Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Houston 59, Texas State 14

Last Saturday night the Cougars exacted revenge for one of the most catastrophic losses in program history by dispatching the Texas State Bobcats at home, 59-14. The game was essentially over by halftime; most of Houston's starters were out of the game by the end of the third quarter.

The Good: The Greg Ward, Jr show was in full force once again. The electrifying quarterback completed 17 of 21 passes for 274 yards and career-high four touchdown; he added 91 yards rushing and two more touchdowns with his feet.  Wide receiver Demarcus Ayers had eight catches for a career-high 126 yards and two touchdowns. The UH defense, meanwhile, recovered four turnovers: two fumbles and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

The Bad: Discipline remains a problem for Houston, which committed 10 penalties for 69 yards. But even worse is the ACL tear that backup quarterback Adam Schultz suffered in the second half; his short career as a Cougar is over. Kyle Postma, who had played the beginning of the season as a wide receiver in order to address a lack of depth at that position. will take over as backup QB. That's not good news for the thin receiving corps.

The Beautiful: The 35,257 in attendance for this game is the second-largest on-campus crowd in UH history. The number was helped by Texas State, whose fans came out in force and whose band was impressive, but there were also clearly more sections of the stadium filled with UH fans than there were at the opener against Tennessee Tech. Win and they will come!

What it means: Nobody's going to mistake this year's Bobcat squad for an elite team, but the win does erase much of stench of  one of the worst losses in UH football history. With the win, the Coogs improve to 3-0.

Next up for Houston is a road trip to Tulsa to face the 2-1 Hurricane in the first conference game of the year.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Remembering Rita

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Rita. Although the storm wrought significant devastation to the Beaumont area, it will best be remembered for the panic it triggered in Houston. As the storm, with its 175 mph winds, barreled towards the city, people with visions of Katrina fresh in their minds panicked and made an unorganized, headlong retreat out of town. Highways were gridlocked; people died.

Ten years ago I wondered if the people of Houston overreacted to the storm:
I believe it would have helped if the overall reaction to the storm were a bit more measured and rational in the days before it hit. I think the local news media deserves most of the blame in this regard; they hyped this thing for all it was worth and, in my opinion, needlessly panicked a lot of people. Hurricane predictions 72 hours before landfall are notoriously inaccurate, meaning that the storm more than likely was going to spare Houston a direct hit. This, indeed, is what happened to Rita: it veered off to the east and only brushed Houston. Secondly, there was almost-universal agreement among weather professionals that the storm, which was indeed a category five as it churned over the warm sea earlier in the week, would weaken as it moved into cooler waters closer inland and would not be as intense once it made landfall. This, again, is what happened to Rita, as it weakened from a category 5 out in the Gulf to a category 3 when it made landfall. I wish that these facts, as well as the locations and the designs of the evacuation zones themselves, had been more prominently explained by the local media (as well as elected officials), as it no doubt would have caused a lot of people who were not in areas of high risk, such as Katy or Cypress or Tomball, to assess the situation a bit more objectively before they decided to jam the highways leading out of town. That, in turn, would have helped to allow the people that were in truly high-risk areas to get out first.
But instead of rational, calm discussion of the hurricane, the uncertainties inherent in its projected path, the effects of wind on areas several dozen miles inland, and the like, what we got were a bunch of blow-dried local television anchors and weather-guessers orgasmically screaming about a monster category five hurricane heading our way and bringing with it certain death and destruction to the city of Houston. The media also focused on the evacuation story, which in my opinion created a very clear implication of "everybody else is getting out why they still can, and you should be getting out, too."
The evacuation map that the local television news should have been showing every 3 minutes during their Rita coverage.
While the Chronicle's Eric Berger doesn't think Houston overreacted to Rita - the storm "scared the bejesus out of me," he writes - he does place blame on elected officials and emergency preparedness personnel for the deadly disaster that was the botched evacuation:
State, county and city officials were unprepared. While the storm’s forecast was dire, public officials made no real effort to discern between those who must evacuate — residents in low-lying areas vulnerable to storm surge — and those on higher ground who should ride out the storm.

Emergency planners also never established a plan for contraflow, so inbound lanes of freeways sat unused. Gas stations ran dry, both in communities where people were evacuating from, and locations along the clogged freeways.

As a result, of the 113 deaths in Texas only six could be directly attributed to the storm, whereas the other 107 deaths were caused indirectly, primarily due to to the haphazard evacuation process.
Eric, however, doesn't mention the local media's role in the disaster that was the Rita evacuation. This isn't to say that he, as a member of the local media, was part of the problem; Berger has actually been one of the more level-headed news sources when it comes to hurricanes. But any narrative of the clusterfuck that was the Rita evacuation that mentions poor preparation and mixed messaging by local officials but fails to explore the local media's role is simply incomplete. As Texas Monthly's John Nova Lomax recalled earlier this year:
Hyping weather events is not unknown in other cities, of course, but it’s unlikely that any other place has suffered a tragedy as serious as Houston’s Rita evacuation, when incorrect and/or possibly overblown weather forecasting led to more Texans dying than during Allison, Ike, Alicia, and Carla combined: 107 died in accidents, in fires, or of exposure, trapped under a broiling sun at the side of an interstate in one of the largest traffic jams in American history.
I'm not exactly sure where Lomax gets the "combined" figure from; the number of people killed in the Rita evacuation is indeed more than the number of people that were killed by Hurricane Carla (34), Hurricane Alicia (21) and Tropical Storm Allison (21) combined, but when you add the 84 people killed by Hurricane Ike in Texas, you reach 160 fatalities. That does not diminish the fact that 107 people - one of whom was the mother of a good friend of mine - needlessly perished in a tragedy created by fear, poor planning, poor messaging and media over-hype.

I clearly remember some television reporters at the time claiming that the City of Houston and Harris County were under mandatory evacuation orders - something that simply was not true. At no time did I ever hear a reporter, an anchor, a weatherman repeat the mantra that anybody living in this region should know by heart: run from the water, hide from the wind. It led to chaos.
Those in flood-prone coastal areas were wise to flee. It was all those who got in their way—people from places like Sugar Land, West University, and Tomball—who created the problems. Of the estimated 3 million who fled, only 1.2 million or so had been advised to. And as Mayor Bill White pointed out at the time, families were taking all of their cars, fearing that their houses would blow down and their cars would be submerged.
North and west of areas like Clear Lake, this made little logical sense, but logic had drowned a couple of weeks earlier. The entire city was then in the grip of Katrina Terror: a fear that our city would be plunged beneath brown waters, that law and order would wash away, that looters would pillage the corner Fiesta Marts and Spec’s, hauling away their ill-gotten swag. That once the mighty Rita came through, the winds were gonna bring down trees, the rains would flood the town and bust the levees, and then...

Well, nobody seemed to snap to the fact that Houston had no levees, nor does our city sit in a basin at or below sea level.

And so hundreds of thousands of people fled who had no need to flee, even if Rita had hit Houston head-on. There were the 23 senior citizens who burned to death on a faulty chartered bus while being shuttled from their facility in Bellaire, where it barely even rained, to Dallas. A 51-year-old man and two of his children lost their lives when their car overturned en route from Dallas to their hometown of Sugar Land, a suburb well beyond the threat of storm surge. A Houston toddler was killed along the side of Highway 59 near Lufkin when another Houstonian fell asleep at the wheel after twenty hours on the road and ran her over. These were tragedies, made all the worse by the fact that none of these people should have been where they were when they died. 
I live right around the corner from the nursing home where those 23 elderly people were being evacuated from: a facility that is fifty miles inland and not in an evacuation area, even for a category 5 storm.

Has the region learned its lesson? In terms of evacuation procedures, I would like to think so. We now have a contraflow evacuation plan that did not exist when Rita approached. Local officials are better coordinated as well; I think they did a great job getting the right messages out when Hurricane Ike hit three years later. But a lot of people have moved to Houston since Rita and might not have the experience or knowledge regarding whether to stay or go when a storm approaches. As for the local media, well, the best way to deal with their hyperbole is to simply pay them no attention.

It's worth remembering the disaster of the Rita evacuation, in order to ensure that it never happens again. The Chronicle's gallery of images of gridlock is here. My blog entries as Rita approached are here, here and here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

No more nonstops to Stavanger

Given the collapse in oil prices, this was probably inevitable. This 44-seat, all-business-class flight from Houston to Norway's energy capital had a very specific purpose, and it wasn't for tourists or people visiting their Scandinavian grandparents.

Nevertheless, it's kind of sad to see this rather unique service to one of Houston's Sister Cities come to an end. Perhaps this kind of service could resume if oil prices ever recover.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Houston 34, Louisville 31

Only two games into the season, and Tom Herman already has a signature win under his belt: a road upset of the Louisville Cardinals. The Coogs and the Cards traded the lead throughout the fourth quarter, until Greg Ward Jr's 15-yard touchdown pass to Demarcus Ayers with about three minutes left in the game put Houston up for good. Louisville tried to tie the game with a 53-yard field goal attempt, but it was partially blocked by the Cougars and fell short.

The Good: Brandon Wilson ran back a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. The Cougar defense recovered two fumbles and intercepted Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson twice. They also held the Cardinal offense to a mere 70 rushing yards. Greg Ward completed 23 of 33 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns; he and running back Kenneth Farrow also combined for 207 rushing yards.

The Bad: Greg Ward's one interception was run back 59 yards and resulted in a Cardinal touchdown a few plays later. The defense struggled against backup Cardinal quarterback Kyle Bolin, who replaced Jackson in the third quarter. Kicker Kyle Bullard missed two field goals. And, even though the Cougars recovered four turnovers, they could only score three points off of them.

The Ugly: Houston was flagged seven times for 78 yards. This included a controversial targeting penalty on Howard Wilson, who was ejected from the game. Tom Herman was subsequently penalized 15 yards for bumping into a referee when he disagreed with the call. Louisville committed 9 penalties of their own for 80 yards. All in all, a sloppy game.

What it means: While this is not a monumental upset - Louisville was not ranked going into this game, and with a game against Clemson tomorrow night, they're staring 0-3 in the face - it is still a win on the road against a P-5 school that was favored by almost two touchdowns. This is something the Cougars have not accomplished since 2009. It's a significant step forward for a program that is rebuilding under a new coach, and it came way ahead of schedule.

Next up for the Coogs is a game against the Texas State Bobcats at TDECU Stadium on September 26th. Can UH exact revenge for the disaster that occurred three years ago? Moreover, coming off this in and against an in-state opponent that travels well, will fans pack TDECU stadium and shut the local whiners up?

Be there and find out!

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Houston 52, Tennessee Tech 24, and attendance... Again.

Although the score was probably closer than it should have been - the Coogs really had no business giving up three touchdowns to a middle-of-the road FCS team - the 2015 UH season started with a win last Saturday at TDECU Stadium.

Dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward had an excellent game, completing 21 of 28 passes for 275 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He also rushed 13 times for 107 yards and 2 touchdowns. Demarcus Ayers led all receivers with 10 receptions for 121 yards, and Kyle Postma, who is listed as the third-string quarterback on the roster but was added to the wide receiver ranks for this game, impressed with four catches for 82 yards and the Coogs' only passing touchdown. The defense, for its part, held the Tennessee Tech rushing game to less than one yard per carry, and special teams looked good with 138 kick return yards.

There were some problems, however. Notably, multiple breakdowns in the Cougar secondary that allowed Tennessee Tech to score on plays of 71 and 77 yards. The Cougars would end up allowing Tennessee Tech wide receiver Brock McCoin to rack up a jaw-dropping 264 receiving yards. In fairness, it's worth mentioning that one of these long touchdowns occurred in late fourth-quarter garbage time. However, for a secondary that was supposed to be the strength of a defense, this performance is unacceptable - especially against an FCS school - and needs to be addressed immediately. The Cougars also fumbled the ball five times, although only one of those was recovered by Tennessee Tech; bad snaps between the Coogs' freshman center and the quarterback were partly to blame. Running back Kenneth Farrow, who is supposed to be the team's main offensive weapon, carried 11 times for only 49 yards and missed the second half of the game. Finally, the Cougars committed nine penalties, one of which negated a touchdown on a punt return.

All in all, however, it was a a solid win for the Cougars as well as a good start to the Tom Herman era. However, some people are not happy about Saturday's game. Not about the game, mind you, but the announced crowd of 30,479 who were on hand to see it.

One of those is John Royal of the Houston Press, who claims that "TDECU Stadium was disappointingly empty on Saturday night, the crowd of 30,479 falling well below the stadium’s capacity of 40,000." Royal attacks the UH fanbase for failing to sell out the opening game of the Tom Herman era, calling it a "a fickle and nearly extinct beast."

He illustrates his point with a picture featured prominently at the top of the article of a mostly-empty north grandstand of TDECU Stadium, with the caption "the UH fanbase decided to skip Saturday's opening game." However, when one looks more closely, ones sees the UH band drumline on the field and no players on the sideline. In other words, the picture of the stadium was taken well before kickoff, during the band's pre-game performance, and does not accurately depict the amount of people that were present during the game itself. The use of this photo is purposely misleading, and is poor journalism on the part of Royal as well was the Houston Press editors that approved it.

Another media malcontent is Kelsey McCarson, who declares in a article about the game that "Houston's alumni are some of the worst in college football" because the home opener did not sell out. "It’s the alumni’s fault. Period," McCarson writes. "The students were there. The stadium is new. The team looked good. But the house wasn’t full."

Both Royal and McCarson are UH alumni, so I'm sure they want the UH program to do well both on the field and in the stands, and wanted the 2015 season, as well as the Tom Herman era, to open with a sellout.

But the program's achilles heel has always been its attendance. I'm painfully aware of that, and I even graph the team's average attendance after each season:
UH football season wins (magenta bars) and average attendance (blue line) since 1965.
What sticks out in my mind is that 30,479, while not as good as the 40-thousand-plus who showed up to witness the season-opening debacle against UTSA last season, is actually decent considering the program's historical woes at the gate. Only three times since 1990 have the Coogs even averaged 30 thousand fans a season, and for so many years, especially during the Jenkins-Helton-Dimel Era of Suckitide, UH football crowds averaged in the teens to low twenties. Ten years ago, for example, Houston had 19,981 for its opening game against Oregon at Reliant Stadium.* A decade later, the team breaks 30k against Tennessee freakin' Tech... and people are disappointed!

These 30 thousand fans, furthermore, came out even though several other potentially-attendance-sapping events were taking place in Houston that day: the first-place Astros playing at Minute Maid Park, the Aggies and Arizona State drawing about 62 thousand fans to NRG Stadium at the same time this game was playing, the Labor Day Classic between Prairie View and TSU at BBVA Compass Stadium, Rice and Houston Baptist having home games of their own, even the final Mötley Crüe concert in Houston at the Toyota Center. Against that type of competition for the local entertainment dollar, and playing an FCS opponent with no name recognition whatsoever, I think the Cougars held their own.

The program is making progress at the gate.

Fans like McCarson, who have only been attending UH football games since 2006, probably don't have the same kind of perspective that older fans - those of us who sat through Kim Helton's program-destroying incompetence and Dana Dimel's 0-11 season - possess. (Nor, in this case, does McCarson really seem to want to gain such a perspective: when posters on the message board, of which McCarson is a member, pointed the above facts out to him, his response was, "You guys are idiots. I'm out.")

With all that said, 30,479 is not where the UH program ultimately wants to be, especially if it wants to join a "Power 5" conference like the Big XII:
(UH Athletics Director Hunter) Yurachek concedes that the progress the program has made behind the scenes needs to translate into wins on the field in order to bring attendance up to where it needs to be. “Attendance is a big piece. Most Power Five conference schools are selling 25,000 to 30,000 season tickets, and right now, we’re in the 15K range. We need to get that to 20 or 25K,” Yurachek estimates. “On TV, a stadium that’s half full doesn’t show well.”
Furthermore, the school is making a controversially large investment into its athletics program as a whole, one that is almost certainly unsustainable in the long term and will need to be replaced by actual revenue from ticket- and merchandise-buying fans. For those reasons, continuing to grow the program's fanbase is a must. 30,479 is a long way from where the program was and there is reason for optimism, but it is not where UH football needs to be.

In that regard, one thing that was extremely promising to me as I sat in the stands last Saturday was the student section of the stadium. It was packed, and the kids were rowdy. That is the program's future season ticket base, and the school needs to continue in doing the good job it is doing in cultivating it. (There was a time during the Jenkins-Helton-Dimel Era of Suckitude when there was no student section to speak of. I know because I was a student during that time.)

A final thought on Royal's and McCarson's articles: I've never understood the idea that attacking or otherwise complaining about the people who don't show up to the games - whether they be alumni or casual fans - is going to somehow make things better. It might allow people to vent because the team they love is not garnering the support they think it deserves, but I seriously doubt that calling out a group of people for being "fickle" or "the worst" is going to entice them to attend. Has bitching and moaning about attendance ever succeeded in putting one pair of butt cheeks in one seat at one sporting event at the University of Houston? I'm willing to bet not. You entice people by the games by encouraging to come and by giving them a good experience (which includes winning) worthy of their time and money when they get there, not by telling them how lousy they are.

I asked this same question almost nine years ago, after a game against Central Florida at Robertson Stadium.

The announced attendance for that game was 13,242.


*Yes, it was a Thursday night game and a lot of people might have decided to stay home on account of the Katrina evacuees next door at the Astrodome, but still... We couldn't break 20k against the Oregon freakin' Ducks!

Thursday, September 03, 2015

2015 Houston Cougar football preview

My favorite time of year is finally upon us! The first college football games of the season are underway as I write this, and the University of Houston kicks off in less than 48 hours from now at TDECU Stadium, where they will be hosting Tennessee Tech. What do I expect from my beloved Coogs this year?

Looking Back: The Cougars notched an 8-5 record in 2014, capped by a miraculous 25-point fourth-quarter comeback against Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Bowl. However, the season was an overall disappointment, capped by unforgivable upset losses to UTSA on TDECU Stadium's opening night and to Tulane on Homecoming. Those losses cost Tony Levine his job after only three seasons as head coach.

The Big Story for 2015: Levine's replacement, Tom Herman, has an extensive coaching pedigree, most recently serving as offensive coordinator for last year's national champion, Ohio State.

Reasons for Optimism:  Given Tom Herman's previous coaching experience, as well as the fact that he's assembled by what all accounts is a strong staff, one would expect a significant upgrade over the previous regime in terms of coaching and play-calling abilities. Talented players, such as bruising RB Kenneth Farrow and mobile QB Greg Ward Jr, return on offense. The defense is experienced; every player on the two-deep released earlier this week is a returning letterman, and the secondary, anchored by seniors Lee Hightower, William Jackson, Adrian McDonald, and Trevon Stewart, might actually one of the best in the nation.

Reasons for Pessimism: in spite of all the positive buzz surrounding Tom Herman, he hasn't coached a game yet. There's always a learning curve associated with becoming a head coach for the first time, and there are bound to be hiccups along the way as he settles into his new job. My biggest on-field concern is the offensive line. Only one OL on the entire two-deep weighs more than 300 pounds, and there are three freshmen (two true, one redshirt) listed; whomever starts at center will be making his very first snap at the college level this Saturday. There's not a lot of depth in the receiving corps, and the defensive line (which switches to a 3-4 alignment this fall) loses three starters from last year.

It's also worth mentioning that even though Greg Ward Jr is returning, there's no guarantee that he'll be starting at quarterback. Utah transfer Adam Schultz is also vying for the job, and we're likely to see both play on Saturday. It's too early to fret over a "quarterback controversy," but as of right now this position remains unsettled.

The Schedule: the schedule is generally favorable; the Coogs have seven home games and host two of their tougher in-conference opponents, Memphis and Cincinnati, at TDECU Stadium. The Cougars also get Vanderbilt, their lone opponent from a Power 5 conference, at home on Halloween.

What the Computers Think: Sagarin starts Houston at #60 in the nation with a starting rating of 71.11. This would imply a 9-3 record for the Coogs when opponent ratings and home field advantage are taken into consideration. Congrove, which has accurately predicted Houston's record within two wins 12 out of the last 21 seasons, ranks the Coogs 71st to begin the season and envisions a 7-5 record. Massey starts Houston at the 75th position and foresees an 8-4 record.

What I Think: If the Cougars end up with another eight-win season in 2015, pigskin pundits will ask why Houston bothered to change coaching staffs, and whether they actually experienced an upgrade. That being said, there are just too many uncertainties with this team - new coaching staff, undersized and inexperienced offensive line, a new scheme in the defensive front seven, weakness at the receiver positions - that make it difficult for me to predict anything more than an eight-win season, especially with Louisville and Central Florida on the road and Memphis, Cincinnati and an SEC team at home.

I am going to predict eight wins for the Cougars over the course of the regular season. That may be good enough to win the AAC west, if they can get past Memphis. But a conference title is probably too much to ask in 2015.

See ESPN, Bloguin, Athlon, SBNation, and Maddux Sports for further previews of the 2015 University of Houston football team. USA Today has an excellent overview of the entire American Athletic Conference.