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LSU Head Coaching Search: Tom Herman

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We take a look at the first candidate

The winningest coach in America. Seriously.
The winningest coach in America. Seriously.
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

This is a very different column than when I first wrote it a year ago. Back then, Herman was an off the radar choice in contrast to the big names on the board. Now, he is the big name, and possibly the subject of a competition between Texas and LSU for his services.

His stock has gone through the roof in the span of a year, but that is partly because a lot of the big coaching names found new jobs last season and seem like they'd be off the board to move so quickly. Looking at you, Justin Fuente.

If you're going to fire your coach, why not use it as an opportunity to bring in a guy with a chance to be the Next Great Coach? If you're already taking huge risks, why balk when it comes to hiring a guy? Now we get timid? Now is when we just get out the eraser on the Interim Head Coach?

Tom Herman is the best candidate for the LSU job because he has the best chance to eventually be described as the Best Coach in America. He's not there yet, but at least the potential is there, which is more than you can say for a lot of the Big Name Coaches that got thrown around.

THE RESUME

Let's get the big negative out of the way first. Herman has two years of head coaching experience. Even coaches who were considered to have rather thin head coaching experience when they first got a big job had more experience as a head coach. Urban Meyer was a 4-year veteran, two at BGSU and two at Utah. Jim McElwain only had three years at Colorado St, and a 22-16 record.  Kevin Sumlin, who is an obvious comparison, coached at Houston for four years and went 35-17. Only Gus Malzahn only had one year at Arkansas St and five as an OC. Before that, he was coaching high school.

However, let's look at the most successful coach in Mississippi State history, Dan Mullen. Yes, we can learn something from State. Mullen got the Mississippi St. job with precisely zero years of head coaching experience and only four years as an OC. Now, LSU is higher up on the coaching job pecking order than State, but he has guided State to five consecutive winning seasons for the first time in program history since 1947, and might pull off six. Mullen had four years as an OC before becoming the greatest coach in State history. Herman has been an OC for ten.

That's right. Ten years. Oh, and he's also held the title of QB coach at every one of his stops as an OC. You may have heard that LSU would like better QB development. Ten years is a long time to build up a track record, so let's judge him on it.

In two years at Texas St, his offense led the Southland Conference in total offense each year. They also ranked 8th nationally in scoring. That kind of performance earned him a promotion to FCS, a two-year gig at Rice. Rice scored 41.8 PPG, 8th in the nation in 2008. They also ranked 10th in total offense, 18th in yards/play, and 18th in passing offense.

After a three-year stint at Iowa St which is, admittedly, the black mark on his resume, he got the Ohio St. job. He managed to get Iowa St. to 60th in total offense in his third year, but he never cracked the top 75 in scoring offense. But hey, he tutored Iowa St's #2 all-time leading passer, which speaks more about ISU's dismal history than anything.

At Ohio St, once he was no longer wildly outmatched in the personnel department by nearly every opponent, he reverted back to the coach he was at Rice and Texas St. Look at the massive improvement by ordinal ranks:

Scoring

Total Offense

Yds/Play

2011 (pre-Herman)

79

107

88

2012 (Herman hired)

21

46

33

2013

3

7

5

2014

5

9

6

2015 (post-Herman)

36

48

29

In 2014, he won the Broyles Award for the nation's top assistant coach. Take a moment to stare at that chart and contemplate how massive of an improvement he achieved at Ohio St, and what he could do at LSU. And see how the numbers got worse as soon as he left? It's not Urban... it's Herman that made that offense amazing.

He then took over Houston, and immediately went 13-1. It took Art Briles four years to have 10-win season at Houston and Sumlin two years. And Sumlin had the benefit of coming in right after Briles. Herman's building on the foundation built by Tony Levine (21-17 in three years). He doesn't just have a thicker resume than Gus Malzahn had when he got the Auburn job, he has a far, far better one.

OFFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY

I'm not going to pretend to be the X&O guy that Billy is, so I will refer you to two of the best pieces on Herman's offensive philosophy

Specifically, Herman has shifted the Buckeyes away from the single-wing-esque QB power runs that Meyer preferred during the Tebow years and that since-injured QB Braxton Miller leaned on while leading the Buckeyes in rushing in 2012. At Florida, Meyer preferred "gap blocking" schemes: running plays designed to grind out a few years at a time, with "down" blocks from linemen to the side the play was directed, backside linemen pulling to lead the way, and Tebow often lowering his shoulder behind them.

In contrast, Herman has based Ohio State's offense around the inside zone: an inside, downhill running play that uses zone blocking to automatically adapt to the defense, a crucial trait when used with the no-huddle, another tactic now featured far more in Columbus than it ever was in Gainesville.

Many coaches, including Meyer, have said that zone blocking plays are "finesse" runs. Meyer has always viewed his offense as a power attack, albeit one run from the spread, but Herman helped convert him, resulting in Ohio State building its offense around the inside zone, with quarterback reads and receiver screens coming off that same basic action. Meyer bought in because the Buckeyes' version is all about power: It's a true gut shot right up the middle, with the runner aiming for the "A" gaps next to the center.

I can steal other people's work with the best of them:

Despite his membership in Mensa, Herman isn't really trying to outsmart anyone on the field. His strategy is about putting athletes in position to make plays through simplicity and repetition.

The offense is geared around inside zone and power-O, run schemes that look to get downhill and plunge the ball through the A and B gaps. Herman will sprinkle in play action and run/pass options to punish defensive tactics for sneaking run defenders into the box. Herman looks to do less with more, emphasizing execution and mixing concepts in different formations to give his QB answers.

Simplicity and repetition. Music to my ears. I'm sick of genius types being too smart for their own good and being unable to get out of their own way, leading to confusion on both sides of the ball. Keep it simple. Know what you do, and do it well. Put guys in a position to make plays, even better at LSU where he will likely have better athletes. Which leads us to.

RECRUITING

Houston had the #36 class in the country last season, according to 247sports. HOUSTON. That ranked ahead of the homes of similarly touted coaches such as Utah and Louisville. In Kevin Sumlin's last year at Houston, not a bad recruiter himself, the Cougars ranked 73rd in the nation.  He landed a verbal commitment from the first five-start recruit since who know when, beating out such small schools as LSU and Alabama. This was easily the best class in Houston recruiting history.

Look at the man's career. He spent two years at Texas St. and another two at Rice. Before then, he was a grad assistant at Sam Houston St. He's now the head coach at Houston. This man knows Texas recruiting and already has the contacts in the area. That might be sort of important to an LSU coach.

COMPARISONS

This is where I talk to everyone over the age of 40 who is currently thinking one thing, and one thing only: Curley f'n Hallman. The last time LSU hired a coach from a smaller FBS school, we ended up in the Dark Ages. And I understand those fears, I really do. There's hardly a soul on the internet who has spilled more words on how horrific the Curley Hallman era was than I have.

Curley Hallman rode an NFL quarterback in Brett Favre to some big upset wins over Alabama and Florida St. He went 23-13 in three years at Southern Miss. Before that, he was a position coach at Texas A&M, Clemson, and Alabama. A 15 year coaching vet, he had never been promoted to co-ordinator before getting a head coaching gig. And at his first job, he rode a transcendent talent to huge wins. That's not what Tom Herman has done. Houston did not have a single NFL draft prospect on the team last year. The only one on the team now, he recruited. Heck, even Sumlin had Case Keenum. Herman's success is not based on a great player, but his own talent.

Let's look at the experience of some recent head coaches in the SEC when they got hired:

School

Coach

OC/DC

Head Coach

Record

South Carolina

Spurrier

3

15

86-49

Alabama

Saban

7

10

114-18

Mizzou

Pinkel

7

10

118-73

Arkansas

Bielema

4

7

24-23

Tennessee

Jones

3

6

27-20

LSU

Miles

3

4

114-34

Texas A&M

Sumlin

2

4

43-18

Florida

McElwain

4

3

16-6

Auburn

Malzahn

5

1

34-16

Ole Miss

Freeze

1

1

38-23

Miss St

Mullen

4

0

59-40

Georgia

Richt

7

0

145-51

Kentucky

Stoops

9

0

17-28

Vandy

Mason

3

0

11-22

Of the 14 SEC coaches last season, only five had more than 5 years of head coaching when they got their current job. Six had one year or less of head coaching experience. And while the more experienced group includes Saban and Spurrier, it also includes Bielema and Butch Jones, who are a trying to dodge the axe right now.

The inexperienced group has fared nearly as well. There are some clunkers in Stoops and Mason, but part of that is a function of coaching at Kentucky and Vanderbilt. But we also have SEC champions in Malzahn and Richt, plus successful coaches at the two Mississippi schools.

Herman's resume right now is most similar to Gus Malzahn's when he got the Auburn job, only Herman has a longer track record of even better offensive success. He also has a reputation as a great recruiter, which Malzahn did not really have. So think of Tom Herman as a cross between Malzahn's offensive wizardry and Kevin Sumlin's recruiting ability. Only demonstrably better than both.

He also currently has the best winning percentage of any active head coach right now. His 20-3 record gives him an .870 career winning percentage, which is just ahead of Urban Meyer's .853. And LSU can get in on the ground floor, to keep this duel going.

There is the risk this is a mirage. He's never won as the head coach of a Power 5 program. There is a real concern that he can't make the step up, which we won't know if he can handle until he actually does it. But the ceiling? It's off the charts, and higher than for any other candidate, realistic or otherwise.

PREDICTION

Worst Case

He's Gus Malzahn without the title. He alternates between great and terrible seasons, and the boosters can barely conceal their hatred of him, but they can't fire him because of his alternate success/failure cycle. His 10-win seasons balance out the years LSU goes 2-6 in conference.

Best Case

He's the best coach in the country, and you've just hired the next Urban Meyer, minus his winning personality. He competes for the national title right away, and wins multiple rings en route to a fifteen-year tenure in which he establishes himself as the greatest coach in LSU history.

Realistic Case

He can recruit, but not as well as Miles. Orgeron leaves the staff, but Aranda stays. The offense is an immediate success, and LSU competes for the SEC title in his first season, but still loses to Bama. These things take time, y'all. He competes for multiple titles, most likely winning one, as he becomes a long-time successful head coach. He is the promise of Bo Rein fulfilled 35 years later.

There is risk to hiring Tom Herman, but he also has indisputably the highest ceiling of any candidate. And after the bold move of firing Miles, there is no more bold hire than Tom Herman, who is the most likely contender for the next big thing.