Thursday, August 18, 2011

Are the Aggies going to the SEC? Is Houston going to the Big XII?

Just over two weeks remain until the 2011 college football season kicks off. This is the time of year when players focus on practice, coaches focus on starting lineups, and fans focus on tailgating menus. Over the past week or so, however, the college football world has been distracted by some off-the-field developments. I'm not talking about the scandal surrounding the provision of impermissible benefits to University of Miami football players, although those allegations, if proved to be true, could put the Hurricane football program on the death penalty. I am, rather, referring to some conference realignment activity that's originating here in Texas.

As late as last weekend it looked like Texas A&M, apparently upset at the perceived monetary and recruiting advantages that rival Texas would gain through its own network and also perhaps having remorse over not making the move when the Big 12 was on the verge of imploding a year ago, was on its way to the Southeastern Conference. However, the Aggies' move to what is almost certainly the nation's strongest football conference will not be immediate, since the presidents and chancellors of SEC schools met last Sunday and issued the following statement:
“The SEC Presidents and Chancellors met today and reaffirmed our
satisfaction with the present 12 institutional alignment. We recognize, however,
that future conditions may make it advantageous to expand the number of
institutions in the league. We discussed criteria and process associated with
expansion. No action was taken with respect to any institution including Texas
The statement simply means that the Aggies aren't joining the conference right now. It clearly leaves the door open for the Aggies to join the SEC sometime in the future. The fact that the SEC schools' leaders were meeting - on a Sunday in the middle of August, no less - to discuss realignment was by itself very telling. This action is merely a legal maneuver on the SEC's part; a step in the process of bringing A&M to the SEC.

Last Monday, Texas A&M's Board of Regents met and voted to give A&M President R. Loftin Bowen permission to “take action on conference alignment," which essentially gives him approval to begin negotiations with the SEC. They also appointed a new Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System who is clearly in favor of the move. Loftin attempted to temper the impatience of starry-eyed Aggie fans by describing the potential realignment as a "lengthy process" but nevertheless indicated that the move was likely to occur. "It's not so much what's wrong with the Big 12, it's what's right for Texas A&M and where we want to go in time," Loftin said in a not-so-subtle dig at the conference of which they have been a member since 1996. At this point, it's clear that the Aggies have their hearts set on leaving the Big 12 and joining the SEC. The only question is when. (Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples offers more insight on the current state of affairs, which he describes as "a divorce in which the squabbling couple has nine children.")

Of course, the Aggies' move to the SEC has the real potential to set in motion a chain reaction of school and conference movements that could change the college football landscape. For example: if the SEC took Texas A&M as their 13th member, would they need to add a 14th member to balance out their geographic divisions? If so, who? And, if the Aggies left the Big 12 (which in spite of its name only has ten members following the departure of Colorado and Nebraska), would the Big 12 stand pat or would they add a member to replace A&M? If so, who? And depending on what the SEC and Big 12 do in terms of potentially adding new schools, what does that mean for the rest of the college football landscape? If you're a conference realignment buff, the possibilities are endless. Is this another step towards the much-anticipated development of four sixteen-team "superconferences" (an eventuality I continue to oppose, even though I think it is inevitable)?

Of interest to me as a University of Houston fan is the speculation that the Cougars could be called upon to join the Big 12 if and when the Aggies go east. Cougar faithful, after all, desperately want out of Conference USA, which does not automatically qualify for the Bowl Championship Series and is therefore one of the "have-nots" in the college football world. Getting into the automatically-qualifying Big 12, and being able to play major schools like Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma on a regular basis, would be an enormous step up for the program. Houston is definitely in the mix, if the Austin-American Statesman is to be believed:

The Big 12 school official told the Statesman he had heard that the Big 12, to survive in the event of A&M's departure, would consider inviting Notre Dame and Arkansas to join, but he admitted those schools were unlikely to be interested. Other possibilities, the source said, include Houston, Louisville, Brigham Young and Air Force. He saw TCU — which joins the Big East next year — as an unlikely school to approach.

The Cougars definitely have their supporters. An official with Texas A&M apparently feels that Houston would be a "viable" replacement for the Aggies in the Big 12 (although once they leave the conference, A&M will obviously have no say in the matter). Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel says that Houston is his "clubhouse leader" for inclusion in the conference. Houston's inclusion in the Big 12 also has support from elected officials, and even the Chronicle's Richard Justice - a UT alum who has been accused of slighting UH in the past - has written in favor of Houston's inclusion.

Working against the Coogs, of course, are the program's traditional Achilles' heels: attendance and facilities. While Houston's football attendance has definitely been on the upswing over the past few years, the 31,728 fans per game the Cougars attracted last season (their best since 1981) was well below the 40,043 fans per game that Baylor, which has the Big 12's lowest attendance, attracted last season. And while Cougars appear to be on track to top the 10,000 mark in season ticket sales for the second consecutive year, it's still below the goal of 15,000 tickets that UH athletics director Mack Rhoades has set and is well below the 25,000 or 30,000 that a BCS-AQ conference like the Big XII would like to see. It can be argued that UH will be able to sell more season tickets in the Big 12, since local sports fans are more likely to come out and see the Cougars play Texas and Oklahoma and Texas Tech than they are to see Conference USA opponents like Marshall or Central Florida or Tulane, but the Big 12 would much rather see current commitment from Houston's fan base rather than future potential.

As far as facilities are concerned, a fundraising campaign to replace the small and aging Robertson Stadium continues. As of this afternoon $60 million has been raised, which is half of the new facility's estimated cost. Negotiations continue on naming rights for the lead gift, which would push the fundraising total past the $80 million mark where bonds for the remaining cost can be issued and groundbreaking could occur. Another $40 million, however, is required for upgrades to aging Hofheinz Pavilion, and efforts to secure those funds have not yet begun. There is speculation that the Cougars could address their facilities problems in the short-term by playing football games at Reliant Stadium and basketball games at Toyota Center.

There are other issues affecting Houston's potential inclusion as well, and television is at the top of the list. The Houston area is already a strong SEC market, what with all the alumni of LSU and other SEC schools living in the city, and A&M's transfer to the SEC will make it more so. Can the addition of Houston "shore up" the lucrative local television market for the Big 12? Maybe, but adding the Cougars certainly won't replace the number of television sets that the Big 12 is going to lose at a state or national level when A&M leaves.

Then there's the University of Texas. They rule the Big 12 roost, and the conference isn't going to do anything that's not in the Longhorns' best interest. Does Texas want to give Houston an advantage in the fertile Houston recruiting area by elevating the Cougars to BCS-AQ status? Has UT athletics director DeLoss Dodds gotten over his anger regarding the "bleachergate" embarrassment of a decade ago?

A lot, of course, will depend on what answer the Big 12 receives from the other schools they approach as a possible replacement for Texas A&M. As the Statesman article notes, Notre Dame and Arkansas are unlikely to agree to join the Big 12; the former is happy as an independent and the later is happy in the SEC. TCU, likewise, is beginning their first season as a member of the autmatically-qualfying Big East (their fourth conference affiliation since the Southwest Conference exploded) and probably isn't looking to make another move right now. For those reasons, I've heard from various sources that BYU is at the top of the Big 12's list. That program has traditionally been successful and has a nationwide television following through the Mormon church. But they're also beginning their first season as a football independent, they have their own TV contracts, they don't play sports on Sunday (which would create scheduling headaches for basketball and non-revenue sports) and they're geographically distant from the rest of the conference. If BYU says no, the Big 12 could always approach Air Force or Louisville instead of Houston.

As of right now, I am skeptical that the Cougars will be invited to join the Big 12. There are just too many factors - low season ticket sales and a geographically-limited television market chief among them - that work against Houston's favor. I think the only way UH gets the nod is if all of the aforementioned schools say no and/or the conference receives political pressure to replace one Texas public school with another.

Depending on what happens, however, opportunities for the Cougars to move up in the college football world could nevertheless occur if A&M's shift to the SEC sets off a row of falling dominoes that, for example, opens up a spot for UH in the Big East. For that reason, the University of Houston needs to make itself look as attractive as possible to potential conferences. Fans need to buy season tickets and keep Robertson filled to capacity on game day. The administration needs to continue its fundraising efforts in its quest to upgrade the university's dilapidated sports facilites. And the team needs to continue to perform on the field. In that regard, a repeat of last year's 5-7 disappointment would be a disaster.

(In my perfect world, the Cougars would be joining the Aggies in a move to the SEC. But Elvis will be seen riding a winged unicorn across the downtown skyline before Houston is playing the SEC.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Relaxing at the pool

Kirby seemed to enjoy a lazy day at the swimming pool last weekend. At least I hope he enjoyed it, because his summer is coming to an end. Second grade starts next week!

Monday, August 08, 2011

UAE national murdered near Texas Medical Center

Although I've long since become desensitized to the violence that happens in this city, I am nevertheless disgusted by this story:

A 28-year-old military officer from the United Arab Emirates who came to Houston to care for his cancer-stricken father was shot to death by robbers Sunday.

Salem Saif Al Mazrouei was killed about 10:30 p.m., shortly after he and his father returned from prayers at a mosque to their rented apartment in a gated complex in the 8100 block of El Mundo, police said.

The family has been staying at the apartment in south Houston while the father undergoes treatment at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Al Mazrouei and his father had just returned from prayers at the mosque on Almeda near Old Spanish Trail and had stopped by their apartment to gather sweets for what was probably a Ramadan gathering at another apartment in the same complex. The two were followed inside their apartment by two thugs who tried to rob them. When he and his father tried to escape, Al Mazrouei was fatally shot. The criminals then took off in his rented Toyota Avalon, which was later found on the other side of highway 288.

Although the Chronicle article doesn't mention it, a story about this crime in The National suggests that the father and son, who are from the emirate of Ras al Khaimah in the northern part of the UAE, might have been targeted because they were wearing "national dress," i.e. robe and headdress:

“They were wearing their traditional Middle Eastern dress, and by some accounts you could assume they were targeted because of that, but we don’t know that for certain right now,” said Officer M Miller, a Houston police homicide investigator.

If that's the case, then this might be a hate crime in addition to being a carjacking, robbery and murder. But the investigation is ongoing, and the murderers remain at large.

I am repulsed by this crime not only because it is a senseless murder, but also because it happened to a person whose family had decided to come all the way to Houston from the Emirates to seek cancer treatment for their father.

The National article speaks highly of the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, and Sheikh Kalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, donated $150 million to M.D. Anderson earlier this year, which says a lot about the esteem with which M.D. Anderson is held in the UAE.

Since this site still gets a fair amount of web traffic from the UAE, I would like to say this to anyone from there that might be reading this, be they Emirati or expat: these scumbags are not representative of the people of Houston. Right now there is nothing to suggest that this crime is anything other than an isolated incident, and the thugs who committed it will eventually be caught and brought to justice. Do not let this horrible crime deter you from seeking treatment at M.D. Anderson.

Salem Saif Al Mazrouei leaves behind a wife and 2-month-old son in the UAE. I extend my condolences to the Al Mazrouei family.

UPDATE: both suspects in Al Mazrouei's murder have been apprehended.

Colorado 2011

A couple of weeks ago, Kirby and I made our annual summertime trip to Colorado to visit my brother David, see some sights and get away from the oppressive Houston summer. That last part didn't work out too well; Denver was almost as hot as Houston while we were there. But we still had a great time, exploring the mountains as well as seeing some sights in and around Denver and Colorado Springs.
I try my hand at throwing and shaping pottery at the Denver Art Museum. My creation didn't turn out so well, so I think I need a little more practice...
The Colorado River starts out as a stream on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. From here, these waters will head down through western Colorado, through Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon, and eventually end up in Lake Mead on the Arizona/Nevada border.
A mother moose and her baby graze along the banks of the Colorado River. They were no more than ten feet away from the walking trail, but didn't seem to mind all of the humans taking pictures of them.
Snow! Well, okay, slush. But it was good enough for Kirby.
The view from the alpine tundra section of Rocky Mountain National Park, elevation about 11,500 feet.
A male elk makes an interesting post for the camera. We were pleasantly surprised by all the wildlife we came across while in the park.
A yellow-bellied marmot forages along the alpine tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park. Marmots hibernate for eight months of the year; the other four months are spent eating and mating. Not a bad life!
Kirby tests his carpentry skills at the Denver Childrens Museum. We were only there for a couple of hours; I've mentioned before that the museum is only a fraction of the one he is used to here in Houston, so he ran out of things to explore rather quickly.
Impressive sandstone rock formations at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.
Another view of the formations at the Garden of the Gods.
Kirby, David and I pose in front of some of the formations at the Garden of the Gods. I had to take this picture to make mom happy...
Not too far from the Garden of the Gods is the Cave of the Winds. It was Kirby's first time inside a cave. He seemed concerned about the lack of light so I'm not sure he was particularly impressed.
Traveling up the Pikes Peak Highway. There is something amazing and perhaps a bit humbling about seeing a sign informing that, even after you've been climbing up the road for a few miles, you're still a vertical mile below the summit of the mountain, or looking ahead of you and seeing switchbacks far ahead and high above you and thinking, "wow, we still have to go all the way up there?" The toll is $40 per car, so bring your money as well as at least half a tank of gas if you go, but the road is almost completely paved now, there are several places to stop along the way, and the views are absolutely stunning.
Another way to reach the top of the mountain is to take the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. which operates diesel multiple units from the town of Manitou Springs to the summit. They were sold out the day we went, which is why we used the toll road, but the train might be a fun thing to do if I ever get the chance to visit the mountain again.
The end of the cog railway almost seems to dangle over the side of Pikes Peak. At 14,110 feet, not only are you well above the tree line, you're also past the point where vegetation grows at all. In Colorado Springs the temperatures were in the 90s, but at the top of the summit the temperature was in the high 40s.
Pikes Peak is Kirby's second trip atop a fourteener (his first was Mount Evans, two summers ago). I was out of breath up there, but the thin air didn't really seem to bother Kirby.
Looking down from the top of Pikes Peak. That's Colorado Springs off in the distance below. After Kirby, David, his girlfriend and I left the summit, we drove back into Colorado Springs for an excellent dinner at the Phantom Canyon brewpub. We then walked around downtown Colorado Springs for a little bit before returning to Denver.
Kirby cools his feet in a man-made waterfall in the new children's garden of the Denver Botanic Gardens. The gardens have completed a lot of expansions and enhancements, including this children's garden, since the last time I visited.
I found Japanese section of the Botanic Gardens to be especially picturesque and enjoyable.
Kirby poses next to another stream in the Botanic Gardens. The plants and flowers might not have impressed him too much, but the water features sure caught his attention...

We had a great time. It helped that this time we spent a few more days in Colorado than we have in the past, and I even got to visit my friend Rebecca, whom I hadn't seen in years. We'll be back soon - hopefully in wintertime, so Kirby can play in the snow and perhaps even learn to ski.

Right now I'm looking forward to my next trip at the end of August. I'm going to Hawaii for the first time. Woohoo!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

No more panhandling at outside cafes

Good news for outdoor diners:
City Council on Wednesday passed a ban on panhandling within 8 feet of a sidewalk cafe. Violation of the buffer zone is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $500.

"You're sitting at an outdoor table at a restaurant. Someone comes and looms over you and starts asking for money. That's an intimidating situation, and you don't have really an opportunity to escape," Mayor Annise Parker said.

City ordinance already prohibited panhandling within 8 feet of ATMs, parking meters, bus shelters and gas pumps. The council extended the rule to outdoor dining establishments.

I certainly don't have a problem with this new ordinance. Jokes about anybody actually eating outside in this weather aside, people should be allowed enjoy their meal or sip their beer in peace without being approached by a foul-smelling bum looking for money to score his next crack rock.

Whether the law will have any real effect is a different matter. Homeless people, generally speaking, aren't aware of or simply don't care about laws that restrict them from panhandling. I say this as somebody who has been accosted by homeless people seeking change while filling up my tank on multiple occasions, even though panhandling within eight feet of gas pumps is, as the article says, illegal. And the police likely won't put a lot of emphasis on enforcing this ordinance when there are so many higher-profile crimes that require their attention.

Enforcement issues aside, the best way to deal with panhandlers is simply not to give them any money. When somebody gives money to a homeless person, even if only to make that person go away, they're only reinforcing this negative behavior. And aggressive and/or threatening panhandling should always be immediately reported to the police, as this represents a public safety hazard that law enforcement is likely to take seriously.