On Thursday, USA Today unveiled its college football preseason Coaches Poll, a mostly meaningless exercise conducted by SIDs around the country (and Brian Kelly). Amid the traditional powers clogging the rankings — Alabama, Oklahoma, and Ohio State are all in the top five — one program stands out. Houston, the only Group of Five school featured in the top 25, sits at no. 13. And it’s pretty much all thanks to this guy:
No, not Paul Wall. The other grill-wearing H-Town rap expert in the video: second-year Cougars coach Tom Herman. In Herman’s debut campaign in 2015, Houston went 13–1, won the American Athletic Conference title, shellacked no. 9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl, averaged more than 40 points per game, and emerged as one of the most eminently watchable teams in the nation. But before Texas and Texas A&M can start bidding for his services, Herman and the Coogs will attempt to deliver a worthy encore. Hop on the bandwagon now, or risk missing out on a seat.
Before joining Houston full-time in January 2015, Herman served a three-year stint as the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator, a job he took after holding the same position for the previous three seasons at Iowa State. (Remember when the Cyclones stunned Brandon Weeden’s no. 2-ranked Oklahoma State team in 2011? Consider Herman the mastermind behind that upset.) He had never before worked with Urban Meyer, but Meyer called his hiring a “no-brainer,” and immediately entrusted Herman with play-calling duties. Meyer’s faith was duly rewarded: Ohio State boasted a top-five total offense in 2013, and in the 2014 season Herman delivered his magnum opus. Injuries to Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett forced the offense to start quarterback Cardale Jones, an unproven third-stringer best known for an ill-advised tweet about his distaste for academics, entering the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin; the Buckeyes proceeded to steamroll the Badgers, and then beat Alabama and Oregon in succession to win the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Herman was hailed as a quarterback guru — a reputation that only grew when Jones struggled last fall in his absence — and Houston scooped him up to replace Tony Levine, who’d been ousted after failing to replicate the success Kevin Sumlin and Art Briles experienced with the Cougars. It’s been Herman Time in H-Town ever since.
The coach rebuilt Houston in Meyer’s image, going to almost comical lengths to brand the Cougars as the Buckeyes of the South. “People can say that I’m just copying Urban Meyer,” Herman told The Wall Street Journal. “You’re damn right I’m copying Urban Meyer!” He also became a Twitter phenomenon, popularizing the hashtag #HTownTakeover and establishing himself as one of the hippest personalities in the game:
This paid immediate dividends in recruiting, with Herman securing the first five-star prospect in Cougars history: defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a Houston native. Herman’s ability to lock up local talent is reminiscent of Howard Schnellenberger’s famed “State of Miami” plan, which led to the rise of The U in the early 1980s. Like Miami upon Schnellenberger’s arrival, Houston is an urban school with minimal football history (shouts to Case Keenum, though) surrounded by in-state powerhouses. To combat this, Herman has framed his program as the brash, cool, ascendant alternative to stodgy blue bloods like the Longhorns and the Aggies (and to a lesser extent, Baylor and TCU). It’s working: In February, on the heels of the Cougars’ banner campaign, Herman signed the top class in the AAC (ranked no. 41 in the FBS by Rivals.com). This, despite mounting speculation that Herman will have his choice of top-level jobs come 2017.
Then again, Herman inked a massive contract extension last December, reportedly passing on the head-coaching gig at South Carolina, among other Power Five openings. Selfishly, I want Herman to stay in Houston, because he’s perfect for the Cougars. In H-Town, he can talk shit, chill with rappers, and, um, talk more shit to his heart’s content. He doesn’t have to deal with unruly boosters, impossibly high expectations, or the politics that come with a job like, say, Texas. Instead, he can focus on his strengths: coaching football, recruiting like crazy, and building a program from the ground up.
Houston’s reasons for optimism in 2016 go beyond Herman: It’s led by Greg Ward Jr., who might be the most exciting quarterback to come out of Tyler, Texas, since … well, let’s not get carried away. He is the epitome of a dual threat; in 2015 he passed for 2,828 yards with 17 touchdowns, and he rushed for 1,108 yards with a whopping 21 scores. Ward will have a chance to make a statement in Week 1 during a much-anticipated matchup with QB Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma, and, if the Cougars win, the playoff buzz will pick up, especially considering how manageable the rest of their schedule looks.
Could Houston became the first mid-major party crasher in the brief history of the playoff? It’s a distinct possibility. Regardless of whether this season turns out to be Herman’s swan song in Houston, the #HTownTakeover is upon us. Savor it, support it, and pray that it never comes to an end.