Tom Herman spent last Tuesday at the Broyles Award banquet in Little Rock, Ark., where he was introduced as “the quarterback whisperer” in a video montage highlighting how the Ohio State assistant coach turned a pair of backups into unlikely heroes and an offense without Braxton Miller into a model of efficiency.
“I need to get that and show that to my wife,” he quipped, “and maybe she’ll think a little bit more of me.”
Of course, he’s kidding. But to illustrate the point, he offers the following passage, which takes place with his wife, Michelle, on the way to the airport a day earlier.
“We had just won the Big Ten Championship with our third-string quarterback and I looked at her and said, ‘Michelle, in your wildest dreams, did you ever think that I would be coaching Ohio State and be a finalist for the Broyles Award?' And she looked at me and said, ‘Tom, you’re not in my wildest dreams.’ Which I’m probably not to be honest with you.”
This is Tom Herman at his finest. The speech is funny, smart and from the heart. It’s a moment that’s all-encompassing of what the 39-year-old has come to be in three seasons with the Buckeyes.
He’s the introspective offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, the playfully self-deprecating Mensa member, and the father of three, including a one-year-old son who “if it didn’t look so much like me, I might begin to wonder since we’re not home very often, but thank God he does look like me. And if my surgeon is as good as he says he is, I won’t be having anymore. I promise you that.”
This is Tom Herman, who thought it was a prank when Urban Meyer called him for a job interview in 2012, according to a New York Times story. “Yeah, right” he told the coach.
This is Tom Herman, who live-tweeted his 19-hour Snowpocalypse experience while trapped on Atlanta’s frozen highways on his way to the airport during a recruiting trip.
This is Tom Herman, who helped turn Ohio State’s offense into a baler machine, who made Braxton Miller into a superstar, who molded J.T. Barrett into a Heisman Trophy contender and Cardale Jones into a Big Ten Championship-winning quarterback in his first-career start.
This is Tom Herman, who “played at the big powerhouse Cal Lutheran University,” which boasts an enrollment of 4,500 students.
This is Tom Herman, a college football underdog if there ever was one. He seems to revel in it.
And this speech at the Broyles Award is almost like a cathartic walk through a relatively embryonic career that has led him to this stage in Little Rock and to an honor as the nation’s top assistant coach.
“I’m a Division III guy that spent most of his coaching career in the 1AA ranks and kind of tried to work my way up as best I could," he said.
Perhaps the pinnacle of that journey was realized Tuesday, when the University of Houston hired Herman to be its next head coach. He’s signed a five-year, $6.75 million contract to guide the Cougars to national prominence and, if he does so, bigger and better opportunities surely await.
But long ago, there first was Texas Lutheran — a tiny Division III school with an enrollment of 1,400 students 35 miles east of San Antonio and 50 miles south of Austin — where Herman made $5,000 as an assistant. This was the cost of chasing a dream.
“But I got a meal card,” he said. “Which was nice.”
A few years later was Sam Houston State of Division I-AA, where Herman was the school’s wide receivers coach from 2001-2004. It was a full-time job that paid him $10,000 a year or $833 a month if you’re trying to figure out how he afforded rent, paid bills, student loans, or bought groceries.
“I thought I really hit the big-time,” Herman said, wry smile and all. “I did not make, I think, $40,000 until I turned 30.”
But Herman was good at this whole coaching thing so he continued to move up the ranks when Texas State came calling. It asked him to be its offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. So did Rice, where Herman’s “underdog offenses” started to gain momentum.
"We're at Rice playing with a bunch of doctors and lawyers against Southern Miss and Houston and East Carolina," he told CBS Sports last year. And Herman was an offensive coordinator from a Division III school coaching against big-time coordinators from big-time programs.
The trick to beating better, bigger, faster stronger teams? Play smarter. Out-scheme them.
Iowa State hired him for his first major gig in 2009 and upsets over Big 12 stalwarts like Nebraska, Oklahoma State, and Texas put him on Meyer’s radar.
Herman’s uptempo offense was a level-the-field kind of game-changer.
"Even though we were less talented than the rest of the Big 12, we found ways to move the ball,” he told CBS Sports.
With Meyer's spread offense and a different breed of athlete at Ohio State, it became a powerful force that's helped guide the Buckeyes to a 36-3 record in three seasons and berth in the College Football Playoff this year.
In 2013, his offenses shattered 13 single-season school records including: total touchdowns (82), total offensive yards (7,167), touchdown passes (38), rushing yards (4,321), yards per play (7.1) and yards per game (511.9).
This year, Ohio State averages 45 points and 508 yards a contest despite losing Miller 12 days before the season opener. An ability to glue and stitch together an offense with Barrett, a redshirt freshman at the helm, and play to his strengths ensured the Buckeyes' championship hopes remain intact.
In Columbus, Herman has become a star, one who's always seemed at an intersection of appreciation and ambition.
Ohio State was “a dream job, some might say. I might say. I would say.”
But the dream itself? That can’t stop in Columbus.
Back to Tuesday in Little Rock for a second:
Herman’s still standing at the podium. His forehead is glistening underneath the hot spotlights. Unlike most postgame interviews, he doesn’t have a towel to white the beads of sweat from his brow like he did after winning the Big Ten Championship two weekends ago, which remains an incredibly "surreal" event.
He thinks back to the car ride on the way to the airport, and back to Michelle, who he says left their home of Southern California for Texas, Iowa, Ohio, and, now, back to Texas.
“I promised her a life less ordinary as we travel the country and become a bit nomadic in this profession,” he said.
This is Tom Herman. Self-deprecating and sincere. The humble assistant who's hungry for what’s next.