Tom Herman had been enjoying his life, but something was missing.
Herman was a color analyst for college football games this past year for CBS Sports Network, shielded from the pressures of winning, the 24/7 schedule of recruiting, game-planning, the transfer portal and much more.
Yet something was missing, something deeply personal.
“I missed the players,” Herman said in an interview with HERO Sports. “I missed being around them.”
And that is a major reason why at the age of 48, Herman has returned to the pressure-cooker of college head coaching.
Herman returns to the stage as head coach of Florida Atlantic University, a school that fired Willie Taggart after consecutive 5-7 seasons.
After a wildly successful three seasons as an offensive coordinator with Ohio State that culminated with the Buckeyes winning the 2014 national championship, Herman began his head coaching career at Houston.
What a debut it was.
Houston (13-1) won the inaugural AAC Championship, beating Temple 24-13 in the title game and then defeated No. 9 Florida State 38-24 in the Peach Bowl.
Houston went 9-4 the next season, 9-3 under Herman who didn’t coach in the bowl game. After two seasons at Houston, he was hired by Texas.
Herman took over a Texas program that had three straight losing seasons and went 32-18 in four years, which included a 4-0 mark in bowls. But it wasn’t enough for the Longhorns faithful.
He was let go and received the type of multi-million-dollar buyout that would set anybody up financially for life.
After Texas, Herman served one year as an analyst for the Chicago Bears, before doing his TV work last season.
He enjoyed commentating on games. The only problem was, after it was over, there was no score to keep.
There wasn’t the exuberance felt in victory, or yes, even the devastation of defeat. And most of all, there weren’t the daily dealings with the players.
“I missed being around them, mentoring, teaching them, watching them grow, seeing the smiles on their faces when they succeed and being there for them when they come up short,” he said.
And during his time away from coaching, there was plenty of soul-searching.
“I think some of us kind of have an epiphany as to why God put us on the planet, and I think being away from college football really made me realize what I’m here for,” Herman said.
And no doubt he has been rejuvenated since being hired by FAU.
“It’s been a really fun, enjoyable, productive seven months,” he said.
Herman is as competitive as any coach, and his insatiable desire to win is what has enabled him to have so much success. But a major byproduct is also the relationships he has developed over the years with his players.
“My biggest joy, for all the trophies, and rings and watches and all the spoils that come with winning some of the big games that we have won, my fulfillment comes when a young guy knocks on my office door, 30 years old, with a wife and two kids and a great job and he says two unbelievable words which is, ‘Thank you,’” Herman said. “The more men we can help achieve whatever they want to achieve in life, that’s the true joy of coaching and they didn’t come on Saturdays, although those are fun.”
Herman’s favorite stat has nothing to do with touchdowns or extra points. The stat that he holds onto most is an unofficial one that he keeps.
“I probably talk to or text at least one former player a day,” he said.
One example is that he said he was excited to soon meet up with Cardale Jones, the quarterback who came off the bench after an injury to JT Barrett and led Ohio State to the 2014 national championship.
Barrett got hurt late in the regular season finale, a 42-28 victory over Michigan. Jones then led the Buckeyes to a 59-0 Big Ten championship win over Wisconsin and then a 42-35 victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal and a 42-20 triumph over Oregon in the championship game.
“Cardale is coming to visit next week, and JT Barrett and I had an unbelievable conversation a few weeks ago and the list goes on and on,” Herman said.
Herman understands there could be skeptics when he talks about being a family, which is a big part of his coaching philosophy.
“How many times have you heard other programs say family, right?” he said, “I believe in it, and we believe in it and family doesn’t end after four or five years.”
What Herman isn’t looking for upon his return is redemption. When asked if any part of him wants to show Texas that the Longhorns gave up on him too soon, his response couldn’t have been clearer.
“No,” he said.
He didn’t need to expand.
Herman is at FAU, located in Boca Raton, for many reasons. He is not worried about the past, but only in attempting to make the Owls a competitive program in the AAC.
Herman has worked the transfer portal hard. Last month, FAU added former Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson, who began his career with Herman at Texas, before playing for the Cornhuskers last season.
During his two years away from the game, the transfer portal has exploded, although Herman had to deal with it at Texas.
“People forget that Casey Thompson and Cameron Rising both put their name in the portal at the same time,” he said. “We were freaking out, trying to make sure we kept at least one of them, which we did in Casey, and Cam has gone on to have a great career at Utah and we’re really proud of him.”
So the portal existed, but not like this.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Herman getting that pre-game feeling in his gut as kickoff nears.
“I am a nervous Nellie on gameday, I really am,” he said. “But I think deep down having done the things that we have done and won the games we have won, I think I will have a bigger reservoir of calmness in terms of you’ve been here and done this, just trust how we do what we do, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Easy to say that now, but the competitive juices are flowing. The relationships he has and will develop at FAU are extremely important, but so are the victories.
Herman feels he is truly back where he belongs, helping shape lives of young men, while also enjoying the competitive aspect that college football provides.
And once again, he will get the chance to hear those three magic words over and over: “Thank you, Coach.”