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Texas has given Tom Herman everything, and Longhorns still can’t win championships

Final two games are merely window dressing after Texas essentially eliminated from Big 12 title contention

Texas gave Tom Herman everything — and it still hasn’t been enough to produce a Big 12 championship.

Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman speak with the officials during a timeout against Iowa State Cyclones during NCAA college football game on Saturday, November 27, 2020; Austin, Texas, at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Friday’s 23-20 loss to Iowa State, which knocked Texas out of Big 12 title contention, had to leave school officials wondering if Herman is worthy of UT’s largess.

The facilities were old. School officials pumped $1.1 million into a totally new locker room as part of a $10 million facelift. A new $175-million stadium is well underway, too.

Recruiting needed to be upgraded. School officials expanded the player personnel department, bringing UT up to par with its equals, and upgraded the in-house marketing for a better look on social media.

Herman got million-dollar assistants. UT had never paid seven figures for an assistant coach before Herman arrived. That changed. The coach was then allowed to fire seven assistants and hire seven new ones after the 2019 season.

The Longhorns reeled in three top-10 recruiting classes. This year, Texas has a senior quarterback, statistically one of the best in school history. The Big 12 as a whole was down. And the Horns still can’t finish in the top two. With two games left, they’re tied for fourth place.

Now toward the end of his fourth season, Herman has a program that’s fallen out of the Associated Press Top 25 rankings. Texas (5-3, 4-3 Big 12) must finish out the string with road trips to Kansas State (this Saturday) and winless Kansas (Dec. 12). Some kind of bowl game will follow.

Some are deciding it’s not worth it. Left tackle Samuel Cosmi will opt out of the final two games and start preparing for the NFL draft, a source told the American-Statesman on Sunday. The school confirmed Cosmi’s decision midday Sunday. The three-year starter from Humble is widely projected to be a first- or second-round pick.

Cosmi, a junior, made his intentions clear by participating in Senior Day activities prior to the Iowa State game. It’s unclear if any other seniors will follow his lead and leave early.

Texas has played for only one Big 12 title in Herman’s four seasons. That’s nowhere close to the level of success UT  officials expected when they plucked him from Houston in November 2016. The school gave him a contract extension after a 10-win season in 2018. But the program has been treading water ever since.

Herman, scheduled to make $6 million this season, has three years left on a contact with a guaranteed $15 million buyout.

“We’ve still got two regular-season games to play for an opportunity to have a .700 winning percentage, much like the .714 winning percentage we had in ’18,” Herman said after Friday’s loss.

“I also think that once we wipe the tears away from our eyes and get that pit out of our stomach, we’ll be back to work on Sunday, ready to go try to win another one in Manhattan, Kansas,” he added.

Herman is 9-10 in four seasons against Top 25 opponents. He’s 2-12 when the Horns are trailing going into the fourth quarter. Texas also has gone 1-4 against Oklahoma.

On the flip side, the Horns have won three straight bowl games and gotten into the AP top 10 in 2018, 2019 and 2020. The Horns never won more than six games in a season under Charlie Strong from 2014-16.

All of this comes during a year when football players forced the school to address “The Eyes of Texas” and its origins. The century-old school song was first performed at minstrel shows in the early 1900s but has since come to represent school pride. Some believe the song is racist and should be changed or done away with entirely.

Herman was asked on Friday whether he’s the right coach for Texas. “That’s not for me to decide,” he said. Herman continually refers to “the program right now, compared to where it was when we took over.” He believes the future is bright.

Next season, Texas will be starting a new quarterback after senior Sam Ehlinger moves on. Whoever starts the 2021 season opener — be it Casey Thompson, Hudson Card or Ja’Quinden Jackson — will be making his first career start.

The offensive line must be rebuilt. In addition to Cosmi leaving, two other starters are currently seniors. That means 60% of the unit will be new next season.

Recruiting isn’t going particularly well. The 2021 class is ranked 17th nationally, according to 247Sports’ composite ratings. The 2022 class is a total unknown at this point after Southlake Carroll’s Quinn Ewers, the nation’s No. 1-rated quarterback prospect, flipped from UT to Ohio State.

If Texas keeps Herman, recruits in the 2022 and 2023 classes could be skeptical about coming to Austin. They’ll likely wait and watch to see if the Horns catch fire. Recruiting is a momentum-driven machine. If momentum stops, the entire enterprise grinds to a halt.

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte gave Herman the contact extension. Now, he must weigh the pros and cons of paying out millions in buyout money in a pandemic. This also comes just months after the athletic department laid off employees, and others were let go on campus.

Still, football is UT’s biggest moneymaker. Boosters are expected to make key payments toward their south end zone obligations by mid-December. What happens if they withhold those payments out of anger?

Del Conte’s biggest problem is the lack of optimism. Devoid any hope, fans aren’t going to open their wallets. With a new stadium expansion and a new basketball arena coming online soon, school administrators can’t afford the fan base to become apathetic.

Texas also has a new school president, Jay Hartzell. Make no mistake, the president ultimately hires and fires the football coach at Texas.

Making matters worse, thousands of season ticket-holders have grown accustomed to watching games from home because of the pandemic. How do you lure them back to the stadium if there’s no optimism?

When Strong was fired after the 2016 season, it was obvious. Everyone knew change was coming, even Strong himself. With Herman, it’s not so clear-cut.

What if the Horns can’t lure Urban Meyer to leave the Fox TV studio? Who’s Plan B? Strong wasn’t the first choice in December 2013; he wasn’t even in the top five. And Texas struggled.

The final two regular-season games are merely window dressing. Whatever happens with Herman will define Hartzell’s and Del Conte’s tenure, for better or worse.