Texas AD wanted Herman back, but ‘circumstances changed’
Six starters opted out of Alamo Bowl, recruiting was slipping and Herman landed in a no-win situation
Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte wanted to keep coach Tom Herman in place for the 2021 season. He issued a statement on Dec. 12 saying as much, even though every word was torn apart on social media.
But as December rolled on, more things kept cropping up, creating the perception of real trouble within the program. "Circumstances changed," Del Conte told the American-Statesman late Saturday.
“From the time I made the statement, I had not completed my evaluation,” Del Conte said. “When I completed that evaluation, it became apparent a change needed to be made.”
The school fired Herman on Saturday, ending a run of four straight winning seasons pockmarked with what-was-that moments from the head coach himself.
Herman went 32-18 at UT but did not win a Big 12 championship. Within hours of his firing, the school announced the hiring of Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian as the next Texas coach.
Herman could not be reached Saturday despite multiple efforts. A source close to him told the Statesman that the coach had been notified on Saturday morning. The coach, his staff and those around him were shocked. UT issued its press release just after 10:30 a.m.
The Longhorns finished the regular season with a 6-3 record. In all likelihood, Texas would have finished 7-3 had the regular-season finale against 0-9 Kansas not been canceled. An Alamo Bowl win would have pushed the Horns to 8-3 in that scenario. Who fires their coach after a season like that?
But once Texas lost to Iowa State on Nov. 27, the Horns were eliminated from the Big 12 championship race. That started a chain reaction that ultimately led to Herman’s dismissal.
With Texas unable to win a title, players started opting out. Junior left tackle Samuel Cosmi announced he was skipping the remaining games, followed by junior safety Caden Sterns.
Seniors started opting out to start working toward the NFL draft, too — defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham and safety Chris Brown. Junior receiver Brennan Eagles opted out, and so did junior defensive end Joseph Ossai, who would later earn first-team All-America status from The Associated Press.
Senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, the biggest name left with 2021 draft value, stayed put. He played in the Alamo Bowl but suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out of the second half.
School officials were astonished and concerned, albeit privately. Why would so many players suddenly want to quit on the team? Opting out of meaningless bowls is the wave of the future, though.
After Herman’s firing became public, Sterns tweeted Saturday, “That’s why you gotta do what’s right for your family and you or you’ll get caught up with the politics in CFB. The business isn’t pretty at all.”
All those departures were offset by some players deciding to stay for another year. That alone became news. Double-check your flip cards: these players are gone, these are staying.
Meanwhile, Texas’ current recruiting class wasn’t highly regarded. After three straight years of top-10 classes, Herman’s 2021 early signing class came in ranked 17th nationally, according to 247Sports composite rankings. The final ranking may improve when national signing day arrives in a month; UT has about nine spots still available.
Chasing recruiting rankings is a double-edged sword. Fans want to see five- and four-star recruits and top-10 finishes. But as Iowa State’s Breece Hall said after beating UT, “five-star culture versus five-star talent.” Recruiting slippage is always the first major sign of trouble.
The 2022 class was positioned to be incredible. But on Oct 28, Southlake Carroll quarterback Quinn Ewers, the nation’s No. 1-ranked quarterback prospect, pulled out of his UT commitment and flipped to Ohio State.
It was well known that Ewers grew up wanting to be a Longhorn, just like Ehlinger. For someone who wanted to attend Texas to suddenly choose to go elsewhere, that was a major red flag. Everyone had the same question: why would Ewers suddenly go elsewhere?
Ewers told recruiting reporters on Saturday that he was aware of Herman’s firing but, as of now, would stick with Ohio State. He can’t sign a letter of intent until December at the earliest.
UT currently has one recruit committed for the 2022 class, cornerback Jaylon Guilbeau of Port Arthur. For comparison, Ohio State already has 10. Oklahoma has four.
Current players are leaving, and recruits are looking elsewhere. Then, Del Conte learned that some players currently on the roster were doing negative recruiting, telling some not to come to UT. It’s not unusual for disgruntled, outgoing players to talk negatively about a coaching staff they don’t like, though.
Others felt differently about Herman.
“The first college coach to show me any interest and for that I will always be thankful,” linebacker DeMarvion Overshown tweeted.
Defensive tackle Keondre Coburn tweeted, “He gave me my first offer would always be part of me and my family thank you Herman.”
Running back Roshon Johnson added, “Gave me an opportunity and for that I’m forever grateful. Thank you! @CoachTomHerman.”
Herman also was socially progressive, backing his players' push to stand up for social issues. He was between a rock and a hard place on “The Eyes of Texas” controversy, though. If Herman supported his players, he would anger school administrators. If he told the players to get in line, he would lose the locker room.
Fair or not, a majority of fans directed their frustration about “The Eyes” at Herman. The Statesman obtained 130 pages of emails sent to UT President Jay Hartzell’s office after the midseason Oklahoma loss through an open records request. Everyone was venting about “The Eyes” but nearly all of them had an opinion on Herman.
“I care that the players are expected to listen to Coach Herman,” one fan wrote to Hartzell. “And he made them their friend instead of being a leader. And saying no. Such a shame.”
Others asked for refunds. “With how The Eyes situation and lack of leadership is shaking out, I am asking for a refund on the complete sum of 2020 athletic gifts/ticket money,” one fan wrote. “I cannot give money in good faith to an organization that carries itself the way it currently does.”
A 55-23 blowout win over Colorado in the Alamo Bowl — even with six starters opting out — should have ended any talk about a coaching change. But the way freshman running back Bijan Robinson played (220 all-purpose yards, three touchdowns) only enraged boosters even more, two UT sources told the Statesman. Why hadn't Robinson been playing more all season long?
Even ESPN announcers were making snide comments at Herman’s expense during halftime, wondering why Robinson didn’t get the ball on four straight drives leading to three-and-outs.
Take all of this and then add in how fans and school officials already felt about Herman’s sideline antics in previous years. At some point, administrators realized both they and the coach were in a no-win situation.
Herman would be owed $15 million in guaranteed money. His assistants would be owed about $10 million more. Hartzell and Del Conte pulled the trigger anyway, with UT System Board of Regents chairman Kevin Eltife green-lighting the financial component.
Herman was out.
“He would have had to win the Big 12 next year,” a source close to Herman told the Statesman. “Anything short of that, he would have ended up in the same place, don’t you think?”