Houston’s Coach Pecks Away at Football’s Macho Culture, a Kiss at a Time

Matt Roth for The New York Times

This article was originally published in The New York Times.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — When the University of Houston’s football players arrive for a game, they know what to expect as a prelude to the coming hours of brutality as they file into the stadium: a kiss on the cheek from their head coach, Tom Herman.

It is an unusual ritual in a sport that embodies America’s most rigid ideals of manhood.

“A kiss on the cheek is when he shows his love for us,” Houston safety Garrett Davis said, adding, “No one here is thinking, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t let him kiss me.’”

Physical expressions of affection certainly exist in big-time sports. Nothing says “Good job!” in baseball like a firm pat on the behind from a coach, and in international soccer it is not uncommon to see teammates peck each other on the cheek after a big play.

But kisses in football’s gladiatorial culture seem as incongruous as a Gatorade shower at the ballet.

For Herman, 41, there is no better way to demand the painful sacrifices of the game than to forthrightly convey his affection for his players.

“How do you motivate a human being to do things against his own nature?” Herman said in an interview. “There’s two things: love and fear. And to me, love wins every time.”

Davis said the players were taken aback early last season, Herman’s first as the head coach, when Herman planted a kiss on the strength coach Yancy McKnight during practice. Then he extended the ritual to all his players before their first game.

“I was not expecting it, but knowing him, I was not surprised at all,” tight end Tyler McCloskey said.

Alluding to that first game, a 52-24 victory over Tennessee Tech, Davis said, “If kissing us on the cheek before games gets us wins, then it works.”

Certainly something is working. Houston, a member of the American Athletic Conference, concluded last season at 13-1 and ranked eighth nationally, the program’s highest end-of-season ranking since 1980. This year’s team was ranked 13th before its home game Saturday night against Tulsa, which Houston beat, 38-31, to bring its record to 6-1. The program also hopes it is on the verge of an invitation to the Big 12 Conference.

Herman’s rite has earned praise from psychologists for its frank articulation of the emotion that inevitably develops on teams and glues together the best of them.

“He’s disrupting a stereotype about boys and men, a notion of masculinity that says boys and men are only driven by the desire for competition and autonomy,” said Niobe Way, a psychology professor at New York University. “All the research — not just mine — emphasizes that humans are actually not driven by competition and autonomy. What we’re driven by is the desire to be in connected communities.”

McCloskey, a senior and a team captain, said the practice fit comfortably into a program where “any day you walk into the facility, you have no idea what’s coming down the pipe.”

At Houston, coaches knight players with swords. Game-day breakfasts have been known to feature random smoke bombs — part of what is known in the program as “training for chaos.” Before last season, Herman promised to get a diamond grill — dental jewelry popular in hip-hop circles — if his Cougars won their conference. When they did, he kept his word.

The kisses are part of a larger message of brotherhood that Herman has made the core of his coaching style. The players have responded to a story he has shared — one also told by Herman’s former boss at Ohio State, Urban Meyer — about a soldier who confided that what most compelled him to fight was not self-preservation or hatred or patriotism, but love for his comrades.

As at Ohio State, Herman said, Houston players who score touchdowns are instructed to find an offensive lineman and hug him. “We require a two-handed embrace,” Herman said.

Herman reckoned he has kissed his players for more than a decade, going back to his days as the wide receivers coach at Sam Houston State.

“I’m a bit confused as to why it’s garnered so much attention and why it’s seemed so odd,” he said, “because I think most college coaches would tell a young man in recruiting — or his parents — ‘Hey, I’m going to love you’ or ‘treat you like my son.’”

In fact, Herman expressed sadness that the ritual seems so uncommon.

“I can tell you I was disappointed — they said it was the first time they’ve ever been kissed by a man,” Herman said, noting that several of his players grew up fatherless.

“Which,” he added, “is a shame in our society.”

Scholars of masculinity in contemporary America agree.

An academic paper first published in 2010 called “Men’s Tears: Football Players’ Evaluations of Crying Behavior” described a correlation between emotional openness and self-esteem in college football players.

In one instance of what psychologists label pluralistic ignorance, the authors found that many players falsely assumed that most of their teammates tolerated less emotional display than they themselves privately did.

“Men struggle with the perception that they are somehow less manly when they reveal their emotions,” said Joel Wong, an author of the essay who teaches psychology at Indiana University.

“That’s related to a lot of problems,” he added, “because it actually inhibits the ability for interpersonal connections, it restricts your ability to be vulnerable” and it prevents the expression of “your full human potential.”

Way’s book “Deep Secrets” describes how American boys migrate during adolescence from close friendships with other men to fears that shows of such intimacy will stigmatize them as gay, prompting a “crisis of connection.”

“What we’re driven by is the desire to be in connected communities,” she said. “That you would funnel this into a competitive spirit — that’s the way sports should be played. That’s how you’re going to get the best players.”

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