Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman has emerged as college football’s ultimate quarterback whisperer for the 2014 season.
During the Buckeyes’ run to Monday’s berth in the College Football Playoff national championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Herman turned two inexperienced backups into household names. And he did it quickly, helping No. 4 Ohio State (13-1) overcome a season-ending shoulder injury to incumbent Braxton Miller on Aug. 18 to face No. 2 Oregon (13-1) in the first title game of the playoff era.
But Herman’s tale of triumph in developing freshman J.T. Barrett, now sidelined by a season-ending ankle injury, and sophomore Cardale Jones, Monday’s starter against Oregon, comes with a unique plot twist. Even if the Buckeyes collect the trophy, the team’s quarterbacks coach and play-caller will not be returning to Ohio to celebrate with players and coach Urban Meyer.
Herman, 39, will remain in Texas to take over the Houston program. The winner of the 2014 Frank Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, was announced Dec. 15 as the Cougars’ new coach and has been juggling two jobs for the past four weeks.
By averaging about three hours of sleep per night during that stretch, Herman has handled both challenges well enough to earn kudos from Ohio State players who took part in Tuesday’s news conference to preview the Oregon game. While piecing together a staff at Houston, Herman also put together a game plan and called the plays that allowed the Buckeyes to roll for 537 yards in last week’s 42-35 upset of No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
“He’s not changed at all. Same guy, same intensity. There’s not been any let-up,” offensive lineman Tyler Decker said of Herman, who has not missed any meetings with OSU players since accepting the Houston post. “I’m sure he’s lost a lot of sleep. But he’s doing something he loves. So it’s a little easier to get up after three hours of sleep, I’m sure.”
Jones, Herman’s latest prodigy, said: “It’s unbelievable, actually. He’s still got to pick coaches and get ready for recruiting (at Houston) and he’s still taking orders from coach Meyer, preparing for this game. It says a lot about his focus.”
Herman showed his versatility again Monday, plugging a gap on the Houston staff within hours after defensive coordinator David Gibbs accepted a similar post at Texas Tech. Gibbs was the interim coach during the Cougars’ 35-34 victory over Pitt in last week’s Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth. With Gibbs gone, Herman hired defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who has spent the past two seasons at Utah State, as well as three other UH assistants before going back to plotting ways to beat Oregon in JerryWorld.
The limited sleep cycle, Herman said, “hasn’t been terrible.” He characterized it as similar to a new father dealing with the sleep deprivation that accompanies a newborn baby.
“I’ve been able to focus most of my energy where it belongs,” said Herman, a Cincinnati native who will count Houston as his sixth Texas-based employer during his college coaching career. The list includes a two-year stint as a graduate assistant on Mack Brown’s staff at Texas (1999-2000), as well as time spent as the offensive coordinator at Texas State (2005-06) and Rice (2007-08).
Herman said the secret this year’s success, when the Buckeyes have reached the national championship game under the direction of two first-year starting quarterbacks at the college level, rests with understanding the issues that bother a young quarterback.
“As big as we make these kids out to be, there’s still that self-doubt that any 19-year-old would have trying to take this stage with so many people counting on him,” Herman said. “By far the biggest thing is getting them to relax and believe in themselves. J.T. Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman. But we were constantly telling him, ‘Hey, man, you belong here. You’re good enough for this.’ And it’s the same with thing Cardale. Reminding him, ‘We all believe in you.’ He would probably tell you differently because he’s a big macho, manly man. But they’re young. You’ve got to make sure that they know that you believe in them.”
Jones, 22, is 2-0 as a starter in playoff games. Barrett, 19, led the Buckeyes to an 11-1 record in the regular season before sustaining a broken ankle Nov. 29 in a 42-28 victory over Michigan. Meyer said Tuesday he is “losing a great coach in Tom Herman” but expects the offense to thrive without him next season.
Herman, who points to Meyer and former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis as two of his primary mentors, said he has received “a lot of scars” through trial-and-error to arrive in Monday’s big stage. But he embraces the unique opportunities in front of him: to win a national championship at Ohio State and plot a new course at Houston.
“It’s why you’re in this business. Bankers don’t get to do this,” Herman said. “For all the hours, for all the late nights, for all the endless hair-pulling-out of dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds, it’s a pretty cool job. It’s the relationships you form that make it cool. It’s not because I get to call plays in front of thousands of people.”
Win or lose, Herman’s latest quarterback prodigy will continue his relationship with the man who helped him emerge as a household name during the Buckeyes’ playoff run.
“He’s always going to be in my life. He’s just not my coach (after Monday),” Jones said. “At first, we had a very uncomfortable conversation about him leaving. It was emotional. You get close to someone like that after three years. But we’ve set the record straight. We’d like to get this one for him, as well as for us.”
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
The QB whisperer
Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who was hired as Houston’s head coach recently, has developed two QBs into elite producers this season, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones:
*In two starts
A look at Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman’s career stops in Texas, past and future, as the Buckeyes (13-1) prepare for Monday’s national championship game against Oregon (13-1) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington:
Wide receivers coach
Sam Houston State
Wide receivers coach
Head football coach