University of Texas linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch (23) and quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) stand next to Texas head coach, Tom Herman, before the team exits the tunnel for the Orange-White spring game held at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday, April, 13, 2019, in Austin, Texas. [Rodolfo Gonzalez for AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Texas’ Tom Herman — the social activist — was college football’s big winner off the field

Posted September 5th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • Off the field, Tom Herman’s had the guts and compassion to speak out when it’s easier to be silent.
  • In the big picture, what Herman did in the summer of 2020 is truthfully more important than what he does in the fall of 2020, at least in the progression of the lives of the hundred or so 18- to 21-year-old young men he’s tasked with leading and their maturity.
  • Herman, however, has been at the forefront of this social movement. No other coach has been as outspoken as the 45-year-old coach, who has told his audience that everyone should listen to what these players have to say even if they don't agree with them.

Write it down.

Tom Herman as Coach of the Year.

Sure, Texas hasn’t even kicked off yet. Hardly anyone else has, either.

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Over the last six months of turbulence and divisiveness, the fourth-year Longhorns boss has set himself apart. We’re not saying he’s the Nelson Mandela of college football coaches. He’s more Pete Seeger with a whistle, crying out for social justice.

But Herman’s public social stands and strong leadership have been impressive. Few coaches have done more to ardently support their players, advance their needs and arguments, dipped into his own pocket to help others, and articulated the wishes of others than Herman.

Yeah, on-the-field results are important, too. Like, uh, big time. We’re not new here.

Texas head coach Tom Herman takes the field before the 2019 game against TCU at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth. The fourth-year UT coach is 25-15 so far with the Horns. (Stephen Spillman/For Statesman)

Herman is on the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year watch list for the third straight year. His 25-15 record so far at Texas has left something to be desired, but he does have three bowl wins and the Longhorns headed on the right trajectory. 

Off the field, he’s had the guts and compassion to speak out when it’s easier to be silent.

We know most will almost certainly forget that in June he marched to the Capitol flanked by dozens of his players to honor the memory of George Floyd and support the Black Lives Matter movement on behalf of all victims of police brutality. Many won’t remember that in every Zoom call, Herman expressed his appreciation for his players’ handling of a most uncomfortable situation. They might forget he’s encouraged them all to register to vote and be socially conscious.

Yeah, we’ll all forget, but we shouldn’t, even if it is September and the kickoff against UTEP fast approaches.

“For any other human being to tell another human being how to feel without ever walking a mile in their shoes, I just don’t think is right,” Texas football coach Tom Herman said. (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

In June, Herman bravely tweeted that “this is a painful time for our country. We must find a way to come together and use our voices to take a stand against the horrific mistreatment of African Americans and all people of color. As we prepare to return to our lives, please join us in embracing our players and staff with compassion and understanding and support them as they share their voices, their experiences and their pain.”

Well put.

In the big picture, what Herman did in the summer of 2020 is truthfully more important than what he does in the fall of 2020, at least in the progression of the lives of the hundred or so 18- to 21-year-old young men he’s been tasked with leading.

Let’s face it. Very few of these Texas players are going to make a dime playing professional football. 

Offensive tackle Sam Cosmi most likely is a lock to go in the first round of next spring’s NFL draft and could well become the next Dan Neil. Pass rusher Joseph Ossai looks like a no-brainer, and quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s going to get a strong crack at making an NFL roster, if not a starting huddle. Caden Sterns could be the next in a long line of Texas defensive backs in the pros. 

But of the 85 on scholarship, precious few will make a consistent living playing pro football. So they’d better get that degree. Life won’t be virtual after four or five years in college. It’ll be real.

Most will live their lives hawking cars or selling insurance or coaching high school football and some will become lawyers or ministers or engineers. Herman sees as part of his responsibility shaping those lives and encouraging their dreams and teaching them responsibilities as future husbands and fathers and socially conscious citizens of the world.

All coaches give that stuff lip service. I have no idea how many really mean it. Some are clearly self-serving. Mack Brown, of course, saw himself as a father figure, and so did his players. He very famously told his players at the Rose Bowl in 2006 not to make that victory the defining point of their lives, and he was right.

Texas football player Caden Sterns hugs Longhorns head coach Tom Herman at the end of a team march to the State Capitol in June. Herman has been publicly supportive of his players taking part in protest movements this summer. (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

Herman’s been on point every step of the way.

“It was important to me, as someone who has the microphone in front of himself often, to support our players and the causes that they are passionate about,” Herman told me Friday. “It also gave me an opportunity to voice my own personal concerns regarding injustices in our society and in college football.”

He clearly won college football’s offseason. Hands down.

True, it may have been a small field, which speaks even larger to his boldness. Some, like Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, have been equally front and center for their players as well. So, too, is Nick Saban, who led his players on a recent march to promote social justice.

“This is what helped me grow in my role as a leader, to listen to the players, to learn from the players and give them opportunities to do things that could impact social change today,” Saban said. “Today I’m like a proud parent.”

“It was important to me, as someone who has the microphone in front of himself often, to support our players and the causes that they are passionate about,” Texas coach Tom Herman said about his public stances supporting his players. “It also gave me an opportunity to voice my own personal concerns regarding injustices in our society and in college football.” (Stephen Spillman/For Statesman]

Others have shrunk from the moment. 

Kirk Ferentz, his Iowa program under siege because of an abusive strength coach, has been lucky to hold onto his job. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has had to backpedal at times, donning a “Football Matters” T-shirt to start a furor. Lou Holtz? Don’t get me started.

Of course, Mike Gundy probably lost more than any other coach, saying players should play to help their school. His Heisman candidate, tailback Chuba Hubbard, called out his head coach for the insensitivity of wearing a One America News T-shirt — for sure, Gundy’s rightful choice, but one with clear potential consequences, the same as all our decisions — on a fishing junket.

Herman has made it clear where his heart lies.

“For any other human being to tell another human being how to feel without ever walking a mile in their shoes,” he said recently, “I just don’t think is right.”

The offseason, truthfully, hasn’t been all that kind to Herman. He and his seven new assistants, including two coordinators, were denied spring practices critical to forming new bonds and team chemistry. He stood by his players, who rankled many in the fan base with demands for fair treatment, building name changes, statue removals and the elimination of “The Eyes of Texas” with its racial vestiges. The heralded Brockermeyer twins snubbed Texas in favor of Alabama. And Tom got docked a cool $900,000 this past week when he and 25 other UT coaches and administrators took voluntary paycuts, in his case a large 15% reduction out of his considerable $6 million norm. Yes, he’ll be able to keep his lights on.

Shaka Smart has been disappointingly invisible. The Texas basketball coach has been nowhere to be seen the last six months. He’s a guy all of us in the media thinks shares deep, abiding empathy for his players, but he’s hardly said a peep since March.

Herman, however, has been at the forefront of this social movement. No other coach has been as outspoken as the 45-year-old, who has told his audience that everyone should listen to what these players have to say. They don’t necessarily have to agree with them, just be open-minded enough to hear their complaints and perspective.

 Don’t just root for them on Saturdays, he said. That’s fundamentally hypocritical, and he’s correct.

These players are people first, not just entertainers. As are the coaches, who some of us in the media can too cavalierly overlook at times, to be honest.

I like and respect this Tom Herman. He genuinely cares, he’s been willing to risk alienating some fans, he’s donated time and money to causes like the Central Texas Food Bank and he’s had his players’ backs.

Good for him.

Now go beat Oklahoma.

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