When Tom Herman met his players for the first time last November, he asked how many had played on a winning team at Texas.
Three players raised their hands.
The Longhorns expect that number to change quickly under Herman, who came to Texas after two highly successful seasons at the University of Houston.
During his first few months on the job, he made sure his players understood that he would be demanding and expect things to be done his way. He wants them to understand the commitment it takes to turn the program around, and that perseverance will eventually pay off.
After three straight losing seasons under Charlie Strong, Herman’s words were just what the veteran players wanted to hear.
“That first meeting was pretty intense,” said Texas senior linebacker Naashon Hughes. “It was an eye opener for us. OK, this guy’s pretty intense. This is going to be the tone set for each and every day. He likes his coaching staff to be just like him, so there’s no dropoff from the level of intensity.”
The Longhorns haven’t produced a winning season since going 8-5 in Mack Brown’s final season in 2013. Under Charlie Strong, the Longhorns went 6-7 in 2014 followed by a pair of 5-7 seasons. When the Longhorns lost a 24-21 overtime decision to Kansas last November, Strong’s fate was sealed.
“Nobody came to Texas to lose,” Hughes said. “Because we haven’t been winning, guys have been a little frustrated. With the new coaching staff and everybody being open and embracing the training process they’ve had and their system, it’s opened a lot of guys’ eyes and made them look forward to the season.”
Junior nickelback P.J. Locke chose Texas because he wanted to be part of a historically great program. But since the Longhorns have struggled, he finds it hard to even meet past players who built a winning tradition.
“One of my main goals to come here was to have four rings from bowl games and things like that,” Locke said. “I want to keep the tradition going. When we had two bad seasons as a defensive back unit, I was embarrassed to see it. I was embarrassed to show my face in front of (former Longhorns) Quandre Diggs, Kenny Vaccaro and Earl Thomas. They set a tradition that we basically started to destroy the past couple of years.”
Though the Longhorns have considerable talent returning, Herman isn’t guaranteeing immediate success. But he wants to make sure his players compete in everything they do, whether it’s a conditioning drill, a position battle or schoolwork.
“It's nothing different than what we've done everywhere we've been, and that's to compete every day in what we do and make sure there are tangible rewards for winning whatever that competition is,” Herman said. “We talk about how we have the student of the week, and that guy gets recognized. We've got T-shirts and all that. We've got everything from offseason conditioning drills, where we have winners and losers, and the winners get to eat a better meal.”
Herman didn’t guarantee the returning starters a spot in the lineup. While Shane Buechele passed for 2,958 yards and 21 touchdowns as a freshman, Herman didn’t name him the starter over highly-touted freshman Sam Ehlinger coming out of spring drills.
Herman wanted Buechele to show more leadership before he earned the starting job.
“Last year he was a true freshman that was just trying to keep his head above water,” Herman said. “I think it's difficult for him because he still sees himself as kind of the young kid. He's a very humble, very mild-mannered kind of guy. But we've challenged him, we've taught him, we've explained things to him that for him to take the next step in his growth, one of those things is going to have to be to continue to lead the culture of the team.”
Herman is returning to Texas for the first time since spending two years as a graduate assistant under Mack Brown in 1999-2000. He saw that some of the facilities hadn’t changed since those days, and took a sledgehammer to an aging Longhorns locker room in the spring.
Each new locker costs $10,500 and features a 43-inch TV screen complete with a highlight reel for each player. More renovations are in the works.
It’s just part of Herman’s plan to remodel a losing Texas football program in his image.
“He comes across as someone who is very intelligent, very observant, very calculated,” said Texas punter Michael Dickson. “He’s got a plan. He knows what he has to say and how he has to act and what he has to do to make his players do what they want.”