Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Traingeek update

Following up on that Trinity Railway Express locomotive I spotted in Houston last week: I received an e-mail from Sal DeAngelo, Chief Mechanical Officer for the TRE, explaining that said locomotive was just passing through town:
What you have photographed is one of our units that has undergone a complete overhaul returning from Norfolk-Southern Railway’s Juniata Shops in Altoona, Pennsylvania, being shipped via interchange in New Orleans to our authority here in D/FW.
("Interchange" is just a fancy word meaning "where Norfolk Southern's trackage meets BNSF's trackage.")

Very soon, TRE-120 will be carrying passengers between Dallas, Fort Worth and all points in between.

Meanwhile, plans for commuter rail in Houston remain just that: plans.

Active hurricane season spares United States

We can all breathe sigh of relief: today is the last day of the 2010 hurricane season.

The meteorological prognosticators had predicted that this season would be busy. This is why I called the season's first named storm a "shot off the bow." But while the 2010 hurricane season was indeed active - 19 tropical storms, 12 hurricanes and 5 major hurricanes - it only shot blanks at the United States. KTRK's Tim Heller explains:
"This season was a gentle giant," said Jack Hayes, director of NOAA's National Weather Service. Although the number of storms was much higher than normal, only one storm made landfall in the U.S.; Tropical Storm Bonnie passed over south Florida in mid-July.
It just goes to show that hurricane activity does not exactly correlate to domestic damage and destruction. Given the thousands of miles of coastline that front both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, it's simply inevitable a fair number of storms can be expected to make landfall in the United States. But sometimes we just get lucky, as we did this season. The storms all went somewhere else.

Conversely, a quiet hurricane season is no guarantee of calm and safety: the 1992 hurricane season was considered to be of below average intensity, but Hurricane Andrew remains the second-costliest hurricane in US history, behind only Katrina.

And it should also be noted that, even though the United States was spared from hurricane-related catastrophe this season, several other nations were not, including countries like Haiti that really didn't need any more natural disasters.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ohio State president epitomizes BCS arrogance

If you're looking of a good example of the attitude that embodies the arrogance, elitism and downright corruption of college football's Bowl Championship Series, look no further than Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee, who claims that neither TCU nor Boise State are worthy of a BCS championship:
In an interview with the Associated Press, the president at the university with the largest athletic program in the country said that TCU and Boise State do not face a difficult enough schedule to play in the national championship game.

"Well, I don't know enough about the X's and O's of college football," said Gee, formerly the president at West Virginia, Colorado, Brown and Vanderbilt universities. "I do know, having been both a Southeastern Conference president and a Big Ten president, that it's like murderer's row every week for these schools. We do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor. We play very fine schools on any given day. So I think until a university runs through that gantlet that there's some reason to believe that they not be the best teams to [be] in the big ballgame."
I don't think anybody would argue that, from top to bottom, the Big Ten is a much stronger conference than the WAC (which is why Boise, along with Fresno State, Nevada and now Hawaii, are leaving it, and North Texas would rather stay in the Sun Belt (!) than join). Nevertheless, the "weak sisters of the poor" statement is rather rich coming from a president whose own school's 2010 schedule includes out-of-conference cupcakes Marshall, Ohio and Eastern Michigan, not to mention Big Ten doormats Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue. Gee's comments also ignore the fact that Ohio State's strength of schedule (59th in the nation, as of November 21st) really isn't that much stronger than Boise State's (68th in the nation), if the most recent Sagarin ratings are to be believed. (I can only wonder what the nationally-ranked Nevada Wolfpack, who host Boise State in Reno later this week, might think about being called "the Little Sisters of the Poor.")

But what is perhaps most ridiculous about Gee's comments is that he is blasting the Broncos' strength of schedule even as "big time" schools such as his won't schedule Boise State. Gee's nonsense is no different than that of a fellow BCS shill, University of Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, who early this year claimed that Utah, which was the only team to end the 2008 college football season undefeated, could have played for the national title if the Utes "played the schedule Nebraska did," even though the Huskers would never dare play Utah, much less invite them to their conference.

In other words: we don't think you deserve the title because you didn't play a stronger schedule, but we're not going to help you make your schedule stronger by playing you. A shining example of circular logic.

Of course, Utah will get their chance to prove themselves among the "big boys" of college football next season, when they join the Pac-12. But schools like Boise State and TCU remain among the "have-nots" of college football, even as the "haves" collude to continually increase the gap between the two sets of schools in hopes of one day creating a "superconference" of "big time" teams.

Boise State's president, needless to say, was incensed by Gee's comments:

Speaking to the Idaho Statesman, BSU president Bob Kustra blasted Gee for the “folly” that is the “murderer’s row every week” argument and warned that Gee might be “set[ting] off a firestorm he probably has no interest in creating.” Additionally, Kustra questioned Gee and other presidents for presenting themselves “as the pillars of moral rectitude”, which we believe in the world of academia is the equivalent of calling somebody’s momma a ho.

Regardless, Kustra was far from pleased.

“He claims that in the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 it’s murderer’s row every week and there’s absolutely little substance to that claim. … The BCS has finally found someone to stand up and defend the indefensible and Gordon Gee proved it — he not just proved that it’s indefensible but he did so with facts that are simply wrong. … Everyone in intercollegiate football knows that athletic directors of those large power conferences are scheduling more and more teams who are I-AA, who are teams at the weaker end of the non-AQ conferences, and for Gee to stand up and talk about murderer’s row every week is just the height of folly. It’s ridiculous. I think he’s going to set off a firestorm he probably has no interest in creating. To say that he overstated his case is an understatement.”

TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte got in his licks as well:
But Del Conte, who appeared on ESPN Radio 103.3 Dallas, took a slightly different approach. “I sat back and just thought about our football program and our coach and realized that to start throwing stones at your house, they must be jealous,” Del Conte said. “We have a phenomenal football program. … And someone now starts taking shots at TCU? That means we’ve arrived.”
As for Ohio State's supposedly superior strength of schedule, Del Conte had this to say:
When I start to look at their [Ohio State's] nonconference schedule made up of the MAC schools — that’d be Ohio, Eastern Michigan. I had no idea they were going out and testing themselves week in and week out.

Gee also weighed in on the interminable BCS-versus-playoff debate, using some of the same tired and flawed logic that BCS defenders have long used to argue against a playoff:

Gee, long an admirer of the BCS and the current bowl system, said he was against a playoff in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

"If you put a gun to my head and said, 'What are you going to do about a playoff system [if] the BCS system as it now exists goes away?' I would vote immediately to go back to the bowl system," he said.

He said the current system is better for the student-athletes.

"It's not about this incessant drive to have a national championship because I think that's a slippery slope to professionalism," he said. "I'm a fan of the bowl system and I think that by and large it's worked very, very well."

Gee is right about one thing: the "old jumbled-up system" of bowls that existed prior to the inception of the BCS would be preferable to the joke of a system that exists right now. But his comments about "professionalism" ring a bit hollow in light of the recent controversy surrounding former USC star Reggie Bush and the current controversy enveloping Auburn standout Cam Newton. Furthermore, the idea that the current BCS system is somehow better for student-athletes, especially those of non-AQ schools that don't get to play for a championship in spite of their hard work, is nothing short of absurd.

Remember that, as non-automatic qualifiers, there's no guarantee that either TCU or Boise State, let alone both of them, will be playing in a BCS bowl at all even if they do go undefeated. Meanwhile, the champion of the Big East conference will go to a BCS bowl even though that team will very likely be unranked at season's end. This is simply indefensible.

I don't have anything against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are truly a good team this year, carrying a 10-1 record into their annual showdown with Michigan. The Buckeyes have traditionally been one of college football's greatest programs. And I'd love to one day see a game at the Horseshoe. But the comments of the school's president are, quite frankly, nothing short of a pathetic attempt to defend the exclusionary and corrupt sham that is the BCS system. As NBC's John Taylor explains:

Look, these asinine statements from Gee don’t exactly plow new ground. It’s patently obvious, based on the discrepancies in BcS payouts to automatic qualifiers as compared to non-automatic qualifiers, the all-powerful presidents aren’t interested in a fair and equitable system to determine a national champion; rather, their sole interest is how to funnel the majority of the funds created by the current system into the coffers of the Big Six conferences.

The only thing that Gee’s comments do is further solidify the fact that it will take action on the part of the Justice Department or other facets of the United States government — or the threat of action — in order to create a playoff system.

Given the multitude of other problems this country is facing right now, I don't think the political will currently exists for the government to get involved in fighting the BCS cartel. However, as Yahoo's Dan Wetzel points out, Gee may have inadvertently given BCS opponents some ammunition:

Then there is this, Gee couldn’t have given a better Thanksgiving gift to the lawyers at Arent Fox, the Washington law firm that is trying to spur a Justice Department investigation into the BCS on anti-trust grounds.

If you’re trying to prove the six major conferences systematically exclude the others then getting the Ohio State president to essentially admit they should be systematically excluded is no small development.

Exactly. Which is why I'm sure Gee will attempt to issue a "retraction" in the coming days aimed at quelling the controversy he has created. This is not the kind of publicity the BCS cartel wants as the regular season nears its end.

CBS's Jerry Hinnen takes his shots at Gee as well.

2010 UH Cougar football attendance

The Cougars are coming off a 59-41 shellacking at the hands of Southern Miss and end their season against Texas Tech in Lubbock this Saturday. Given that the home schedule is over and a win against the Red Raiders is rather improbable, I've decided to go ahead and put up the updated wins and attendance graph for UH football:
Thanks to a strong season ticket sales campaign and excitement surrounding what was supposed to have been a promising season, the Cougars averaged 31,728 fans per game in 2010. This is an increase of 6,486 fans/game over the 2009 season, and it's the largest average attendance the Cougars have enjoyed since 1981.

To be fair, this represents tickets sold, not actual butts in seats; the games early in the season were packed, but the number of people actually attending subsequent games fall along with the team's fortunes. Nevertheless, more tickets sold means more money for Houston's cash-strapped athletics department, so I'm not complaining.

This number is probably represents the peak of UH football attendance in the near term. For one thing, Robertson Stadium's overall capacity is 32,000, so there's really no way this number could get much higher until the Cougars build a new stadium (fundraising activity is already underway for this much-needed facility). Moreover, the fact that the much-anticipated 2010 season turned out to be a bust will probably dissuade some season ticket holders from renewing next season. I expect average attendance for the 2011 to be lower.

Given how bad UH football attendance used to be, however, this season's attendance number is quite an accomplishment, and it represents some good news in an otherwise disappointing 2010 season.

Traingeek time!

Noticed at the BNSF railyard near the University of Houston while driving home this afternoon:
The locomotive painted like the Texas flag is a rare sight in Houston because it belongs to the Trinity Railway Express, which is a commuter rail line that runs between Dallas and Fort Worth. It is numbered TRE 120. According to the TRE's rolling stock datasheet, it is an F-59 PH locomotive purchased from Toronto's GO Transit in 2009.

Judging by what is clearly a shiny new paint job, I'm guessing that it's merely passing through town on its way from the refurbishment shop to TRE's yard. I sent an e-mail inquiry to TRE asking if this is the case and I'll update if I get a response.

I'm sure I'm the only person in the world that actually notices or cares about this. But I'm a transit geek so that's how I roll!

(Update here.)

North Texas turns down WAC invite

As the conference realignment shuffle continues, we at least know where one school is not going:
North Texas athletic director Rick Villarreal told [Western Athletic Conference] commissioner Karl Benson that the school has no interest in joining the league late Monday night, just hours after Benson called to gauge the school’s interest in leaving the Sun Belt Conference.

In other words: "sorry, WAC, but we think the Sun Belt is better."


In related news, North Texas expects to announce its next football coach sometime next week. The Mean Green are 2-2 since Todd Dodge was fired and offensive coordinator Mike Canales took over as interim head coach.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Frontier shifts flights from IAH to Hobby

As of this afternoon, Frontier's Denver-Houston service has shifted from Bush Intercontinental to Hobby Airport:
"Hobby Airport offers great benefits to Frontier's guests," said Daniel Shurz, Frontier’s vice president of strategy and planning. "In addition to its easy-to-use refurbished terminal, Hobby offers convenient access to downtown Houston as well as to great tourist attractions such as NASA and Galveston."
Not to mention less congestion on both the airside and landside ends of the airport.

However, there's probably another good reason for this shift, as discussed on this flyertalk.com thread. United's merger with Continental gives the combined airline the dominant position on this hub-to-hub route which will be difficult for Frontier to compete against. Frontier executives likely thought that it would be a better idea to move to Hobby and take their chances against Southwest, which already offers service to Denver.

Southwest, for its part, has been preparing for their competitor's arrival; over the past couple of months they've put up billboards along local freeways reminding people of their own Hobby-to-Denver service.

Fare war, anyone?

In other local aviation news, Emirates added a second daily nonstop between Bush Intercontinental and Dubai at the beginning of this month. A local blog was hoping that this would mean the appearance of the A380 Super-Jumbo in Houston, but, alas, the second flight will be serviced by another Boeing 777.

It's good to see that IAH-DXB is such a strong route for Emirates, and this second daily option will be of obvious benefit to me if I get called back my company's Dubai office. As of right now I am uncertain if that will ever happen, however.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cougars' bowl chances are rapidly diminishing

To say that the University of Houston has had a rough football season would be a monumental understatement. The loss of star quarterback Case Keenum (as well as his backup) against UCLA, coupled with the Cougars' porous defense, has resulted in bitter disappointment in what was originally supposed to be a promising year for the program. The team truly appeared dead in the water a few weeks ago when they lost to crosstown rival Rice (whose only other win to date has come against a program that just fired the worst coach in its history). But back-to-back victories on the road gave the Cougar faithful hope that the season could be salvaged: that a Conference USA West title and a trip to a bowl game were still possible.

After Houston's most recent two matches, however, that looks unlikely. The Cougars dropped back-to-back home games - a 33-40 loss to Central Florida on Friday November 5 and a 25-28 defeat at the hands of Tulsa on Saturday November 13 - and now go on a two-game roadtrip to end their season: this Saturday they will play Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg (where they've never won), and the Saturday after Thanksgiving they play revenge-minded Big XII foe Texas Tech in Lubbock. While anything can happen on any given Saturday, at this point I believe that the odds of the Cougars winning either of these games, thereby avoiding a losing season, are very slim.

The Coogs put up a good fight against one of Conference USA's better teams two Fridays ago. Houston started out slow, thanks to a David Piland interception that was run back for a UCF touchdown early in the game, and trailed 10-23 at the half. However, the Cougars scored 14 unanswered points to begin the second half and at one point even led the game. The Golden Knights regained a two-touchdown advantage in the fourth quarter, but after Houston scored again and UCF missed a field goal with 1:53 remaining the Cougars had a chance to tie the game. Unfortunately, it didn't happen.

In addition to completing 15 passes for 294 yards, UCF quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey was also the team's leading rusher as he scorched the woeful Houston run defense for 105 yards. And although the UH offense actually slightly outgained UCF, 532 yards to 522, costly miscues, such as ten UCF points resulting from two David Piland interceptions and a missed field goal and extra point by Matt Hogan, proved to be difference in the game.

Last Saturday the Tulsa Golden Hurricane came to Robertson Stadium for Houston's final home game of the year. And, once again, the Cougar defense was burned by a mobile quarterback, as G.J. Kinne gained 190 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown in addition to his 154 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air.

But the outcome of this game really cannot be blamed on the defense. Tulsa had no weapons outside of Kinne, and even then he was sacked three times and intercepted twice. The Cougar defense, furthermore, was actually able to hold Tulsa to 5 of 12 third down conversions and no fourth down conversions. The defense gave up an uncharacteristically-low 28 points (in spite of the fact that they were often put into tough positions by offensive turnovers) and played well enough for the Cougars to win.

The Cougars' problem was that David Piland was clearly had an off night. He threw five interceptions - four in the first half alone - and many of his other passes were thrown into coverage or behind receivers. It's simply hard to win when your quarterback throws the ball to the other team five times.

Although by the end of the half many people in the crowd were clamoring for Kevin Sumlin to put Terrance Broadway into the game, the coaching staff stuck with Piland. To his credit, Piland (who, in addition to those five picks, completed 22 of 36 passes for 291 yards and 3 touchdowns) played better in the second half. The Cougars outscored the Golden Hurricane 21-7 in the second half and were well on their way to taking the lead when Piland threw his last interception of the night with 5:39 left. Tulsa then ran out the clock to seal the win.

I don't know if the Cougars would have done any better if Broadway had taken over for Piland at any point in the game. But I also don't know if leaving a true freshman in a game when he's clearly having a bad night and allowing him to throw five interceptions is good for his confidence. And I really don't understand why the coaching staff didn't do more to emphasize the run on a night when the quarterback was struggling. Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes combined for 120 yards on 30 carries, but considering that Houston's best offensive weapon - Beall - only touched the ball four times the entire second half and had no carries at all the last 25 minutes of the game, one has to wonder what offensive coaches Jason Phillips and Kliff Klingsbury are doing (or if they really know what they're doing at all). Consider this: neither Beall nor Hayes saw the ball at all on Houston's last, interception-ended drive.

If you would have told me at the beginning of the month that the Cougars would score 40 points against Central Florida, I would have expected a win. If you would have told me at the beginning of the month that the Cougars would have held Tulsa to 28 points, I also would likewise have expected a win. But alas, that's not how this catastrophic season has gone.

This is the first time since the infamous 0-11 season of 2001 that the Cougars have lost four consecutive games in the City of Houston. More depressingly, with no home games remaining, football season is essentially over for me and my tailgating crew. While the Cougars still have two games remaining, and while they could certainly pull off a minor miracle and win one or even both of those games, I think the cold, hard reality is this:

The 2010 University of Houston football season essentially ended when Case Keenum injured his knee in the Rose Bowl last September. Given all of the Cougars' other weaknesses, both on the field as well as on the sidelines, there was simply no way they could afford to lose him and expect to have anything approaching a successful season.

Name that Kroger! Take Two

Last year, I wrote about a popular tradition of assigning nicknames to inside-the-loop Kroger Stores. The Kroger store located on West Gray in the River Oaks Shopping Center (pictured here) apparently has several nicknames, including "Posh Kroger," "Deco Kroger," or "River Oaks Kroger."

It turns out that store management has their own ideas on what this particular store's nickname should be. I recently went there to pick up a few items on my way to getting Kirby from school, and found these laminated signs at every check-out aisle:
"Our goal is to make EVERY CUSTOMER feel like a HOLLYWOOD STAR each time you enter our store," the sign reads in part. "HOLLYWOOD KROGER IN RIVER OAKS IS REACHING FOR THE STARS IN ALL THAT WE DO!"

So there you have it: Kroger store #355 at the corner of West Gray and Dunlavy is henceforth to be known as "Hollywood Kroger," where you can expect to be treated like a celebrity as you shop! Each shopper will be assigned their own publicist and band of paparazzi to follow him or her up and down the aisles and there will be a walk-in Betty Ford Clinic next to the produce section.

Seriously, though: will the name take? Or will Houstonians reject management's decree establishing the store's official nickname and continue to refer to it by its organic, colloquial nicknames?

I think I already have my own new nickname for this store: "Really-Goofy-Attempt-At-Emphasizing-Customer-Service Kroger."

Friday, November 05, 2010

Midterm election thoughts

There's no way for the Democrats to spin this one. They got their butts kicked. Voters, angry at the sluggish economy, high unemployment and a perception of out-of-control spending in Washington, handed Republicans sweeping victories at the federal, state and local levels. Perhaps Democrats can take solace in the fact that they held on to the Senate, or that voters rejected a handful of the nuttiest Tea Party candidates, but given their losses at all levels, they really don't have much to hang their hats on. They lost because the party in power gets blamed for the economy. But they also lost on their message, as Time's Joel Klein explains:
Still, the Democratic performance this year was one of the more mystifying, and craven, in memory. Usually, a political party loses when it has failed to do its job. These Democrats lost because they succeeded in doing what they've been promising for decades. They enacted their fantasies, starting with health care reform, and then ran away from their successes. Why on earth would a political party enact major pieces of legislation and then refuse to take credit for them?
If you believe in the adage that "the government which governs least, governs best," then you're going to be happy for the next two years, because absolutely nothing substantial is going to be done in Washington from now until the 2012 presidential election. With a Republican House, a Democratic Presidency, and a Senate that is nominally controlled by the Democrats but which cannot break a filibuster from either side, there is nothing but two years of partisan gridlock in this country's future.

But isn't that a good thing? You might argue. Look at the era of reform and prosperity that occurred after the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 and forced Bill Clinton to curtail his liberal agenda! Well, as former Reagan and Bush 41 staffer Bruce Bartlett explains, things were a bit different back then:
It should be remembered also that Republicans had the very good fortune to take power right on the brink of the 1990s technology boom, which raised the real gross domestic product 4.7 percent in 1995, 5.7 percent in 1996 and 6.3 percent in 1997 — which sent tax revenues cascading into the Treasury.
But today the situation is quite different. The economy is in the tank and the budget is clearly on an unsustainable path, in large part due to actions taken by Republicans when they were in power. They completely dismantled the deficit controls put in place by the elder Bush and Clinton so that they could cut taxes willy-nilly without paying for them, and in the process thoroughly decimated the government’s capacity to raise adequate revenue to fund its essential functions. Adding insult to injury, Republicans enacted a massive new entitlement program, Medicare Part D, without paying for a penny of it on top of every pork barrel project any Republican ever imagined.

The point is that gridlock under today’s circumstances will not be benign, as it was in the late 1990s, but toxic, preventing our political system from grappling with problems that demand action and will only get worse the longer it is delayed.

Which is why I personally think that the next two years are going to be two of the ugliest years, in terms of venomous political rhetoric, grandstanding, finger-pointing and obstructionism, that this country has seen in recent memory. And this is going to occur even as our nation's worst problems - the economy, unemployment, the ever-increasing debt - continue to fester.

(And while we're here: where was the Tea Party when a Republican-controlled Federal Government was passing the budget-busting Medicare Part D, anyway? It's really interesting how this movement only appeared after a Democratic African-American was elected President...)

Now that the Republicans are in control (of the House, at least), they face a daunting task as well: they need to be able to actually govern - i.e., propose and pass laws - as opposed to simply be the "party against Obama" that they were for the last two years. Will they rise to that challenge? If they're concerned about the national debt, what, exactly, will they propose to cut? Bartlett continues:
Some Republicans delude themselves that they can enact legislation that will reduce the deficit on their terms — 100 percent spending cuts with no increase in taxes. In particular, every Republican believes that the Affordable Care Act adds massively to the deficit, despite repeated statements from the Congressional Budget Office and Medicare’s actuaries to the contrary — which means that repeal would be scored by CBO as adding to the deficit.
Of course, considering that the Democrats still control the Senate and that Obama is still in the White House, repeal of the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") is simply impossible until at least 2013. So what else do they have? Bartlett thinks the Republicans should celebrate while they can, because come 2011 the realities of Washington - as well as the party's own fault lines between the "establishment" and the Tea-Party-empowered "insurgents" - will make things difficult for the GOP:
Republicans should savor the period from Election Day to the first day of the new Congress on January 3, 2011. That will be as good as it gets for them; afterwards, it’s all downhill once they have to act, take responsibility, and can no longer blame Democrats for everything bad that happens anywhere. That goes for their allies in the business community, who naively assume that every action of the last two years that they opposed will magically disappear. And it goes double for the Tea Partiers, who have never had to take responsibility for anything. It’s a whole new ballgame in January.
Furthermore, anybody who thinks the results of this election cycle spell certain doom for Barack Obama in 2012 should remember recent history. In 1982, the Democrats handed Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party a huge setback. But in 1984, of course, Reagan was re-elected in a landslide. Similarly, the Republicans handed Bill Clinton and the Democrats huge losses in the 1994 midterms. But Bill Clinton handily won re-election in 1996. What happens in 2012 will depend on a lot of things - the economy, Obama's overall approval ratings, whomever his Republican opponent is - but history makes it clear that midterm elections are not a predictor of presidential elections two years off.

Closer to home: Rick Perry was re-elected to a third full term as Governor of Texas; this comes as no surprise given that his opponent, former Houston Mayor Bill White was a Democrat in a Republican state during an election cycle that favors the Republicans. Locally, voters rejected Houston's further use of cameras to fine red-light runners. Having mixed feelings about these cameras myself, I can't say I'm really sorry to see them go.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Big East to expand; could UH be a target?

Even as we find ourselves in the middle of another college football season, discussion about the sport's future landscape continues. Last Monday, New York Daily News sportswriter Lenn Robbins reported that Big East presidents and athletics directors were holding a meeting on Tuesday to discuss possible expansion of their league, which currently consists of eight all-sports (i.e. FBS football) members and 16 total members:
The regularly-scheduled meeting of the presidents and athletic directors figures to be intense as the BCS-football playing members of the league intend on pressing their agenda to add teams to the eight-team football conference.

"The goal is to get the presidents' blessing to seriously pursue teams," said one Big East athletic director. "I don't think we're going to get pushback on that."

Several sources confirmed a Post report last month that TCU is a strong candidate. Houston, Central Florida, Temple and/or Villanova, which is in the midst of evaluating a move up from FCS, are other lead candidates.
Following this meeting on Tuesday, the Big East put out an announcement that, indeed, they were considering adding two football-playing members to their lineup. The Chronicle's Steve Campbell further analyzed the situation:
So is UH on the cusp of becoming a member of a Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifying league? Is it time for high-fiving on Cullen Blvd.? Not so fast.

The Big East board of directors announced Tuesday that the 16-member league will attempt to increase its Football Bowl Subdivision-playing contingent from eight teams to 10. The league did not clarify how Villanova, which is ranked No. 3 in the Football Championship Subdivision, fits into the equation.

Among the schools that have been on the Big East's radar are UH, UCF, East Carolina, Memphis and Temple. If Villanova is ready, willing and able to make a commitment to playing big-time football, then that leaves room for only one other school. If Villanova isn't ready to make that kind of commitment, then that would leave two seats at the Big East table. TCU (No. 3 in the BCS standings) is considered a shoo-in for one invitation. Assuming there is a second spot there for the taking, then the Big East would be sifting through the likes of UH, UCF, East Carolina, Memphis and Temple.

Needless to say, discussion and speculation on various UH sports message boards related to this announcement quickly drowned out any discussion of tomorrow night's important nationally-televised home game against Central Florida. How realistic are Houston's chances of being one of the two teams chosen for the Big East's expansion? Is this all the expansion the Big East is considering, or is this merely an interim step towards increasing the conference's football membership to twelve schools (the minimum number required for a conference championship game)? If so, could Houston be in the running for a future spot in the Big East if they don't get picked now? If these additions are for football only, in what conference will the Cougars play their other sports, such as basketball, and would the UH administration even consider accepting an invitation for football only?

The Cougars would definitely like to be included in the ranks of the Bowl Champion Series Automatic Qualifying teams (i.e., the "haves"), they are located in a large media market and recruiting hotbed, Houston would serve as a good travel partner for TCU if they are indeed at the top of the Big East's list, and membership in the Big East does make sense on many levels for Houston: it is a conference consisting largely of urban schools similar to Houston, many of which - Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida - used to be the Cougars' conference-mates in CUSA. However, there are also issues that could work against the Coogs, such as facilities and fan support (although plans are in place for a new stadium and attendance for football is clearly improving) as well as simple geography. Furthermore, would football-only membership be in the UH athletics program's overall best interests? And what happens if the Cougars join the Big East, only to watch as current Big East schools like Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Rutgers or West Virginia are later pilfered by the Big 10 or the ACC?

I've long since given up trying to make any sense out of conference realignment. So while I am skeptical that the University of Houston will be one of the two schools invited to join the Big East in the short term, anything is certainly possible. If for some reason the Coogs do get an invite, however, I think the administration would be foolish not to accept it. If the goal is to become a member of a BCS-AQ conference and all the priveleges in income and prestige that entails, then this is an easy way of reaching that goal.

Regardless of what happens, the University of Houston needs to continue doing what it's doing. It needs to continue its positive trends in terms of attendance, it needs to take the next step towards a new stadium by unveiling a funding plan, and the team needs to continue putting together winning seasons. While this season has been a disappointment due to a rash of injuries (notably, Case Keenum's) as well as a defense that has shown little improvement over last season, a winning record and a bowl appearance is still salvagable at this point. Tough though it may be, a win tomorrow night over a Central Florida team that is also on the Big East's list of possible candidates would be huge in more ways than one.