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Golden: 'The truth from the fluff,' in the recruiting world, is Texas' harsh reality

Texas finished out of the top 10 in national recruiting for the first time since Herman's first season.

Texas' 2021 recruiting class is ranked 17th in the country with less than two months to go before national signing day. The Horns signed three straight top-10 classes in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
  • Texas coach Tom Herman is grappling with how to change the perception that Texas isn't in the same class with Alabama, Clemson, LSU, and Ohio State.
  • The perceptions that matter most are held by five-star recruits who have their pick of schools.

Tom Herman has a perception problem.

It’s fixable in the long term, but any quick remedy can only come if his Texas Longhorns go 11-1, spank Oklahoma, win the Big 12 and qualify for the College Football Playoff.

Anyone want to take that bet?

Regardless of what happens in the upcoming Super Spreader Bowl, Texas' 2020 season will go down as a disappointment because there really isn’t much difference between 7-3 and 6-4 for a team that started the year with conference title aspirations because of a a bevy of veterans on both sides of the ball, including Sam Ehlinger, the most experienced returning quarterback in the country.

Shoot, I had the Horns winning the conference and crashing the CFP party for the first time. That’s how good I felt about this crew.

Somehow, it all went down in a flurry of late fumbles, blown opportunities and a real bad case of being the second best team on the field in crucial matchups.

Texas will find out its bowl destination on Sunday, probably the Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando on Dec. 29. Or possibly the Alamo again. Herman is smart enough to know he can never say the word “rebuild” again as long as he's Texas' coach. Sure, he spoke in those terms after he was brought in to replace Charlie Strong, who was fired after three straight losing seasons. But the truth is Herman inherited a roster with 14 players who are currently or have spent time on NFL rosters, so that cupboard was anything but bare.

Now four years in, Tom Herman is faced with the reality that any other talk of rebuilding will come with a coach not named Tom Herman. Texas can stand toe to toe with any other program when it comes to merchandising and exposure, but when it comes to wins, the Horns aren’t on par with Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, or here of late, that team in College Station.

Southlake Carroll's Quinn Ewers, who's the top-rated quarterback in the country for the 2022 recruiting class, grew up a Texas Longhorns fan but decommited from the program in favor of Ohio State.

The decommitment of five-star Southlake Carroll quarterback Quinn Ewers — a longtime Longhorns fan and the country's top-rated quarterback for the 2022 recruiting class  — and his flip to Ohio State, followed by the early signings by Alabama of the win sons of former Longhorns star Blake Brockermeyer added to the disappointments, though no one can blame all three prospects for signing with teams that are on the short list of national championship contenders year in and year out.

The Horns did not nab a single four-star recruit on offense this past week but signed eight players in the national top 300, including five-star athlete Ja'Tavion Sanders out of Denton Ryan, so there's that.

What Herman must change is a national perception problem, and he can only do it by kicking some serious butt on the football field. If that happens, the Ewers and Brockermeyer types will arrive by the truckload.

Fifteen years ago, Texas coach Mack Brown, shown with quarterback Vince Young after the Rose Bowl win over Michigan in January 2005, was ascending to the top of the college football world both on the field and in recruiting circles.

The perception isn’t as important as far as fans are concerned, but the issue here is what the creme de la creme of high school football players believe. Today's typical ninth grader was maybe five years old when Texas last competed for a national title and doesn’t experience the same warm fuzzies as, say, a 25-year-old who was in high school when Texas nearly captured a second national title in five years in 2009.

“You have four or five straight Big 12 championships for Oklahoma and you have an emerging A&M team and you have a Texas team that’s kind of struggling with who it is and who is going to coach it long-term,” American-Statesman recruiting guru Mike Craven said on our "On Second Thought" podcast this week. “Those are tough, tough sells on the recruiting trail when you get into rooms with guys that have offers from OU, LSU, Alabama, A&M, and Ohio State.  What do you sell right now as a program?”

Tradition can only take you so far. Recruits now want to be dazzled by current success and new things. The Horns renovated their workout facility and are completing the north end zone reconstruction at Royal Memorial Stadium, but the vital statistics (wins) are still lacking and teenagers sometimes follow the hottest programs, regardless of previous affections.

Texas is ranked outside the top 10 in national recruiting rankings — No. 17 on the 247Sports composite list after the end of the early signing period, with a month and a half to go before national signing day in February — for the first time in three years, and Texas' lack of on-field success in 2020 ranks as a primary reason for the lowest-ranked class that didn’t involve a coaching change in the last 20 years.

Herman said he prides himself on his staff’s relationship with the state’s high school coaches, though it’s far from complete. Like he said, those relationships take time to build while riding the ever-evolving rollercoaster of recruiting teenagers whose minds can change with a shift in the wind current.

“Constant communication is the best way I can put it,” Herman explained. "Just continuing to reach out to everybody in these young men’s circles of influence and sphere of influence, if you will, and just continue again day after day to build these relationships and get to know them and get to know the truth from the fluff.”

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger celebrates a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia on Jan. 1, 2019. The win was thought to be a turning point for the Longhorns, but two seasons later, the program still hasn't returned to the level of consistent excellence once enjoyed under coach Mack Brown.

When Mack Brown gave a humongous shoutout to Texas high school football before a national television audience while celebrating the 2005 national title on the Rose Bowl stage, standing next to Michael Huff and Vince Young just one month before signing day, it bought him another five years of goodwill not only on his own campus but in the office of every high school coach in the fertile recruiting areas of Houston and Dallas.

He owned the state at that time and posted a 45-8 record over his next four seasons before things began go to south after the 2009 title game loss to Alabama.

Some believed Herman was on a similar path after the 10-4 season in 2018 and the Sugar Bowl win over Georgia. What followed was two great recruiting classes, but not great teams during the Herman-Ehlinger partnership.

Herman will set out once again to figure out how to halt Oklahoma’s stranglehold on the conference while seeking to recapture juggernaut status in the living rooms of the state and in the minds of those young men who believe Austin doesn’t rank with with  Tuscaloosa, Columbus, Baton Rouge, Clemson and Norman as the quickest routes to the pros.

There was a time when Mack encountered similar struggles before figuring it all out en route to becoming a Texas coaching legend.

Brown eventually fell out of favor and received his walking papers.

And he actually won big here.

How must Tom feel?