Destination Texas, Part 1: Tom Herman, the GA 'hell-bent for leather'

Story highlights
  • Tom Herman's first job was at Texas Lutheran, which was offering him $5,000 and a meal card.
  • In Mack Brown's early years, the Longhorns hired graduate assistants who were former players.
  • Herman landed a GA role in 1999 and began learning about all facets of UT football.

Posted January 13th, 2017

Raymond Rapp Sr. spent four decades coaching football in Texas, so he’s worked with good coaches, bad coaches and plenty in between. And then there was 23-year-old Tom Herman.

“He wanted to coach,” said Rapp, 82, now retired and living in Canyon Lake. “He was hell-bent for leather.”

Herman, who was born in Cincinnati and raised in California, is the living embodiment of that old saying: He wasn’t born in Texas, but Herman got here as fast as he could. In a 1994 Honda Civic, no less. With no power steering.


Herman’s journey from Simi Valley, Calif., to becoming the head coach at the University of Texas started in 1998 with a cross-country trek with his future wife, Michelle.

It was fueled on blind faith. He’d taken a job as the receivers coach at Texas Lutheran in Seguin totally sight unseen. The school offered $5,000 and a meal card.

Texas Lutheran receivers coach Tom Herman, center, took the job sight unseen and joined head coach Brian Marmion, right, in Seguin. Photo by Texas Lutheran athletics
Texas Lutheran receivers coach Tom Herman, center, took the job sight unseen in 1998 at TLU after the school decided to revive its football program. (Texas Lutheran athletics)

If Herman was going into college coaching, he figured he’d better shoot for the stars. UT was almost 60 miles north of the Texas Lutheran campus. Herman asked Rapp, who was TLU’s play-caller, if he knew anyone with the Longhorns. Turns out Rapp knew Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis, so he picked up the phone and called his UT counterpart.

“Greg said they might have an opening for a graduate assistant,” Rapp said. “Then he said, ‘Well, I think we’ve got somebody here at Texas that’s going to take that job. But who knows how that will work out.’ I hung up and Tom said, ‘Call him back, call him back’.

“Well, OK, I’ll call him back, Tom. And I did, and Greg said, ‘Tell that guy to quit calling. I know. I’ve already heard how good he is from you and that recommendation. We’ll just see how it works out.’”

Finally, Davis invited Rapp and Herman to the UT campus to spend a day inside the football complex.

“During the course of the day, Tom stepped out to go do something,” recalled Davis, who spent 13 years as UT’s offensive coordinator. “Coach said, ‘If you ever have a GA spot, this guy is really good.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll remember that.’”

Johnny Cox, one of UT’s graduate assistants at the time, was impressed with Herman, too. The sheer amount of questions Herman asked, along with their complexity, was intriguing.

“He liked to see what I did on a daily basis as far as breaking down the film, how we were doing the scouting reports, putting together the scout team,” said Cox, now the associate head coach at North Carolina-Pembroke. “What were the members of the staff like, as far as their personalities? What were the little tasks we had to do to make sure they were happy on a daily basis? He was attune to those things.”

Graduate assistants had to get into UT on their own accord; the football program couldn’t pull any strings. That was no problem for Herman, who took the GRE with almost no studying. A spot came open for the 1999 season, and based on Rapp and Cox’s recommendations, Davis said yes — a decision that altered Thomas J. Herman’s life.

“Greg was in charge of GAs on offense in that time,” then-head coach Mack Brown said. “Greg gave him the break that he needed to get started.”

Herman’s first assignment was easy. He and fellow graduate assistant Oscar Giles were asked to ride in a parade with 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams. “You don’t have to do anything unless some idiot tries to get up in the truck,” Davis told him.

University of Texas Heisman Trophy winning running back Ricky Williams is saluted by the thousands as they lined Congress Ave. during a parade celebrating Williams and the UT football team's winning season Thursday afternoon January 29, 1999. Here Williams waves to fans in the highrises as he is flanked by Graduate Assistant football coaches Tom Herman, left, and Oscar Giles, right. (M.Kelly story)
Tom Herman’s first assignment as a graduate assistant was to ride with 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, center, and fellow GA Oscar Giles, right, in a parade honoring his achievements on Jan. 29, 1999. (Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman)

In one of the first staff meetings, Brown accidentally referred to him as “Coach Harmon” from “Trinity.”

Cox wasn’t in the room, but definitely heard about it. “I’m sure he was crushed,” Cox said. “But he has a good personality, so I’m sure he just laughed it off.”

Herman wasn’t about to correct his new boss. “A GA’s role is different in that most of the time, he sat in the corner, he didn’t say much,” Davis said. “He was listening, writing and learning.”

Texas graduate assistant Tom Herman in 1999. Photo by University of Texas athletics
Texas graduate assistant Tom Herman in 1999. (University of Texas athletics)

For example, Herman wanted to know why the Longhorns ran out of the I-formation so much in 1998. “Well, have you seen who’s at the top of that I?,” Davis told him. “That’s Ricky Williams.”

Each day during spring practice, Davis blocked off time from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. to speak exclusively with Texas high school coaches. Herman sat in all the meetings and took voracious notes.

“Then when the high school coaches would leave, he’d say, ‘Coach I’ve got a question about this, that or whatever,’” Davis said. “He was a sponge. He was a guy that anytime football was being talked, he wanted to be there.”

Rapp said Herman could process information “like you were putting it into a computer.”

Herman spent the 1999 and 2000 seasons listening, writing and learning football from a UT coaching staff that won 101 games from 2001-09 and played for two national titles. He earned a master’s degree at UT and was ready for his first full-time job in 2001.

“It didn’t take him 30 days to find out all I know,” Rapp said. “If you give him two years, he’s going to know everything that you know.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email

Editor’s note: This is the first of a seven-part series about new Texas coach Tom Herman. American-Statesman staff writers Brian Davis and Danny Davis visited each of his previous coaching stops to learn about his journey from becoming a UT graduate assistant in 1999 to the head coach on Nov. 26, 2016.