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Why Tom Herman could be an all-time great, even if he never leaves Houston

Herman is making history with the Cougars that's sure to last ... if he stays

By Dieter Kurtenbach

Nov 18, 2016 at 12:33a ET

It was easy to forget about Tom Herman.

The college football coaching carousel isn’t spinning as fast as it usually does this time of year — only three Power Five jobs are open and it’s not clear if that number will grow as November turns into December — and after a stunning September that had Houston fans thinking National Championship, Herman’s Cougars lost two games in October and struggled to win the other two, eliminating any chance of making the College Football Playoff or, realistically, a New Year’s Six bowl game.

When the Cougars — the defending Peach Bowl champions — were a bracket-busting team, Herman was the talk of college football — the hottest coaching candidate in any sport in America. When Houston was just a fine team in an underrated conference, the luster and fervor of and around Herman faded.

But no matter if Houston went undefeated or lost two (or three, or maybe even four) games this year, Herman is the nation's top coaching candidate.

Thursday night, his team reminded everyone why that’s the case.

The Cougars laid an H-Town beatdown on the Louisville Cardinals Thursday night in a contest that was decided in a half.

Houston raced out to a 31-0 halftime lead with two trick plays, a dominant defensive line performance, the elusiveness of quarterback Greg Ward, and by forcing and then capitalizing on two early Louisville fumbles en route to a 36-10 win that knocked the Cardinals out of CFP contention.

There was no question who the better team on the field was Thursday night — not one — and it wasn’t a fluke that it was Houston. This is a team that always had the potential to be in the College Football Playoff — that early-season hype was no mirage — but between key injuries and let-down performances, they didn’t capitalize on that opportunity. They had to settle for being playoff spoiler, and it’s a role they clearly relished Thursday night.

The reason Herman remains the top name in football coaching — he would be a tremendous fit in the NFL, too — is because he’s building something impressive and perhaps even unprecedented at Houston. This team is not a flash-in-the-pan success, like other mid-major teams that rose to prominence in the BCS and CFP era. So long as Herman is in charge at Houston, they’re going to at least be contending for American championships and knocking off the so-called big boys of college football (if those teams continue to schedule them).

Tom Herman’s program is the second coming of Boise State — a perennial mid-major power who can go toe-to-toe with any team in America.

Only this version is in Texas.

Thursday night, the nation saw a sneak preview of what the college football world can expect from Houston year in and year out, should Herman stay.

The Cougars sacked Heisman Trophy frontrunner Lamar Jackson 11 times and held him to 244 yards of offense, a season low. The best player on the field, for either team, was Houston defensive lineman Ed Oliver, who had six tackles (three for loss) and two sacks Thursday.

At Boise State, Dan Hawkins and Chris Petersen corralled overlooked high school talent and California junior college players to build a Mountain West dynasty that has lasted close to two decades now. They never landed the big names.

Herman is finding some overlooked talent, for sure — every Group of Five coach has to be that much better at player evaluation than the big boys to get ahead in the game — but he's taking that a step further.

When Oliver, a five-star rated player out of local high school Westfield, signed with Houston in February, it should have sent shockwaves around the college football world. Only five five-star rated prospects had ever signed with non-Power Five schools this millennium, and two of those signed with BYU — Oliver made it six, and there wasn’t an external force in play (academics, religion, health) that naysayers could use to explain it away.

It was the biggest recruiting win in the nation, and a harbinger of things to come.

This is not a normal Group of Five program, because the program isn’t led by a normal Group of Five coach: Herman is a MENSA member who has roots in Ohio, California, and Texas and has won multiple recruits from Florida. His teams are only going to become deeper and deeper — those injuries that derailed 2016 won't hurt as much in 2017 and beyond.

If he continues at this pace, his Houston program could well compete for National Championships annually, despite playing in a Group of Five conference.

We don’t know Herman’s goals — if he wants to stay at Houston, despite the fact they won't be going to the Big 12, or take on one of the nation’s premier programs — and we certainly don’t know what those bigger programs' power brokers, namely those at Texas, LSU, and Oregon are thinking when it comes to their head coaching position.

But if they soured on Herman as a candidate because of the Cougars’ lackluster October, it’s clear that they’re looking at the wrong metrics when evaluating people to lead their program. Herman’s reputation as an in-game coach is rock solid and his track record as a program builder, while not long, is historic.

A loss to Navy or SMU doesn’t change those facts — second-year head coaches can't be held to undefeated-or-bust standards, even ones who beat Florida State and Oklahoma back-to-back — but the win over Louisville Thursday night served as a reminder: Herman is one of the best coaches in the nation, and he’s building something special at Houston.

If you’re a Power Five athletic director with an open or soon-to-be-open job, and Herman isn’t your first call, you’re not doing your job right.

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