In the midst of his official visit to Ohio State in December 2014, Joe Burrow sat in a meeting with his family, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman.
Burrow had committed to Ohio State earlier that year, after Herman convinced Meyer to offer him a scholarship. During his recruitment, Burrow didn’t receive many offers to major schools. Herman believed in him, one of the only coaches at Ohio State who did.
As Burrow approached signing day, reports swirled about Houston’s interest in Herman, who had just won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant. Burrow knew Houston would probably offer Herman the job. The son of a college coach, Burrow understood the profession.
Herman’s phone rang in the midst of Burrow’s visit. Herman stepped out of the room. He never came back. Later, Burrow and his family discovered the call had come from Houston, telling Herman it had sent a private plane for him.
Almost five years have passed, and on Tuesday afternoon, Burrow sat inside LSU’s practice facility as the starting quarterback for the Tigers. He signed with Ohio State out of high school, but he left as a graduate transfer after his sophomore year and came to LSU.
Herman spent two years at Houston before he took the head coaching job at Texas. And now, on Saturday, LSU and Texas will play a game that pushes the winner toward a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“I owe a lot to coach Herman,” Burrow said. “He was the only coach from big-time programs that had any faith in me.”
The spring of his sophomore year at Athens High School in Ohio, Burrow weighed about 160 pounds. He couldn’t throw a football well — at least not well enough to play at Ohio State. But he attended one of the Buckeyes’ camps and caught Herman’s attention, beginning a recruitment that thrust Burrow into yearlong limbo.
As Burrow grew and excelled his junior year, scoring 56 touchdowns, Herman decided he wanted him at Ohio State. Meyer hesitated. He never offered a quarterback he had not seen in person, and he had never watched Burrow.
Herman called Burrow at least once a week, updating him on his recruitment. Burrow felt Herman’s confidence in his ability, not only to play collegiate football, but to play at Ohio State. They developed trust. Meyer sent Herman across the country to scout higher-rated quarterbacks. Everywhere Herman went, he came back knowing he wanted Burrow.
After the season ended, Burrow’s coaches arranged throwing sessions twice a week for recruiters. Herman came to one in May, and Burrow threw better than he had in his entire life.
“If they don’t offer me after that one,” Burrow said as he walked off the field, “then I’m just not good enough.”
Later that month, on the final day of his junior year, Meyer called Burrow, offering him a scholarship. Burrow’s other offers had come from schools like Iowa State, Vanderbilt and Boston College. He committed that day.
Burrow took his official visit almost seven months later. He had led his high school to the state championship game — a 56-52 loss — and Herman sat in the stands with Burrow’s family. But as they left for their official visit less than two weeks later, the family knew Herman was a top candidate at Houston.
“That trust and that bond had certainly developed between coach Herman and Joe,” Burrow’s father, Jimmy, said. “You commit to the university, to the school. But yet, in reality, you commit to the person who recruited you. That makes it hard when you know there’s a possibility he may leave and that’s not the guy that’s going to be coaching you.”
After Herman took the job at Houston, Burrow re-evaluated his decision. He had about two months before national signing day. Ohio State hired Tim Beck as its new offensive coordinator a month later, and Burrow’s father called Meyer, expressing the family’s concerns. They didn’t know Beck.
“Well,” Meyer said, “what do we need to do?”
“We need to get coach Beck into our home,” Burrow’s father said.
Burrow’s family arranged an in-home visit a few days after Beck took the job, talking with Meyer and a coach they were meeting for the first time. The conversations solidified Burrow’s commitment.
After two years at Ohio State, Burrow decided to transfer. He had not played much. He thought about Texas but landed at LSU, where he led the Tigers to a 10-win season. After Burrow won Fiesta Bowl offensive player of the game honors, Herman texted him congratulations.
“I love Joe,” Herman said earlier this week.
Herman, with Beck as his offensive coordinator, has led No. 9 Texas back to the cusp of national prominence. Burrow has command of a revamped offense giving the No. 6 Tigers optimism for a national title run.
When Burrow committed to Ohio State, he never expected to one day play against Herman in a game of such importance. But circumstances changed. They both left Ohio State. And though they never played together, they reached a place they both wanted to be.