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Culture / Sporting Life

Major Applewhite Shuns the Tom Herman Rock Star Coach System, Puts Players First

Who is this Rebel?

BY // 12.13.16

Tom Herman is a rock star — the lord commander of every room he enters. Herman has a way of sucking in all the attention and centering a laser hot focus on him. This isn’t a knock on Herman. Far from it. He masterfully used it the University of Houston’s huge advantage before he ever used it for his own.

Herman knows the game — and few play it better.

Major Applewhite isn’t so interested in college football’s game of thrones. That much becomes quickly apparent in his first official day as the University of Houston’s new head coach — introduction day. Applewhite seems to hold no visions of becoming a rock star coach — a class whose ranks include John Cailpari, Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh and Mike Krzyzewski. This low-key 38-year-old is much more Jon Snow than Stannis Baratheon in leadership approach.

Applewhite does not need everyone to know that he is the king.

“We as coaches sometimes think it’s about us,” he says. “It’s about our contracts. It’s about our family. It’s about our program. It’s about our attention. I’ve had enough attention in my life.”

If this guy is for real — and indications are he is — Applewhite instantly becomes one of the easiest coaches to root for in America before he’s ever even coached a game as the Cougars’ head man. How can you not get a kick out of a college coach who calls BS on the very system that makes college coaches obscenely rich?

“If you can’t raise a family on the amount of money college coaches are paid, you’re crazy,” Applewhite says later in side interview, dismissing the very salary race that coaches like Saban obsess over.

Applewhite will be paid $1.5 million a year in base salary in his five-year Houston contract (less than half of the more than $3 million per Tom Herman earned this season and much, much less than the $5-million-per UH was prepared to offer Herman to stay). When most people in sports tell you it’s not about the money, it’s completely about the money. With this guy, you really almost believe him.

Sure, Appplewhite enters down a winding staircase to the sounds of the UH fight song, cheering alumni and dancing cheerleaders on this day. Houston’s administrators know that a little showmanship always helps. But this doesn’t appear to be Applewhite’s thing.

In fact, the most compelling moments of his press conference come when he all but rails against the current state of college football as only a former major college player can.

“College football in a lot of ways has lost its mind,” Applewhite says, speaking with the conviction that only a former major college athlete can. It hasn’t been all that long since Applewhite was slinging passes for Mack Brown at the University of Texas. He knows how messed up college sports often seems from the inside when you’re one of the unpaid professional athletes doing the real on-field work in the NCAA’s $8 billion game.

New University of Houston coach Major Applewhite surprised at his introductory press conference.

It’s refreshing to hear Applewhite note that not a single member of Herman’s vaunted coaching staff ever made a tackle, scored a touchdown or stepped up to make a single play in UH’s 22-4 run in the two seasons of Herman The Great. None of this means Applewhite is the right choice — or close to the best choice — to keep Houston football in the national conversation.

I’m on the record arguing that Lane Kiffin would have been a better, bolder, winning hire to follow Herman. One day of Major Applewhite does not change that. If anything, introduction day is also telling of UH’s new post-Herman reality. The national college football writers and commentators (not to mention the attention) that would have flocked to a Kiffin press conference are largely missing.

“We as coaches sometimes think it’s about us. It’s about our contracts. It’s about our family. It’s about our program. It’s about our attention.”

Instead, Applewhite gets Greg Ward Jr. introducing him (a nice surprise twist that the new coach calls the best part of the day) and rows and rows of players watching, most of them understandably happy they won’t have to adjust to a completely new staff for the second time in three years. When billionaire UH backer Tilman Fertitta, the school’s board of regents chairman, kicks everything off with, “It seems like we just did this,” the joke comes caked with plenty of truth.

Only, it’s much different this time. The Rock Star Coach flash and aura are gone. In their place stands a man with a much less-fuss plan. Applewhite does not look he’s thrilled to be on the stage as much as he looks like an accountant eager to get back to work. Later off stage, Applewhite allows that he knew the press conference was “a necessity.”

Can a guy this non self-promoting really thrive in the shark tank of big-time college athletics?

“I’m extremely excited. My face doesn’t always say it,” Applewhite says, drawing one of the biggest smiles of the day from his wife Julie, who sits in the front row with the couple’s two kids, elementary schooler Lila and baby boy Nash. “Those guys out there know what the real face looks like.”

Major Applewhite is talking about the players again, his players now. Who does this guy think he is? Major college football coaches do not talk like this. It turns out that the University of Houston may have been bolder with this hire than many realized.

If Applewhite keeps the spotlight on the players — and wins big — he’ll be revolutionary after all.

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