Friday, November 30, 2007

Art Briles goes to Baylor

Over the course of this fall's college football season, I had planned to write regular updates and thoughts about the University of Houston Cougars. Of course, other than an entry I wrote after the first game of the season, that simply never occurred. Now the regular season is over; the Cougars have ended their season with an 8-4 record - one win better than what I predicted last August - and are heading to their fourth bowl game in five years: the Texas Bowl, here in Houston, against an as-yet-unnamed opponent, on Friday December 28th.

However, all of that has been overshadowed by the fact that, as of yesterday, the Cougars are without a head coach. Art Briles, who has been at the helm of UH football for the past five seasons, has moved up the road to Waco, where he will become Baylor's new head football coach.

Briles's base salary at Baylor will be $1.2 million but he could earn as much as $1.8 million with incentives. Considering that to be a doubling of the $900,ooo he was paid here in Houston, you really can't begrudge the man for wanting to go where the money is. Given the money, the fact that Briles, a west Texas native, probably feels more comfortable in a place like Waco, and the fact that his relationship with UH Athletic Director Dave Maggard was widely reported as being strained, it isn't a surprise that Briles decided to make his move.

Needless to say, the University of Houston faithful are pretty angry right now. A quick perusal of UH message boards, or even the comments of Michael Murphy's blog, will show that fans feel angry, shocked, and betrayed by Art Briles. Some are upset that he'd leave Houston for Baylor, a Big 12 bottomfeeder whose inclusion in that conference at the expense of Houston over a decade ago is still a source of resentment. Others are angry at the timing of his decision, leaving his players to fend for themselves with a bowl game one month away. Others are mad at what they perceive as his dishonesty: he claimed he was "still proud to be a Houston Cougar" and that no contract details were discussed upon returning from his interview with the Baylor AD Tuesday night, only to be flashing the Bear Claw at a press conference in Waco less than twenty-four hours later.

I, however, can't say I'm too broken up about Briles's decision. I never expected Art Briles to be at the University of Houston forever, although I figured that when he left UH it would be for Texas Tech, his alma mater and the place where he previously coached as an assistant. To be sure, his decision to take the Baylor gig - a job with a recent history of being a coaching graveyard - was a bit surprising to me. I also could have done without the timing of his decision, but I realize that is the nature of the college football coaching business. But I'm not very upset about the loss of Art Briles, because, quite frankly, I think the time was right for both him and the University of Houston to move on. He had taken the UH football program as far as he could take it. It's now time for somebody to come in and take the program to the next level.

Art Briles is a good guy and a decent coach who certainly deserves credit for turning the football program around. Before he got to Houston the Cougars had enjoyed only two winning seasons out of the previous twelve; since Art has been at the helm the Cougars have had four winning seasons out of five. After five years in Houston, however, the limitations of his abilities had become apparent. Consider:

Briles compiled a 34-38 record over his five seasons at Houston, which is a decent average and is certainly better than what the Coogs were accomplishing before he arrived. But, of those 34 wins, only six came against teams that finished the season with winning records. Other than perhaps the victory over Oklahoma State last season, the Cougars did not notch any significant upsets or score any "signature" wins. Under Briles, the Cougars never managed any bowl victories, he never managed any top 25 appearances, and he led the team to only one conference championship in an extremely weak Conference USA.

Of course, it's unfair to expect for Briles to take a team that was once the dregs of the college football world - Houston had an 0-fer season as recently as 2001 - and turn it into a perennial top-25 program in only five short seasons. But there were times, under his leadership, where the Coogs underperformed against lesser opponents as well, losing games they had no business losing: Rice (3-8) in 2004, SMU (5-6) in 2005, Louisiana-Lafayette (5-7) last year (all three games were played in Houston, by the way). The Cougars frequently allowed games to be closer than they should have been (this season's 56-48 nail-biter against Rice being one such example). Sometimes the team suffered humiliating blowout losses to schools that were not exactly powerhouses: the 13-42 drubbing at the hands of 7-4 Kansas in the 2005 Fort Worth Bowl, for example, or the 7-56 pounding against Tulsa earlier this season with the division championship on the line.

Aside from the wins and losses, Briles's teams were frequently sloppy on the field. Throughout the five years of Art's tenure, the Cougars were plagued with the "unholy trinity" of turnovers, penalties and lousy special teams play. These frustrating problems never really seemed to improve over time, and ultimately cost the Cougars games (such as the home loss to East Carolina earlier this season, wherein the Cougars had two chances to win with field goals in the final minutes of the game but missed them both). Sloppiness was oftentimes evident in other areas as well: tackling, clock management, center-to-quarterback exchanges. All of Art's Houston teams had a rough, unrefined, work-in-progress feel to them: they had just enough physical talent to beat almost anybody, but made just enough mental mistakes to lose to almost anybody.

This is not to suggest that Art Briles is a horrible coach. He is not, and he deserves appreciation for coming out ahead in the win-loss column and giving Houston fans something to cheer about again. Because of Art Briles, University of Houston football is at least something approaching relevant once again. But it's time for the Coogs to take the next step, and that next step probably wasn't going to happen with Art Briles at the helm.

Is Art Briles is really worth up to $1.8 million per year? That's Baylor's problem now. The Bears, of course, have not had a winning season since 1995; being the Big 12's lone private school, they are a small fish in a big pond and their abysmal 11-85 in-conference record since they joined the Big 12 in 1996 proves as much.

Based on what he accomplished here in Houston, Art Briles clearly thinks he can do what all of Chuck Reedy, Dave Roberts, Kevin Steele and Guy Morriss thought they could do: turn around Baylor's moribund football program. But it's not going to be easy, especially since there's a huge difference in the level of competition he will be facing. His divisional foes will be Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M instead of Rice, SMU and Tulane. Briles has his work cut out for him, and if the problems that plagued his teams here - the penalties, the turnovers, the poor tackling, the lousy special teams play, the overall sloppiness - rear their ugly heads on his Baylor teams, his stay in Waco could be short. As Richard Justice notes, Briles's ability to win at Baylor "may hinge on his ability to understand that discipline and toughness aren't his strong points. He must hire a staff that will make players accountable." If he can't do that, then he has essentially committed career suicide.

As for the University of Houston: Dave Maggard's task right now is to find the right person to take Cougar football to the next level: bowl wins, upset victories, top 25 appearances. It's not an easy task by any means, but the Houston program has moved up in stature such that many qualified applicants are showing interest. If nothing else, we have Art Briles to think for that.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

An unhappy Thanksgiving, and other thoughts

I'm back.

Needless to say the last few weeks have been extremely eventful, and in many ways difficult, for myself and my family. Most notably, as I reported in the previous post, my Uncle Glen is no longer with us.

The original reason for his admission to the Temple VA Hospital, on October 31st, was because he was suffering from edema associated with congestive heart failure. His condition was apparently exacerbated by an adverse reaction he had to a heart stimulant he was given, and he went into renal failure. He was moved to the ICU early the following week. His condition improved to the point that he was moved out of the ICU on Wednesday the 14th, but the improvement didn't last long; on Thursday the 15th the family was informed that Glen's kidneys weren't getting any better, that he had developed pulmonary edema, and that his condition was terminal. He died on Tuesday the 20th. In the end his heart was so weak, his overall health so poor, that his body was filling up with fluids so quickly and that there was nothing that could have been done for him.

The whole experience has been an exhausting roller-coaster of emotion from my family, from initial despair about his condition, to hopeful optimism when it appeared he would recover, to shock and horror when it was realized that he would not survive, to a sad sense of relief when his suffering finally ended. My mother spent the last several weeks in Temple at Glen's bedside along with many other family members and told me that she never wanted to go through such an ordeal again.

On the morning of Thursday, November 22nd, Lori, Kirby and I drove up to Temple for a rather somber Thanksgiving meal. Quite a few people were there, of course, and it was good to see some folks, such as my cousins Laura and Ellie, that I hadn't seen in a long time. We enjoyed ourselves the best we could; Glen, after all, was the type of person who would have told us not to let the fact that he's dead ruin our holiday.

Glen would not have wanted a formal funeral held for him, but on Friday the 23rd we did hold a small and informal memorial service at the Temple VA chapel where we shared memories and tried to console each other as best we could. A larger memorial service and wake will probably be held for him at a later date. As a US Navy veteran, his ashes will receive a formal burial at sea.

So now a difficult period of adjustment begins, especially for his daughters but in reality for all of us. Glen was the closest person in age to my mother; my father had been looking forward to more fishing trips with him. My aunt Dorothy, his eldest sister, will now be completely by herself in Temple; given her advanced age, and the fact that Glen is no longer around to check up on her on a regular basis, her days of living independently are probably numbered.

***

One bright spot of the past couple of weeks was my successful completion of the AICP exam. I was worried going into the test that I wouldn't do well - the test covered a broad expanse of topics, many of which I had not reviewed since graduate school - and I simply didn't spend as much time studying as I would have liked. Thankfully, the test itself, taken at a testing center on the west side of town, did not turn out to be quite as difficult as I had feared. This is not to say that the test was easy - it was not - but it seemed to be well-designed, focusing on generally-relevant topics and avoiding most of the arcane jargon prevalent in some sectors of the planning profession.

After completing the test I was "unofficially" informed that I had passed by a comfortable margin; it will be a couple of months before I am officially informed of my accomplishment and become a certified planner. Nevertheless, it feels good to finally accomplish this. Becoming certified had been a professional goal of mine for many years, something I really should have completed several years ago but never did because I was either too busy or too lazy or whatever. But now I've done it, and I feel good.

***

Another piece of bad news arrived in the mail over the weekend in the form of Kirby's official evaluation from the University of Houston's Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic. Kirby's preschool teacher had expressed concerns about Kirby's language development, and that, along with concerns that both Lori and I were beginning to have about Kirby's ability to communicate, prompted Lori to take him to the Clinic earlier in the month for testing. The results of the test, according to the Clinic, are that Kirby had a "moderate to severe receptive and expressive language delay." The report we received declared that Kirby's auditory comprehensive skills score (i.e. his ability to listen) was "greater than three standard deviations below the mean" for three-year-old children. In other words, the Clinic believes that thirty-nine-month-old Kirby has the listening comprehension skills of a twenty-month old. His expressive communication skills were, likewise, below what would be expected of a child his age, although the lag wasn't as great.

A delay in Kirby's communication skills really is no surprise to us; he didn't start speaking until well after most children are expected to do so and, while he is talkative, he doesn't seem to entirely grasp the concept of back-and-forth conversation, and he can't do things that children his age normally do, for example, indicate his age by holding up three fingers.

The Clinic did not attempt to classify Kirby's language deficiency as part of a larger disorder, such as autism, but they did suggest that there might be a behavioral aspect to his communication lag (for example, his inattentiveness). They did suggest a "treatment plan" which included three hours of therapy (two hours with a group and one hour with an individual) every week. How we'd pay for them, of course, is a different matter, since such therapy is not covered by either my nor Lori's insurance.

As I stated; the fact that Kirby has been diagnosed with a communication delay is not surprising to us. The degree of the delay, however, comes as a bit of a shock. I think our next step is to have his overall behavior evaluated to see how much of a role that plays in his condition. After that is done, we will evaluate our options for him.

***

Indeed, it's been an exhausting couple of weeks (and after all that, I'm supposed to get myself into the holiday spirit?!). Hopefully now that things have settled down a bit I'll be able to provide entries and updates on a slightly more regular basis. It looks like the trip to Dubai won't happen until after the new year, if at all, which right now is a good thing.

Glen Johnston 1939 - 2007

Sadly, my uncle Glen passed away on Tuesday, November 20, 2007, from complications related to congestive heart failure. He was about a month short of his 68th birthday.

Glen had not been in good health for some time; he was a lifelong smoker with a history of heart problems. Nevertheless, his death came as a shock to all of us.

Glen's obituary, which was written by his daughter Laura, ran in last Thursday's Temple Daily Telegram, but for some reason is not archived on their obituaries page. In the interests of posterity, I am reprinting it here in its entirety.

Of course, what is unsaid about Glen's life is just as important as what is said in the obit. Glen suffered a severe mental breakdown in the early 1980s, one which essentially erased his memory and caused him to suddenly leave his home and family in Oregon. Glen's whereabouts were unknown to everyone for several months, and we all feared the worst until he finally surfaced in Alabama. Glen's mental state improved with therapy, and he embarked on the herculean - and ultimately successful - task of rebuilding his life from complete scratch while in his 40s. Although we think that PTSD related to his service in Vietnam was a factor, we will never know with certainty what stresses and traumas caused Glen to suffer such a profound psychological calamity. He was an enigmatic person, even to those closest to him, and there are many things about his life that we will never know.

In spite of his life's difficulties, however, Glen Johnston was probably one of the nicest people I will ever know. He was gentle and friendly, had a dry sense of humor and was never judgmental.

To say that this has been a difficult time for my mother's side of the family (they've already suffered one loss this year) would be an understatement. Glen will be missed by all of us.

Glen Edwin Johnston, 67, of Morgan's Point Resort died November 20, 2007, at the Temple VA Medical Center.

He was born December 14, 1939 in Seminole, Oklahoma, to Henry William and Ruth Ella Mitchem Johnston. He attended school in Bowlegs, Oklahoma, and graduated from Seminole High School in 1957. He received a bachelor's degree in music education from Central State College in Edmond, Oklahoma, in 1962, then became the high-school band director in Rush Springs, Oklahoma.

He was commissioned as a U.S. Naval officer November 22, 1963. He served on a minesweeper and a destroyer during the Vietnam War and received the Vietnam Honor Medal with combat action ribbon, among others. He was discharged in 1973 as a lieutenant.

He and his family moved to Bellfountain, Oregon, and took up farming. Glen earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural education in 1975 from Oregon State University. He worked as a realtor in Corvallis, Oregon.

He began work as an equipment salesman for Mohawk Equipment in Temple in 1985. He migrated to MTC when that company bought Mohawk, and stayed there until his retirement in 2005.

He married Katherine Jane Wilkins December 27, 1961, in Edmond. They later divorced. He married Barbara Lyman in 1980 in Corvallis. They later divorced.

Glen was both smarter and kinder than he let on. He enjoyed ships, fishing, crossword puzzles interesting machinery and unusual automobiles.

Survivors include daughters Laura (Frank Graham) of North Platte, Nebraska, and Elinor of Los Angeles, and their mother Jane; sisters Dorothy of Temple and Rosemary (Horace) Gray of Houston; brothers Jim (Carolyn) of Beaverton, Oregon; and Joe of Dodge City, Kansas; many nieces, nephews and friends including Jim Lane and Cheri Coninx; and his beloved poodle Charley.

He was preceded in death by his father in 1957 and his mother in 2000.

The body was cremated. His ashes will be buried at sea. A private memorial will be at a later date.

Arrangements are with Temple Funeral Home.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Unsettled times

Earlier this evening, while preparing dinner, I took a casual glance at the big calendar we have in our kitchen. I'll admit that I was shocked when, upon looking at the calendar for a couple of seconds, I realized that Thanksgiving was exactly two weeks away! Yeah, I knew it was coming, but this quickly? I guess that's what I get for not keeping close track of time, but there are a lot of distractions in my life right now.

Most importantly: last week my uncle Glen was admitted to a Temple hospital with severe heart and kidney problems. His condition is still serious and his prognosis is uncertain at this point. My mother has been up there all week, keeping my aunt Dorothy (elder sister to both Glen and my mom) company, and my two cousins - Glen's daughters - have even flown in from Los Angeles and Nebraska to be by his bedside. There's nothing anybody can do at this point but wait and see how Glen responds to the treatment he is receiving.

In other words, it doesn't matter how close Thanksgiving is. Depending on how Glen does, we might not be having much of a Thanksgiving at all.

While that, by far, is the most distressing event occurring my my life right now, it's not the only source of unsettlement. At work, the story is that we're about to be moved into a new office space out on the West Loop. It's not too far from our current Greenway Plaza location and it will only add a few minutes to my commute, but the cleaning and packing is going to be a chore and, even worse, the rumor is that we'll be trading the actual offices we have right now for cubicles. Ugh.

Speaking of work, there's still no news about my impending trip to Dubai. When the original schedule for the project was created at the end of August, the plan was for me to leave on October 29th. Of course, I'm still in Houston, so that obviously hasn't happened; sometime in September I received word that the project had been delayed and that I wouldn't be needed until after Thanksgiving. Since then, there's been no word whatsoever. The closer I get to Thanksgiving without receiving any updates, the more likely it becomes that I won't be needed there until later in December, or sometime in January, or at all. Needless to say, it's hard to make any plans given this kind of uncertainty, and it is as annoying for Lori as it is for me.

There's also my AICP Certification Exam, which I take late next week. I've been preparing for it - or trying to, at least - but the more I study the more concerned I become about whether I'll actually be able to pass it. And I really need to pass this test. No pressure there, or anything...

Oh yeah, and then there's the cough and runny nose that has kept Kirby home from preschool most of this week. He was nice enough to pass his illness on to me and Lori, as well. Great.

Unsettled. That's where things are right now. That's also why blogging has been - and is going to continue to be - sporadic. I'll keep everybody updated about my uncle's condition.

Puerto Vallarta dining guide

One last post about our trip to Puerto Vallarta a couple of weeks ago: I wanted to mention some of the eating establishments we visited while we were there.

There are a few places we enjoyed during previous trips to PV (The River Cafe, Isla Cuale; Vista Grill, Pulpito 377; Rio Grande, Av. Mexico 1775; La Bodeguita del Medio, Paseo Diaz Ordaz 858) that we simply didn't get to eat at this time around. With the caveat that I haven't eaten at any of them recently, I'd still recommend these places if for no other reason than I haven't heard any recent reports that any of these establishments have "gone downhill." We did eat at the following places during our most recent vacation, and here's our assessment:

The Blue Shrimp (Morelos 779): As the same suggests, shrimp is this place's specialty. They offer shrimp by the kilo, half-kilo or quarter-kilo, cooked any number of ways, including tequila shrimp, coconut shrimp or garlic shrimp (check out their menu). Appetizers include shrimp ceviche, guacamole prepared at your table, or the delicious calamari that Lori and I ordered. Their salad bar is unique as well. It's a bit on the expensive side, as far as Puerto Vallarta dining options go, but the delicious food and the attentive service make it worth it. (Tip: instead of ordering their bottled water, which is fancy and expensive European spring water, order a beer or one of their margaritas instead - it's cheaper!) Recommended.

Memo's Pancake House (Basilio Badillo 289): During our one-week stay in PV, Lori and I ate here three times. That should provide an idea as to how much we enjoyed this place. Pancakes - served several different ways - are their specialty, but their omelets, french toast, fresh fruit plates, coffees and huevos rancheros are all pretty good too. Besides, there's nothing like ordering a bloody mary along with your morning omelet and reminding yourself that you're on vacation! Highly recommended.

Pipi's (Guadalupe Sanchez 807 at Pipila): This place is very popular (especially with tourists), so make reservations or be prepared to wait for a table during busy periods. The food is good, the atmosphere is festive, the prices are reasonable and they take special pride in their margaritas (they have a big sign over the bar which reads: "don't drink the water, drink margaritas instead") Fajitas are their specialty, which is interesting considering that fajitas are really an invention of "Tex-Mex" cuisine and are not a type of food native to Jalisco state. As a native Houstonian who has grown up eating some of the world's best beef and chicken fajita plates (think Spanish Village, Doneraki, Lupe Tortilla's or Ninfa's), I found the ones at Pipi's to be rather good. Recommended.

Viejo Vallarta (Morelos 484): located above the Malecon opposite Puerto Vallarta's famous "seahorse" sculpture, this restaurant is as notable for its people-watching as it is for its delicious and reasonably-priced food. The view from their third-story open-air balcony is excellent and the service was good. I especially liked their ceviche. Recommended.

El Andariego (Av. Mexico 1358): This restaurant is located on the north side of the old city. It is moderately, but not outrageously, pricey, and the food, service and atmosphere are first-rate. The free internet access they offer to customers is a nice touch as well. Expect to be offered a sample of their in-house tequila while you are dining. Lori liked the chicken enchiladas; her only gripe was the dessert menu, which she found to be a bit sparse. Otherwise, we enjoyed eating here. Recommended.

Cilantro's (Abasolo 169): This upscale restaurant's specialty is its cilantro margarita. As strange - or even disgusting - as it might sound, I actually found this concoction to have a unique, refreshing and enjoyable taste. Unfortunately, the cilantro margarita turned out to be the best thing about this restaurant. I just can't say that the food (which tasted good, but the portions were ridiculously small) or the glacially-slow service justified the cost. What really put me off was the treatment I received because I paid by credit card: they crossed out the tip line on my receipt and asked me to leave a cash tip. I found this presumptuous, especially since I didn't have a lot of cash on me to begin with. Needless to say, the waiter didn't get a big tip from me. Which is probably appropriate, given the slow service. Cilantro margarita aside, I cannot recommend this place.

Pollo Feliz (Av. Mexico at Honduras): "Asado" is the past participle of the verb "asar," which means "to roast." Rotisserie-roasted chicken is as popular in Latin America as fried chicken is in the United States, and Pollo Feliz is one of many Mexican chains that serve this dish. Needless to say, this isn't an upscale restaurant; it's a featureless fast food joint in the old town opposite the Pemex station. But that's okay; sometimes the most unassuming pollo asado joints have the best food at the best price (a Houston case in point: the "Que Pollaso" kitchen-bus on the side of Telephone Road near Griggs, which offers an entire roasted chicken, with rice, beans, tortillas and sauces, for twelve bucks). Pollo Feliz's roasted chicken is a great value, as are the sides they offer with it. I suggest that visitors to Puerto Vallarta who are looking for a quick and inexpensive bite to eat check this place out before they wander into the McDonald's or Carl's Jr down the street.

Salsa Mexicana (Av. Mexico at Honduras, cater-corner from Pollo Feliz): there's nothing particularly special about this restaurant, but its proximity to our timeshare as well as its moderate prices made it a place that we ate at often. I thought the margaritas were fine, but Lori didn't like the greasy tortilla chips. There's no need to go out of your way to eat here, but if you're strolling down Av. Mexico and come across this place, it's probably worth stopping for a drink or a snack.

There you have it: the official Mean Green Cougar Red Puerto Vallarta Dining Guide! This list is, of course, not even close to exhaustive. There were several places recommended to us that we simply didn't get to visit during our week-long stay there. Online dining guides, such as vallartaonline.com or vallartarestaurants.com, can be helpful to visitors as well.

One last thing: if you do plan a trip ot PV, please us a favor and refrain from patronizing anything with the name "Carlos O'Brians" or "SeƱor Frogs" on it. Help us fight the Cancunization of Puerto Vallarta!