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After a week of answering questions about why he should remain the coach at Texas and seeing report after report about his boss pursuing his potential replacement, Tom Herman was once again an underdog when the Longhorns stepped onto the field Saturday against Kansas State.
Unfortunately for Texas, it’s the only mode that seems to works for him.
If we’ve learned anything about Herman during four seasons at Texas and two prior to that at Houston, it’s that his teams play their best football when there’s a point to prove, when they believe they’ve been counted out. So it was once again Saturday, amid Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte’s rather open pursuit of Urban Meyer, that the Longhorns stepped up for a 69-31 win over Kansas State.
That Texas dug deep into its emotional well coming off a dispiriting loss to Iowa State to put forth its most dominant performance of the season wasn’t a surprising. It’s what Herman’s teams do.
Which is exactly the problem, isn’t it?
The reason Texas’ win Saturday changes nothing, the reason why it’s still Del Conte’s duty to try and coax one of the most successful college coaches of all time out of the broadcast booth, is that being a scrappy team that knows how to get off the mat and play its best football impresses absolutely nobody at Texas.
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You can play the underdog card a few times a year at most programs in college football because most of them lose a lot. You shouldn’t have to do it at Texas.
At the end of the Mack Brown era, the Texas program was soft and comfortable. Under Charlie Strong, it was disorganized and lacked identity. And under Herman, its defining characteristic is how often its back is planted to the wall.
It’s not so much that Texas is 6-3 this season, or that Herman is 31-18 overall, that suggests he’s not the right coach for the Longhorns. It’s the pervasive sense of ordinary they project on a weekly basis. They get into dogfight after dogfight, too many of which they lose. Then, just when it looks like things are about to spiral out of control, Herman brings them back from the brink with a great performance that makes everything seem OK.
But at this point in his tenure, it’s not OK. It’s just awkward because nobody’s even denying that Texas is making a play for Meyer. Everyone’s just letting it sit there and ferment until we know one way or the other whether he wants to do it.
Saturday’s broadcast of the game on FOX, where Meyer is part of the studio show, offered no real clues. Meyer wasn’t asked about it pregame, and during the postgame show he praised quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s leadership after a couple more Texas players opted out this week.
“I don’t think anyone here or anyone across the country is surprised,” Meyer said of Ehlinger’s 20-of-27 passing performance for 274 yards and two touchdowns. “The guy is a warrior.”
Nobody really knows what Meyer thinks about the possibility of rescuing Texas from its decade of malaise. From a lifestyle standpoint, he’s got it pretty good and doesn’t have to face the kind of stress that caused him real health issues at Florida and Ohio State.
But he’s also a football coach with three national titles and a massive ego that, on some level, has to relish the idea of trying to do it at a third school.
Most people in college football circles don’t think Meyer will do it. But nobody blames Del Conte for making the attempt.
In fact, it’s obvious that even if Meyer declines, it’s not inconceivable that Texas brings Herman back for another year and everyone pretends like it never happened. Who has time for hurt feelings when Texas owes him $15 million either way?
“When you don’t get on the Internet and you stick to Yahoo News and Words with Friends and the Chive app when you’re bored, you tend to stay above the fray a little bit,” Herman told reporters after the game.
Of course, “above the fray” is not how anyone would describe Herman, a coach who mocked Missouri quarterback Drew Lock’s touchdown celebration during a bowl game in 2017 or flipped a double bird at Longhorn Network cameras on National Signing Day because he didn’t realize they were live. Heck, his wife Michelle once wore an “OK cool, Hook ‘em” T-shirt to a game, which was a reference to a text exchange that became public where former Ohio State assistant Zach Smith accused Herman of infidelity.
Above the fray? Please. He is the fray. And his immaturity is a big reason why his relationship with Del Conte, to the extent it exists, is purportedly in a pretty rocky place.
But ultimately the reason Texas will consider making a change is because it shouldn’t require being an underdog to play its best football. For Herman, that’s not a bad trait to have as a football coach. It’s just not the right one at Texas.