Wednesday, October 28, 2020

It's time for the Texans to trade J.J. Watt

I've said this on multiple occasions now (most recently, just a couple of weeks ago): the Texans need to trade J.J. Watt to a team where he a chance to win the Super Bowl ring he so richly deserves in the relatively short time he has left as an NFL athlete. His amazing talent is wasted with the Texans, who are currently 1-6 and have no prospects of improvement in the near-to-mid future.

But don't take my word for it. Here's the Chronicle's Matt Young, drawing a potential parallel between Watt and another Houston fan favorite whose time in this city had come to an end:

The Oilers once were in a similar situation and Bud Adams, who will receive no praises here, signed off on an unpopular deal that had to be done. The Oilers were off to an 0-6 start in 1984 and knew former coach Bum Phillips would jump at the chance to add Earl Campbell to his Saints offense. On Trade Deadline day, the Saints gave the Oilers a first-round pick for the 29-year-old Campbell.

To this day, Campbell is probably THE most popular football player Houston has ever known, but the deal made too much sense. Campbell would go on to rush for just 833 yards in 18 games with the Saints before retiring after the 1985 season. The Oilers used that Saints’ draft pick to select Richard Johnson, who would go on to play eight seasons for some of the most successful teams in franchise history.

Looking back 36 years later, we all remember Earl Campbell as an Oiler. And, if the Texans do the right thing and ship him off in the next week, everyone in the city will always remember J.J. Watt as a Texan.

Although Watt likely would never publicly admit it, giving him the Earl Campbell treatment would be doing him a huge favor. Give something to the man who has given so much to this city both on and off the field. Let him celebrate somewhere he can win and give him a chance to win a Super Bowl ring that will look nice when he slips on that gold jacket in Canton and thanks the city of Houston for a tremendous 10 seasons.

J.J. will always be not just one of the greatest athletes, but one of the best persons overall, to ever have played for a Houston sports team. Trading him will do nothing to diminish that fact. The Texans need to do right by him and let him move on to a franchise that gives him the chance to end his career on a high note.

The NFL trade deadline is November 3. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Houston 37, Navy 21

The Coogs made the trip to Annapolis, Maryland and came back home with a win.

The Good: Clayton Tune completed 24 of 34 passes for 316 yards, three scores and no interceptions. Marquez Stevenson scored on passes of 51 and 24 yards, while Kyle Porter had a beautiful 33-yard pass-and-scramble and ran in another score. The UH defense notched its first interception of the year. Kicker Dalton Witherspoon was three for three in field goal attempts (including one from 53 yards), which kept the Coogs in the game early and earned him AAC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.

The Bad: For the third game in a row, the Cougars started off slow; while Navy scored touchdowns, the Cougars could only score field goals and at one point were trailing 9-13. They also fumbled for the first time this season and were only 6 of 13 on third down attempts. The UH run game was anemic, gaining only 86 yards on the ground. If the Cougars can't get more out of their ground game, they're going to be in a lot of trouble against some of their upcoming opponents.

The Ugly: Penalties continue to be a problem for the Coogs. They were flagged 9 times for 77 yards.

Navy kicker Bijan Nichols had a really bad day; he missed two field goals and had an extra point attempt blocked. 

What it Means: The Cougars notch their first road win, exact revenge on a team they lost to last season, and remain undefeated in conference. 

That conference unbeaten streak will be severely tested when Central Florida comes to TDECU Stadium on Saturday for a Halloween day game. 

Coronavirus cases rise in Houston once again as COVID fatigue sets in

 Not good, but not completely surprising, either:

Houston-area COVID-19 numbers, which declined significantly in late summer, are creeping up again, a concern given the spike predicted when the weather turns colder and people gather indoors for the holidays.

The increases aren’t near the level being seen in many parts of the state, nation and globe, but the number of new cases and hospitalizations and the positive test rate and disease spread the last three weeks represent a turn for the worse after a period that gave many hope the worst might be over.

“The trends are going in the wrong direction,” said William McKeon, president of the Texas Medical Center. “You hate to see the sacrifices we made and the successes we achieved lost because people let their guard down.”

Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist, said, “We’ve definitely turned the wrong corner. The numbers aren’t growing in an out-of-control fashion, but there’s no doubt we’re in a significant growth trend that we need to stop before the holiday season.”

Though experts acknowledged it’s difficult to pinpoint the causes of the uptick, many used the same phrase to describe one big culprit: COVID fatigue. Seven months of staying indoors, unable to resume everyday lives, has left a weary public, many increasingly willing to risk get-togethers, they say. In a daily medical center Zoom call, most of the leaders report they routinely see gatherings of people not wearing masks, said McKeon.

COVID fatigue is absolutely a real thing. Humans, after all, are social animals, and we're all weary of month after month of social distancing measures and other restrictions that are intended to stop the spread of the Coronavirus but are having overwhelmingly negative effects on our lives and livelihoods. We want this to be over. We want to move on.

To be sure, my wife and I are among those who are experiencing COVID fatigue, and it's resulted in our having engaged in behaviors that could be considered risky: having our wedding and going on a honeymoon, attending football games, even dining out at local restaurants on occasion. While we try to be careful - we wear our masks, we maintain social distance, and we obsessively slather on the hand sanitizer  - we know we're still not being nearly as safe as we would be if we remained inside our apartment. And that's the thing: we don't want to be locked in our apartment all the time. We want to live a somewhat-normal life. 

The problem is, the Coronavirus doesn't care what any of us want. All it cares about is finding hosts to infect so that it can replicate. And when COVID fatigue sets in and people begin taking more risks or otherwise become lax in taking precautions, opportunities for the virus to spread increase. 

This already happened earlier this summer, when people emerged from lockdown eager to resume their normal activities and flocked to parties, beaches and bars. This resulted in a surge of COVID cases here in Houston that overwhelmed hospitals. After local elected officials and health experts pleaded with the public to take the threat seriously and implemented new restrictions, the number of cases began to decrease. Now, cases are beginning to increase once again, as this graph from indicates:

Harris County COVID-19 case trend as of 10/27/2020. Sources:

To be sure, the increase in cases isn't as bad here in Houston as they are in other parts of the state, nation, or world, but the worst nevertheless may be yet to come: 
The increase comes as experts predict a major U.S. surge expected to begin around Thanksgiving, a spike one expert recently said will produce “the darkest weeks of the entire pandemic.” Houston infectious disease specialist Peter Hotez said “that train is already rolling in the upper Midwest and should arrive in the Northeast in a few weeks.”

Hotez said Houston’s numbers will go up — “I’m pretty confident of that” — but added that North Texas likely will be hit much harder.

The surge is expected because winter will drive people indoors, particularly for the holidays, and because coronaviruses — including this one, according to a recent journal article — survive best in the cold weather.
(Halloween, in fact, is going to be a massive superspreader event: it's on a Saturday, under a full moon, kids will trick-or-treat no matter what authorities decree, and people who choose to go out will get an extra hour to party due to the end of Daylight Saving Time.) 
“We’ve worked hard to bring our numbers down, but we haven’t been able to crush the virus,” said Dr. Eric Boerwinkle, dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health. “When you see numbers creeping up like they are now is when people need to be most vigilant, practice social distance, wear face masks, wash their hands. Now is not the time to let our guard down.”
We're not done with this, nor will we be until a vaccine becomes widely available (and that's many months away). I know it sucks, but be patient and stay safe.

The Texas Medical Center's daily COVID-19 updates are easy to understand and are a useful way to track the local progress of the pandemic.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Houston 26, #14 BYU 43

The Houston Cougars fought back from a 11-point deficit early in the game, and more or less dominated the BYU Cougars during the second and third quarters as they jumped out to to a 14-26 lead. But Houston faded down the stretch, allowing BYU to score the game's final four touchdowns and make the score look more lospsided than the game actually was.

The Good: Quarterback Clayton Tune completed 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also avoided what looked to be a certain sack on second-and-goal to scrambled for a score to give Houston its largest lead. Running back Kyle Porter racked up 94 rushing yards of his own. For the second week in a row, the UH run defense held their opponent to less than 100 yards on the ground. 

The Bad: UH's passing defense was embarrassed by BYU QB Zach Wilson and his receivers to the tune of 400 yards and four touchdowns. The UH defense also did not force any turnovers for the second game in a row. Houston's offense in the fourth quarter was abysmal, gaining only 8 yards and one first down.  

The Ugly: Cougar special teams were a disaster. After scoring to cut UH's lead to five points, BYU recovered an onside kick that the Coogs simply weren't prepared for. That seemed to be the turning point in the game. The Cougars also fair-caught a BYU punt at their own two-yard line (!), shanked a punt of their own, and were flagged for interfering with a catch on another punt.

It was also a sloppy, undisciplined game: both teams combined for 19 penalties.

Friday night's game was a "COVID sellout" of ten thousand fans, but it was clear that a lot of those fans were cheering for the blue Cougars rather than the red ones. I know BYU enjoys an enthusiastic fanbase wherever they go due to the LDS cult church, and obviously most UH fans are staying home because of the pandemic. But it was nevertheless a bit disappointing to be surrounded by screaming BYU fans in your own stadium.  

What it Means: This is the game the Coogs could have won, had they just kept their focus and not committed stupid errors (especially on special teams). But they didn't, and suffer their first loss of 2020. 

BYU will likely be the Coogs' only out-of-conference opponent this year, since there are no available weekends to reschedule any of the games that were canceled in September. 

Next up for the Cougars is a trip to Annapolis to play the Navy Midshipmen.

Southwest returning to IAH

Southwest plans to expand its presence in Chicago and Houston by flying out of both airports in both cities, starting in 2021:
Chicago O'Hare International Airport 
Work is underway to add new service from Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD), alongside existing service from the carrier's longtime Chicago home, Midway International Airport (MDW). Midway remains one of the busiest airports in Southwest's network. Since first arriving in Chicago in 1985, Southwest has grown into one of the city's largest employers with more than 4,800 Chicago-based Employees.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport 
As Southwest approaches a commemoration of 50 years of flying, the carrier intends to return to Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), complementing its substantial operation at Houston Hobby (HOU). Intercontinental served as one of three airports where Southwest operated on its first day in operation, June 18, 1971. The carrier moved to Hobby Airport shortly thereafter though it operated service from both airports between 1980 and 2005. Southwest remains a key employer in the City of Houston, providing nearly 4,000 jobs.
Ben at One Mile at a Time is fascinated by Southwest's decision and wonders about the airline's rationale for this announcement:
  • Are IAH and ORD significantly more convenient for large and lucrative customer bases?
  • Or is there more to this? Is Southwest losing out on significant business because people are only searching to ORD and IAH rather than doing wider searches?
If I had to guess, I'd say it's more the former than the latter (in IAH's case; I can't speak for O'Hare). It's worth noting that Southwest's only destination out of Bush Intercontinental when it previously served that airport was Dallas Love Field. Even so, I recall some grumbling from frequent flyers at the time the service was discontinued because of IAH's convenience to Kingwood, The Woodlands and other communities on the north side of town; these communities have only grown (and added major employment centers, such as the ExxonMobil complex or the Generation Park development) since then. Southwest definitely sees an opportunity that they think makes it worthwhile to go head-to-head with United at IAH. 

We should know more about routes and schedules in the coming months; if I had to guess, Love Field will probably not be the only airport Southwest flies to when it re-establishes its presence at Bush Intercontinental.

Astros fall to Tampa Bay in (mostly meaningless) ALCS

The Astros made it to the American League Championship Series for the fourth year in a row, but could not punch their ticket to another World Series:

The Rays bullpen got a big strikeout of Alex Bregman to strand the potential tying run on base in the eighth inning as Tampa Bay held on to beat the Astros 4-2 in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday at San Diego’s Petco Park.

The Rays advance to their second World Series in franchise history, while the Astros will spend the offseason thinking how close they were to becoming just the second Major League Baseball team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit. The 2004 Red Sox, who won the World Series, are the only team to do it.

I can't say I'm too crushed about this. The COVID-shortened 2020 MLB season, with its lack of fans and its gimmicky expanded playoff (that allowed the Astros to participate even with a losing record), is going to have such a huge asterisk next to it that few baseball fans are going to recognize its champion as truly legitimate.

That being said, the team's performance gave Astros faithful much to be happy and hopeful about, especially coming off the devastating fallout of the sign-stealing scandal that cost the squad its manager and GM (who still maintains his innocence) and made them the pariahs of the baseball world. The Astros were plagued by injuries to key players throughout the 60-game regular season - starting pitcher Justin Verlander, closing pitcher Roberto Osuna, and AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Álvarez were among the casualties - and limped into the playoffs with a losing record. 

From there, however, the Astros reverted to their dominant form, knocking off the second- and third-seeded teams in the AL to get to the ALCS, and pushed the top-seeded Rays to a game 7 after falling behind 0-3 (which happened for only the second time in history). You could all but hear the millions of Astros-haters around the country grind their teeth in fury as they watched them almost pull it off.

This was a rare instance of a Houston sports team overachieving, and it bodes well for a 2021 season which will hopefully be more normal for players and fans alike. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Football at last: Houston 49, Tulane 31

As it turns out, that revised UH football schedule was obsolete from just about the moment I posted it. The game against Baylor that was arranged in record time was canceled just as suddenly, and the following week's game against North Texas was called off as well (although we'll always have a video of the Spirit of Houston and the Green Brigade virtually coming together to perform Deep in the Heart of Texas to make us feel better). The bottom line is that - through no fault of their own - five games that the Cougars expected to play at one point or another during the month of September were canceled (or in Memphis's case, rescheduled to December). ESPN's Sam Khan, Jr recounts the entire frustrating timeline.

Last Thursday, five weeks after their season was supposed to begin, the Cougars finally got to play some football

And, at the beginning of the game, the Cougars certainly looked like a team that hadn't played in five weeks. The Cougars, hosting a Tulane program that already had three games under its belt, fell behind 7-24 early in the second quarter. Two Tulane touchdowns were the direct result of turnovers by UH quarterback Clayton Tune: one was an interception returned for a touchdown, and the other was a sack-and-fumble returned for a touchdown. The Cougars, in fact, would end the evening with five turnovers (although one was a meaningless interception at the end of the first half). 

However, as the game progressed the Cougars began to shake off their rust, and scored three unanswered touchdowns to take a 28-24 lead midway through the third quarter. The Green Wave scored on their next possession to retake the lead. Then wide receiver and kick returner Marquez Stevenson did this:

Stevenson's 97-yard kickoff return broke Tulane; they were unable to score any more points, while the Coogs added two more touchdowns to turn what started out as a rusty, mistake-filled game into a much-needed blowout victory. 

Tune ended the evening 20-of-33 passing for 319 yards and two touchdowns; he also had one rushing score but was sacked four times. Stevenson led receivers with five passes for 118 yards and a touchdown; he was also named the conference's Offensive Player of the Week. The Cougar ground game amassed 157 total yards, with Mulbah Car accounting for two of the Coogs' four rushing TDs. The UH offense ended the evening with 476 yards in spite of their five turnovers.

The UH defense, meanwhile, held Tulane to 211 total yards of offense; they sacked Green Wave quarterback Michael Prattt six times and had 12 tackles for loss. However, the defense was unable to force any turnovers of their own.

Corinne and I were the only members of our regular group to attend the game. Organized tailgating was prohibited, COVID-related restrictions limited the crowd to one-fourth of TDECU Stadium's actual capacity of 40,000 (although it was clear that much fewer than ten thousand fans were there for the Thursday night game), and fans in attendance were also encouraged to wear masks when not eating or drinking. That didn't stop us from enjoying ourselves, although Corinne just had to wear her Tulane shirt to the game...

So yeah: the game atmosphere was weird. The game's start was ugly. But the main thing is that the Cougars started their belated season with a win. As somebody who only a few months ago wasn't expecting to see any football at all this fall, I left the stadium pleased.

Next up for the Coogs is a Friday night game against Brigham Young.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Bill O'Brien fired from the Texans

Don't let the door hit ya, BOB:

The Houston Texans have started the 2020 regular season with four straight losses. They are 0-4. In the history of the NFL, there has been exactly ONE franchise to start a season 0-4 and go on to make the playoffs. (In case you get into bar trivia duels, that one team was the 1992 San Diego Chargers, led by the immortal Stan Humphries at quarterback!)

This Texans team doesn't look remotely ready to win a football game, let alone win the nine or ten games that would be required to make the NFL's postseason. Perhaps the most frustrating and infuriating part of the Texans' failure this season is that head coach Bill O'Brien was supposed to be an offensive expert (despite six recent seasons of Texans football that display the contrary), and the offense flat out stinks.

Players look confused, Deshaun Watson looks neutered, and in the end, the most productive output through four games was the 23 points they scored on Sunday against Minnesota. By Monday afternoon, Texans owner Cal McNair had seen enough, and he decided to move on from Bill O'Brien, firing the seventh year head coach and naming Romeo Crennel as interim head coach for the remainder of the season.

While O'Brien amassed a (barely) winning 52-48 record and notched four AFC South division titles as head coach of the Texans, his playoff record was a meager 2-4, and his most recent postseason performance was an epic 24-point chokejob against Kansas City. Moreover, as GM he made some truly bizarre personnel moves, such as trading fan favorite and all-pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for essentially nothing in return. In fact, O'Brien's ineptitude has pretty much screwed the Texans for years to come, as The Guardian's Oliver Connolly explains: 
It is a testament to the job that Bill O’Brien did with the Texans that the firing of a head coach/general manager who led his franchise to four division titles, only one losing record, and back-to-back double-digit win seasons was overdue.

As a reminder of the state of play when O’Brien was fired on Monday:

-- The Texans have the NFL’s highest payroll this year at $248m.

-- They are projected to be $6m over the salary cap this offseason.

-- Over the past 12 months, they have traded away Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins, two bonafide All-Pros, for a bag of nothing.

-- They do not have a first- or second-round pick in the next draft because of a trade that brought Laremy Tunsil from the Dolphins.

-- They have only four picks in the 2021 draft.

-- They are 0-4.

-- FiveThirtyEight projects them to finish the season with a 4-12 record, and gives them a 2% chance of making the playoffs.

It is about as grim a outlook as any team in the league. O’Brien leaves the team devoid of talent – or the assets to get any in the immediate future.

Indeed, the only question about Bill O'Brien's firing is why it occurred when it did. It would have made more sense to have given him the boot following last January's meltdown against Kansas City, when O'Brien proved beyond a doubt that - his four division titles in the weak AFC South notwithstanding - the AFC Divisional round was the furthest he would ever be able to take the team. 

Instead, the McNair family stuck with him, formally appointed him GM, and allowed him to make the boneheaded Hopkins trade, only to finally realize their mistake four games into the 2020 season. Now, the McNairs are stuck with open general manager and head coaching positions few people are going to want to fill, given the mess the franchise now finds itself in. ESPN's Bill Barnwell explains:
In the end, there was nobody left for O'Brien to use as an excuse, no power to grab and no promotion to achieve. The only person more powerful than O'Brien in the organization, McNair, is the one who made the decision to cut ties with O'Brien and his plan for the team after a month of bad football. I can understand why McNair made his decision, but it seems impossible to separate what O'Brien has done from the opportunity McNair gave him to make those decisions. McNair can right the ship and turn things around if the Texans make the right hires for O'Brien's old positions this offseason, but neither job looks particularly appealing. McNair also has proved he's not up to his job over the past two years, but as O'Brien was reminded Monday, you can't fire an owner.
Apparently, a recent altercation between O'Brien and J.J. Watt in practice may have been the final straw.  I feel badly for J.J. and think the Texans should trade him to a team where he has a chance to win the ring he so deserves. 

The Texans, meanwhile, are going to be a disaster for the next several years to come.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Houston sees surge in bicycling

More locals are traveling on two wheels, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic:

Coupled with the effects of a warming planet, Covid-19 has produced little good news this year. Yet the two crises did pave the way for one positive social shift: a bike boom, including in some unlikely places. New data from Strava, the fitness tracking app used by 68 million global users, shows that several U.S. cities saw significant year-over-year growth in both bike trips and cyclists in much of 2020. 

Among the six U.S. cities for which Strava provided data, Houston and Los Angeles, two sprawling metropolises where just .5% and 1% of the respective populations biked to work in pre-pandemic times, stand out. In Houston, the total volume of cycling trips in Houston was 138% higher in May 2020 than in May 2019. In Los Angeles, the jump was 93%. Unlike their peers, these two places also saw cycling increases in April, the first full month of widespread stay-at-home order and economic shutdowns. 

Given that riding a bicycle is a socially-distanced, outdoor activity, it should come as no surprise that  Houstonians tired of being locked into their homes began to hop aboard their bikes. Activity on the Houston BCycle bike share system saw dramatic increases shortly after the pandemic began, and people wanting bicycles of their own wiped out the inventories of places like Academy and Bike Barn. 

Cycling experts on the ground confirmed that the new Strava numbers are consistent with data from local bike-counters and bike-share systems. In Houston, one popular trail has seen a 162% increase in trips from January to August of this year, said Susan Jaworski*, an active transportation planner for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a consortium of regional cities that helps coordinate bike networks.

“I think it was the pandemic’s stay-home, stay-safe orders, where people who were remote-working had a chance to discover their bikes,” she said. “When congestion disappeared overnight, I think more folks felt comfortable exploring to get fresh air.”

The big question is if automobile-oriented cities such as Houston will be able to keep people on their bikes even after the pandemic ends and regular commuting and exercising activity resumes. Houston has aggressively been trying to expand its investment in bike-friendly infrastructure, but the city's long-standing affinity for the automobile, as well as its harsh summertime climate, remain to be overcome.

Bicycling is a healthy, inexpensive, ecologically-friendly way to travel and recreate. If anything good comes out of this pandemic, it's that more Houstonians discovered this for themselves.

* Full disclosure: Susan Jaworski is a co-worker of mine at H-GAC.

Friday, September 25, 2020

The death of summer 2020

 Eric Berger eulogizes it

The summer of 2020, which featured the 5th warmest July and 8th warmest August on record, threw two tropical cyclones at Houston, and offered unsparing humidity, died on Monday. It was 123 days old. Summer finally lost its fight with fall’s first truly strong front, which blew into Houston on the morning of September 28th. Services have been canceled due to a lack of mourners.

The worst thing about living in Houston is the summer, with the miserable heat and oppressive humidity and mosquitoes and potential for tropical weather, so I'm always happy to see it coming to an end.

Speaking of tropical weather, the death of summer comes only a few days after the (apparent) end of hurricane season in Houston. Once again, Eric explains

Houston has had an astonishing month when it comes to tropical cyclones. Four weeks ago we were closely watching Hurricane Laura move along the southern coast of Cuba, toward the Gulf of Mexico. And of course, over the last few days, we dealt with heavy rains from Tropical Storm Beta. So amidst a record-setting tropics season, with more than two months to go until its official end on Nov. 30, could Texas really be done with hurricanes this year?

The answer, we think, is yes.

Eric explains that the odds of a hurricane striking the Texas coast fall dramatically after late September, especially when cold fronts begin pushing through.

Really, the only reason we’re not 100 percent confident that Texas will not see another hurricane this year is because it is 2020. Anything goes this year.

Anything, including zombie hurricanes:

Paulette regained strength and became a tropical storm once more on Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center. Paulette reappeared Monday about 300 miles off the coast of the Azores islands.

These "zombie" storms, like Tropical Storm Paulette, are rare but they have happened before, said CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller.

"Conditions can become hostile for a tropical storm to maintain its intensity, but if it doesn't dissipate completely, it can revive days later when conditions become more favorable," Miller said.

And with the apocalypse that 2020 has been, this year is prime for these spooky storms.

"2020 is a good candidate to experience a zombie storm because water temperatures are above average over a bulk of the Atlantic Ocean, and obviously we are seeing a record number of storms -- which ups the chances one could regenerate," Miller said.

Fortunately, Zombie Paulette dissipated a few days after it arose from the dead, and as of this evening the tropics are clear.

Houston expected to experience sunny, dry and temperate weather for the next several days. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

2020 Houston Cougar Football: Revised Schedule and Season Preview

I hesitate to spend too much time writing this, because I'm still skeptical that there's going to be a whole lot of college football this fall in the midst of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. To be sure, the 2020 season is now well underway (Louisiana-Lafayette's upset of #23 Iowa State being my favorite highlight so far), but as players test positive, outbreaks occur on college campuses, and more and more games get canceled, I am still expecting the entire season to grind to a halt at some point.

In fact, with so many schools and conferences not currently playing, with so many individual players opting the season out, and with redshirt and eligibility rules suspended, the 2020 college football season is going to have a humongous asterisk next to it regardless of what happens. Nobody will consider this year's CFP champion or Heisman Trophy winner to be truly "legitimate." While I love college football, I can't help but wonder why programs are even bothering to play.

All that being said: the UH Athletics Department is among those who are bothering to play football this fall; hence, this preview.

The Current Schedule: Throw the old schedule away, as there have been changes. Last week's opener against Rice was officially postponed, but I don't expect it to be rescheduled. The trip to Washington State, likewise, was canceled due to the Pac-12's decision not to play this fall. Houston's game against BYU on Friday October 16 has been moved from Provo to Houston. And yesterday we discovered that the Cougars would be traveling to Baylor, rather than Memphis, for their season opener next weekend. 
So this is the schedule as it looks today; The AP rankings are current as of this morning:

     Sat Sep 18      at Baylor
     Sat Sep 26      North Texas
     Sat Oct 3        (off)
     Thu Oct 8       Tulane
     Fri Oct 16       #21 BYU
     Sat Oct 24      at Navy
     Sat Oct 31      #14 Central Florida
     Sat Nov 7       at #13 Cincinnati
     Sat Nov 14     South Florida
     Sat Nov 21     at SMU
     Sat Nov 28     Tulsa
     Pending:         at #16 Memphis

Looking Back: There was optimism that the Cougars, led by new head coach Dana Holgorsen and dynamic quarterback D'Eriq King, were going to have a successful, division-winning season. However, after enduring a brutal start to the season that included demoralizing losses to Washington State and Tulane, a host of players (including King) decided to redshirt. The Cougars ended the season with a 4-8 record - their worst campaign since 2004 - and King elected to transfer to Miami.

The Big Story for 2020: Playing through a pandemic. It's going to be a whole different football game in 2020, with players quarantined, stadium crowds limited, and schedules changing on a constant basis. I'm still blown away that the Cougars were able to replace next week's Memphis game with Baylor - a team the Cougars haven't played since the end of the Southwest Conference - on six days' notice!

Reasons for Optimism: Something like 35 players redshirted last season. Some of them (like King) left for other schools, but most return. A handful of transfers should be available to play this fall as well. One would therefore expect a team that is deeper and more experienced than last years, and that alone should result in more wins.  

The schedule is also easier than last year's - there's no stretch of four games in 19 days to start the season this time! - and the most recent changes have worked in UH 's favor. With the Washington State game being canceled and the BYU being moved, The Cougars will only travel outside of Texas twice (three times if the Memphis game is rescheduled) this fall. 

Quarterback Clayton Tune found himself in a tough spot last year, having to take over duties for King five games into the season, and ended the fall with 1,533 yards, 11 TDs and 9 interceptions. With experience, he should be better this season. He also has experienced running backs - Mulbah Carr and Kyle Porter - to hand the ball off to, as well as his prime receiving target from last year, Marquez Stevenson, who is probably the team's best offensive playmaker.

Senior linebacker Grant Stuard, who led the team with 97 tackles last season, heads a defense that is returning a large number of players who - hopefully- learned through adversity last season. Cornerback Damarion Williams was a bright spot in the secondary last year; hopefully he gets some help back there this fall.

Reasons for Pessimism: Just because a team has a bunch of players returning doesn't mean that the team is going to be better, especially if those players contributed to truly atrocious performances on the defense or offensive line last season. Last year's defense allowed 468 yards and 34 points per game, while Ryan Monceaux wonders about an O-line that allowed 95 tackles for loss and 35 sacks last season. While Clayton Tune needs to show improvement, he also needs better protection.

The Cougars had a habit of starting games strong but wilting in the second half last season. That's something that needs to be corrected this fall.

And about that schedule: while it's easier than the one the Coogs played in 2019, it's still tough. Three of Houston's currently-scheduled opponents are ranked, and Baylor is sitting right outside the top 25. The Cougars have to play every team that beat them at home last season on the road this season. 

What the Humans Think: CBS Sports ranks the Cougars 35th (out of 76* FBS teams currently planning to play this fall), and their sportswriters expect the Coogs to finish anywhere between third and eighth in what is now (thanks to UConn's departure) an 11-team AAC. Athlon had the Coogs ranked 70th (out of the full 130 teams) to start the season (they've since re-ranked them to be #45 out of 76*), and sees them as the sixth-best team in the AAC. The conference itself seems to think the same way; its preseason poll placed the Coogs seventh. Pete Fiutak at college Football News foresees a six-win regular season for Houston.

What the Computers Think: As of today, ESPN's FPI gives the Cougars a 50% or greater chance of winning seven out of their currently-scheduled ten games. Massey, on the other hand, currently only gives the Coogs a 50% or greater chance of winning four games. Congrove had the Cougars pegged at #50 (out of 77* teams) to start the season and expected the team to finish the season with a 4-6 record. As of this morning Sagarin puts the Cougars at #66 (out of all 257 Division I football programs); their rating of 69.57 implies a 5-5 record when the ratings of opponents and the home field advantage are taken into account (and a 5-6 record if the Memphis game is rescheduled). 

What I Think: On one hand, I would expect that Dana Holgorsen's Adventures in Redshirting from last fall would pay dividends in the form of a team that is deeper, more experienced and better-conditioned this fall. That would suggest improvement in 2020. On the other hand, we're still talking about a team that has a record of 5-12 over its last 17 games, has one of the worst defenses in the nation over the last two years (#119 in 2018 and #113 in 2019), and is led by a quarterback who had almost as many interceptions as touchdowns last year. "Improvement" might be a relative term.

I foresee a regular season record of 5-5 this fall (5-6 if the Memphis game is rescheduled). While I think the Cougars will be a better team overall, I still don't think they're where they need to be in order to beat anybody other than North Texas, Tulane, South Florida, Tulsa and Navy. 

This projection, of course, assumes that the Cougars play enough games to even make it to five wins before Coronavirus forces the plug to be pulled on the 2020 college football season. Right now, I will treat every game the Cougars actually play this fall as an unexpected and enjoyable gift, win or lose.

*Air Force is scheduled to play only two games this fall, so some sites include the Falcons in their rankings while others don't.

Henry Robert Hermis, Jr 1953 - 2020

The news of Henry's death came as a shock to me when I heard about it a week ago. Henry gave me my first job out of college, at his architectural consulting firm. Although I worked there full-time for less than a year before I moved on to graduate school, Henry still gave me part-time work during the summers and holidays while I was in grad school, and I continued to keep up with him and some of the other co-workers I met there long afterward. 

I would also occasionally bump into Henry at UH football games; in addition to being a fellow UH College of Architecture alum, he was also a fellow Cougar fan. 

I'm glad I got to know Henry. He will be missed.

On Wednesday, September 2, 2020 Henry Robert Hermis, Jr. passed away at the age of 67.  Henry was born to Henry (Sr.) and Rita (Barta) Hermis in Hallettsville, Texas on June 6, 1953.  He was raised in Houston, Texas at his family home on Reinerman Street, with frequent visits back to the family farms in Ammannsville and Schulenburg, Texas with his mom, dad, brother, sister, aunts and uncles, and many cousins.  Henry cherished his Czech Heritage.

Henry graduated from the University of Houston in 1976 with a degree in architecture.  While attending university he met his future wife Barbie and they were married on May 17, 1975.  Together they raised two wonderful sons, Kevin and Brian.

Henry is preceded in death by his father Henry Hermis, Sr. and mother Rita Barta Hermis.  He is survived by his wife Barbara Kahanek Hermis and son Kevin Hermis and wife Megan Womack Hermis and granddaughters Olivia, Eliza, and Emilia and son Brian McCann-Hermis and wife Ashley McCann-Hermis and granddaughter Hana.  Henry was a loving and dedicated husband, father, and grandfather that cared about his family and friends tremendously and everybody will miss him dearly.

A private Catholic mass will be held at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Plantersville, Texas, which will also be his final resting place.

Henry was a kind and generous man that showed compassion for all those around him and we believe he would appreciate donations to the Salvation Army, or The Czech Center Museum of Houston, or a charity of one's choice.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Will Ecuatoriana arise from the dead?

If some Ecuadorean investors have their way, Latin America's most colorful airline will fly again:
The name sounds familiar, but it has nothing to do with one of South America’s best-known carriers, Ecuatoriana de Aviácion, Ecuador’s largest aviation company until it stopped flying in 2006.
An initiative of the country’s entrepreneurs, Ecuatoriana Airlines was registered with the National Civil Aviation Council (CNAC) of the South American country in late August and intends to launch services from the Mariscal Sucre International Airport, in Quito.
According to the application sent to CNAC, the new airline plans to serve the cities of Coca, Cuenca, Esmeraldas, Guayaquil, Loja, Macas, Manta, Quito, Santa Rosa and Tulcán. The fleet of the new Ecuatoriana is not defined, but the company is evaluating the ATR 42-500 and Dash 8-Q200 turboprops and the Airbus A319 and A220 jets and its competitor, the Boeing 737 in the 300, 400 or 500 variants.
Ecuatoriana’s share capital, however, is only $ 16,000, 99% of which belongs to a foreign investor, the Ecuadorian press revealed – the company’s partners are Eduardo Delgado and Ann Martillo.
A few thoughts here: 
  • The airline's proposed destination list indicates that the new Ecuatoriana will be entirely domestic and, interestingly, will not fly any routes to the Galápagos Islands, even though they are popular with tourists and are financially lucrative. 
  • $16,000 in share capital isn't going to buy a lot of airplanes, but that may be a typo. This article (in Spanish) claims that the airline has lined up $15.84 billion in foreign capital and $160 million in domestic capital. 
This filing comes amidst an unsettled civil aviation situation in Ecuador:
The Ecuador market is up for grabs. In May, the Ecuador government put TAME Ecuador, the former State carrier, in liquidation. Two of the other airlines that operate in the country, LATAM and Avianca, started reorganization processes under Chapter 11 in the US. Therefore, there could be a void left by these carriers, and a new airline could develop it in the post-COVID world.
State-run TAME had been struggling for awhile; the Coronavirus pandemic was the 58-year old airline's death knell. This left Ecuador without a true a flag carrier, as Avianca Ecuador and LATAM Ecuador are both subsidiaries of parent airlines based in Colombia and Chile, respectively, and face uncertainty of their own. So it certainly makes sense to set up a new airline - if only on paper for now - to fill the gap left by TAME and to take potentially take advantage of problems at Avianca and LATAM.

Obviously, the new Ecuatoriana won't begin flying anytime soon; even if it were possible to do so, it would be foolish to start operating a new airline in the middle of the pandemic. And, it goes without saying that in order for the new Ecuatoriana to be successful, it will need to be run much better than its infamously unreliable state-owned predecessor.

But if Ecuatoriana 2.0 does ever (literally) get off the ground, they could do worse than to bring back the old color scheme.

Monday, September 07, 2020

The End of the New Orleans Insectarium

This makes me sad:

The brutal chill that the coronavirus put on New Orleans tourism has claimed one of the city's top attractions for children.

The Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, closed since March due to city-mandated shutdowns and a sharp drop in visitors, won't be reopening its current location at the U.S. Custom House on Canal Street, officials from the Audubon Nature Institute said.

Audubon Chief Executive Ron Forman said the closure was necessary as part of a broader cost-saving initiative aimed at keeping the non-profit financially sound.

The current plan is to eventually relocate many of the insectarium's exhibits, including the Japanese-style indoor butterfly garden, into a renovated space in the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas at the foot of Canal Street — a move Forman expects will save roughly $1 million a year in lease payments.

The Insectarium was located in the impressive 1881 U.S. Customs House at the corner of Canal and North Peters. Its opening was a positive indicator of New Orleans' on-going post-Katrina recovery. But New Orleans, along with the rest of the world, now finds itself in the midst of another catastrophe

The insectarium now appears to be among the casualties of the economic downturn after more than a decade in operation. The 23,000-square-foot interactive exhibit opened in 2008 at a cost $25 million and quickly made it onto the top-ten lists of family-friendly tourist attractions in a city more often known as an adult playground.

It took up half the ground floor of the 19th Century landmark Custom House building, and was touted as the largest freestanding museum in North America devoted to insects.

With thousands of beetles, butterflies, cockroaches and other crawling, flying creatures, it was a kid-friendly detour with petting stations, termite hills and insect shows. And its butterfly garden allowed visitors to walk through a room brimming with hundreds of monarchs, common sergeants, tailed jays and other fluttering lepidoptera.

I first visited in 2009 and re-visited many times, owing to to the museum's uniqueness as well as its closeness to our timeshare. One of the museum's highlights was the "Bug Appétit" kitchen, featuring insect-based foods such as mealworm salsa and cinnamon-flavored crickets. The Japanese-themed butterfly garden was also enjoyable.

Normally, while walking along Canal or North Peters Street, you'd be able to peer into the windows of the Insectarium and see the butterflies in the garden resting on the Insectarium's windows. But the last time I walked past the Insectarium, a couple of nights before my wedding, I looked into those saw windows and saw no butterflies fluttering about. I felt sad.

The Audubon Nature Institute plans to move some of the Insectarium's exhibits, including the butterfly garden, into the Aquarium space it already owns. But the enjoyable uniqueness of the Insectarium itself is, alas, likely gone forever.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

RIP Gerald Hines

I would venture to say that no single person has impacted Houston's skyline more than Gerald D. Hines. The legendary developer passed away last weekend at the age of 95:
Hines, who launched his property company as a one-man shop in Houston in 1957, developed billions of dollars’ worth of real estate across the globe, influencing generations of builders and leaving a lasting mark on the world’s top cities. 
The founder and chairman of the Hines firm was one of the first developers to hire sought-after architects, proving that tenants would flock to top-quality buildings, even in a down market. He raised the bar for commercial real estate by showing that quality and financial success could be mutually attainable. 
“Gerald Hines was one of the great patrons of American architecture of the 20th century,” said architectural historian Stephen Fox, putting him in a category with John and Dominique de Menil, Ima Hogg and her brother William, and Edgar Odell Lovett, the first president of Rice University. 
“He put Houston on the map in terms of architecture by his imaginativeness and his business discipline in understanding how he could work with the best architects of the world within the economic constraints of real estate development and construction,” said Fox, a lecturer at the architecture schools at Rice and University of Houston.
Hines and his development firm were responsible for many of Houston's most iconic buildings, including One Shell Plaza, Pennzoil Place, the TC Energy (originally RepublicBank) Center, the JP Morgan Chase (formerly Texas Commerce) Tower, the Transco (now Williams) Tower, and the Galleria. The JP Morgan Chase Tower, built in 1982, remains Texas's tallest building, while the Williams Tower, opened in 1983, remains the tallest building in the United States located outside of a central business district. In addition to his Houston developments, Hines was responsible for notable buildings in places such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Dallas.
Downtown’s Pennzoil Place represented a breakthrough for Hines from a design and development standpoint. The twin 36-story trapezoidal towers of darkly tinted glass was named “Building of the Decade” when it was completed in 1975 by the late New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable. 
Hines collaborated on the project with architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee who turned away from the boxy modern design of the era exemplified in One Shell Plaza just up the street. 
“In so doing they demonstrated that if you make a building that is distinctive there are tenants that will pay extra to have their offices there,” Fox said. “That was kind of the Hines breakthrough — to understand and respect the power of architecture to create structures potential clients would want to identify with.” 
Hines worked with Johnson and Burgee on multiple projects, including the so-called “Lipstick Building” at 53rd at Third in midtown Manhattan, a 34-story elliptical-shaped office tower completed in 1986; and San Francisco’s 101 California, completed in 1982, a cylindrical 48-story tower of glass and granite and glass, featuring a seven-story, glass-enclosed lobby. 
Hines developed friendships with many of the architects who designed his buildings. For his 90th birthday, he was joined by seven of them to discuss design and development in a public architecture forum at Houston’s Hobby Center. Hines sat alongside Burgee, A. Eugene Kohn, Henry Cobb, Cesar Pelli, Robert A.M. Stern, Jon Pickard and Art Gensler who talked of Hines’ outsize influence on commercial real estate. The event drew an audience of more than 2,000. 
“Our best work was for Gerry Hines,” Burgee, who, along with the late Philip Johnson designed several buildings for Hines, said at the forum.
Given his patronage of some of the era's most notable architects, perhaps it is only natural that Hines also lent his support the next generation as well:
Hines’ philanthropic contributions included a $7 million donation in 1997 to the University of Houston’s architecture school that now bears his name. 
When he spoke to students, Dean Patricia Belton Oliver said, there was an immediate connection and mutual respect. 
“I never saw him light up quite the way he did when he was surrounded by students,” she said. “For someone who made his career in such a tough business, it was so gratifying to see the joy he experienced when he had the opportunity to share his legacy.”
Discussions about Hines' contribution to the UH College of Architecture occurred towards the end of my time as a student there, and I remember it being controversial at the time. Some students were miffed that the college "sold out" to a developer, rather than an actual architect. Never mind the fact that, without developers, architects wouldn't have any business at all!

I never got to meet Hines in person, although I was among a group of UH architecture students who was invited for a luncheon at his River Oaks mansion, which was rather impressive.

Hines' firm continues to operate under the direction of his son, Jeffery. A tribute to Hines on the company's website is worth a read. The UH College of Architecture has put up a tribute as well.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Hurricane Laura

So, half of the "one-two punch" from the tropics didn't really materialize - Marco fizzled out as it reached the Louisiana coast - but the other half, Laura, is about to make life miserable for a lot of people.

For a while it looked like the Houston region was in danger of a direct hit, but the latest models are coming into agreement that the storm will hit to the east of here:

Unless this track shifts back towards the west in the next several hours Houston itself is probably only going to see mild effects - gusty winds and some rain - from this storm. That's good news for us, although communities along the bay and coast (such as the City of Galveston, which is under a mandatory evacuation) could experience problems related to storm surge.

Of course, this is most certainly not good news for folks in Port Arthur, Beaumont and Lake Charles.

The last days of Braniff

I recently came across this on YouTube and found it fascinating. It's an episode of Enterprise, a business documentary program shown on PBS in the early 1980s and hosted by the legendary Eric Severeid. This particular episode from 1983, entitled "Tailspin," documents the last days of Braniff International Airways, which, in spite of existing since 1930 and being the nation's eighth-largest carrier at the time, became the first major airline in the history of United States commercial aviation to declare bankruptcy in 1982. 

Prior to 1979, the US commercial airline industry was heavily regulated; the government determined which carriers could fly which routes and how much they could charge. Once deregulation occurred, many airlines, including Dallas-based Braniff, saw an opportunity to grow their business in ways previously unimaginable. The airline's leadership liberally added new routes and borrowed heavily to finance its expansion.

The results were disastrous, especially once the US economy entered recession. In late 1981, the over-leveraged, debt-laden, money-hemorrhaging airline hired Howard Putnam away from Southwest Airlines to try to rescue the company.

Putnam attempted to cut costs, soothe creditors and streamline operations, but Braniff's many internal problems, as well as fierce competition from larger, deeper-pocketed rivals such as American Airlines, made his job difficult. Attempts to attract more passengers, such as gimmicky fare promotions, cost Braniff the goodwill of travel agents (who issued most airline tickets back in those days and relied on commissions, as a percentage of fares, for revenue). An attempt to maintain liquidity by selling Braniff's Latin American network to Pan Am was briefly held up by the Civil Aeronautics Board (the network would eventually be acquired by Eastern), and proved to be too little, too late for the airline to survive. Braniff ceased operations at midnight on May 13, 1982. 

Seriously: if you have half an hour to spare, watch the whole thing. Film crews were given access to Putnam and Braniff's upper management as it struggled to stay afloat during its final days, which makes it especially fascinating.

As the documentary explains, Braniff was trying to survive in an environment when the US commercial aviation industry as a whole had too many seats and too few passengers. By the time he arrived, there was probably nothing Putnam could have done to save the company.

Braniff's demise would be the first of many airline bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions, as deregulation completely transformed the US commercial aviation industry. Today, two-thirds of all domestic passengers are carried by just four airlines: America, Delta, Southwest and United. 

Cool fact: Braniff, was along with Eastern, one of the two original airlines serving Houston's first purpose-built air terminal.

Will the pandemic spark a new round of conference realignment?

Probably not, but ESPN's Ivan Maisel explores how the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the geographic absurdity of college football's conference alignments:
Hey, here's a great idea during a pandemic: Let's have West Virginia fly 1,400 miles to play a Big 12 game at Texas Tech on Oct. 24, but let's not allow West Virginia to play Pittsburgh. After all, the Panthers, 75 miles away, are in the ACC. 
Before the Pac-12 broke the emergency glass on its 2020 season, the conference approved of Colorado flying 1,300 miles to play at Washington but thought it too risky for the Buffaloes to drive 100 miles to play at Colorado State. 
And there's Nebraska, which a decade ago sued for divorce from the Big 12 (née Big Eight), dissolving a marriage consummated in 1928 to grab the money and security and money and money offered by the Big Ten. Last week the Big Ten told Nebraska it couldn't play football this fall, which went over in the Cornhusker State like, oh, I don't know, stalk rot.
For much of the sport's existence, college football was highly geographic in nature, with major conferences adhering to specific regions of the nation: the midwest (Big 10), the great plains (Big 8), the southeast (SEC), the south central (SWC), and the east (ACC) and west (PAC-10) coasts.

Over the last few decades, with air travel becoming cheaper and television money becoming the dominant factor in making such decisions, conferences have merged, split and realigned such that geography is no longer a major consideration. Conferences have become far-flung and messy, and in the process many of the natural regional rivalries that make college football so great - Oklahoma-Nebraska, Texas-Texas A&M, Pittsburgh-West Virginia, Kansas-Missouri - have been abandoned.
We have become numb to the consequences of the periodic spasms of conference realignment in intercollegiate athletics over the past three decades. It's about a regional sport turning national, about the conferences increasing their geographic footprint to grab more television market share (including ESPN). 
In other words, about money.
I appreciate Maisel acknowledging the role his employer and its money has played in the current state of the sport. I would appreciate it even more if he also acknowledged the role his employer and its money has played in the ever-increasing disparity between the "have" conferences (i.e. the Power Five) and the "have-not" conferences (i.e. the Group of Five), but that's a post for a different day.
It has been several years since West Virginia leapt to the Big 12, and Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, and Colorado and Utah to the Pac-12. Colorado is about as close to the Pacific Coast as Morgantown, West Virginia, is to Lubbock, Texas, and Missouri set aside a 120-year Border War rivalry against Kansas to play in a division with Georgia and Florida. 
You want to send your student-athletes halfway across the country for a conference game? It's your money. Only now it's about more than your money. It's about their health. During this coronavirus pandemic, when the epidemiologists are saying don't leave home without a mask, it's time to reconsider conference realignment. The geographic inanity of Utah booting its annual rivalry against BYU worked out well in the best of times. We are no longer in the best of times.
Maisel thinks that college football's solution to the COVID-19 pandemic is to reduce cross-country interaction (and cross-contamination) between players by staying close to home. The sport should return to its regional roots, if only for the 2020 season, and play schools in close proximity to one another. He even suggests that all 12 Texas FBS schools play each other this season.
Football should be no different from the rest of America. The pandemic has given us the power to reconsider the basic architecture of our day-to-day lives. Maybe we don't have to go to the office in order to do our jobs. Maybe we shouldn't move for our work. Maybe our work should move for us. Maybe our lives would be better served by living where we wanted to be all along.
Sports Illustrated's Pat Forde agrees. He even takes this concept further, by imagining what these regional conferences might look like.
Ten years ago this month, the last great spasm of realignment began shaking the college sports world. When it finally subsided in 2014, the landscape had changed dramatically. For the richer, but not necessarily for the better. 
The Big Ten wound up with 14 teams, stretching from Nebraska to New Jersey. The Southeastern Conference expanded into Texas and Missouri. The Atlantic Coast Conference wandered nearly 1,000 miles inland. The Pac-12 annexed the Rocky Mountains. The Big 12, pushed to the brink of collapse, steadied itself by adding a school 1,200 miles to the northeast of the league office. Lesser conferences followed suit, scrambling for financial viability. 
A decade later, it’s time to blow up what was done and start over. The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects have been profoundly felt in a realm where, for 10 years, money was no object and the map made no sense. Slapped in the face by a new fiscal reality, maybe we’re due to both rein in and reach out—to contract geographically into more regional conferences, while expanding the scope of the revenue gusher that is the College Football Playoff.
Forde pares the Football Bowl Subdivision down to 120 members and creates ten 12-team regionally-focused conferences where every school plays each other in a round-robin schedule, with a twelfth game against a semi-permanent out-of-conference rival. All ten conference champions, plus a pair of at-large teams, would advance to a 12-team, four-weekend-long College Football Playoff. Here are his ten conferences:
Pat Forde/Sports Illustrated
In Forde's scheme, all the Texas and Oklahoma schools (except for UTEP, UTSA and Texas State, which Forde relegates to FCS) are grouped into a new Southwest Conference. With the exception of Arkansas, Houston would face all its old SWC rivals once again.

Forde explains the benefits of his scheme:
What college football would gain from this realignment: uniformity; conference championships that truly matter; increased access to a more lucrative playoff; a more level playing field for the little guys; renewed regional identity; cherished rivalries preserved, restored—and, in some cases, forced into permanent existence. The advantages are abundant. 
The complaints about conference schedules would disappear. Everyone would play 11 league games, taking on every opponent within the conference every season. There would be no unbalanced scheduling, beyond six home games vs. five, and that would be flipped every season. Without divisions, there is no luck of the draw in cross-divisional opponents. And the endless carping from conferences that play more league games than others would be silenced. 
Having automatic playoff bids tied to conference championships—and having enough room in the playoff for every conference champion—would remove another chronic complaint. Win your league, get a shot at the national title. It’s just that simple. It works for the NCAA basketball tournament, and it would work for the new FBS.
In addition to expanding playoff access and encouraging competitive equality between "have" and "have-not" schools, Forde's scheme would return college football to is geographic roots:
As for regional identity: This isn’t solely about making travel easier and safer for athletes and more affordable for athletic directors, although both factors are more significant now than at any time this century. It’s also an opportunity to rebuild a neighborhood with sensible boundaries that create common ground among people who already live and work together. There is not a lot of office or barber shop banter in, say, Orlando between Florida and Missouri fans when the Gators and Tigers play; there sure would be when the Gators play Central Florida. And the fans can pretty easily drive to many of these games.
Is any of this going to happen? Of course not. Power Five schools would never deign to consider their Group of Five brethren to be their equals, to share revenue and exposure, to risk being upset by schools they've always considered inferior or unworthy. Television networks would be unlikely to be happy with this hyper-regional conference structure, as well, because it limits matchups of truly national interest. But then again, maybe that's the whole point of Forde's exercise: college football is in this mess precisely because they've put so much focus on expanding television exposure.

The coronavirus pandemic is devastating college football just as it has devastated every other aspect of American life; I still don't expect many, if any, games to actually be played this fall. But the pandemic does expose the absurdity that is college football in 2020, not just with respect to geography but also the economic disparity between its participants. I'm glad sportswriters such as Maisel and Forde are acknowledging that there is a problem.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

A one-two punch from the tropics

Because it just wouldn't be 2020 without two hurricanes in the Gulf at the same time...
Travis Herzog/KTRK
Fortunately, since this graphic was produced earlier today, the forecast has changed somewhat such that Marco no longer appears to be a major threat to Houston. Laura's track is less certain and could still pose a threat to the region. Corinne and I are pretty well stocked up and are secure in our brick-and-concrete mid-rise apartment, so there's nothing to do but keep our eye on the weather while we go about our business.

The more immediate concern is that, as of this evening, both storms are tracking towards the same general location in southeastern Louisiana: a potential one-two punch that New Orleans most certainly does not need.

The coming week, incidentally, will mark the third anniversary of Harvey's landfall, and the fifteenth anniversary of Katrina's landfall.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

RIP Bill Yeoman

The legendary University of Houston football coach has passed away.
Bill Yeoman, a standout lineman and teammate of Heisman Trophy winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis at Army, who would go on to shepherd the University of Houston into the top tier of college football as the Cougars' coach for 25 years, died Wednesday at age 92. 
His son, Bill Jr., said Yeoman died of pneumonia and kidney failure.
Yeoman had been hospitalized with COVID-19, and things looked hopeful after he was released from the hospital at the beginning of the month. Unfortunately, he simply couldn't recover from the ravages of the disease.
Yeoman took over as coach at Houston, then an independent, in 1962. He invented the veer offense, a triple-option attack similar to the wishbone. The ESPN College Football Encyclopedia quoted Yeoman as saying, "We stumbled upon it, really. Almost by accident." 
Yeoman dared to recruit Black athletes before any major program in Texas, signing back Warren McVea to a scholarship in 1964. Between his recruiting and his offense, Yeoman created an offensive machine. The Cougars famously defeated Tulsa 100-6 in 1968, the first season they finished in the top 20 (18th). 
"Coach Yeoman was a leader and visionary in our game," current Houston coach Dana Holgorsen said in a statement. "Not only was he a Hall of Fame coach, but also he brought our program to national prominence during his tenure. His legacy will live on in our program and will stand the test of time. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, former players and coaches." 
Houston's success under Yeoman created a path to membership in the Southwest Conference. Houston won the SWC in its first season (1976), finishing 10-2 with a No. 4 national ranking. The Cougars won three more SWC championships (1978-79, 1984) under Yeoman. 
He retired in 1986 with a record of 160-108-8. The College Football Hall of Fame enshrined Yeoman in 2001.
In addition to the aforementioned 1976 season, the Cougars also finished the season in the AP top ten in 1973 (#9) and 1980 (#5). Between the 1969 and 1980 seasons, in fact, the Cougars ended the season with a national ranking nine times - the best such stretch in program history. Yeoman's teams were also 6-4-1 in bowl games. For many UH fans, especially the older ones, Yeoman's tenure represents the "glory days" of UH football; looking at the program's record since then, it's hard to argue with that. He put the program on the map.

I met Coach Yeoman on several occasions: at alumni luncheons, at events for season ticketholders, and at the games themselves. In addition to being very friendly and fun to listen to - he had no shortage of stories to tell - he also retained his passion for UH football, encouraging people to buy tickets and keep the faith.

Thank you, Coach Yeoman, and rest in peace. Ryan Monceaux has more.

Monday, August 10, 2020

A small wedding and a socially-distant honeymoon

Well, we did it.
Corinne, myself, and the sunset over Lake Pontchartrain, just as we had planned.

On the evening of Saturday July 18, Corinne and I had our formal wedding ceremony at Lakefront Airport in New Orleans. We had about 35 people in attendance: mostly close friends and family, and less than half the number we were expecting for our originally-planned March ceremony, but still within the State of Louisiana's limit of 50 attendees for events such as these.

This was good, as it gave people a chance to spread out; we encouraged social distancing and mask-wearing as much as we could (although it gets hard for people to comply as food is served and champagne flows), and our awesome venue caterer was very good with their sanitation protocols. Over three weeks after the ceremony, we've gotten no reports of any of our attendees falling ill from COVID. We're thankful and relieved.

Our wedding occurred almost two years to the day from
when I proposed to Corinne in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.
I celebrated by posting on that village's Facebook page
and received a wonderful response from them.
To be sure, the decision to go forward with the rescheduled ceremony was agonizing for both myself and Corinne. We knew that a lot of people wouldn't be able to attend and we knew that we could be putting ourselves and our loved ones at risk. As we watched the infection rate increase both in Texas and Louisiana, we even considered postponing again or canceling entirely (after all, we were already technically married). But in the end, for reasons both contractual and psychological, we decided to press ahead, to make the best of it while being as safe as possible, and to give our family, our friends and ourselves a small bit of enjoyment in the middle of this otherwise-interminable Coronavirus bleakness.

In retrospect, it was the right decision. The ceremony and reception were everything Corinne and I had planned (see here for some early pictures from our wonderful photographer). The food and cake were delicious. Our vendors were happy to be working a wedding again. Everybody in attendance had a good time. Nobody got sick. And it's all behind us now: no more stress of planning and preparing, no more agony of waiting.

We had our wedding, and it was good.

We stayed in New Orleans for a couple of days after the wedding, visiting with family and friends who remained. Then, on Tuesday July 21, Corinne and I got into a rented Chevy Impala and embarked upon a honeymoon roadtrip that we were probably looking more forward to than the wedding itself. After spending the night with friends in Knoxville, Tennessee, we made our way to Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We spent a few nights at a secluded cabin on the Tennessee side of the park before heading south and spending a couple more nights at another secluded cabin on the North Carolina side, and spent the time hiking, relaxing and enjoying the scenery. While there were lots of people in the park itself and mask-wearing was not universal, we were generally able to keep our distance as we hiked. Car-based excursions such as the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and the Cades Cove Loop also allowed for social distancing. The only big crowds we encountered were at Clingmans Dome, and even those weren't horrible. I was also finally got to see what the view from the observation deck looks like when not completely obstructed by fog, although the walk up there brutally reminded me how fat and out of shape I am.

Th observation deck at Clingmans Dome without the fog
After spending several days in the Great Smoky Mountains, we spent a few more days driving the Blue Ridge Parkway. This was a much better experience for me than my first drive along the road eight years ago, as there was no fog to obscure visibility and the Impala handled the curves much better than my previous rental. However, it turned out that three days is still not enough to see all the sights and take all the hikes along the Parkway; it was also a bit disappointing that most of the visitor centers along the Parkway were closed due to the pandemic or that a particularly scenic section of the Parkway around Roanoke was closed due to mudslides. Nevertheless, we enjoyed what we were able to see; the Blue Ridge Parkway is fascinating in that you can learn about biology, geology, geography and history all at once as you drive along it, and the views (as long as they're not obscured by overgrown vegetation) are spectacular.

A view of the North Carolina countryside from the Blue Ridge Parkway
We ended our trip with a brief drive through Shenandoah National Park, and spent the last two nights of our honeymoon in Fairfax, Virginia. The original plan was to spend a day in Washington DC, as Corinne had never been there. However, after the Mayor of Washington issued a decree requiring anybody entering the city traveling from "high-risk" areas (such as Texas or Louisiana) to self-quarantine, we decided that entering the city would not be a good idea. Instead, we went to the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. I enjoyed it, since I hadn't been in over a dozen years and wanted to see some new items that had been added to the collection since then. Corinne enjoyed it, too, because she got to see the Space Shuttle Discovery and other NASA artifacts that greatly interested her. The Smithsonian limited crowds by requiring people to make reservations in advance and required visitors to wear masks at all time, so we felt very safe visiting.

A Concorde, among other aircraft at the Udvar-Hazy Center
The following day we drove up to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, dropped off the rental car, and flew back to Houston. While flying on an airplane may have been the riskiest part of our trip (or maybe not), Southwest is taking things seriously by limiting their boarding groups to ten people at a time, keeping middle seats open, requiring passengers to wear masks at all times, and reducing points of contact as much as possible. That meant, unfortunately, no beverages (other than water) and no working the crossword in the in-flight magazine. But the precautions appear to have worked in our case, because Corinne and I are showing no symptoms of any diseases a week and a half after the flight.

All in all, it was a wonderful and much-needed vacation. But now, unfortunately, the fun is over and it's time for me to get back to work. Due to the high infection rate here in Houston, my employer has abandoned the practice of allowing some of us to go into the office a couple of times a week on a rotating basis. This means I'll be working from home full-time for the foreseeable future, and I'm not excited about that. I did get my computer repaired (a failing hard drive was causing it to operate slowly), so I'll be able to be at least somewhat productive here at home. But it's just a matter of time before I start to go stir-crazy again, and it will only be worse if I don't have any college football to look forward to this fall.

Which begs the question: is it too early for Corinne and me to start planning our next roadtrip?