Somewhere along the way — from Huntsville to San Marcos to Houston — the young man from Simi Valley became a Texan.
The transformation began with a long drive on Interstate 10, through dust storms and stretches of nothing, as Tom Herman headed for his first coaching job at a small college in Seguin.
Two decades later — most of those years spent on one campus or another in the Lone Star state — Herman tries to recall exactly when he went native.
“Maybe when I first said y’all,” he guesses. “I still won’t say fixin’ to, but y’all makes sense because it’s an abbreviation of you all.”
It would be a mistake to say Herman is coming home when the first-year Texas coach leads his Longhorns into the Coliseum to face fourth-ranked USC on Saturday.
His affinity for his adopted state runs so strong that it prompted him to bypass other attractive jobs last winter, taking charge of a blueblood program that has stumbled upon hard times and is badly in need of an overhaul.
“Once you coach football in Texas,” he says, “you fall in love with it.”
Born in Cincinnati, Herman moved to Southern California as a boy, eventually playing receiver at Simi Valley High and then Cal Lutheran in the 1990s. He was probably destined to become a coach.
“A smart, heady player,” says Scott Squires, his college coach. “But slow. Very slow.”
His sideline career began immediately after graduation in 1997, when he got a job coaching receivers for Bryan Marmion, who had left the Cal Lutheran staff to take over at tiny Texas Lutheran.
Herman and his future wife, Michelle, climbed into a Honda Civic for the 1,400-mile drive, taking a detour to see the Grand Canyon.
“We get all the way there and the Grand Canyon was closed, which I didn’t even know was possible,” he recalls of that socked-in day. “It was closed due to zero visibility.”
Farther along, east of El Paso, the wind sent dust devils spinning across the desert, and the couple wondered what they had gotten themselves into.
Disagreeable omens notwithstanding, that first job at $5,000 a year was a good start, teaching Herman two important lessons.
First, he was told, 99% of players probably won’t be as devoted to the game as their coaches. Second, this rule doesn’t necessarily apply in the state of Texas, where high school games can draw crowds of 40,000 or more.
“Oh my gosh,” Herman says. “What a behemoth.”
It was a good fit for a 22-year-old Presidential Scholar with plenty of options but a strong desire to continue in football. Intense and energetic, he had what Squires refers to as “a great demeanor; he’s a real people person.”
After just one season at Texas Lutheran, Herman finagled his way into the big time as a graduate assistant at Texas, where it quickly became evident he was over his head.
“I made us use a timeout in my very first game because I didn’t have the two-point chart ready and they were asking me, ‘Do we go for one or two?’” he recalls. “I didn’t read the chart right and just froze up.”
Herman survived coach Mack Brown’s wrath, learning enough over the course of two seasons to get hired as a full-fledged assistant at Sam Houston State in Huntsville in 2001. From there, he rose to the level of offensive coordinator at Texas State in San Marcos, and then at Rice.
His offenses developed a reputation for putting up lots of yards and points. At each stop, his quarterbacks seemed to improve overnight.
There was a six-year stretch away to the north as Iowa State hired him as offensive coordinator in 2009 and Ohio State picked him up in 2012.
In Columbus, Herman was named the nation’s top assistant, helping the Buckeyes win the 2015 national championship with third-string quarterback Cardale Jones.
Still, he felt a tug.
“Two of my three kids were born in [Texas],” he said. “The six years we lived in Iowa and Ohio, they bragged about being Texans.”
Houston brought him back in 2015, giving him his first head coaching job.
The Cougars went 22-5 over the next two seasons, upsetting a slew of top 25 opponents, including No. 9 Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl. Herman was a finalist for national coach-of-the-year honors that winter.
At the end of last season, with marquee programs looking for new leadership, his name sat atop the most-wanted list. There was speculation that he might take over at Louisiana State. Oregon was also in the market.
Though Texas clearly represented the biggest challenge, Herman had fond memories of his two seasons there. And his lineage translated into a network of recruiting connections throughout the state.
The Longhorns signed him to a five-year contract reportedly worth more than $5 million annually. Players felt an immediate shift.
Herman can appear intimidating with his close-shaved hair and the pinpoint focus of his eyes. His words, though thoughtful, are often sprinkled with obscenities.
The team soon learned that every detail mattered. Players had to do extra calisthenics if they forgot their water bottles. The volume at spring practice was turned up a notch or two.
“Just always on edge,” offensive lineman Connor Williams said. “If there’s a mistake made, if there’s a moment to teach, coach is always there, always watching.”
The season did not start well with a 51-41 upset loss to Maryland, the Longhorns playing tight and committing too many mistakes. They rebounded against overmatched San Jose State, but this week brings a tougher opponent.
USC has been favored by almost three touchdowns and Herman has warned the fans that he didn’t “sprinkle some fairy dust” on the team to make it instantly better.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” he says. “There are going to be some bumps along the way.”
So far, his players seem to trust him, saying they sense his passion. Apparently, it’s a Texas thing.
“Once you get down into this Southern pride and the Texas spirit, you just have to embrace it or you want to go back home,” said linebacker Naashon Hughes, who grew up outside of Killeen.
“He’s been here long enough to where he’s fully embraced that spirit,” Hughes said. “I consider him a Texan through and through.”