AUSTIN, Texas – The Texas football sideline teemed with the energy befitting an awakening on Saturday night. NBA center Mo Bamba bobbed to the Sheck Wes song that bears his name. Terrell Owens stood alone in a Longhorn hoodie, wearing sunglasses well after dark.
Matthew McConaughey arrived wearing a burnt orange shirt, declaring the evening a spiritual affair immediately after the Texas team prayer: “Let’s go to church on Saturday night!”
Erudite Darrell K Royal-Texas Stadium, long home to a wine-and-cheese football crowd, felt more like a Red Bull with a double-shot of Tito’s. With No. 6 LSU in town to play No. 9 Texas in the biggest non-conference game here since 2006, only the fleeting flicker of an upset remained to feed the din with 22 seconds left.
The onside kick from Texas’ Cameron Dicker deftly hopscotched through the LSU hands team. Star senior wide receiver Collin Johnson, who had actually delivered the pregame prayer, proceeded to dive Pete Rose style in an all-out attempt to answer one. A Devin Duvernay touchdown catch had cut the LSU lead to seven and allowed the throbbing masses to cling to the tiniest morsel of hope.
The preceding 59 minutes played out like a manic quarterback duel between LSU’s Joe Burrow, who played at a Heisman level, and Texas’ Sam Ehlinger, who shook off an early slump to help Texas score on every UT drive in the second half.
Yahoo Sports spent a week embedded with the Longhorns to examine everything that built up to this climactic moment – the playoff stakes, aura of alleged SEC superiority and a heated recruiting rivalry. And it all played out amid a frenetic backdrop with everything from mandatory team dancing and pillow fights to hundreds of messages – some threatening, racist and homophobic – sent by LSU fans to Ehlinger and the coaching staff.
With a matchup looming next season in Baton Rouge, it all felt like something bigger. Amid the humid night, the fate of two storied programs bounded toward the sideline with Dicker’s kick and took us back to what built up to Johnson’s leap.
TUESDAY: ‘We don’t change’
“If you were a part of last year's team, you know damn well that we can hit people in the mouth and we're going to hit them in the mouth until the referee tells us to stop. We don't change around here, right? We don't change anything.” – Tom Herman to the team
During bed check at the team hotel the night before the LSU game, a group of special team players awaited Texas coach Tom Herman with the most fitting tradition — an elaborate skit by the specialists. Linebacker Cort Jaquess dressed up as Ed Orgeron, with the sketch introduced as an alternate reality: What if Herman had taken the LSU job and Orgeron was the head coach at Texas? Herman cracked up and nodded approvingly at every one of Jaquess’ deep Cajun growls.
Now in his third season at Texas, the Longhorns’ identity has taken on a compelling duality under Herman. There’s Bill Parcells-style toughness unfolding on the field and a “Saturday Night Live” vibe off it.
There are hard-hitting full-pad practices on Tuesdays, demands for strain and constant pleas to push through the edge. Those are complemented by an environment where fun is mandatory, and each day unfolds with a rollicking vibe.
“The culture he’s created here is special,” said Larry Fedora, the former North Carolina coach who is in his first year on staff as an analyst. “Everyone is held accountable for everything, but the biggest thing it’s showed me is that you can grind and work hard and still have a lot of fun doing it. I’ve never been involved with anything like this.”
In January 2015, hours after Herman served as the play-caller in Ohio State’s national championship victory over Oregon, he jumped in a black rental Chevy Suburban with his chief of staff, Fernando Lovo. They headed to their new adventure at the University of Houston, where Herman was named coach. The 70-pound Broyles Award given to the nation’s best assistant coach accompanied them in a middle seat, secured by a seatbelt in back.
Herman embarked with a clear vision of a grand experiment, in which football doesn’t have to be 350-something days of joyless drudgery interspersed with a dozen or so game-day rewards. The game plan was simple yet unconventional: “Win a lot of games, and have a lot fun doing it.”
As they drove south on I-45 to Houston, Herman had already come a long way. He took a job at Division III Texas Lutheran in 1998 for $5,000 and the promise of a meal card. And while zig-zagging the state and country to eventually land the best job in Texas, he also pledged he wouldn’t change.
When he arrived back in Austin, where he’d been a graduate assistant, Herman set out to bring a blue collar to a blue blood and shed the program’s country club reputation, in part, by bringing a night-club vibe. Even the water break stations are called Club H20, and all team meetings and special teams meetings kick off with players bobbing and dancing to rappers like Young Thug.
How different is this Texas operation? There’s a 6 a.m. “Suns Out, Guns Out” offseason workout that includes tie-dye workout gear and machines shooting flames. Game-day traditions include obstacle courses with pillow fights and dance circles. There’s staff room banter where, this week alone, Herman quoted everything from “Dude, Where’s My Car” to “Silence of the Lambs” to “Game of Thrones,” all in appropriate dialects.
When Herman led Houston to a 22-4 record during his time there, graduate assistant coach Dan Carrel summed up the operation this way: “It's as if Urban Meyer's program and plan to win is being executed by Tom Cruise's character in ‘Risky Business.’”
Herman has remained the same, while gradually changing Texas football after taking over in the wake of three losing seasons. As he pushed the program toward a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia last year, Herman has stayed true to the experiment. He even trick-or-treated in Austin with his sons and another suburban dad – his buddy Mark Brady – who was dressed as Tom Herman for Halloween. When visitors at the door guessed Brady’s costume, Herman himself would pop into the doorway to surprise folks giving out candy.
Prior to the season, Herman called Dabo Swinney to pick his brain on culture. He asked Swinney if the veteran players would get tired of his message entering Year 3, and Dabo’s response was much like the Clemson coach himself – simple yet profound. “If they can mock you and your sayings, they’re listening to you.”
Herman took it to heart, which is why saying, “We’re not changing,” every day is something that will never change.
WEDNESDAY: ‘How do you win?’
“The talent is equal this week, guys. You're not going to out-talent these guys. You're not. So how do you win? Your training. You're trained to be the hardest-playing, most physical team in the country. That's the way we train.” – Herman to the team on Wednesday
At 6:58 a.m. on Wednesday morning, there’s a relentless pounding on the door of the Texas weight room. Primal screams accompany the din, and when two strength coaches unlock the doors at precisely 7:00 a.m., 23 Texas players stampede through the frame for their morning workout. They’re accompanied by thumping music, mosh-pit chest bumps and incessant yelling.
Standing poker-faced amid the roar is Yancy McKnight, the head Texas strength coach, who looks like an extra from a Slayer video. McKnight serves as the heartbeat and conscience of the Texas program, defiant about everything from accountability to toughness to not letting Drake’s slow beats play on his turf.
The shift in Texas’ program trajectory can be traced, in part, to the combination of old-school lifting and a recent emphasis on scientific-based data that’s helped take the country-club reputation to the outhouse. “If there's a better strength coach in the country,” Herman said, “you'll have to prove it to me.”
McKnight tripled the overall strength staff size – five to 15, which includes interns and a science staff – and there are three other coaches on staff who have been head Division I strength coaches – Rod Grace (Houston), Nate Peoples (Western Michigan) and Clayton Oyster (Iowa State).
Their collective methods are a mix of unconventional techniques, like breathing exercises and karate chops to help activate the nervous system. That’s combined with traditional lifting and intricate science, which has become a bedrock of the Texas program since the Maryland game to start the 2018 season. Herman noticed that Maryland “looked faster on game day” than Texas, and from that point there’s been more of a reliance on data to determine freshness.
McKnight brings a pile of analytical workout data to the staff meeting every morning, which gauges the program’s workload on a macro level.
The Catapult GPS monitoring measures things like speed, as 21 miles per hour is a blazing number for a receiver like Duvernay. It also tracks change of direction, volume of yardage, accelerations and decelerations.
Knowing the output means more work can be done in less time, as practice times are arranged accordingly with the help of associate director of sports science Matt Van Dyke. During LSU week, practice periods dropped from 18 to 16 to 14 periods. “When you recruit Ferraris, you better keep them tuned up,” Herman said.
When star receiver Collin Johnson’s hamstring tightened up a bit this week, a monitoring device was attached to compression shorts that could quantify how much the hamstring was firing every movement during a workout. Strength staff members monitored the hamstring on each rep he took on an iPhone app. They could see precisely the point where fatigue altered the workout, compromised the movement in that area and increased the risk of injury.
McKnight’s work has not gone unnoticed by the NFL, which has largely ignored the Longhorns in recent years. Prior to Charlie Strong’s first season in 2014, Texas had zero players drafted for the first time since 1937. They had one player drafted in both 2016 and 2017. Texas hasn’t had an offensive player picked in the first round since 2006.
NFL scouts credit Strong for changing the tenor of the weight-room culture, which McKnight continued.
“Yancy is getting them to where they need to be from a power standpoint,” said a scout who goes through Texas frequently. “He’s more analytical in how to develop the core and lower body. Yancy may look rough, but I think he’s a really smart guy that is more cerebral than people think. He’s not a meathead at all.”
Texas has five seniors with a good chance at getting drafted this season – Johnson, Duvernay, defensive back Brandon Jones, defensive lineman Malcolm Roach and senior lineman Zach Shackelford.
But can they hold up to an SEC stalwart? “These games are why you do this,” Herman said. “LSU is talked about as a playoff-caliber type team, and that’s what we want to be eventually.”
THURSDAY: ‘Without a doubt’
“We’ve been really good in big games around here for a long time. The biggest reason is that we’re loose, we’re fresh. We’re going to play harder than LSU. It’s your job to get them to the game confident, loose and without a doubt.” – Herman to the staff on Thursday
Sitting in the offensive staff room, Ehlinger flips through film of LSU’s defense. He’s got a green Gatorade water bottle in front of him, an actual Gatorade beside that and has both a spiral notebook and a three-ring binder splayed open.
The offensive staff room is where the coaches shackle themselves during the day, a football laboratory that has graduate-level discussions with the occasional frat-house touches. (Flatulence is common and hardly discouraged.) The offensive staff room table has a fingernail clipper nestled up next to a Purell bottle, packages of caffeinated Rev gum scattered on the table and piles of pepitas salad toppings.
It also moonlights as the quarterback meeting room, as Ehlinger is clearly at home when he ducks in on Wednesday night for extra film with his backup, Casey Thompson. Ehlinger breezes through LSU’s different fronts – Okie, Even, Bear – mentioning casually he’s considering calling Tua Tagovailoa to pick his brain on LSU.
Ehlinger reflected back to his first big game as a Longhorn, at USC as a true freshman in 2017. Ehlinger led a 14-play, 91-yard fourth-quarter drive to give the Longhorns the lead in the final minute.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said of the overtime loss. “I should not have been on the field. I thought I knew what I was doing. Looking back, I knew what our offense was doing. I had no idea what USC was doing. I was just looking for an open guy.”
Two years later, offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Tim Beck said the biggest difference in the Longhorns’ offense is that Ehlinger knows exactly what he’s doing. There’s been myriad improvements around Ehlinger: upgraded offensive line, new run-game coordinator [Herb Hand], freaky receivers and an overall stronger and more talented team. “You know what really helped us?” Beck said. “We get into really good plays and Sam Ehlinger helped us from getting into bad plays.”
Now in his true junior season, Ehlinger has earned near full autonomy at the line of scrimmage. That involves digesting about 130 different play concepts and a near-infinite amount of plays, as those concepts can be run from a dozen different formations.
Each week in the staff room, Texas coaches pare the infinite play possibilities down to about 40 base calls for conventional down-and-distance plays – 20 run and 20 pass. The call sheet ends up with about 100 overall calls available for LSU – the other 60 situational such as fourth-down and third-and-long and two-point conversions. To winnow the options, the staff starts with a 14-hour day Monday – Put Em Up Monday – where they ponder the possibilities.
That’s followed by Take Em Down Tuesday, where they begin a process of weaning that ends on Friday when offensive graduate assistant Jordan Salkin types up the call sheet for that weekend.
The plays themselves are treated like political candidates, their strengths debated against various fronts, looks and coverages. Each of their values is questioned situationally. If Ehlinger doesn’t love the play, it usually doesn’t make it. The plays are practiced and pored over on practice film, with Ehlinger and Thompson being rapid-fire quizzed by Beck.
“They’re in overload and we’re in 99 protection, what’s the first thing you do?”
“No one has the Will [linebacker] here, what does that mean?”
“If this is true zone, what’s the no-deep beater here?”
The names are random, as there’s a third-and-long play called Orange Sneaker because someone looked down. There’s also a reverse play known infamously as the Put Em To Sleep Play, which Hand brought from his time at Auburn after the Tigers secured critical yardage in a game and put the opponent to sleep.
The infamous Sleep play – renamed Bozo Deep at Texas – has since been put to sleep itself from lack of use, which triggered some gentle mockery of Hand. There’s a drawing of a napping stick figure drawn next to it on the white board.
With so much brain power – including Fedora and former Kansas State offensive coordinator Andre Coleman serving as analysts – comes danger.
“Coaches get a case of the ‘We Cans,’” said Hand, the affable veteran coach. “We can do this motion, this presentation and all of a sudden, it’s like the show ‘Hoarders.’ You walk into your staff room and there’s plays piled up and it’s chaos.”
The chaos that Ehlinger saw when he peered across the line of scrimmage his freshman season has dissipated his junior year. He’s come so far since that USC game that he’s confident he can put LSU to sleep. “I just feel so different now during the game,” he said. “It’s just so much more relaxed. It’s like high school.”
FRIDAY: ‘They don’t respect you’
“It’s always going to be about us. Every time we take the field we’re proving to each other how hard, how physical and for how long we can play at a maximum level for each other. Let me tell you this, they don’t respect you. They don’t respect you.” – Herman to the team on Friday
On Friday morning, Texas special teams coordinator Derek Warehime’s phone rang from a South Dakota number. He answered: “Jake’s Mule Barn, how can I help you?”
The caller sheepishly said they got the wrong number and hung up. Not long after, Warehime’s phone rang again from a Baton Rouge number. The call proceeded this way:
Is this Derek?
I’m looking for Derek with the football staff.
I don’t know any Dereks with any football staffs. How can I help you?
You guys ready for the big game?
There’s a big game?
Yeah, LSU plays Texas.
You kidding me? They playing today?
No, it’s Saturday. GameDay is going to be there.
That’s Awesome! I guess I might find me a ticket, now that I know.
All I’ve got for you is a nice big f--- you from the LSU Tigers.
With all of their game-planning done and only a walkthrough remaining on Friday, much of the conversation around the football facility shifted to a rash of prank phone calls and vulgar texts from LSU fans that began late Thursday. A picture of a staff phone number list from two years ago got released onto Instagram, which meant a flood of calls from LSU fans to the Texas coaches. (Only Hand was spared.) Soon after, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and other fan bases caught on and followed.
Ehlinger also got flooded with calls, as by Saturday morning he’d received more than 2,000 texts from LSU fans on his old phone. He attributed it to a fraternity there, but was largely unbothered because he’d already switched primary phones.
The invasion was greeted with a mix of reactions from the staff. There was plenty of laughter and mocking of the crude LSU fans’ spelling and accents. Ehlinger joked in the offensive staff room that he could picture a caller, who’d made multiple crude references to a tiger’s anatomy, sitting on his couch with “three teeth and a bottle of whiskey.”
The calls weren’t all sophomoric humor. Strength coach Yancy McKnight got a call from a blocked number that left a voicemail in which the caller threatened to kill McKnight’s family. “You’ll find your family hung in the kitchen with their throats slit,” the voicemail to McKnight said. The caller punctuated with the message: “F--- you.”
As of Sunday, Texas officials were pondering how to handle that specific phone call.
Many of the messages vacillated between tasteless and offensive. Herman received a message calling him a racial slur and there were multiple messages containing homophobic remarks. Nearly every staff member and some support staff members received dozens and dozens of calls and texts, including Lovo and operations director Tory Teykl, who was called “mom.”
The calls and messages came so furiously on Friday that when Herman pulled out his phone after an hour walkthrough, there were 38 texts, seven missed calls and a missed FaceTime. One of the text threads Herman was included on was called Ed O’s Shrimp Boat.
Herman reminded his players multiple times during the week to not make any comments publicly to distract the team. Behind the scenes, he used comments from LSU players as motivation. Star rush end K’Lavon Chaisson called Ehlinger “not much of a threat” and LSU linebacker Michael Divinity predicted a “sack feast” for the Tigers.
Texas players stayed quiet all week, planning their counterpunch on the field Saturday night.
SATURDAY MORNING: ‘You’re not going to believe this’
“We don’t talk about it around here. We be about it. The toughest guys who you’ll ever meet, they don’t talk trash. They walk into a fight and just start swinging. That’s all they know.” – Herman to the team
At 9:29 a.m. on game day in the team hotel, a flurry of assistant coaches, interns and strength coaches stage an obstacle course in the hallway leading to the ballroom that serves as the team headquarters. The ritual is known as “Morning Juice,” and it’s the quintessential example of Herman’s defiant commitment to defying uptight football norms.
There are a dozen travel-sized boxes of Frosted Flakes opened, with the cereal poured out and crushed up on the floor. Why? Well, Tony the Tiger represents LSU’s Tigers.
Players enter the obstacle course with belly crawls under sheets draped over chairs. And when the players emerge, they turn hard left and sprint down a longer hallway where four strength coaches and support staff pop the players with pillows while they leap over multiple benches.
The only player exempt from the gauntlet is tailback Keaontay Ingram, who is Texas’ lone scholarship tailback and began the season at that position after a rash of injuries. When Ingram approaches the obstacle course, Herman has a security guard give a mock “police escort” through the chaos. “Scholarship running back!” Herman screams.
After all 73 players run through, they gather in a conference room and the song “Still” by the Geto Boys blasts. A dance circle forms, and different players bounce through the middle. Collectively, the players scream out the song’s refrain, “Die mutha----ers! Die!”
Much of the Texas staff has been with Herman since Houston, and some comment on how this feels relatively tame. The Cougars once danced in a parking lot at Disney, before a game with UCF, in front of aghast parents. In Baton Rouge for a game at Tulane, hotel officials kicked the team out of the hallways because it disturbed a quilting convention. Water guns, smoke bombs and water balloons have all been involved.
As the team filed in to eat breakfast, strength intern Chris Terry vacuums the hallways to pick up all the Frosted Flakes. Texas assistant Craig Naivar sums up the morning this way: “Is this the part of your article where you write, ‘You’re not going to believe this?’”
SATURDAY NIGHT: ‘That’s on me’
“When you have invested as much as we have invested, these are supposed to hurt. A lot. I see guys, lips quivering. Mine are too. We wanted that game, but they played better than us. We’ve got a long way to go. We’re not quite there yet. But let’s be clear, [Big 12 commissioner] Bob Bowlsby was not here handing out the trophy. We’ve got a lot of season and schedule ahead of us. Nothing. Ever. Changes.” – Tom Herman postgame
Ehlinger sat alone at his locker and stared at the ground. He fiddled with a wristband in his hands, and after two minutes of a blank expression he peeled off his black socks. He tossed them to the ground in disgust and resumed sitting slumped, eyes fixated on the ground.
Teammates came by and slapped him on the shoulder, and he nodded in appreciation. A sports information official reminded him that he needed to speak to the media, and he nodded. Finally, after about five minutes of digesting, processing and muttering to himself, he punched a code in his locker, pulled out a razor and sliced off his ankle tape.
By conventional standards, Ehlinger played well on Saturday night. He finished the game with 401 yards passing and was responsible for five touchdowns, as the Longhorns didn’t punt in the second half. But he never got a final chance in Texas’ 45-38 loss, as the fluttering onside kick ended up just out of Johnson’s reach. Johnson corralled the ball for a split second before he landed with his left hip out of bounds and the ball and game squirted away.
With that final missed opportunity came the sobering reality of crushed hopes and a four-hour party at DKR coming to a sobering halt. Ehlinger took the loss so hard that he barged into the middle of the beehive of offensive players after a postgame speech from Tim Beck and demanded to say a few words.
“I’m going to take the blame for that game,” he told his offensive teammates in the postgame locker room. “I came out too slow. Y’all did a great job up front, great job [by the] receivers. That’s on me. There’s nothing we can do about the past. Game over. My fault. Move forward. Move forward. I’m taking the blame right now. No one else. This is when we come together.”
The Texas coaches’ locker room carried a similar shell-shocked vibe. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, after his unit gave up 573 yards, sat shirtless and motionless on a leather chair for about four minutes. He occasionally shook his head in disbelief.
The coaches dropped their game-day sneakers in a large gray bin and hung their belts on the side of it. The sounds of that echoed through the silence, as only the faint volume of Herman’s press conference on the Longhorn Network could be heard from an adjacent room.
The coaches eventually showered and went to meet with the nearly 75 recruits who were visiting unofficially on Saturday, forcing smiles and making conversation to attempt to ensure future Longhorn victories. Each time the locker-room door swung open, the laughter, hugs and recruiting banter in the hallway pierced the silence.
Players filed out of the locker room, grumbling that LSU required 12 trips from trainers to the field during the game, 10 of which came in the second half. That included Chaisson, winking at the Texas staff when he went down with an apparent lower-body ailment late in the second half before walking to the opposite sideline. Texas had one trip from the trainer all game, which came on the onside kick in the final minute. (Expect this to be mentioned prior to next year’s game.)
After Herman finished his press conference, he sat down on the burnt orange stool in front of his locker and muttered: “That was a hell of a college football game.”
Herman doled out bushels of compliments to Burrow, whom he called “elite” in the wake of his 471-yard passing performance amid a cauldron of noise. Herman recruited Burrow to Ohio State nearly five years ago, and the quarterback he pitched to Urban Meyer as the next Alex Smith certainly looked the part in Joe Brady’s aggressive pass game.
In a matchup of big coaching gambles, LSU hit a jackpot with its stunning double-down. Instead of playing conservative and forcing Texas to burn its final timeout on third-and-17 with just over 2:30 left, Burrow somehow eluded pressure to find Justin Jefferson for a 61-yard touchdown.
Herman’s gambles backfired early in the game, as back-to-back red-zone possessions ended with fourth-and-short plays that failed, including a searing drop by Ingram in the end zone. “I’d do it all over again,” Herman said of the risk. “We promised our kids we’d play to win.”
Soon after, Herman let out a dark laugh and asked: “Should I check my phone?” He pulled it out to see 38 new texts, 29 missed calls and three missed FaceTimes, many of which were from Louisiana area codes. “Not as bad as I thought,” he said.
He followed that thought with a simple request to assistant director of football operations Matt Smidebush: “Can we go ahead and get my number changed tomorrow?”
And then he walked out into the steamy night, dialed in to build up Texas for more nights like Saturday.
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