HOUSTON -- Hours after news broke on Sept. 25 of LSU firing Les Miles, Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek's phone buzzed furiously.
Reporters tried to reach Yurachek -- the man who has the unenviable task of trying to retain college football's hottest head coach, Tom Herman -- seeking to confirm a report that LSU reached out to Herman's agent.
Yurachek didn't take the calls, but before the night was over, Herman was standing at the northwest corner of TDECU Stadium after the Cougars' practice, answering reporters' questions about whether he had been contacted by the Tigers.
The calendar hadn't yet turned to October, but LSU's decision to part ways with Miles after four games set the rumor mill churning about the second-year coach's future. Welcome to college football coaching searches in 2016.
"You guys like talking about things," Herman said. "It's your job to talk about things. And it's my job to make sure a bunch of 18- to 22 year-olds play really hard on game day and execute really well. It really doesn't creep into our lives very much."
The chatter won't stop anytime soon, particularly with the struggles ongoing at Texas and USC and the heat on their incumbent coaches. The more success Houston has -- and the more vacancies that pop up at perennial power programs -- the more intense the discussion surrounding Herman's future will become.
This isn't new; Herman and the Cougars went through this drill in 2015. This time, the stakes are higher. The Cougars are trying to crack the College Football Playoff and must go undefeated to have a chance at doing so. There's no margin for error. The Big 12's future and potential for expansion looms, and Power 5 membership is something Houston desperately covets.
It all makes for quite a balancing act for Herman, who's simply trying to get 105 players prepared to win every week.
"He's never brought anything up to his staff about it or anything like that," Houston co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Craig Naivar said. "I can guarantee you this, 120 percent of his focus and effort is on this football team and that stuff is on the way, way back-burner."
When schools courted Herman late last year, the rumors were substantial enough that the coach felt it necessary to address them with his team. So he did.
"He sat us down and told us he's not going anywhere, he's staying here," tight end Tyler McCloskey said. "He loves it here, he loves us. To hear that from the head coach and to hear all the rumors going around, to have him squash that and allowed us to refocus on the task at hand and just play football and not worry about anything outside of our building."
McCloskey acknowledged that as the rumors swirled, the players "did discuss it a little bit" until Herman addressed the team. The fact that Herman said something "meant the world to us," McCloskey said.
Yurachek said he and Herman's agent, Trace Armstrong, communicated regularly throughout November as the contract negotiation process began. On Dec. 4, the day before Houston was to play Temple in the AAC championship game, Herman signed a new contract that doubled his base salary to $2.8 million annually, the highest for a head coach at a Group of 5 program.
Herman later acknowledged in a local radio interview that discussions got intense with another school. Yurachek never felt it became an issue within the program.
"It really wasn't a distraction," Yurachek said. "We knew around Nov. 1 that we had something special [in Herman]."
Yurachek said he didn't really monitor the various reports and "If it doesn't come from Tom or Trace, I don't really pay attention to it."
This year, Yurachek said he "hopes it's no different" in that regard.
"I want Coach Herman, as he does, to be 100 percent focused on getting this team ready to play every week," Yurachek said.
Naivar, who has known Herman for more than a decade and worked with him at two other schools in the 2000s, said Herman handled it in a desirable manner.
"I think he's very up front with it," Naivar said. "In other places maybe it's been quiet or nothing's ever said about it. If it's out there in the open and it's affecting the team, he's going to address it. Some coaches hope it just goes away. Or maybe the kids won't see it or maybe they won't say anything. ......These kids get a hold of everything, social media, so there's no hiding from it. The good thing about it is, whatever it is, he attacks it head on."
Herman, who last year occasionally took exception to various reports that he considered inaccurate, vowed this season that he'll stop trying to fight that battle publicly with the media.
"Rather than me, again, ranting and raving, I need to spend my energy focused on a lot more productive things because I'm not going to change it," Herman said.
It behooves Herman to do so, because he's correct: Fair or not, it won't change. Every time a big-time job opens, his name will be speculated as a top candidate for it. And as long as Houston remains in a Group of 5 conference, the harder it is for them to compete for a national championship -- 2016 notwithstanding -- and they'll have a perpetual uphill battle vs. traditional powers when it comes to resources.
If Herman is ambitious enough to chase championships at the highest level in college football, as many coaches are, it makes sense to consider openings at blueblood programs. If Houston were able to get into the Big 12 or another Power 5 conference, that could change the discussion. Herman would receive a $5 million bonus and the Cougars would have a stronger chance at retaining him.
For the time being, Herman told reporters in Houston on the night of Sept. 25 that there hadn't been any contact between LSU and himself or Armstrong. Regardless, interest from LSU or any other power program with a vacancy is inevitable, because any such program looking to conduct a quality, thorough search will reach out to Herman. He's one of the best young coaches in the country based on what he has done in his short time at Houston.
Until then, he and the Cougars will continue trying to do the impossible: earn a chance to compete with college football's big boys for a national championship. And the Cougars don't think any such chatter surrounding Herman will hinder them in that journey.
"No, not at all," senior defensive end Cameron Malveaux said. "Like right now, people might have heard things, but it doesn't matter."