2015 Fall Camp: All In

The word toughness has many definitions; strong and durable. Not easily broken. Capable of great endurance; sturdy; hardy. Not easily influenced, as a person; unyielding; stubborn; hardened. All of the above can describe in one way or another, what Tom Herman hopes to mold his team into, in this his first season as a head coach of the Houston Cougars

Herman spoke of this new mentality and gave a glimpse of his personality based off on questions I had Coogfans own, Alfred Mathews, ask the head man on media day before Fall camp began, “I told the team. I told the fans. I told the media. I would at least attempt to make this the toughest training camp in the history of college football. The foundation of our culture at the University of Houston is the way that we practice and the way that we prepare. There are no ‘gamers,’ there are no guys that flip switches. There are only guys that come out and work really really really really really hard every single day and are prepared by the best coaching staff in the country and Saturdays are a walk in the park in terms of mental and physical effort extended compared to practices.”

Herman continued preaching about this new mentality, “(Houston Rockets head man) Coach McHale talks about toughness and togetherness and when things get tough, because they will get tough; they’ll get really hard and get really bleak and adverse at times this season. The great teams, the championship teams come together. The average to below average teams splinter in times of toughness and adversity. So that’s an ongoing process that we’re teaching them to do every day. Will they? I’m not a soothsayer. I don’t have a crystal ball but they’re being taught that every day and that’s the expectation certainly.”

The players seem to be buying in as freshman linebacker Emeke Egbule hit a teammate so hard during a recent practice that he bent his facemask. Herman was quoted (by the Houston Chronicle) about the tackle, “We’re willing to hit people so hard we bend our own facemask. That’s the kind of culture we’re starting to build around here.”

Herman has learned in his 17 years of coaching as an assistant that there can be no hidden agendas from anyone in the program. The message has to be the same from the top (himself), down (to the assistants and players all the way down to the support staff). He learned this, along with many helpful psychological motivating ploys from his time at Ohio State under Urban Meyer the past three seasons. This is apparent when listening to his assistants speak. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando (also at Media day), “If you ask Coach Herman our plan to win is to play great defense. From a standpoint of the physical and mental toughness that’s the culture of this program right now and that’s what Coach Herman wants and he relays that message down to us. It’s a must for us (the assistants) to gather our units and do it as a team. The physical toughness part is how we’ve trained. I’m a true believer in that. You’re not going to have a physical football team if you don’t tackle every day. You just can’t talk about how you want to go out and be physical. You’ve got to do it, and hopefully through that training part of it and as we get into the opener, the fan base will see it.”

Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite with the same message earlier this spring via uhcougars.com, “We’re going to be physical. It’s a fight. It’s a four quarter fight. We’re going to be physical in the run game and the passing game. We’re going to run the football. That’s something that’s stood the test of time. We’ve seen many teams throw it all the time offensively and very seldom do they get above 7-5, 8-4 and compete for championships and that’s why we’re here.”

That last sentence is very telling in this talk culture change and toughness. The Houston fan base wants championships, which will eventually lead to a P5 conference invite (or that’s the plan anyway as there are no guarantees in life much this crazy game of college football.) Over the past three plus seasons (including the final game of the 2011 campaign), the Coogs won 21 games and lost 17 under the leadership of Tony Levine. Not at all bad, but not great considering whom he followed; Kevin Sumlin’s record was 35-17 in four seasons with his predecessor, Art Briles, leading the program out of the abyss of the previous decade to a 34-28 record in his five seasons (from 2003 through 07). While Sumlin and Briles may not have flashing winning percentages, they led the Coogs to upset wins from time to time and more importantly, relevancy and hope. During Sumlin’s final season (2011), ESPN ‘Gameday’ made it’s only appearance on campus and the team was ranked in the Top-10 for a major portion of the season. Under Levine, the team lost to the likes of Texas State (30-13 to open the 2012 season) and UTSA (27-7 last season to debut TDECU Stadium) in unforgiveable games in which the team look ill prepared to play. Add in last season’s 31-24 Homecoming loss to Tulane and it was obvious the team wasn’t prepared for the big time. In fact, under Levine the team lost all five games to ranked opponents and lost half of its 12 games to teams .500 or better, and also were just 2-10 in games decided by one possession.

With the firing of Levine and the hiring of last season Frank Broyles award winner as the best assistant coach in America, the main question is how does Herman lead this program back to national relevancy? “I think some of the pillars of our program should help that,” Herman said with a fiery tone. “Mental and physical toughness,” he continued, “is a key ingredient in winning close games. To know that you’re physically and mentally tougher than your opponent. That you’ve been trained harder and better than your opponent. And then unit pride. Within that comes accountability that you’re going to do everything you can, not for yourself, not for you own satisfaction, but for the joy and successes of the guy next to you.”

Herman’s theme on toughness sounds almost military-like in that he talks about brotherhood and accountability. In a recent article by the Chronicle, the head coach even showed video of a speech given by Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, at the University of Texas commencement ceremony from 2014. In this video the Adm. was quoted as saying, “Don’t ever, ever, ever ring the bell.” Herman then brought a brass bell and told his players if camp was too tough for them and they decided to ring it, he would sign their release papers. Competition is also key as Herman brought back the vaunted “circle drill,” in which two student-athletes try to drive one another out of a small circle. The competition teaches leverage, drive and a ‘never give up’ attitude. The winner gets to show off a WWE style championship belt. These themes are preached upon on a daily basis mainly by ‘Director for Football Sports Performance,’ Yancy McKnight, who coached with Herman at Rice during the 2007 and 08 seasons then followed him to Ames, Iowa where they spent the next three seasons together before Herman left for Columbus. McKnight stayed at Iowa State the last three seasons before being hired this past January.

As the coach who spends the most time with the players (NCAA rules only allows assistant coaches on the field contact at certain times during the off-season), McKnight is trusted with conveying Herman and his staff’s theme. This job is not taken lightly by the head coach, “I’d still be in Columbus, Ohio if Yancy had said he was not coming with me. He’s the best strength coach in America. He was at Rice with me. I joke around that we won 10 games with a bunch of doctors and lawyers running around out there because he maximized their genetic potential. Then we go to Iowa State where we’re not even close to bringing in the same type of recruits that the teams that we’re playing have, and we’re going out to Nebraska and beating them in Lincoln. We’re beating Texas in Austin. We’re beating Oklahoma State when they’re ranked second in the country and undefeated. None of that would have been possible without his development of those players. The most singularly important hire I made was getting him here. He’s my ‘culture coach.’ Not only does he teach guys how to run fast and lift a lot of weight, he teaches that mental toughness part too because he’s around them ten times more than we’re (the assistants) are allowed to be. He’s got to be completely aligned in everything we believe in and he is really the one who conveys that message on a day-to-day basis with our team.”

In an article in SI.com during spring ball, Andy Staples writes about how Herman and McKnight have taken motivational techniques from David Bailiff and Paul Rhoads, their former bosses at Rice and Iowa State along with how Herman and Applewhite (who met when Herman was a Texas graduate assistant and Applewhite was the Longhorns quarterback), have borrowed organizational philosophies from Mack Brown. As for the head coach and his coaching style going forward, “I’ll try to stay myself. I think that’s the key,” he told Staples. “Don’t be somebody you’re not. Take everything you learned from the Urban Meyers and the Mack Browns and the David Bailiffs and the Paul Rhoadses of the world. Take all the good stuff you learned from them, but don’t try to be them, either. Be you.”

Herman concluding the message on his theme on Media Day, “The mental side of this game is so much more important than the physical. We will be physically tough, that I can promise you. The mental toughness of this team is something we’re working on every day and will be my greatest source of pride; is when the clock hits zero and we beat somebody, and that coach says ‘you have a really mentally tough football team.’ That’s what makes me smile. Running into each other is the easy part. The hard part is struggling through adversity, playing for each other and preparing like a pro and like a champion. All those things take mental toughness and we’re constantly teaching our guys how to be mentally tough.”

Herman and his staff have proven themselves X’s & O’s wise. If they can get the players to “buy in” to his message of toughness and unity, the skies the limit for this program this season and into the future.

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