FRISCO, Texas – To the victors belong the crispy bacon.
That is the new reality at Tom Herman’s Texas – where competition is king, and where everyone is getting a daily crash course on the “tangible benefits” of victory and humble misery of defeat. That extends to basically everything football-related, and it started with the vast difference between breakfasts for the winners and losers of winter conditioning competitions.
The first-year coach of the Longhorns paired off player against player in variety of drills. The staff kept score. At the end of the week, the winners were feted like conquering heroes while the losers were fed like serfs.
“The winners were there eating crispy bacon,” said defensive back P.J. Locke. “The losers got a trash breakfast – burnt toast, cold pancakes.”
It was a concept Herman borrowed in part from his former boss at Ohio State, Urban Meyer. Few things are closer to the hearts of football players than food, so why not make it a motivational tool?
“The losers got watered-down eggs and had to eat out in the stadium with the cold wind blowing,” offensive lineman Connor Williams said.
Not only that, but the losers had to serve the winners: Locke said he had to watch fellow DB DeShon Elliott walk down a red carpet to his meal, then provide him a cold Gatorade in a cup.
“It was awful,” Locke said.
Which is precisely the point, and precisely the adjective Herman used Tuesday at Big 12 media days.
“I think losing has to be awful, and you can never get used to losing,” Herman said. “That is one of the biggest downfalls of a lot of teams is you get used to losing. No, losing is awful. It’s awful. It’s not just, ‘Oh well, we’ll get them next week.’ No, this is like the-sky-is-falling-type stuff.”
The sky fell often during Charlie Strong’s three-year tenure at Texas – 21 times, to be precise. Problem was, the Horns didn’t do anything to break out of the bad times. They didn’t seem to respond to what Herman called “the worst three-year stretch in the history of Texas football” with commensurate disgust. Presumably, they got comfortable being bad.
“When you lose 21 times in three years, that is a definite possibility,” Herman said. “You become numb to losing. It should hurt even worse the 21st time than the first time.
“And so every time we have a competitive situation, we’re going to make sure that the people that don’t win in that competitive situation, that they feel awful about it and that it’s not funny and it’s not hokey or corny, that it’s really, really bad for them to lose, as well as it being very, very cool for the guys that win and very rewarding for the guys that win. Because that’s what happens on Saturdays and that’s what happens throughout the season.”
In an effort to create a team full of winners, Herman has drilled down into the most minute details. Basically, he wants the Longhorns to make a daily commitment to the little things that add up to big change.
Case in point: The water bottle incident.
One day a couple of months ago, Locke’s water bottle slipped out of his bag in the players’ lounge. He didn’t notice until he got a text late that night from his position coach informing him that it had been found – and that he needed to report to the facility at 4:30 a.m. for a workout on the stadium field.
Locke had to do up-downs every five yards going the full length of the field – twice. Then he had to clean the locker room. Then he had to report to a meeting at 6 a.m.
“It wasn’t a fun meeting,” Herman said. “I undressed his position coach and him.”
The message had been delivered repeatedly by the strength and conditioning staff: Staying hydrated is important to performance, which is why every Longhorn got a water bottle and carried it with them. If your water bottle is lying on the floor of the lounge, you aren’t hydrating and you aren’t getting the message.
“You’re being defiant,” Herman said. “You’re saying you don’t think it’s important, or you think you have a better way of doing it.”
Details and habits, that’s what Herman has been harping on. For the most part he has been pleased with his new team’s buy-in – and that includes Locke, who Herman has singled out for praise as a team leader. But he’s also perfectly willing to be Coach Hardass as needed.
Asked if his players fear him, Herman responded, “They better.”
Dating back to the end of the Mack Brown Era, the suspicion was that Texas football had gotten soft – players didn’t commit to a rigorous work ethic and subsequently didn’t play with a hard edge. They liked the glamorous idea of being Longhorns more than they bought into the dirty work that made them successful Longhorns. Strong supposedly was going to change that, and he booted a ton of players off the team his first year – but the results never carried over to the field.
So Herman has had to renew that effort. A commitment to the grind is non-negotiable.
“You can go party and enjoy everything Austin has to offer,” he said. “But don’t come to me and say you want to win a championship. Because this is a full-time job.”
Coaches who take over losing teams are always going to shake up the status quo, tearing down old habits and trying to rebuild a team with a winning chemistry. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
But Tom Herman was 22-4 at Houston and won a national title as Meyer’s right-hand man at Ohio State. He knows what winners look like and how they come together.
At Texas, the renaissance may be fueled by one strip of crispy bacon, and one slice of burnt toast, at a time.
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