HOUSTON — It’s testimony night in mid-August inside the University of Houston football team meeting room, and star quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is preaching about lions and gazelles.
Ward, the quiet and humble son of a preacher, is one of four Houston captains who has been charged with addressing their teammates. The subject? Why the Cougars went 13-1 in Tom Herman’s first season. This task for Ward would have seemed unthinkable when Herman arrived in January 2015.
Now, on the eve of the Cougars’ first two-a-day practice of 2016, Ward is dropping F-bombs like Herman as often heard in football culture. Ward identifies a couple teammates by name as he gives his fiery talk, the same tactic Herman uses to make players feel on edge so they’re paying attention and believe he’s talking directly to them.
Every now and then, Ward glances at a note card, but he’s rolling now. He talks about how Houston players need to be hungry like a lion to eat whenever they want and avoid being a gazelle that runs from fears and mistakes without ever correcting them.
“Coach Herman, coach [Major] Applewhite, we challenge y’all to [expletive] coach us the best way possible because everybody can’t get complacent,” Ward says. “Last year was a great [expletive] season, OK? The second season is even harder. Everybody is expecting us to [expletive] go out there and do better than we did. As far as us [veterans] sitting in the front, we won a [conference)]championship. We want a national championship. What are y’all going to do to help us, and what are we going to do help y’all?
“We gotta go hunt the lion. We can’t say we’re a lion and act like a [expletive] gazelle. We can’t hang around lowlifes. We can’t hang around people that are smoking weed. We can’t hang around people that don’t go to class. We can’t hang around people that don’t care a [expletive] about their life. We’ve got to hang around people that are willing to go through the same [expletive].”
Last year was a surprising debut for Herman, capped off by a dominating Peach Bowl win over Florida State. But that was 2015. No Peach Bowl gear is allowed at team activities in 2016. Herman requires that the 2015 Cougars are only mentioned as “that team,” not “we,” though he slips up at times and quickly corrects himself.
In the back of the meeting room, Herman watches with pride as the four captains each talk about a word that defined Houston in 2015.
Tight end Tyler McCloskey speaks about resilience and how, athletically, he didn’t belong on the field against the Seminoles. Yet there the Cougars were, leading Florida State 21-3 at halftime, and they didn’t let up. “That team understood that complacency was not an option,” McCloskey says.
Defensive back Brandon Wilson’s word is sacrifice. He switched to running back in 2015 out of need despite having never played the position. “I didn’t really know about 60 protection or any of that,” Wilson says. “I’m like, OK. I’ll do it for my team. I’ll do it for my brothers.”
Defensive end Cameron Malveaux speaks about unity. “Some teams we beat last year, we were not more talented than them,” he says. “I think we beat those teams’ ass because we cared for each other more.”
But none of the speeches get Herman more fired up than Ward’s. Ward tried only to lead by example, but Herman and Applewhite, Houston’s offensive coordinator, had to convince him he’s the quarterback of a top-10 team and needed to give more than that.
Now here’s Ward on testimony night sounding like Herman. Or, as Herman might say, Ward is talking like a dude.
“His was the one I ate up the most,” Herman says later. “I was bubbling with pride.”
On this night, Houston’s Sept. 3 showdown against Oklahoma is still three weeks away. No one speaks of the Sooners. The Cougars are simply trying to build an identity and survive summer camp days that start at 5:30 a.m. and end at 9 p.m.
Herman, who one day soon may be a hot commodity for major head coaching jobs, calls this the hardest training camp in the country. There’s no way to know, of course, but no Cougar will disagree. Herman likes to say Houston trains for chaos to keep players physically and mentally on edge. Over 24 hours in mid-August, here’s a sampling of what that looks like.
Stuck on a sticker: Herman greets a visitor in the lobby of the Athletics/Alumni Center, which houses the football team, and quickly becomes preoccupied with something else as he talks. There’s a sticker with a smiley face on the floor. Herman bends down and tries for about 20 seconds to get it off.
When Herman first came to Houston, there was a hallway with rubber tiles that started peeling so he bought scrapers at Home Depot and spent a night peeling the tiles back. Houston’s administration got the message and bought new floors.
Herman often tells the story of the day Andrew Luck and his dad Oliver unexpectedly visited Rice when Herman coached there. The impromptu visit happened so fast that Herman couldn’t clean up the facility so Luck saw all of Rice’s warts before making a visit to Stanford.
Would Luck have gone to Rice anyway? Probably not. But just in case, Herman keeps working on that sticker in the Houston lobby.
Turning the Cougars into dudes: Two players recently quit the Cougars early in camp, true freshman Hasaun Glasgow and junior college transfer J.J. Dallas. Herman thought he would have weeded players out by now, but that’s not the case, so he addresses the departures with the team by selling testimony from 2015 about the benefits of persevering.
“I had one guy actually say to me on his way out, ‘You know, coach, I get your culture, but this culture is not for everybody,'” Herman says. “You’re [expletive] right it’s not! This is not a 7-5 culture, Kyle. This is a championship culture, and you’re either with us or you’re against us. So if you want to leave, that’s fine. But after you see all this testimony, why in the world would you ever leave this program? …
“It’s mind-[expletive]-boggling how anyone would want to say, ‘You know what? It’s just too [expletive] hard, I want to go through life average.’ Good. What? You want to do what? We win [expletive] championships around here and we produce really [expletive] quality husbands and fathers and employees! That’s what we do around here!”
Herman shows the players recent text messages from ex-Houston players from “that team” in 2015. Former safety Lee Hightower, whom Herman says used to have a selfish agenda, texted Herman thanks for the training that allowed him to get complimented by an NFL veteran in camp for speaking “like a dude.”
Former wide receiver Demarcus Ayers, another Houston player in an NFL camp, texted Herman to say he’s enjoying the process of improving as Houston taught him. He even wished Herman a happy Father’s Day. Herman expresses disbelief that these messages came from Ayers, a player the coach says used to be selfish, entitled and soft.
“I’d say if it he were sitting here so we’re good, right, Greg?” Herman says, using a players’ name in the manner he does to keep everyone on edge.
Much of how Herman builds a team came from his time as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer. There’s no whispering behind someone’s back with Herman or his staff. He is comfortable praising and criticizing players because he views teams as families, and in Herman’s world, families are open and honest.
But yes, many players thought the 41-year-old Herman was insane when he first arrived in January 2015. This is a man who locked them out of their locker room for five days in the first winter until every player did 30 up-downs correctly. This is a man who once acquired a second middle name for his son’s birth certificate — Danger.
“So he can tell chicks ‘Danger’ is his middle name,” Herman says. “I don’t take anything too seriously. I want the kids to have fun. I want things to be enjoyable. To me, Jon is not a fun name. Thomas is not a fun name. Have a little fun with it.”
Sometimes Herman’s words are totally over the top. He instructs players to hand themselves over to director for football sports performance Yancy McKnight and tell him, “I’m [expletive] yours. Do with me whatever you want because I trust you and I trust that no matter how hard it is, how uncomfortable it is, how painful it is, that the results when I run through that wall are going to be unbelievable.”
But after a 21-17 record in three years under former coach Tony Levine, many players love running through that wall. When Herman arrived, “I just thought he was kind of a pretty boy OC that did really good at Ohio State,” says Malveaux, a team captain. “I learned very quickly that he loves hard-nosed football. I respect that about him. He’s one of the most consistent men I’ve ever seen in my life. Every day here his demeanor never changes.”
Bright and early and intense: It’s 7:30 a.m and practice No. 11 of the summer, the first two-a-day session. Players are stretching when Herman suddenly blows his whistle for a fast-start drill where players quickly shift into an 11-on-11 live-hitting session between the offense and defense.
Herman is furious about the players’ energy. A wide receiver drops a pass. Ward bobbles a snap. Herman repeatedly screams in his quarterback’s ear hole like a mad man, “Start it over, Greg! Start it over, Greg! Start it over, Greg!”
There’s a drone buzzing over the practice field to record aerial shots of practice. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando walks around with a championship belt that goes to the five-round winner between the offense and defense in circle drill, a one-on-one battle that’s won by positioning, strength and toughness.
AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood” gets cranked up. Herman shouts for the music to go louder.
“I get to play what I want, or they tell me what to play,” says Devin Meaker, the team DJ on the field while in a wheelchair and who is affectionately called DJ Hotwheels. “Today, Coach Herman is in a grumpy mood and they told me heavy metal.”
Wide receiver Steven Dunbar gets chewed out by Herman for not sprinting back during a drill. Still, on a one to 10 scale of how ticked off Herman is today, Dunbar later rates him a six.
“He gets worse,” Dunbar says. “Initially, like anybody, I’m like who is this guy? I think what our program lacked before, and I’m glad it’s here, is the accountability side. We needed that because we always had the talent.”
A surprise visitor: Ex-Baylor coach Art Briles arrives at the morning practice with Ken Bailey, one of the Cougars’ top donors and a former quarterback at the school. Briles, a former Houston player and coach, called Herman in advance about stopping by. It’s the first of Briles’ planned 8-10 stops at colleges this summer and fall in addition to visiting NFL teams.
During a water break, Briles speaks briefly with Tren’Davian Dickson and Chris Johnson, former Baylor players who transferred to Houston after Briles was fired due to the program’s sexual assault scandal. Many Houston coaches, including Herman, warmly greet Briles, who believes he will coach football again in 2017.
“It’s the first fall since I’ve been 10 years old where I haven’t been playing or coaching,” Briles says. “You can’t not have it in your blood. It’s healthy for me to get out and see coaches coach and players play and see people have purpose. It’s very strange [not to be coaching]. At the same time, there’s some healthiness involved because I’m getting to look at what I love to do. I’m just not getting to do it now. But that will change.”
Briles watches intently during drills. “Everything’s got a purpose,” he says of Houston’s practice. “I’ve been really impressed. There’s no wasted time. Coach Herman and his staff are very vocal, very animated, very driven.”
Briles declines to discuss what happened at Baylor or whether the university must provide details publicly for another college to hire him. One day later, Briles will speak with reporters at the Houston Texans’ camp and say, “I’ve never done anything illegal, immoral or unethical.”
On this day at the Cougars’ camp, there’s sensitivity about Briles presence, even though he’s one of their own. Houston arranges for Briles to slip out without local reporters noticing him and asking questions that he will one day likely need to answer to have a chance to coach again.
It’s nap time … for three hours: Herman schedules this part of the day for the players to totally rest. About 80 mattresses are lined up throughout the locker room with the lights out.
Many players crash. Some of them woke up at 4 a.m.; went to treatment at 4:45 a.m.; got taped, ate breakfast and attended a meeting; and then went through the first of two practices in 90-degree heat. Some players watch television and play video games while their teammates keep sleeping.
Herman used to like measuring players’ sleep habits when Chip Kelly emphasized it. But Houston doesn’t have the resources for sleep sensors, so Herman keeps it simple: Get your sleep.
“If we could afford it, I would put them in a hotel to sleep (overnight during camp),” Herman says. “But we’ve got to trust when they leave here and go to the dorms they’re going to sleep.”
The day’s first evaluation: Herman enters a staff meeting to evaluate the morning practice. Six Cougars fans follow him into the room and pull up chairs. They are following him around for a day in the life of Tom Herman. This, too, is a reality of being a head coach. Herman cheerfully obliges.
As the coaches watch film, Herman raves about McCloskey, one of his captains, getting in the face of a running back who lost a fumble. McCloskey shoves the running back to the side to do up-downs.
“Did you see Tyler push the [expletive] out of him after he fumbled?” Herman says, smiling. “That was awesome!”
In another drill, five-star defensive lineman Ed Oliver moves two offensive linemen in an unworldly way for a true freshman. “The nose guard is 18 years old, boys,” Herman marvels. “We’ve got him for three more years — this one plus two more.”
The reality of being a Group of Five school is also evident on film. “Look at that grass,” Herman says of spotty patches on the field. “What a shame. We haven’t been in training camp two weeks. That thing will never hold up the whole season.”
Weather threatens: Rain is in the forecast for the afternoon practice. Herman needs to make a call during another staff meeting: Does Houston risk staying outside for a possibly sloppy practice or go to the Houston Texans’ indoor bubble? Herman opens it up to his assistants and staffers for recommendations.
Like most programs, Houston stresses routine. Herman likes training for chaos with off-the-cuff decisions, but preparing for a routine is also a major part of the team. When Herman’s staff arrived, Applewhite kept pounding into Ward’s head that every great player has a routine and he needed one.
Routines are craved for practice, too. But since the Cougars’ planned indoor practice facility likely isn’t opening until September 2017, they must adapt when it rains.
The Cougars had awful practices in the Texans’ bubble last year. Players weren’t focused. One of the trips to the bubble came the week Houston lost to UConn, the Cougars’ only defeat of the season. (Of course, it’s also the week Ward was injured and barely played.)
Going to the Texans’ bubble is “a pain in the ass,” says Fernando Lovo, assistant athletic director for football operations. On rainy days, Houston must coordinate with Rice and Houston Baptist University to use the only indoor facility in town. The schools get along, but it’s like calling next in a pick-up basketball game, Lovo says. Whoever didn’t acquire the practice time it wants gets next and a better time when it rains again.
Houston pays a nominal rental fee to the Texans in order to abide by NCAA rules. Still, the trip costs Houston between $1,500 and $2,500 to rent three buses for four hours in order to drive six miles in miserable rush-hour traffic, Lovo says. The biggest concern, though, is Houston will waste a practice because the players are unfocused in the bubble.
“Fern, you hate going so you’re always going to vote not to go,” Herman says to Lovo.
Orlando, the defensive coordinator, suggests a change of scenery may be good at this point in camp. Other coaches say to go. The bubble it is.
Also in the meeting, Herman raises concern that five chin straps came off during the morning practice. “I’ve never been anywhere with so many [expletive] helmets coming off,” Herman says. “Are we buying the right helmets?”
Herman says he is anal about players checking the air in their helmet every day and making sure their chinstrap is perfectly fitted. Through the first 10 practices, Houston reported one concussion, according to Herman.
This is the first year the Cougars are using Pete Carroll’s rugby-style tackling for open-field tackles. Houston calls it “gator tackle” because it’s like wrestling an alligator. Still, Herman prides his practices on physicality. In an interview, he says a player at another college expressed surprise to a Houston player about how much the Cougars tackle in camp.
“I tell our team all the time, nobody once in the history of this great game — nor will they ever, I hope — has stood at a championship stage or podium holding a championship trophy and say, ‘We out-finessed everybody,'” Herman says. “Football is a violent, violent sport, and you have to practice that way in order to get at elite levels on Saturday, in my opinion.”
Before the meeting ends, Herman asks recruiting director Derek Chang about the background of a player who is transferring from a Power Five school. Chang reports Houston talked to an assistant at the school and the player had a domestic violence issue.
“Done. Punt,” Herman says. Other coaches agree. “Punt it.”
It’s time for position meetings: Orlando is quizzing his linebackers on what they did right and wrong at the morning practice. The linebacker room is both light-hearted and dead serious. And it’s bluntly honest.
“Are you freaking Albert Einstein?” Orlando asks one player. “Are you going to write anything down?”
The night before, Herman called out Orlando in front of the team for having only one linebacker perform at a championship level at the recent scrimmage. The defense gave up completions on seven of 13 deep balls at the scrimmage (54 percent), and Orlando wants that number at 20 percent. Orlando tells his linebackers they’re being trained for every position so whoever understands the scheme best will play.
There are atta-boys by Orlando on good plays. One player whom Orlando says he has been riding “like Secretariat” gets praised for his work in circle drill. “This is gladiator style!” Orlando tells him. “This is every one of your peers watching you with everything on the line and you dominate.”
In order to get a point across about how to tackle while taking on a block, Orlando tells a linebacker to go around the corner and hide behind the door. Don’t jump out early and throw a punch, Orlando says. Wait until the unsuspecting person is right at you for the biggest impact.
“It’s the same concept with tackling,” Orlando says. “You don’t want to jump out. You don’t need to see him. Use your eyes and then, boom! Because those are the most vicious shots in football when you catch somebody that’s coming around a corner that doesn’t see you.”
Orlando harshly criticizes a linebacker who complains he didn’t make a tackle on film because he was held. “Holding you?” Orlando says. “Because you’re [expletive] soft, that’s why the [expletive] he’s holding you. Be a physical [expletive] guy. That’s your [expletive] problem. You want to make [expletive] excuses for everything.”
There’s laughter when Orlando shows 6-foot-7, 230-pound punter Dane Roy throwing a good block on film. “That’s it. That’s our culture. That’s why we’re going to win, right there,” Orlando says. “We’ve got our starting freaking punter trying to block a defensive guy!”
These are the meetings Herman misses most since becoming a head coach. At the team testimony, he apologized to players for not knowing a lot of their parents’ names during a family event. The intimate relationships are tougher when you’re in charge of 105 players instead of one position.
“It’s so hard to try to get close to them,” Herman says. “When you’re in that meeting room, it’s a bunker mentality, you’re knee-deep in that young man’s life, and you form an unbelievable relationship. I know it sounds corny, but I really, really miss that.”
Suddenly, a loud noise: The monotony of position meetings gets interrupted by a startling sound from down the hall. A trainer comes into the room and tells Houston’s linebackers to fill up their water bottles.
Herman is coming. He’s the noise.
Here comes Herman into the linebacker room, his latest stop to each position room. It’s time for the linebackers to chug water. Herman counts out loud one through 10, pounding his hand on a Gatorade container at each number.
On and on they go until they drink water for 10 seconds to replenish fluids before the afternoon practice.
At a team meeting later, Herman tells the players he found a water bottle left in the training room with no name on it. He offers a deal: If the player who left the bottle admits now that it’s his, he gets 10 up-downs. If Herman finds out later, it’s 30. No one cops to it. Herman asks a support staffer to investigate whose bottle it is and instructs his assistants to make sure the players put their names on their bottle.
“You guys want to try to [expletive] with the system right there,” Herman tells the team. “‘Oh, mine’s the one with the really tall yellow tape on it. I got it. I’m good. That way if I lose it, guess what? Then the coaches don’t know and I get another water bottle.’ For 10 [expletive] updowns. We don’t miss, guys. We don’t miss. I applaud the effort [Herman claps]. Great effort.”
Herman says Houston sustained one soft tissue injury last season.
“You think that’s luck because we’re getting silly and chugging water?” Herman asks. “No. It’s called [expletive] science, Steve. It’s called anatomy and physiology. Your muscles don’t pull when you’re hydrated. Your muscles pull when they’re dehydrated. Period. End of story. Again, the most commonly-used words around here are what?”
“[Expletive] and hydrate,” the team responds in unison.
Loading the bus: Houston heads over to the Texans’ practice bubble. By all accounts, they have a good practice. It’s considered a good sign for the maturity of this team.
Herman has gone to great lengths during training camp to not talk about Oklahoma. Some coaches use a high-profile Week 1 opponent as motivation with players. But Herman has heard the horror stories of teams focusing too much on the Week 1 opponent all offseason, losing the game, and then getting crushed emotionally.
“Those coaches didn’t get them back for another four to five weeks,” Herman says. “We’re not going to make that mistake. I think it’s great for the city of Houston. We’re gonna try to win it. But it’s not gonna make or break our season.”
The truth about Herman, which he freely admits: He still doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.
He has never been a second-year head coach. He has never gone into a season as a head coach with high expectations from the outside. He has never graduated significant players and leaders, such as cornerback William Jackson and linebacker Elandon Roberts, and had to start over next season with different talent and chemistry.
Herman is fearful about complacency. He says he looked hard in the offseason to see what players were doing and saying after all of the love showered on them from the Peach Bowl victory.
“I’m almost nervous,” Herman says. “Training camp’s going well. It’s like, what am I missing? What did I forget? I feel uneasy because things are going smooth. But it’s a testament to our kids, our coaches, our strength coaches that we’re able to keep this thing rolling.”
Training for chaos never ends at Houston, even after the summer. But camp is over and the behind-the-scenes work transforms into a product everyone will see.
Houston’s testimony will now show up on the field.
Source: CBS Sports / 24 hours at Houston: Behind the scenes as Tom Herman preps the Cougars for chaos