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Herman, Del Conte must put 2020 behind them, learn from mistakes

In happier times, Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte, left, and head coach Tom Herman congratulate each other after the Longhorns' 28-28 win over Georgia in the 2018 Sugar Bowl. Since that game, Texas has gone 14-8.
  • Herman failed to deliver a big-time season or a Big 12 championship for the fourth time in four seasons.
  • Del Conte failed to deliver fan favorite and three-time national champion Urban Meyer as a replacement.
  • Both better have learned some harsh lessons from this year or will be destined to repeat mistakes.

Tom Herman will return in 2021.

Chris Del Conte will return in 2021.

We presume.

Neither will win any popularity awards this offseason. And both lost plenty of support from fans.

Herman failed to deliver a breakout season or a Big 12 championship for the fourth time in four years. Del Conte failed to deliver fan favorite and three-time national champion Urban Meyer as a replacement and couldn’t fend off huge turmoil surrounding the school’s alma mater.

Both are still in their jobs, but both suffered mountains of criticism and backlash and have work to do to repair their images.

And both better have learned some harsh lessons from this year or they will be destined to repeat their mistakes and put their jobs in jeopardy.

Beyond 2021, all bets are off. Herman could win the Big 12 next season with a brand new quarterback and new offensive line, get Texas into the College Football Playoff and beat Alabama in the national championship game. Or he could be a lame-duck coach and right back on the hot seat.

Texas coach Tom Herman talks to his team during the Longhorns' win over West Virginia at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Nov. 7.

I do think Herman can still be a big winner. He's still a good coach, but sticking with him is a huge gamble. It does save Texas more than $25 million, but at what cost if things don't improve?

What if next season starts poorly and Texas falls to Louisiana in the opener and then to Arkansas on the road? What then? How much howling would there be? For Herman to gather momentum and sustain belief in his program, he has to beat Oklahoma and win the Big 12. Otherwise, Texas football will be nationally irrelevant.

Let it be said I think Herman’s a good coach. Not great. He’s growing into the role, and it’s taking longer than it should. Fans haven't embraced him. He's made off-the-field blunders involving bird-flipping and head-butting and bag-securing. He doesn’t have open relationships with the local media and he clearly prefers it that way. Neither did Mack Brown in his last five years, and it eventually cost him his job.

Del Conte could rebound as well, rally Longhorn Nation by getting the Big 12 to sign an exclusive deal with the Longhorn Network to televise every conference game, cutting ticket prices to $10 apiece and announcing that all seats in the new Moody Center will have recliners. Or he could be a lame-duck athletic director. That’s probably very far-fetched, but he has embittered the fan base with his secretiveness and lack of candor.

Del Conte is a good man, decent, well-meaning and compassionate. I like him. But he completely botched this coaching evaluation, wrapped it in confusion and ambiguity and capped it off Saturday with the most poorly worded, lukewarm endorsement of his coach that it immediately invited scorn and ridicule in the social media world. He did a horrible job of standing by his coach and showing faith in him.

He went after Urban Meyer. No shame in that. But that decision held Texas hostage. Del Conte should have sought him out after the second loss of the season, gauged his interest and told him he’d need to know by early November, not mid-December.

Neither Herman nor Del Conte had a good year in 2020. And they could be right back in this very same spot in 12 months if they’re not careful. Neither did himself any favors.

With seconds left in the game, Texas head coach Tom Herman fist-bumps athletic director Chris Del Conte as the Longhorns wrap up their 38-10 victory over Utah in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 31, 2019 at the Alamodome.

It doesn’t help that Del Conte has infuriated fans or that Herman’s blue-chip recruiting has tailed off dramatically and might get worse before it gets better. They’d better put on their big-boy pants and try to salvage this.

Both tried their darndest away from the football field and deserve credit — and blame — for that.

Herman, caught in a no-win situation during the height of the social unrest of the summer, proudly supported his players’ stance in the Black Lives Matters movement and encouraged them to speak their minds, which they did. But he failed to heed Del Conte’s demand that the players at least stay on the field for the playing of “The Eyes of Texas,” which became a deeply polarizing topic among alumni and created more unrest and drama beyond his 31-18 overall record.

On the field, he started out ranked 14th but after barely escaping an ugly loss to a bad Texas Tech team, lost two straight winnable games to TCU and Oklahoma and treaded water the rest of the abbreviated season to finish a very disappointing 6-3. Four of his players, all of them captains, opted out with games to be played, another awful sign.

Herman needs to bring humility, yet confidence, to the job and get it right. Show any degree of smugness, and his job will only get harder.

Del Conte couldn’t get aligned with Herman during the fiasco over “The Eyes,” and botched the year-end evaluation of his football coach by giving Longhorn Nation hope their new coach might be Meyer and not squelch those desires with a single tweet weeks ago. He also allowed his coach to dangle in limbo for weeks instead of providing clarity for either his staff or the fan base.

Then he doubled down and offered up the most ambiguous statement ever when he decided to retain Herman. Kind of. He implied he was keeping Herman and alluded to excitement “moving forward” and said vaguely that Herman “is our coach.” Some endorsement.

Social media went into a meltdown. Only when the Statesman pressed him to elaborate did Del Conte state unequivocally that Herman would be Texas coach in 2020. He flunked Clarity 101.

Neither covered himself in glory.

To his credit, Herman handled himself particularly well by never lashing out (despite one somewhat justifiable rant in his own defense) very strongly. One can only imagine how strained the relationship between Herman and his bosses is now.

To his credit, Del Conte tried to quietly court Meyer. Who could blame him for that? But he should have learned much sooner if Meyer was interested instead of being held hostage by the former Buckeyes coach’s whims.

He never made it known he was looking at others, but he clearly was. If Del Conte and then-President Gregory L. Fenves hadn’t given Herman a two-year extension after the Sugar Bowl high, the coach’s buyout would have been a much more manageable $5 million, not $15.4 million.

Now there’s a whole lot of fence-mending to do. But it can't give Herman an extension beyond his three remaining years at $6 mil apiece.

Herman and Del Conte tried to be classy about it. But it came off poorly and embarrassed the university.

Who knows how 2021 will turn out?  But it can’t be much worse.

But neither can afford a repeat of 2020.