job” was as wide receivers-special teams coach at Sam Houston State, where he worked on the staff with Naivar and made an impression that led him to become Bailiff’s offensive coordinator.
“When he came on at Texas State, we huddled up and ran power, but he has proven wherever he has been to be able to morph his coaching style to the talent that he has,” Bailiff said. “He’s one of those guys who understands that you never stop learning and trying to get better.”
When Bailiff was hired at Rice in 2007, Herman followed. The players were shell-shocked at the departure of Todd Graham for Tulsa after he spent one season with the Owls.
“We were on our third staff in three seasons and it took some time for the players to trust the staff,” quarterback Chase Clement said. “To me, Herman proved himself to everyone in the offensive room when we basically changed how we were running the offense midway through the season.”
The Owls went from a huddle-up, run-oriented traditional approach to a no-huddle, spread-the-field attack with Clement making pre-snap reads. The new scheme debuted against – ironically – Houston. Much of the new style was based on concepts used by current Kansas coach David Beaty, who had been the Owls’ wide receivers coach on the previous staff.
“Herman didn’t have an ego, it wasn’t, “Hey, this is my offense,’” Clement said. “He understood what was the best fit for the personnel that we had.”
During Herman’s two seasons at Rice, the offense set over 40 records. In 2008, the Owls ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing offense, scoring offense and total offense. Two receivers had more than 1,300 yards receiving, James Casey had 111 catches (a single-season record for tight ends that still stands), and Clement was the Conference USA Most Outstanding Player.
Paul Rhoads was hired at Iowa State in 2009. One of his first moves was to lure Herman away from Rice. One of Herman’s first moves was to call his future quarterback.
“I get this phone call, totally out of the blue,” former Iowa State QB Austen Arnaud said. “It was coach Herman. He said he had watched a couple of my games and he liked how my skill set was going to fit in his offense. I thought, ‘This is a guy who wants to get players on his side.’ He wanted to me to get excited about the coaching change.”
Herman, in his time at Houston, became well known for his interactions with his players. He kisses each one of them on the cheek before games. He made a bet that if the Cougars won the American Athletic Conference title, he’d get a grill (they did and he did). When the locker room was not being kept clean, everyone ran wind sprints – including Herman and his assistant coaches.
“One thing I’d say about coach Herman is that he’s fair,” said former Iowa State fullback Jeff Woody, who scored the game-winning touchdown in the Cyclones’ double-overtime upset of No. 2 Oklahoma State in 2011. “If you’re doing your work and giving effort, he’ll praise you. If you’re not, he’s gonna jump your ass.”
As a redshirt freshman, Woody was on the field for a trick play the Cyclones ran against Oklahoma. He hadn’t practiced that play because he had been involved with special teams work. The play failed and after the game Herman “jumped Woody’s ass.” But after studying film and checking the practice film, Herman realized that he had put Woody in a bad situation. Herman apologized.
“He held himself to the same standard he holds his players,” Woody said. “He wants players to work on what makes them the best they can be. As athletes, we’ve been recruited so we’ve seen and heard B.S. That’s a turn-off when you’re trying to build a relationship of trust.
“Herman is fair to a fault.”
Arnaud ended his career as the Cyclones’ No. 2 all-time leading passer with 6,777 yards and 42 touchdown passes. He totaled 8,044 yards of total offense, which is also No. 2 in Iowa State history.
“Film study can be grinding and boring but Herman found a way to make it fun,” Arnaud said.
“It’s like he said in his news conference (Sunday), ‘Pressure is when you’re not prepared.’ He was always prepared and he would explain why and how the game plan was gonna work.
“As a quarterback, having your offensive coordinator so confident and certain and prepared with the game plan, it made playing the game on Saturday fun.”
Arnaud in particular remembers Herman using 22 checkers – 11 marked with an “O” and 11 with an “X” – to illustrate how the Cyclones’ pass protections would work.
“He used to say that the defense always had the chalk last and could make the last move before the snap,” Arnaud said. “But I think he always had us ready for that last defensive move. Now I think he’s evolved to the point that his offense might have the chalk last.”
After three seasons at Iowa State, Herman made the move that positioned him on the head coaching fast track. He was hired by Urban Meyer as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator in 2012 and in Year Three the Buckeyes won the first College Football Playoff as Herman maneuvered the Buckeyes’ offense with a third-string quarterback.
“Herman was a guy who you figured was going to go on to do big things,” Woody said. “I think his smartest move was going to Ohio State. Meyer has such a great reputation for developing head coaches. I think that was basically three years of graduate school for (Herman).”
Herman has a measured, certified intelligence – he’s a Mensa member, which requires an IQ among the top 2 percent in the world – but he also has the people skills that allow him to play the roles of friend, father figure, coach and program CEO.
Everyone on Herman’s staff at Houston coached in the state of Texas, and his Longhorns staff will be more of the same. At his introductory news conference, he said that high school coaches needed to regard UT as “their” college program.
“You go down the hallway, teachers are jumping out to take pictures with coach Herman,” Naivar said of Herman’s impact on recruiting in his two years running H-Town Takeover.
Bailiff, who can be credited with giving Herman his first coordinator job, remembers having to yell at his offensive coordinator at Rice. There’s this big ramp at Rice Stadium and the 30-something Herman liked to skateboard it.
“I kept telling him he was gonna get hurt, that he wasn’t in California or 20 years old anymore,” Bailiff said laughing. “But he was relating to the players. It’s not about Tom, it’s about the players. They’re what’s important to him.”