COLUMBIA — When they last met, they did so as offensive coordinators from different conferences sharing ideas on how to move the football. When they meet again Saturday, Justin Fuente and Tom Herman will do so as up-and-coming head coaches drawing the eye of every major program with a job opening — South Carolina potentially among them.
No. 25 Memphis visits No. 16 Houston this weekend in a key game in the West Division of the American Athletic Conference, but in the bigger picture, it will be a matchup of two young, offensively-minded coaches whose success has thrust them into contention for bigger jobs after this season. Herman has Houston at 9-0 in his first season as a head coach, while Fuente has Memphis at 8-1.
Both have convincing victories this season over SEC teams, with Memphis defeating Mississippi and Houston shutting out Vanderbilt. Both come from high-powered programs, with Fuente formerly working as Gary Patterson’s offensive coordinator at TCU, and Herman serving in the same position under Urban Meyer at defending national champion Ohio State. And if a cursory internet search is any indication, both are sought after by fan bases of any school with an opening — from Illinois and Maryland to Miami, Virginia Tech and South Carolina.
“For Houston and Memphis, one of the problems with success at those universities is that their (head coaches’) names are on every list when you start looking at possible job openings across the country,” said former Texas head coach Mack Brown, now an analyst at ESPN. “So it’s the good and the bad. You’d rather win enough so that anybody wants you as a coach instead of losing and nobody wants you. But it is an issue with success.”
It’s an issue Fuente and Herman are both facing now. Indications are that South Carolina has interest in Herman, 40, who as an Ohio State assistant recruited Atlanta, which the Gamecocks have always relied on heavily given the traditional lack of recruiting depth in the Palmetto State. On a recruiting trip to Atlanta in early 2014, he was stuck in his rental car for 19 hours during the winter storm that paralyzed the city.
“I think in today’s day and age, you’ve got to be a great recruiter,” said Herman, who last season acted as Ohio State’s chief play caller and helped the Buckeyes manage injuries to their top two quarterbacks. “You win with talent. There’s no secret offense or secret defense. You win with really good players.”
Fuente, 39, was placed at Memphis by Eastman and Beaudine, the same search firm that is assisting USC athletic director Ray Tanner in pursuing a successor to Steve Spurrier, who resigned Oct. 13. In 2012, Fuente took over a Memphis program that had gone 2-10 the season before, and after a 4-8 debut campaign, went 10-3 last year and started a 15-game winning streak which was snapped last weekend in a 45-20 loss to Navy.
“It wasn’t in very good shape,” Fuente said of the state of the Tigers’ program when he arrived. “We didn’t have a lot of people on the team, we didn’t have a lot of pride, we didn’t have a great work ethic. Hopefully, we’ve at least changed those three things.”
Herman inherited a better situation at Houston, which had gone 8-5 in each of the previous two seasons and 13-1 in 2011, Kevin Sumlin’s final year before leaving for Texas A&M. “We knew there was probably some talent here,” he said. But there was divisiveness between the offense and defense, he added, and player accountability was low. Herman responded with nine straight days of full-pads, live-tackling practices in his first preseason camp.
“We came in very heavy-handedly to preach to our guys that it didn’t matter if you were the third-string nose tackle or the first-string quarterback, you were going to be held to a certain standard each and every day in this program,” he said. “We showered them with tough love early. We were very hard and very firm, and we didn’t budge in our stance and the way we were implementing our culture.”
While the games command the attention, coaching searches go on beneath the surface. “Agents are working across the country right now,” Brown said. ADs at programs with vacancies can use agents and search firms to set up clandestine in-person interviews with candidates, often in airport hotels in cities where neither party has an affiliation. ADs try to avoid the situation that befell Florida’s Jeremy Foley last year when he traveled to Colorado State to meet with then-Rams coach Jim McElwain — and was greeted at the Fort Collins airport by the media.
For Foley, it worked out nonetheless, and McElwain’s SEC East champion Gators (8-1, 6-1 SEC) travel to USC (3-6, 1-6) for a noon game Saturday against a Gamecocks squad overseen by interim coach Shawn Elliott, the only known candidate for the South Carolina job. As for Herman and Fuente, they’re focusing on their big matchup Saturday — and not what might come next.
“I’m never going to comment on another job other than to say my wife and my family are extremely happy here at Houston,” Herman said. “Anytime that happens, I think it’s a testament to the people we have here at Houston and the program we’re building and the success that we’re having. Other than that, it really has no bearing on anything we do on a daily basis.”
Added Fuente: “Part of my message to our team has been handling the things that come with success, whether it’s our quarterback or our offense or individual players. For me, I feel like it’s my obligation to set a great example for them as well. We as coaches have the same distractions. For me, I show up every day to go to work and do everything I can to prepare our football team, and then I go home. So I do my best to just shut it all out and try and focus on our kids.”