As red, white and blue confetti fell from the ceiling of the Georgia Dome, first-year Houston Football head coach Tom Herman looked up and proclaimed to the red-clad Houston masses — many with tears streaming down their cheeks, many who had waited more than 30 years for a win of this magnitude — “Look around you. Coog Nation is back.”
The rejuvenation of Coog Nation did not take place during that celebration in Atlanta; it started much earlier and consisted of 12 months of grueling physical and mental preparation. Twelve months of work that was deposited into a championship bank account, an account that was emptied on the turf of the Georgia Dome for a championship win that would cast a red tint over the entire city of Houston and across the state of Texas. The championship preparation started in December 2014, when Herman was named the 13th head coach in Houston football history.
Fresh off of winning the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach while serving as the offensive coordinator at The Ohio State University, Herman wore two hats for the next month — Houston’s head coach and Ohio State’s offensive play caller in the Buckeyes’ run to the inaugural College Football Playoff Championship. While celebrating Ohio State’s national championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Herman donned a UH cap and immediately went to work, arriving on the Tier One campus the following day.
Training To Be The Best
Offseason workouts under the eye of Director for Football Sports Performance Yancy McKnight, commonly referred to by Herman as his “culture coach,” quickly established a championship culture that was based on competition in every single repetition.
“I truly believe we were the best-trained team in America. Coach drove it into us every day,” said senior offensive tackle Alex Cooper. “When you’re that well trained, when you get into moments of uncertainty, you look at each other and you’re like: ‘We’re going to do this, doesn’t matter how much we’re down, what the odds are, we’re going to come out with a win.’ It’s such a great feeling to have something like that. You look at your brothers and they’re ready to win. And it just makes you want to go that much harder.”
The Start Of A Legendary Season
The 2015 season kicked off with Greg Ward Jr. leading the Cougars to victory against Tennessee Tech, giving Herman his first career win.
The second week of the season demonstrated to Houston fans that this was a different team. At Louisville, the Cougars faced a four-point deficit twice in the fourth quarter. Unlike situations in the past, the team remained undaunted as Ward hit Demarcus Ayers for a 15-yard touchdown with just over three minutes remaining in a wild fourth quarter that began tied 17-all. Scoring 17 points near the end of game, Houston won again. An off-season of hard work was paying off, and the belief was starting to become reality.
Houston would win its next five games, exacting revenge on two teams, Tulane and UCF, who had captured 2014 wins in TDECU Stadium in the process.
“We train for adversity. We spend an inordinate amount of time on how to respond,” said Herman.
Rising up to No. 18, the Cougars proved to be an imposing figure as they became the first team to shut out an SEC team in non-conference play since 2004 with a win over Vanderbilt.
The energy and buzz surrounding the program grew immensely. The #HTownTakeover became more than just a local story; the nation also took notice. Pundits were discussing Houston’s talent, and the team played in front of record crowds at TDECU Stadium in tight wins over Cincinnati and Memphis.
“Having been here the last couple of years, going through some of the ups and downs, I don’t know how many games we walked off the field coming up just a play short,” said senior running back Kenneth Farrow, “We knew we had the capability to be in this position when Coach Herman came in, and right away we kind of got that feeling that he knows what he’s doing and he’s going to be the guy that can really lead us to take that next step.”
Despite coming up just short in a road trip at UConn, the team’s only loss of the season, the Cougars didn’t lose focus, annihilating No. 16 Navy in the last regular season game. A flood of red washed across John O’Quinn Field as UH fans fleeted down the stadium stands while American commissioner Mike Aresco presented Herman with The American’s West Division trophy, a scene that would repeat itself one week later, albeit with a larger trophy.
A national TV audience watched as Houston hosted Temple in the first-ever American Championship. UH fans were not disappointed as the Cougars prevailed, sending UH to its first major bowl game in more than 30 years.
Houston’s opponent in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl was No. 9 Florida State. The same Florida State team that was playing in its NCAA-leading 34th straight bowl game and the same team that needed just one more win to tie an NCAA record with its 50th win over four seasons. They were a prestigious opponent. One that might intimidate or daunt other programs, but Houston players never took their focus off their own team and what they could, and would, control.
As the final gun sounded, confetti rained down, tears fell, brothers in red and white embraced, and another historic win and a legendary Houston season was etched into the University of Houston’s books.
“Putting the season into words, it all goes to the players — the players and the love they have for each other and the trust and the love that they have in the staff,” said Herman. “They have really reenergized an entire University and, to a certain degree, an entire city. And they should be extremely, extremely proud.
“And I’m just happy to be along for the ride and see the smiles on their faces, because they did it. They’re the ones that bled and sweat and cried for 12 months to make that happen. And we are truly appreciative that the city of Houston, Coog Nation and the alumni, fans and students who have seen their sacrifice and have certainly increased their support.”
With the success of the 2015 season powering the way, Herman and the Houston Football program started focusing on 2016 and beyond. “Last season was a vision. These kids committed to a vision and bought into the vision,” said Herman. “Now we have testimonies and results we can show that vision pays off.”
High-Ranking 2016 Recruiting Class
Thirty-five days after Houston’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl win, the No. 8 football program added 23 new members to the #HTownTakeover. Welcomed to the program on Houston Football digital platforms by a star-studded cast, the group is being praised as the top signing class in Houston Football history.
The class includes three players in the ESPN 300 — defensive tackle Ed Oliver, receiver Courtney Lark and quarterback D’Eriq King — and seven players ranked in the top 10 nationally at their positions — quarterback Kyle Allen (No. 1 quarterback in 2014), running back Duke Catalon (No. 10 running back in 2014), defensive back J.J. Dallas (No. 9 junior college cornerback), offensive lineman Keenan Murphy (No. 5 center), Ed Oliver (No. 2 defensive tackle), offensive lineman Na’Ty Rodgers (No. 4 junior college offensive tackle) and defensive back Terrell Williams (No. 9 junior college safety).
“We have to recruit really good players, and we did that,” said Herman. “One of the unique things, and maybe the thing I’m most proud of this class, is of all the high school players that signed with us, all but one of them committed before we had ever played a football game as a staff. Why did they do that? The answer is relationships. They have tremendous relationships with their recruiting coaches.”
Seventeen of the 23 signees were high school players. Sixteen hail from the state of Texas and one from neighboring Louisiana. The class covers seven position groups — six defensive backs, four offensive linemen, four receivers, three quarterbacks, three defensive linemen, two running backs and one tight end.
Members of the class have led their teams to 76 high school state playoff appearances with every player in the class earning at least one all-district honor in their career.
“I am very excited about this signing class. We made history. We have signed the highest-ranked non-Power 5 recruiting class in the history of college football, and that should be commended,” said Herman. “Our staff, support staff, coaches, everybody who has a hand in recruiting, should be commended for that.
After signing day, Herman and the Houston Football program turned their attention to spring practices, the Red and White game scheduled for mid-April at TDECU Stadium and preparing for the 2016 season.
The stage has been set, the world is watching — Coach Herman and the Houston Football program are writing history.