“The thing that stood out about Tom right away was how closely he listened,” Del Conte said. “Then you come to find out the guy is in MENSA and had some ridiculous MENSA score - like 170.
“So he had a legitimate claim to being the smartest guy in any room he was in. But you’d never know it, because he was always asking questions and taking meticulous notes. He was always looking for new and better ways to do things.”
After Rice went 10-3 with a win over Western Michigan in the Texas Bowl in 2008, Herman sought out Del Conte to talk about an opportunity he had to join Paul Rhoads’ staff at Iowa State as Rhoads took over for Gene Chizik (who had gone 2-10 in 2008 but somehow landed the Auburn head-coaching job).
“I asked him, ‘Now, why would you want to make that move?’ And he said, ‘Because it will give me a chance to start competing on the biggest stage.’
“Tom was always looking to be the best coach he could possibly be.”
In Herman’s first year as OC under Rhoads at Iowa State, the Cyclones went 7-6 and beat Tim Brewster's Minnesota team in the Insight Bowl. Iowa State went 5-7 in 2010 but beat Texas, 28-21, on a fateful day in Austin that season.
In 2011, Iowa State beat rival Iowa 44-41 in triple OT, went to Lubbock and waxed then-No. 22 Texas Tech 41-7 and took down then-No. 2 Oklahoma State 37-31 in 2OT before earning a trip to another bowl game (Pinstripe).
That was enough for Urban Meyer to take a chance on Herman as his offensive coordinator and QB coach when he returned to coaching at Ohio State in 2012.
That and a recommendation from Will Muschamp - of all people. A source close to Meyer said he picked the brain of Muschamp about offensive coordinators he’d faced who had impressed him, and Muschamp mentioned Herman after facing him at Texas against Iowa State in UT’s 28-21 loss in 2010.
“That recommendation by Muschamp was not insignificant in Urban’s mind,” the source said.
In Herman’s three seasons at Ohio State, the Buckeyes went 12-0 (but were ineligible for the Big Ten title game and bowl bid because of NCAA sanctions), 11-2 and 14-1 - winning the national title in 2014.
“I told Tommy, the biggest regret of my coaching career was not making him my offensive coordinator at Minnesota,” said Florida State TE coach Tim Brewster, who was fired after four seasons as the head coach of the Golden Gophers (2007-10).
Brewster added, “I also told Tommy, ‘The best thing that ever happened to you was me not making you my offensive coordinator at Minnesota.’”
A week after being named the head coach at Texas, Herman tweeted out a picture of his business card as a graduate assistant coach at Texas (1999-2000) next to his business card now as the Longhorns' head coach with a message, "To all the GAs out there grinding away, keep working hard. Dreams can come true."
No one knows that story better than Herman's wife, Michelle. The two were married after Herman's two-year graduate assistant coaching stint at Texas (1999-2000) in a gorgeous setting in California (they met as students at Cal-Lutheran in 1993) in the summer of 2001.
Almost before they could wipe the wedding cake frosting from their faces, they were packed up and moving across the country to Huntsville, Texas, where Herman had gotten his first, full-time college assistant's job, coaching receivers at Sam Houston State.
Herman has said that job paid just $10,000 per year and that Michelle supported the couple by taking jobs in Huntsville ranging from child care and bank telling to waitressing to help pay the bills.
"Michelle is a great lady," Del Conte said. "She has been there from the beginning. They get each other and have great kids with great names (daughter Priya and sons Maddock and Maverick)."
When Herman was announced as the head coach at Texas, I asked him what he took from each of the head coaches he had worked under.
From Mack Brown, Herman said he learned “inclusivity.”
“He included the high school coaches,” Herman said. “He included the former players. He included so many people in this great program that, prior to Coach Brown getting here, probably were not included and felt a bit disenfranchised.”
From David Bailiff, Herman said, “I learned how to love your players.”
“Love them and make sure that they feel that love,” Herman added. “In our program, we spell love T-I-M-E, time.
“You can't just say it. You've got to do it, and you've got to spend an inordinate amount of time with your players for them to feel love.”
From Paul Rhoads, Herman said, “I learned how to be passionate about the place that you work for.”
“Paul Rhoads was an Iowa native who had an opportunity to coach in his own home state and was very passionate about that.”
From Urban Meyer, Herman said, “I feel like I went to head coaching school for three years.”
“People ask me all the time, what was the thing I took away the most? There was a thousand things I took away from Coach Meyer.
“But I think probably the biggest one is the practice of alignment.
“I think we are in an age now that our student-athletes are being bombarded with messages, and we only get them -- the NCAA says we only get them four hours a day during the season and two hours a day in the off-season.
“So when they walk in the building, they have to be - every message that is thrust upon them, from a sign on the wall to an interaction with an academic counselor, the expectations and the management of the program has to be aligned. Because they're just getting hit left and right with all these messages.
“So from your assistant coaches, to your strength staff, to your support staff, to your training room, to the academic people, to the expectations.
“It can't be OK to show up two minutes late for a tutor but not be OK to show up two minutes late for a position meeting.
“So you have to be aligned in everything that you do or else kids, often times, have a way of going off the reservation a little bit.”
Del Conte said Herman’s comments about what he took from each coach “wasn’t just rhetoric.”
“That’s from the heart,” Del Conte said. “And that's because he is a meticulous listener, always asking questions, taking copious notes and then forming his own message. Seeing Tom adapt to his surroundings and put in the work - he was on a journey to be the very best at his profession.”
Del Conte and others, including Major Applewhite, have said Herman’s decision to build the Houston program with Houston talent the way Howard Schnellenberger built the Miami Hurricanes' program into a national title winner in the 1980s with Miami high school talent was brilliant.
That decision - and the hire of Corby Meekins, the coach at talent-rich Houston Westfield High School, as UH tight ends and fullbacks coach - played key roles in attracting Houston’s first-ever 5-star talent - Westfield DT Ed Oliver - to UH. Oliver earned first-team All-America honors as a true freshman at Houston this season.
Applewhite told UH officials they’d be negligent to abandon Herman’s “H-Town Takeover” movement and promised them he’d keep it alive if he were made head coach.
Those sentiments expressed by Applewhite in his interviews with UH officials became a big part of the reason Applewhite was named Herman’s successor last week, I was told.
“Tom has called me throughout the years to ask me my opinion on things - career moves and other things,” Del Conte said.
“And he could act like a know-it-all after taking a big risk and going to Iowa State and making that work and then getting on with Urban Meyer and going to, as he said, ‘finishing school.’
“He could act like a know-it-all because of that MENSA score. But that’s not Tom. No one’s given him a thing. The thing I admire about Tom is what I admire about Gary Patterson here at TCU - nothing was ever handed to them.
"They approach every day as if someone is closing in, and you've got to put in the work to stay ahead. From his days at Cal-Lutheran, to Sam Houston State and Texas State to Rice and Iowa State, Tom Herman has earned everything he’s gotten.”
I asked Del Conte if he’s surprised the determined offensive coordinator he knew back at Rice is now the head coach at Texas?
“Did I think back in 2006 or 2007 that he’d end up where is now?” Del Conte said with a chuckle. “I don't know if either one of us could’ve seen or thought that.
“But looking at how Tom has maximized every situation he’s been in, I absolutely see how he’s gotten to this point. I admire how he's worked his way up from the bottom. He's outworked people. He's earned it. He's a great dad, a great husband. I'm happy for him - except when he plays Texas Christian University.”
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