FRISCO, Texas -- Tom Herman had to pause. His assistant placed an oil painting on his desk just a couple weeks after he first sat down in the chair of his palatial office as the head coach of Texas.The swirling paint showed a herd of Longhorns charging up a hill, and when it came to Herman, it arrived with a request.
"You've got to put your signature on this," Herman's assistant told him.
Six others had already done so in decades past: Darrell Royal, Fred Akers, David McWilliams, John Mackovic, Mack Brown and Charlie Strong.
"Hang on: That's got Darrell Royal and Mack Brown's signature on it and you want me to sign this thing?" Herman said.
He obliged, but he did so with a small scribble in a corner, nudged up next to the frame.
When Herman retold the story in July, his voice deepened. A lump formed in his throat and his eyes welled up. It's a story he tells recruits, too, after he shows them his two now matted and framed business cards featured in a viral tweet from his account in December. He shows them a football Wilson sent him. On one side, it features a photo of Herman as a 25-year-old graduate assistant on Brown's staff, wearing Texas warmup gear and preparing for the Holiday Bowl.
"Back to where the dream began," it reads.
On the other side of the ball is a photo of Herman, his wife Michelle and their three children.
"Welcome home," it reads.
It's not an exercise in self-indulgence. It's to make a point.
"I show recruits all of these things and say, 'How often do you really get to get hired at their dream job?' It's very rare, very, very rare," Herman said. "Has it affected me in that I feel lucky and humbled? Certainly. I'm so grateful. I understand how special this place is. Not that every coach doesn't do their best and give it their all and all that, but I think when your heart is invested in it, it gives you that little bit of extra."
Since taking over in December, Herman has had a a two-pronged approach: Teach his team to hate losing through constant competition and establish a culture where "I love you" is a household phrase.
"One of his main messages is, 'You don't matter,'" offensive lineman Connor Williams said. "It's about the team and the love you have for your brothers."
Underscore it with a master tactician's approach to scheming an explosive offense. Then do it all while keeping an eye toward greater information and a technological edge, and you have Herman's program in two paragraphs.
Herman is still the same coach who made headlines for kissing his players as a first-time head coach at Houston. The way he speaks stands out among his peers. Ask a question and you'll get your answer after a pause of an average of 6-10 seconds. Ask about an assistant coach -- say defensive coordinator Todd Orlando -- and get a missive from the future, looking back on seasons of success in Austin.
"We're going to miss him when he's gone," Herman said of Orlando, who spent both seasons at Houston as Herman's defensive lieutenant. "He's going to be difficult to replace."
Orlando, it should be noted, has yet to coach his first game in burnt orange.
Herman returned to Texas as a hungry 41-year-old trying to rebuild a proud program mired in a stretch of distressing mediocrity. For a school like Texas, failure is a more fitting description than mediocrity. Since Brown took the Longhorns to the national title game in 2009, they haven't won a Big 12 title and have had more losing seasons (four) than winning seasons (three).
"The really cool thing is that (our jerseys) just say Texas on the front," Herman said. "It doesn't say The University of Texas, doesn't say UT, doesn't say Horns. It says Texas. Because I feel like we represent the whole state of Texas, not just our university."
Mack Rhoades, now Baylor's athletic director, brought Herman to Houston after the 2014 season. Herman spent the next month helping Ohio State win the national title as Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator and setting the stage to turn the Cougars from an average 8-5 team in 2013 an '14 into a Group of 5 power on the field and on the recruiting trail in less than a year.
"He was ready," Rhoades said. "You could tell he understood everything about running a program, starting with hiring the right staff and creating the right culture and surrounding himself with good people. There's times you might have to keep a thumb on him. He wants to get everything done and do it immediately."
The first time Herman walked through Texas' locker room, he saw portions that hadn't been updated in more than a decade. The answer was immediately pumping $10 million into upgrades, including the program's infamous "$10,000" lockers that, in reality, cost only $8,700 each. Video of Herman taking a regrettable, clumsy swing of destruction with a sledgehammer produced some punchlines, but players got to help, too -- as long as they were seniors. They also traded in the traditional nameplate in lieu of 43-inch flat screen TVs..
Every player gets those, but almost everything else has to be earned through competition.
"If you win, you get really cool things," Williams said, "and if you lose, it's really bad."
Every quarter, Herman rewards the program's "champions" who win in the classroom with additional gear. For the last quarter, that haul included fresh Nike street shoes with burnt orange trim and an embroidered Texas logo over an icy white shoe. Don't meet Herman's academic requirements? Sorry, no new gear to show off around campus.
During practices, the offense competes against the defense, but that idea runs beyond just practices with pads and team drills. Players are matched with a peer during early morning offseason conditioning workouts. Win, and gourmet breakfasts like fried chicken and waffles with a make-your-own-omelet bar await. Lose, and prepare to choke down burnt toast; bland, powdered eggs; and sausage. And not only do you have to eat those eggs, you have to watch a line of winners walk through the loser's line first and pour a half a cup of water into the now-soupy tray of phlegm-colored goo. And the sausage? Herman explicitly instructs the dining hall staff to burn it and ensure that players who consume it taste mostly carbon.
To trim the thesis of Herman's program to a sentence: Hate losing, love each other and look for an edge in any way possible. Unsurprisingly, Herman has embraced technology in search of more information to tell him more about his team.
During practice, players wear sensors that tell coaches how much and how fast their players are moving, among other things. Herman films practice with drones so he sees everything from every angle possible. Players and coaches can choose (most do) to wear wristbands that record sleep data. The wearer can see the data with an app on his phone, and position coaches get daily reports of how their players are sleeping. Pull an all-nighter, and coach knows.
The U.S. military uses the technology for its pilots, and based on their grade, they'll either be a "go" or "no go" for any airborne missions. (Note: At the time of this interview, Herman's band read an "effectiveness score" of 89, so he would have been a go. No word on if he'll grant access to his "effectiveness score" on the Sunday night after a November loss or the Friday night before his first Red River Rivalry.)
It all sounds a bit like the lost chapter from 1984 dedicated to football, but all of the technology can help provide answers to why a player might be performing poorly and offer a host of other useful information. Who wouldn't want that?
Maybe all the latest technology won't win games, but it does give Herman greater insight into how close he is to having the team he wants.
"I don't know how many wins will come from the way we do things, but if people can watch Texas football on a Saturday afternoon and say, 'Wow, that's one of the hardest-hitting, hardest-playing teams that I've ever watched,' then I'd say we're on the right track," Herman said. "If we get that done and you can turn on your TV at 11 a.m. and say, 'Wow, look at how hard Texas is playing, look at how physical they are. Look at how much camaraderie there is between their players,' then I don't want to say success, because success is always defined by wins and losses, but I'd say we'd be very proud of that and be on track to be what we set out to be."
Most people never wrangle their dream job, but Herman has spent his first eight months building a foundation to try to ensure that he gets to keep his as long as he likes.