With Tom Herman on the hot seat, what’s Texas’ next move?

Texas’ 23-20 home loss to No. 13 Iowa State on Friday can also double as a Rorschach test on how you view the tenure of Texas coach Tom Herman. Is he close, so achingly close, to the top of the Big 12? Or is Texas emerging as this season’s definitive drama major a symptom of a program stuck in neutral?

The loss dropped Texas to 5-3 and officially nudged Herman onto the hot seat, as he’s 30-18 in his fourth season in Austin. And how you view this white-knuckle Texas season — just like the latest white-knuckle loss — can also double for how you view Herman.

There’s plenty of evidence that the Longhorns are on the cusp of contention in the Big 12, as the game-tying 57-yard field goal barely missing the uprights as time expired on Saturday shows. If that had gone through and Texas figured out a way to win in overtime, Texas still could have advanced to the conference title game and won the league. And Herman likely would have been safe.

But the optimists who see things that way have not been vocal.

The flip side of Rorschach test is that this Texas season can also be viewed through the prism of persistent missed opportunity. The Longhorns have been beset by chronic special teams mistakes and entered the Iowa State game ranked No. 120 in the nation in penalties per game. From an ill-advised fake punt to a failure to kick a field goal to go up seven with eight minutes remaining to baffling play-calling when trying to end the game on its second-to-last possession, Herman left himself wide open to game management second-guessers.

Ultimately, the case against Herman at Texas is that there has been little from the program the past two seasons that has appeared to be elite. Just because Texas has been close — like in the LSU game last year — doesn’t mean it is close to the national title contention its fan base demands. And turning the momentum when things go wrong at Texas is akin to attempting to bench press using only your pinkies, as every decommitment becomes deafening and every negative moment delivered through a megaphone.

Texas went 8-5 last year and is on its way to another middling season. And, ultimately, it will be up to athletic director Chris Del Conte, who did not hire Herman, to make a decision on his coach’s future. “Del Conte is feeling the pressure,” said a high-ranking Texas source.

Texas head coach Tom Herman, center, on the side lines during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Iowa State, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Texas head coach Tom Herman, center, patrols the sideline during the second half against Iowa State. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

A decision on Herman’s future will not come without consternation. He’s owed more than $15 million if he’s fired, and the total potential payout to the staff is nearly $24 million. That’s a big number during a pandemic, especially for a team that had a legitimate shot for the league title on Thanksgiving weekend.

Herman won the Sugar Bowl over Georgia after the 2018 season (10-4) and has done a lot to upgrade and modernize the program after Mack Brown’s tenure wheezed to the finish and Charlie Strong’s never really got going. The recruiting department has been upgraded and the ancillary parts of the program – analysts, social media, graphics, video – feel like a high-end Power Five program. The football, for whatever reason, has yet to catch up.

So how does Del Conte view Herman? He has been relatively silent on the topic, and if any moment cried out for vocal support it would have been in the buildup to this game. Smoke about Texas attempting to hire Urban Meyer has been floating through Austin for weeks. There was an easy way to clear the smoke.

Del Conte, who did not return a phone call Friday night, also didn’t vocally back the Texas players during the “Eyes of Texas” controversy earlier this year. He chose the preference of the boosters that the song, which has racist origins, still be played after games. In other words, he sided with the money over the team. Perhaps he knew which he’d need more come December.

It’s clear that Meyer would be Texas’ target it it moved on from Herman. It’s not nearly as clear if Meyer would have interest in returning to the sideline, as he has thrived in his new role as an analyst for Fox and still would have to make a health decision. Remember, it was an enlarged congenital arachnoid cyst in Meyer’s head that helped lead to his retirement, and whether he wants to take the health risk that accompanies coaching would weigh large on any decision.

If Meyer doesn’t want the job, there’s no easy answer as to whom Texas would hire. And this is Del Conte’s biggest problem. This is an institution that covets big names, as it long lusted after Nick Saban. But Saban never went, in part because of the lack of alignment in leadership that has undercut Texas football the past decade. There’s no promise things line up the next decade, either.

People remember Mack Brown made it to two BCS title games, winning in 2005, but forget he won the Big 12 just twice in 16 years. Bob Stoops won it 10 times in 18 years.

Texas head coach Tom Herman, center right, argues a call during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Baylor in Austin, Texas, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Texas head coach Tom Herman argues a call during the first half against Baylor. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the tenures of Strong and Herman, it’s that Texas demands so much from its coach that this isn’t a job that offers training wheels. And that means if Texas wants to upgrade from Herman, the Longhorns have to lure a sitting Power Five head coach. (The only coach comparable to Meyer who is currently sitting out is Bob Stoops, and it’s unlikely the man who built the modern Oklahoma juggernaut would attempt to dedicate the next decade to taking it down.)

Do you try and back up the Brinks truck for an established Power Five coach like Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, Penn State’s James Franklin, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck or Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald? This is a particularly fraught year to hire one of those coaches, as all but Franklin and Fleck will be playing meaningful games on the weekend of Dec. 18, which is two days after Signing Day.

If Texas decides to move on from Herman, would it do it before Signing Day on Dec. 16? It’d be almost impossible to have a coach in place by then, which means with a change you are essentially giving up on having a competitive recruiting class. (Texas is currently No. 17.) Or you have to either ignore or mislead recruits by letting them know Herman will be there. The clock is ticking for clarity.

There are other options. Would Matt Campbell jump down from Iowa State? It’s uncertain, as he has always been projected as more of a Midwestern fit. What about Luke Fickell, who has brought Cincinnati to historic highs? Could Texas hire three straight former Urban Meyer assistants? Could it inquire about Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian? If the Meyer model hasn’t worked, perhaps the Saban model would? Could an NFL name like Bill O’Brien or Dan Quinn be an option? After Meyer, there’s really no obvious answer.

To say Texas is definitely going to fire Herman is hyperbole. But it’s much easier to envision that scenario than to draw up one with Herman returning, tip-toeing on thin ice for all of 2021 as the face of the sport’s hot seat. “That’s not for me to decide,” Herman said postgame when he was asked whether he was the right person to lead Texas. “Where we have the program compared to where it was when we took over — the future is very bright. I feel great about the trajectory of our program.”

Whether Del Conte feels that way or not remains a mystery. And until there’s clarity from him, Herman will remain squarely on the hot seat.

Texas is back, right where we remember it. It’s back where it has been most of the past decade — in flux and with everyone in the sport speculating on who’ll be the next coach.

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