How Houston landed a game-changing 2016 recruiting class

HOUSTON -- As the clock ticked past 7 a.m. Wednesday and the anticipation of incoming national letters of intent increased, Houston coach Tom Herman was as loose and energized as humanly possible.

With Beyoncé blasting over the speakers, Herman darted in and out of the team's staff meeting room sporadically shouting along with song lyrics -- "I don't think you're ready for this jelly" -- cracking jokes and making phone calls.

Seven hours later he stood in front of assembled reporters and declared, "We made history."

The Cougars signed the nation's 30th-ranked recruiting class, the highest finish ever for a school outside of a power conference (Power 5 currently or BCS previously). Houston also became the first non-power conference program to sign a five-star recruit since ESPN began ranking recruits in 2006.

Coming off a 13-1 season that included an American Athletic Conference championship, a win over Florida State in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and a top-10 finish in the polls, it is yet another victory for Herman's budding power.

Still, without the resources and facilities afforded to Power 5 conference programs that battled with the Cougars for ESPN 300 recruits, how did the Cougars land their historic class?

A longtime real estate adage notes that the three most important things are location, location, location. Herman -- and countless other college coaches nationally -- will tell you that the most important things in recruiting are relationships, relationships, relationships.

With that in mind, Herman sought to use his school's location -- and more importantly its proximity to top-flight recruits -- to the Cougars' advantage by inviting recruits on campus as often as possible. When the coaching staff had its first recruiting meeting looking ahead to the 2016 class, Herman hammered that point home.

"I was very blunt with our coaches," Herman said. "I said 'There is no f---ing reason that there shouldn't be a four- or five-star recruit walking these halls every single day this spring.' ... Get them here after school, get their [high school coaches] to bring them when they come talk football with us. Get 'em here, because they're here. They're everywhere. There are hundreds of them within 50 miles of us. Get 'em here."

The objective was for the recruits to forge such a strong bond with the coaching staff and become so familiar with the campus that it would pay off later with commitments. In the spring, the staff held a few of what came to be dubbed "H-Town Takeover nights," with two or three dozen of the city's top prospects to take an unofficial visit, with parents in tow.

"Building relationships," safeties coach Craig Naivar said. "Getting them over here so much before they go take an unofficial visit to other places or go to camps elsewhere. We want to make them feel like 'These people [care] about me,' or the parents to feel like 'They're going to take care of my son,' and that we see them so many times that they almost feel like family."

Out-of-state programs aren't afforded that advantage because of the cost of traveling for an unofficial visit can be cumbersome and NCAA contact rules in recruiting limit how many times a coach can be face-to-face with a prospect at his high school or home. "We double or triple our face-to-face interaction with these kids," by inviting the local stars to campus, Herman said. The Greater Houston area annually produces more than 100 FBS prospects, many of them high-end recruits, meaning several are an easy drive away from the school.

It worked. Nary a day passed during spring when there wasn't an unofficial visitor on campus. When they were, the coaching staff pushed the "H-Town Takeover" theme and message constantly, encouraging the local prospects to stay home and replicate what the 1980s Miami teams did. When they showed recruits a video communicating that theme, it had portions of "The U" 30 for 30 documentary spliced with Houston highlights, clips of the team's offseason workouts and quotes from Herman press conferences. "We always wanted to model it after 'The U,'" Herman said.

When coaches were out in the city during the evaluation period, they feared no Power 5 program.

"The mindset was we're going to go recruit these Houston-area guys and present something to them and not be afraid to compete against people for these local guys," offensive line coach Derek Warehime said.

That concept was put to the test in the recruitment of Ed Oliver. As a five-star defensive tackle and the nation's fourth-ranked player overall, everybody wanted 6-foot-2, 290-pound Under Armour All-American. His offer list included Alabama, LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas and Texas A&M.

Houston had several built-in advantages. Oliver's older brother, Marcus Oliver, is already on campus and was a starting offensive tackle for the Cougars this season. Oliver's former high school coach, Corby Meekins, joined Herman's staff a year ago. Houston defensive line coach Oscar Giles first met Oliver years ago when recruiting Desmond Jackson, another Westfield High product, to Texas, so there was a familiarity there.

Perhaps more important than all of those factors: Oliver's disinterest in the pomp and circumstance that comes with being a five-star recruit.

"He doesn't really get caught up in all the fanfare and the show," Meekins said. "He's got two unbelievably grounded parents that raised him the right way; a really close-knit family. He is different, because for 17-and-18-year-olds...it's easy to get caught up in the laser-light show, so-to-speak. He's not about that."

Oliver valued the longstanding relationships he had and believed in the vision the staff sold. Giles said Oliver called him often just to talk and he got to know Oliver's family well: "I knew who his girlfriend was, his brothers, mom, his great uncle...it was a relationship that was built over time."

When Oliver verbally committed to the Cougars in May, there was no hat ceremony, no grand announcement on Twitter, just Oliver placing a phone call to the coaching staff. The news quickly spread, to the bewilderment of many who were surprised a prospect of that caliber pledged to a program in a non-power conference.

That moment, however, turned the "H-Town Takeover" from a simple hashtag and concept to a genuine, successful recruiting movement.

"I think it was like a big rock dropping into a big pool. Splash," Giles said. "Everybody knows the guy. They're like, 'They must be serious over there.' It gave us some credibility that we were doing it the right way."

Added Meekins: "That kind of broke the seal and made it OK to come here. When you get a player that's caliber and can go anywhere -- we have a lot of players in this class who could go anywhere -- but that made it OK."

The next day, ESPN 300 defensive tackle Jordan Elliott, another Houston-area product, committed. Though he eventually decommitted (he signed with Texas on Wednesday), the back-to-back pledges from top-100 national recruits had the desired effect.

"That gave us validation as far as getting us a recruiting ranking," Naivar said. "Those kids live and die with that."

Of the 17 players the Cougars signed straight from the high school ranks (excluding their three junior college transfers or three FBS transfers), 15 of them committed before the Cougars played a down in 2015. The two that didn't -- ESPN 300 athlete D'Eriq King and ESPN 300 receiver Courtney Lark -- were both committed to TCU before flipping to Houston during the season. And of those 17, 11 hail from the Greater Houston area, including Oliver, King and Lark.

Herman said while conducting in-home visits with each of the Cougars' commits during December and January, he got on a plane only twice, a sign of how localized their recruiting base is: Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, East Texas, Central Texas, Western Louisiana and some of Oklahoma.

Houston finished with the highest-ranked recruiting class for a Group of 5 school by a large margin this cycle with Temple (59th) being the next-highest. But can what the Cougars pulled off be replicated for other Group of 5 schools? If they win at the level Houston did, perhaps.

Herman pointed out that because of the strength of AAC, it has the best shot of any of the Group of 5 conferences annually at the College Football Playoff's guaranteed Group of 5 New Year's Six bowl bid. Winning that game against a blueblood program, like Houston did vs. Florida State, increases the chances of a program reeling in a big-time recruit or a stronger-than-usual class. Temple was a game away from being in the position Houston was, having lost the AAC championship game to the Cougars.

"I think when you have the success they did this year, that opens those doors," Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "When you beat Florida State in a [New Year's Six] bowl game, that's a huge accomplishment. Kids see that; they pay attention."

The Cougars are realistic. They know they're not going to defeat every perennial power that comes into Houston to recruit talent nor will they land everyone they target. But the goal is to land more than their fair share, and if they continue on their current trajectory, the Cougars have a chance to make more history in the near future.

"They can't take them all," Herman said.