HOUSTON -- In order for Houston coach Tom Herman to get his players to buy in, he first had to lock them out.
Too many were showing up late for workouts, wearing the wrong attire and missing class.
"We decided, 'Eff it,'" he said.
The new staff chained the locker room door shut.
"This is for the Houston Cougars," Herman told his 2015 team. "None of you are Houston Cougars. I'll see you on the practice field at 4:45 in the morning. Those of you that make it through this hell week -- if you make it through this hell week -- then we'll let you use the locker room again."
One year later, in only his second season as a head coach anywhere, Herman has opened the door to a once unthinkable opportunity at Houston -- the College Football Playoff. Carrying a blueprint from some of the sport's most respected coaches, Herman and his Texas-centric staff have infiltrated the high schools in the state and used a tough-love approach to squeeze the most out of the talent they inherited. His down-to-earth personality coupled with his prolific offenses have allowed Herman to quickly flip the program into a league champ and national contender.
"What Tom did -- and I see this in high school -- the first population of kids you gotta capture are the ones returning the next year who are going to be seniors or upperclassmen," said Tim Teykl, head coach of B.F. Terry High School since 1992 and a past president of the Greater Houston Football Coaches Association. "He didn't want to lose anybody. And yet he pushed them to the point of not only wanting to quit ... he took them to hell and back in the offseason. He did that. Those were the guys who helped him win. Look at the guys who got drafted. They weren't even blips on the screen."
Herman wasn't exactly a household name, either.
Now, after a season in which Ohio State's former offensive coordinator led Houston to a Chick-fil-A Bowl win against No. 9 Florida State -- in the program's first New Year's Six bowl in 30 years -- even the CFP selection committee knows who the Cougars are. Houston was its No. 18 team last season. And the Cougars are the best hope from the Group of 5 to crack its top four this fall.
It's a long shot, yes -- Houston has to go undefeated against a schedule that includes Oklahoma and Louisville -- but the fact anyone is even considering an undefeated run by the Cougars is a direct credit to the work Herman has done in such a short time.
"That doesn't shock me at all," said David Raffield, who was the head coach at Cypress Falls High School near Houston from 2003 to 2010 but is now at A&M Consolidated High School in College Station. "That group that he's hired -- I've known many of those coaches for numerous years -- they've recruited a lot of my different kids from Cy Falls. That's a great group of guys who were all waiting to get linked together. They're very dynamic. They're people kind of coaches. The kids love them."
Raffield called Herman brilliant. Teykl, whose daughter, Tory, is Houston's director of football operations, went so far as to call him "a mix of genius that's just smothered in common sense."
They might not be exaggerating.
Herman is a certified Mensa member, which requires an IQ among the top 2 percent in the world.
"That and a dollar will get me a cup of coffee," Herman quipped. "I'm not splitting atoms."
Houston safeties coach Craig Naivar offered a different take on Herman's smarts.
"Don't let him play coy on that deal," Naivar deadpanned, "he's damn proud of that."
Naivar, Herman, offensive coordinator Major Applewhite -- every single coach on the staff except defensive coordinator Todd Orlando -- have previously coached in the state of Texas. Their deep-rooted connections paid off almost immediately in recruiting, as the Cougars signed a historic class that was ranked No. 30, 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 (DT Ed Oliver) since ESPN began ranking recruits in 2006.
Naivar said recruiting with Herman in Texas is "like taking a rock star around."
"You go down the hallway, teachers are jumping out to take pictures with coach Herman," Naivar said. "He's put the University of Houston on the social map, for lack of a better term, in the city because of his personality and because we're winning football games."
The state of Texas has unofficially adopted Herman, who was born in Ohio and raised in California. He began his career as a graduate assistant with Mack Brown at Texas and went on to stops at Sam Houston State, Texas State and Rice.
While Naivar was co-defense coordinator at Rice, he played a key role in recruiting Herman away from Texas State.
"Craig would come in my office every day and stand on my desk and say, 'Please interview Tom Herman, please interview Tom Herman,'" Rice head coach David Bailiff said.
Bailiff is glad he did.
Everywhere Herman has gone, the offense has thrived. It goes deeper than X's and O's, though. Herman's ability to relate to the players and his close bonds to the high school coaches throughout the state of Texas have played a huge role in his rapid ascension -- not just in the Top 25, but in popularity, as well. Herman has embraced social media, buzzed his hair and wrestled a signing day fax machine. And he got a diamond grill to fulfill a promise to his team after winning the AAC title.
(The grill had to be insured, and it is now in a glass display case in Herman's office).
"He does a really good job of blending and being one of us, when that's the proper time to do that," Naivar said. "But when it's time to step away and say, 'I am the head coach, I've got to make hard decisions, I've got to do the things I have to do,' he does a really good job of morphing in and out of that role, which makes him a very good head coach at an early time in his career."
There is a huge ramp at Rice that leads into the stadium, and Bailiff said Herman made a habit out of riding his skateboard down it.
"He'd ride that darn skateboard down the ramp and I'd worry about him killin' himself," Bailiff said with a chuckle. "I told him 100 times, you're not setting a good example for the kids riding that skateboard down the ramp at 1,000 miles per hour. He works hard, he has fun. The kids enjoy being around him."
And hearing him sing.
Over the spring, Houston defensive end Cameron Malveaux was playing "Too Close" by Next in the locker room.
"Out of nowhere, Coach Herman came in singing the song," Malveaux said. "We stopped singing it. We didn't know the words. He just kept goin', singin' it loud. We were like, 'OK,' and started jammin' with him. No coach does that. Nobody does that. I know he's special."
Herman couldn't have that kind of fun, though, if he hadn't earned their respect -- and it all began when he closed the locker room.
The next morning after barring the door, Herman demanded 50 up-downs -- 50 perfect up-downs -- dropping so the players' chests touched the ground and popping up without using their knees for help. In unison.
The first morning they made it to 20 before Herman's whistle blared because "somebody screwed up." They had to start over. And over. And over.
For all 90 minutes of practice, the players did up-downs.
By the fourth day, they hit 50.
"It was awesome," Herman said. "It served a lot of purposes. It taught our culture. It weeded out the non-mentally-tough people, and you want to find out in February, March and April who your leaders are, who your push-through-adversity guys are. You don't want to find out on the fourth down in October against Memphis."
Not only did the Cougars earn their way back into the locker room, but it's in the process of getting a $1 million renovation, all while plans for a $20 million indoor practice facility are in the works.
"We're making investments in our football program, things that are important to Coach Herman to try to make sure he has all of the tools to be successful here," said Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek. "If he's going to leave here, he's going to have to leave for a great job. By the salary and the facilities, and all of the things we're going to put into our football program, how we're going to retain him is we're going to make it very hard for him to leave here."
Herman had a prominent Power 5 job as Ohio State's offensive coordinator, and he left for Houston just days after winning the national title. He said his time with Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer was "very educational, very hard."
"I'm not him from a personality standpoint and never will be," Herman said, "but the expectations and culture around here are very similar to what's going on around Columbus."
The question is whether he can sustain the success at Houston the way Meyer has at Ohio State -- not just in the AAC, but at the highest level of the sport.
"There are a lot of dominoes that have to fall between now and then," Naivar said of a potential playoff run this year. "Is that a possibility? Sure. The unique thing is we did a really good job keeping Houston talent, Houston kids, to stay home. We're not going to get all of them, there's too many of them -- we're the fourth-largest city in the country.
"But if we keep getting enough high quality, great players, great kids from great programs to stay at home, we can become a pretty good power in this whole deal, and we can have a say in the conversation every year by getting those young men to stay at home."
But most importantly, they've got to keep Herman there too.