Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Houston 38, Sam Houston State 7

The Sam Houston State Bearkats are playing their first season as a member of the FBS. After putting up tough fights against BYU and Air Force, they certainly had plans for a big upset on their minds as they made the short trip from Huntsville to face the struggling Cougars. Alas, it didn't happen for them.

The Good: Freshman RB Parker Jenkins rushed for 105 yards and three touchdowns, which was good enough for Big XII Newcomer of the Week honors. WR Matthew Golden caught nine receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown. On his first snap under center as a UH Cougar, second-string QB Ui Ale threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Stacy Sneed. The offense did not turn the ball over, and the defense held the Bearkats to 178 total yards of offense.

The Bad: The Cougars were flagged 11 times for 95 yards. Kicker Jack Martin missed a field goal. Houston was 0 for 1 on 4th down conversion attempts.

The Ugly: The Cougar defense recovered two Bearkat turnovers, but could not convert either of them into scores. Through four games, UH has only managed to score 14 points off of nine turnovers. That's... not good.

What It Means: This was a much-needed "get right" game against a lesser opponent that allowed second-stringers to get some playing time and (hopefully) gave the team some confidence. But now the Cougars begin their Big XII schedule in earnest.  

After spending the entire first third of the season within the City of Houston, the Cougars next face Texas Tech in Lubbock.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Robotaxi gridlock!

Coming to a city near you:

Over the weekend, photos and videos of yet another Cruise-induced robotaxi traffic jam spread across X (formerly Twitter). However, unlike the past incidents that have occurred largely in San Francisco, this one wasn't in California. Instead, it was in another of the country's tech hubs and in Tesla's backyard: Austin, Texas.

About 20 Cruise-operated Chevrolet Bolts were seen stuck up and down San Gabriel Street late Saturday night. Some had shifted into the oncoming side of the two-lane street, even forcing a pair of Cruise cars to face one another in some sort of autonomous stand-off, blocking traffic even further.

The actual cause of the jam remains unknown, though it's not uncommon for Cruise vehicles to become stuck and require human intervention—also known as a Vehicle Recovery Event. The individual who posted the photos and videos said they observed the Cruise workers trying to operate the cars via remote control to remediate the situation. A spokesperson hinted that the problem may have been related to pedestrian traffic, though the footage circulating social media does not show an abundance of people nearby during the gridlock.

The self-driving cars are currently in their testing phase in Austin, but it seems like the patience of local residents is also being tested:

The cars have also gotten stuck in crosswalks, at green lights, in intersections, and even played chicken with other Cruise vehicles. In fact, just have a look at the r/Austin subreddit and you'll quickly see how the self-driving experiment has tested the patience of locals.

"There's no city or county anything that is regulating them or overseeing what they are doing," said Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who once hailed a robotaxi and noted in that earlier KXAN report that his car pulled over and stopped in the street midway through the journey. "And the fact that it's in a testing phase but there's not the safeguard of a human in the front concerns me."

City council members are powerless, and the Austin Transportation and Public Works Department can't really do anything to stop Cruise from operating on its streets. Earlier this month, the department issued a memo noting that "Texas cities cannot regulate autonomous vehicles" as their authority is preempted by state law.

But that hasn't stopped residents from complaining about blocked intersections and interference with emergency services. The department has since reached out to equivalent bodies in Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. for advice.

We may be in for similar experiences here in Houston. Cruise has begun operating autonomous vehicles out of a large lot at the corner of West Alabama and Stanford, and I've seen the vehicles circulating on the streets of Midtown.

I've been following along as autonomous vehicles are being deployed and tested in real-world environments, and while I'm not aware of any more fatalities caused by their testing, the intermittent problems places like San Francisco and Austin are experiencing while these cars are being tested indicates that these cars are only as safe and as functional as their programming allows. So-called "Level 5" autonomy - which allows self-driving cars to operate in any environment and under any condition - is truly a very difficult thing to achieve and there's debate as to whether it's even possible at all

Which is why this technology is only now coming to Houston, and why malfunctions like those being experienced in other cities are likely to occur here as well as the slow process of testing and reprogramming these vehicles continues.

Houston 13, TCU 36

The Cougars' first conference game in the Big XII was entertaining for little while; Houston only trailed by a touchdown at halftime (and it could have been closer if head coach Dana Hologrsen had elected to kick some field goals instead of going for it and failing on fourth downs). But TCU, aided by an inept UH offense, put things away in the second half.

The Good: Matthew Golden returned a TCU kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. It turned out to be the Coogs' only touchdown of the game. 

The Bad: Pretty much everything else. The Cougars were outplayed on both sides of the ball. The offense had by far its worst game of the year, gaining a paltry 266 total yards and a pathetic 41 yards rushing. QB Donavan Smith was intercepted twice and sacked six times. The defense didn't play much better, allowing the Horned Frogs to amass 564 total yards (even as they held TCU to field goal attempts on five of their drives and came up with two turnovers of their own).

The Ugly: This post is brought to you by the number zero. As in ZERO offensive touchdowns, ZERO points scored in the second half, ZERO points off turnovers, and ZERO for four on fourth down conversion attempts.

What It Means: How bad is the Houston offense right now? Ryan Monceaux explains:

UH is averaging 19.33 ppg in regulation. That would put the team 112th nationally (out of 130 teams). Thanks to the two overtimes at Rice Stadium, UH is 94th in scoring. But the fact remains that the offense has scored just 51 points in regulation in the three games. That’s six offensive touchdowns (and three field goals) in three games.

UH has scored over 10 offensive points in only two of six halves this year. In seven of 12 quarters, UH has scored three or fewer points.

Next up for Houston is FBS newcomer Sam Houston State at TDECU Stadium. They better win that one, because I don't see any more wins for the Coogs this season unless something dramatically changes. 

Andy Yanez and Chris Baldwin have more. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Houston 41, Rice 43 (2 OT)

I guess it can't be a rivalry if one team wins all the time, so congratulations to Rice for winning the Bayou Bucket for the first time since 2010. But honestly: the Owls were greatly helped by the fact that the Cougars didn't even bother to show up.

The Good: To the extent that coming back from a 28-point deficit to tie a game with fifteen seconds left - and scoring the first touchdown of overtime to string together 35 unanswered points - is "good," then I guess that's a positive. But obviously it never should have come to that. The comeback was actually triggered late in the first half when Rice QB JT Daniels was intercepted in the end zone by Cougar CB Isaiah Hamilton to keep Rice from going into the locker room up 35-7. 

On a night where most of the Cougar players might has well have stayed on the bus, DE Nelson Ceasar (two sacks and three tackles for loss) and WR Samuel Brown (9 receptions for 138 yards) both played notably well.

The Bad: The Cougars' slow start. Rice scored touchdowns on their first four possessions, while the anemic Cougar offense went interception, punt and punt on their first three. Rice racked up 341 yards of total offense in the first half, while the Coogs could only manage 94. The Owls were clearly more motivated and played a faster and more physical game than the Cougars did: one team came out of the locker room prepared to play, while the other did not. 

On their first possession of the second half, the Cougars elected to go for it on 4th and goal from the Rice 8 rather than kick an easy field goal. As it turned out, had the Cougars taken those points the game never would have gone into overtime. And in the second overtime, needing a two-point conversion to extend the game, Houston opted to attempt a fade route to the corner of the endzone: a low-percentage play that failed and gave Rice the win. Hindsight being 20-20 and all, these were both bad decisions.

As bad as the Cougars were in the first half, Rice was pretty awful in the second half. They were trying to play conservative, run-out-the-clock football but didn't do it very well; one Rice series was a three-and-out that only took 49 seconds off the clock! It didn't help that a Rice fumble late in the third quarter led to an easy Houston touchdown to bring the Coogs within two scores.

The Problematic: After the game, Nelson Caesar admitted that the team "took Rice for granted." But how do you take for granted a crosstown rival? How do you overlook a team that nearly beat you a year ago? Head coach Dana Holgorsen, for his part, offered up a stream of "maybes" as for why the Cougars didn't play well: maybe the team overexerted themselves in practice, or maybe they didn't take Rice seriously enough, or maybe they were looking forward to TCU the following week, or maybe whatever. While he did admit that he is ultimately responsible for his team's performance, these "maybes" simply speak to a team culture and identity that he's never been able to cultivate during his four-plus years (at four-plus million dollars per year) at Houston. I don't expect that's ever going to change as long as he's here, either.

What It Means: When the Cougars begin the season (first or second game of the year) with a win over Rice, they average eight wins per season. When they lose to Rice at the beginning of the season, they average 2.8 wins. 

Up next for Houston is their Big XII Conference opener against 2022 CFP runner-up TCU at TDECU Stadium. 

Ryan scratches his head at a "bizarre" game, while Chris Baldwin thinks the TCU matchup is a "near must win" for Houston. I'm not going to hold my breath.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Houston 17, Texas-San Antonio 14

The Cougars opened the season - their first in the Big 12 Conference - with a win at home against the Texas - San Antonio Roadrunners.  It was low-scoring affair; the Roadrunners pulled within three with 5:42 left in the fourth quarter but the Coogs sealed the victory with a clock-chewing, game-ending drive (that may have been aided by a favorable after-review spot from the refs). 

The Good: The UH defense intercepted veteran UTSA quarterback Frank Harris three times. Cornerback (and East Carolina transfer) Malik Fleming accounted for two of those interceptions, along with a 48-yard punt return. That return led to one of Houston's touchdowns; one of Fleming's interceptions led to the other.

Quarterback (and Texas Tech transfer) Donavan Smith was serviceable but not spectacular in his Houston debut, completing 22 or 34 passes for 233 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. However, his receivers looked good. Samuel Brown, Joseph Manjack IV and Matthew Golden combined for 16 receptions and 209 yards; Manjack and Golden both had touchdowns.

The Cougars did not turn the ball over and were only flagged for three penalties. That's right: only three penalties.

The Bad: The UH offense was plodding and predictable. The offensive line clearly struggled to establish the run game - the Cougars managed only 101 rushing yards for 2.7 yards per carry - and had problems protecting Smith as well: he was hurried on multiple occasions and sacked three times. The offense was inefficient, converting only 5 of 15 third downs and zero of 2 fourth downs. Finally, the offense struggled to score points off turnovers; the three interceptions only resulted in seven UH points. 

Post game, head coach Dana Hologrsen called the cougar offernse "a work in progress." Here's to hoping that things comes together sooner rather than later.

The Ugly: UTSA did not help themselves with stupid penalties. Late in the first half, UTSA hit Smith out of bounds to move the ball into field goal range and allow the Coogs go into the locker room with a 10-7 lead. And in the second half, the Roadrunners were flagged on a UH field goal attempt because they lined up over the long snapper. That gave the Cougars a fresh set of downs and led to their second toucchdown of the day. 

The Uniforms: Were the Oilers-inspired, Columbia blue uniforms gimmicky and polarizing among UH fans? Sure. But the players loved them, and social media ate them up. Unfortunately UH athletics missed a great marketing opportunity by not having merchandise in the colors available for sale.

What It Means: It wasn't pretty, but it was a season-opening win over a school that won eleven games last year and actually slightly favored by Vegas to win. Ryan thinks that Saturday's game was one that the Cougars would have lost in previous years. Heartland College Sports, Underdog Dynasty and PaperCity's Chris Baldwin have more.

The Cougars now make the short trip up Brays Bayou to face the Rice Owls.

Friday, September 01, 2023

2023 Houston Cougar Football Preview

The 2023 college football season begins in the shadow of ongoing conference realignment madness. Just today it was confirmed that Stanford, Cal and SMU will be joining the ACC next season. So yes, next year there will be California schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It doesn't make much sense, but that's where the sport is today, for better or for worse.

The churn of conference realignment means that the Cougars will be playing in a new home this season: the Big 12. It's a step upward for the program, but it will probably come with some growing pains.

Looking Back: A season that began with promise (the Cougars began the season in the top 25) ended in mediocrity, with a 7-5 record (two games worse than my prediction of a nine-win regular season) and a victory over Louisiana-Lafayette in the Independence Bowl. 

While I'll take the winning season and bowl trophy, the 2022 campaign was nevertheless a disappointment. The defense struggled (the Cougars ended the season 104th out of 130 FBS teams in total defense and 111th in scoring defense), the offense was plagued with sluggish starts (the Coogs were held scoreless in the first quarter 7 times in 13 games), and the team as a whole was undisciplined (124th in penalty yards per game). 

The Big Story for 2023: The Cougars have spent the better part of three decades wandering in the wilderness since the Southwest Conference broke up in 1995. Now, they rejoin the premier ranks of college football as a member of a (now) "Power Four" conference. Gone are conference mates with little regional appeal like Temple, East Carolina and Tulsa. In their stead are old SWC foes such as Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech and (for one season, at least) Texas, an even older Missouri Valley Conference foe in Oklahoma State, and interesting new opponents like West Virginia and Kansas State.

With this step up in prestige comes a step up in competition, and the Cougars need to prove that they belong. 

Reasons for Optimism: There's been a lot of roster turnover but there's definitely some talent on this team. Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith will take over as quarterback; he is already well-known to UH fans since he converted a 4th-and-20 against the Cougars last season. He'll have a strong wide receiving corps to work with, as Matthew Golden (38 catches for 584 yards and 7 TDs a year ago) and Joseph Manchack return; they will be joined by a couple of transfers. Stacy Sneed and Brandon Campbell, who combined for almost 1000 rushing yards last season, return in the backfield and are joined by West Virginia transfer Tony Mathis, Jr. The offensive line returns NFL-caliber talent in OT Patrick Paul, as well as a new coach in Eman Naghavi, who spent last season at Tulane.

The defensive line is going to be formidable. DE Nelson Ceaser may be best defensive player on the team; he'll be joined by DE David Ugwoegbu and DT Chidozie Nwankwo. Linebackers will be anchored by senior leader Hasaan Hypolite (31 tackles at safety last year) and Jamal Morris (42 tackles). Alex Hogan returns at DB.

There's also a bit of an advantage in the schedule, as Houston plays eight games in the City of Houston and only leaves the State of Texas twice.

Reasons for Pessimism: Where to begin? To start with, the schedule is much tougher than anything the Cougars have faced in recent memory. With an upgrade in conferences comes an upgrade in opponents; three of Houston's opponents are ranked in the preseason AP poll (and four in the coaches' poll).

There's also that issue of roster turnover. Major contributors to last year's team are gone: QB Clayton Tune, WR Tank Dell (who led the nation in receiving yards and receiving TDs last season), LB Donavan Mutin and DL Derek Parish have all moved on to the NFL, while RB Alton McCaskill, who sat out the 2022 season with an injury but was expected to return as the team's offensive workhorse this season, transferred to Colorado. There are over 40 new players on the roster this season, and it's going to take time for them to gel.

Finally, there's head coach Dana Holgorsen, whose performance up to this point has been underwhelming. Yeah, there was that 12-2 season two years ago against a butter-soft schedule, but last year his team underachieved. Why should he be expected to do better this season against better competition?

What the Computers Think: Massey gives the Cougars a greater than 50% chance of winning only three games. Jeff Sagarin's starting ratings for the 2023 season imply a 5-7 record for the Cougars with home field advantage taken into account (and three of those wins are marginal). ESPN's Football Power Index, likewise, foresees a 5-7 season for the Coogs. Congrove is a bit more bullish on Houston, predicting a 7-5 campaign.

What the Humans Think: Houston was picked to finish 12th (out of 14 teams) in the Big 12 Media Preseason Poll, ahead of only Cincinnati and West Virginia. USA Today's Erick Smith has the Cougars finishing 13th in the conference, while the writers at CBS Sports see the Coogs finishing anywhere from 9th to 14th. CollegeFootballNews foresees a 5-7 season record for Houston.

What I Think: While I'm happy that the Cougars finally find themselves among the "haves" of the college football world and look forward to new and rekindled rivalries in the Big 12, I just don't think that their first season among the big boys will be a particularly good one: the Cougars need to pay their dues.

I'm am predicting a 4-8 season record for the Cougars, with wins against UTSA, Rice and Sam Houston, and a single conference win over Holgorsen's former employer, West Virginia, on a nationally-televised Thursday night. But even then I'm not all that confident about those games; quite frankly. there isn't a game on the schedule that the Cougars can't lose. 

Dana Holgorsen and his players know that expectations for the program are low, and they relish being the underdog. Which is great. But after watching his overall underperformance during his four years at Houston, I'm skeptical of his ability to get these players to reach their potential. This fall would be as good a time as any to prove me wrong.

Houston begins the season tomorrow at home against Texas-San Antonio. Vegas actually has the Roadrunners slightly favored in this one, and we all remember what happened the last time UTSA came to TDECU Stadium.

Houston's 1923 transit network

If you've ever wondered what Houston's transit network looked like exactly 100 years ago, Christof Spieler has you covered. He created a fascinating map of Houston's streetcar and interurban system a century ago, using the same style and color scheme as METRO's current system map (where red routes run at least every 15 minutes, blue routes run every 16-30 minutes, and green routes run every 31-60 minutes):

Christof explains that the streetcar routes he shows "were the equivalent of buses today, largely running in mixed traffic and stopping every block or two; the only major line like today’s light rail was the interurban to Galveston." This is why the Galveston-Houston Electric Railway is denoted with a thick purple line (like today's Purple Line LRT). This rail line, of course, has long since been replaced by the Gulf Freeway.

In subsequent posts, Christof also compares Houston's 1923 transit network with its 2023 network. Frequencies were better back then; most routes ran at eight to twelve minute headways. Furthermore, routes were closer together than they are today, meaning shorter walking distances for riders. However, the 1923 system covered a much smaller area than today's network because Houston was obviously a much smaller city back then. It was also much more walkable; in 1923 the United States still hadn't begun redesigning its cities to accommodate the automobile so the urban environment was denser. 

Finally, Christof observes that many neighborhoods served by "red" streetcar routes (with headways of 15 minutes or shorter) generally enjoy "red" bus service today as well, for example Midtown, Montrose, the Near Northside or the Washington Avenue Corridor. He explains that "the dense, walkable neighborhoods the streetcars created survived them." This is emphasized by the fact that some of today's light rail lines follow the same routes as the streetcars of a century ago: the Green Line follows the Harrisburg streetcar route, while the Red Line follows the Heights - South End and Institute Shuttle routes south of downtown and the North Main - Leeland route north of downtown.

1923 is significant because it was the last year that Houston's public transportation system consisted entirely of streetcars; the first buses would begin operating along the city's streets in 1924. Houston's last streetcar routes ceased operating in June of 1940.

The definitive history of Houston's streetcar network was written by Steven M. Baron in his 1996 book Houston Electric: The Street Railways of Houston, Texas

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Realignment time again

Remember during the last round of college sports conference realignment, when I told you not to worry if you didn't like where your favorite school ended up "because we'll probably be doing this again in a few years?" Well, it hasn't even been two years, and here we are again. 

Two weeks ago, the most radical - and sudden - realignment in college football history occurred, wherein a “Power 5” conference with over 100 years of history was essentially dismantled over the course of a couple of days. The Pac-12, which was already facing the losses of USC and UCLA following the 2023 season, saw five of its schools depart for other conferences after a meeting to sign a conference media rights deal fell apart at the last moment. The 2023-24 sports year will be the venerable Pac-12's last in its current configuration, and likely for good.

The Pac-12: disappearing in 2024
As sudden as this was, it was not entirely unexpected. Rumors that Washington and Oregon would join the Big 10 and that the “Four Corners” schools of Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah would join the Big 12 had been floating around the online college sports world for months. Once it became clear that Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff could not land a media rights deal that would satisfy his conference's members, the inevitable happened and the rumors became reality. These departures - reluctant as they might have been - left the Pac-12 with only four schools: California, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State. 

The waters churned in the Pac-12 breakup's wake. Last week, it appeared that Cal, Stanford and even SMU were headed to the ACC, even as schools already in that conference like Florida State were looking for a way out. The ACC seems to be standing pat for now, but that could change at any moment (especially since their television contract isn't as advantageous as those of the SEC and Big Ten). Meanwhile, the fate of Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Wazzou remains unresolved and will likely involve adding or joining schools in the Mountain West or American Athletic Conferences. That in turn, will cause more dominoes to fall. Things are still in flux, and even as the 2023 football season gets underway we have no idea what the conference lineup for 2024 is going to look like.

There's plenty of blame for the demise of the Pac-12, starting with the folks who run the Pac-12 itself, as the San Francisco Chronicle's Connor Letournau explains:

A complete failure of leadership pushed the Pac-12 to this point. By overvaluing their product, showing a stunning lack of urgency and refusing to adapt with the times, league decision-makers reduced the West Coast’s premier conference to four castoffs. The eight teams that departed over the past 13 months weren’t merely opportunists; they identified the problem.

Though Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff has made his share of costly blunders since taking the job three years ago, his predecessor, Larry Scott, deserves much of the blame for the league’s predicament. Before he signed a historic 12-year, $3 billion TV deal with Fox and ESPN in spring 2011, he failed to add an escape clause.

That locked in the Pac-12 until 2024, which left it vulnerable to having its teams poached by Power 5 conferences with bigger subsequent annual media-rights payouts. By inking a TV deal in spring 2016 that lasted just six years, the Big Ten positioned itself to beat the Pac-12 back to negotiations and, ultimately, convince UCLA and USC to come aboard. Those two defections last summer set the Pac-12 on its current trajectory.

Scott’s biggest misstep was the Pac-12 Networks, which didn’t come close to realizing their billing as a cutting-edge enterprise that would serve as an industry standard-bearer. Instead of partnering with a proven media company like ESPN, Scott launched a network fully owned by the schools in summer 2012, complete with an odd seven-channel model that confused consumers.

The Pac-12 Networks struggled to find distribution. Without ever approaching the revenue Scott had projected, it is now considered an albatross that weighs down the remaining league members’ bottom lines.

More recently, the conference apparently turned down a television rights deal worth $30 million per school, because they thought they deserved more. The media disagreed, leaving the Pac-12 to scramble, ultimately unsuccessfully, for another media rights deal. 

In that regard, blame also needs to be laid at the feet of the television networks, who are willing to destroy college football's regional tradition as long as it means new conferences with more marquee matchups that attract more viewers. The conference commissioners and university presidents chasing after those television dollars are also culpable. Everybody will try to avoid blame for the Pac-12's demise, but everybody is responsible. (A great Twitter X thread by a University of Michigan regent slams the NCAA for failing to do its job as the supposed oversight body for college sports.)

As a college football fan, I find this latest round of realignment to be rather bizarre. In what world does it make sense for a school in Eugene, Oregon to be in the same conference as one from Piscataway, New Jersey? How are student-athletes, especially those playing non-revenue sports such as volleyball or soccer, supposed to balance their studies with the cross-country travel (and attendant jetlag) that these mega-conferences will entail? 

Furthermore, having been a student at the University of Houston when the Southwest Conference disintegrated and Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor went to join the Big XII while the Cougars, along with Rice, TCU and SMU, got shunted off to “mid-major” leagues like C-USA and the WAC, I can't help but feel bad for the folks at Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State who are almost certainly looking at a future in the "Group of 5" world. I know what this feels like: a gut-punch; a betrayal. (It should also strike fear in the hearts of administrators at "second-tier" Power 5 schools like Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Indiana and Wake Forest. Next time, it could be them.)

With that said, I'm selfishly grateful that Houston was able to make the jump from the Group of 5 "have-nots" to the (now) Power 4 "haves." In being admitted to the Big 12 right before this latest round of realignment occurred, Houston may have gotten on the "last chopper out," so to speak. 

The new Big 12: appearing in 2024
I'm also excited about the new Big XII, which will actually be a collection of 16 teams in the summer of 2024, when Texas and Oklahoma depart for the SEC and the "Four Corners" schools come aboard. (Confused? ESPN's College Football Realignment Tracker can help you follow along.) It's going to be a fairly evenly-matched conference, lacking a "big dog" school like Alabama or Georgia or Michigan or Ohio State that will win it more often than not. It will feature traditional rivalries like the Holy War and the Territorial Cup. And it will be, hands down, the best mens basketball conference in the NCAA.

Until, of course, the next round of realignment occurs and the conference's lineup changes again.

In that regard, it truly isn't difficult to argue that realignment is killing college sports. Add it to NIL and the transfer portal, and it also isn't difficult to argue that college football is truly becoming professionalized. The Washington Post's Kevin Blackistone thinks that, since college football is now "virtually indistinguishable from the NFL," it's time for colleges and their football programs to go their separate ways:

There are now too many irreconcilable differences between the not-for-profit college mission and for-profit football. It's time to get on with the divorce.

I don't believe college football has attained the NFL's level just yet. But that may, sadly, be where the sport is headed.

I'll have my preview of the 2023 UH football season up in another week or so.

On being homeowners

As I mentioned a few months ago, Corinne and I have purchased a house. We closed at the end of March and moved in in mid-April. Four months later, we still have a lot of unpacking to do, but we've otherwise settled in to our long-desired home sweet home. 

This is not the first time either of us have purchased a house - both of us owned homes in our previous lives - but it had been so long since either of us last bought a house that the homebuying experience may as well have been completely new to us. 

Our original plan was get out of our apartment (which was becoming too small for us and was being increasingly mismanaged by the complex's new owners) and into our own home shortly after our wedding in 2020. However, the housing market during and immediately following the Coronavirus pandemic was simply too hot for us to attempt to enter. We decided to wait for the local real estate market to cool, even though it meant that we would be dealing with higher interest rates. 

We met with our realtor, a longtime acquaintance of mine, the day after Christmas to begin the search in earnest. Right after the new year we started looking at houses, focusing on areas such as Shady Acres, Garden Oaks, the Washington Avenue corridor, Montrose, Midtown, the Museum District, and even EaDo. We wanted to live inside the 610 Loop, if possible; the suburbs held no attraction for us. We were also fine with a townhome because we didn't want a big yard to take care of.

Over the course of January and February, Corinne and I probably toured forty different properties, trying to find the one that held the right balance of cost, location and amenities. 

It was an eye-opening experience. 

Even through the housing market was calmer than it was in 2021 and 2022, we quickly realized that we would be paying much more for a house in any of our preferred areas than we originally anticipated. We found it a little perplexing and more than a little frustrating that, even though we are both professionals in our late 40s making decent incomes, our options in terms of what was affordable to us turned out to be so limited. 

We weren't alone; housing prices are a source of anxiety for many Houstonians, according to the 2023 Kinder Houston Area Survey

Buying a home remains a goal that is out of reach for many people in southeast Texas. The median price for a home in Texas has tripled over the last 10 years while wages have remained relatively flat, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The cost of housing is now top of mind, despite never appearing as a concern in previous surveys - registering at less than 1% of respondents as recently as 2021, then spiking to one in five this year.

After many nerve-wracking weeks, we were finally able to find our home: a townhouse on the eastern edge of Midtown that met our requirements and was within our price range. It has a small yard, is about ten minutes away from my parents, and is (almost) within walking distance of Discovery Green and Minute Maid Park. However, in settling upon it we both had to give up some desired amenities: I would have liked a roof deck with a view of the downtown skyline, Corinne would have liked more cabinet and drawer space in the main bathroom (in all bathrooms, really), and both of us would have liked a larger kitchen. It's also on a corner lot and close to the freeway trench that separates Midtown from Third Ward, so traffic noise is always in the background. But it's ours. (Even if it is one of those stucco monstrosities that so many Houstonians love to hate!)

A quarter-century of aggressive townhome construction inside the loop is, in fact, perhaps the only reason we were able to find anything affordable at all:

Houston famously has no zoning. Developers have quite a bit of latitude to build what they want, where they want. But Houston still has certain restrictions on housing construction, like parking minimums and setback requirements. For years, the city had a minimum lot size of 5,000 square-feet in most neighborhoods—the standard in your typical postwar suburb. But in 1998, the city changed that rule to 1,400 square feet, unleashing a transformative wave of townhouse development.

Today, these townhouses are ubiquitous inside the 610 Loop that marks the central part of the city. A detailed study from the Kinder Institute at Rice University explored the impacts of this development pattern. Between 2005 and 2018, the Inner Loop saw 75,000 new housing units completed, nearly half of which were townhouse units. That’s more housing than San Francisco and Oakland produced, combined, over the same period. The Inner Loop also outperformed the rest of the Houston region in housing production. The area comprises 5% of the total land area of Harris County, but accounted for 19% of new housing built between 2005 and 2018.

While we do not expect to be looking for a house again anytime soon - with any luck, we'll be here for a long time - there are some lessons that we learned from this experience: 

Be patient and don't panic. It took us about two months of constant searching for us to finally find the house we purchased. This was a bit longer than we anticipated, and it was a source of angst for both of us. Homes that looked great on the har.com website would turn out to have fatal flaws once we visited them in person. Homes that we visited and really liked would go under contract before we had an opportunity to make an offer ourselves. We especially began to get antsy as the end-of-lease date at our apartment complex approached. There were times when we considered simply abandoning the home search and signing a new lease, as we weren't sure that we would ever be able to find a suitable house in our affordability range.

In the end, there was no need to panic. Houston is a big city with a vibrant housing market and the right home at the right price will eventually come along, as it did for us.

You can't anticipate everything. We put an offer on this house with the knowledge that it would not come with a refrigerator; the sellers were taking it with them. That was not a problem for us because Corinne had a refrigerator that she had purchased several years ago and kept stored. It was a larger refrigerator, so we made certain that the refrigerator alcove in the second-story kitchen was wide enough, tall enough, and deep enough to accommodate it.

It didn't even cross our minds that Corinne's refrigerator was so large that it wouldn't be able to make it up the stairs. The movers simply couldn't maneuver it up the steps, even with the handles and doors removed, without tearing up the banister or knocking light fixtures off the stairwell. It would have to stay in the garage, and we would have to buy a new, shallower refrigerator that could make it up the stairs. That cost us about two thousand dollars. 

Corinne was able to sell her old refrigerator to an acquaintance, thereby making back at least some of the money we spent on the new one. But the expense - and the days we had to keep a cooler full of ice handy while we waited for the new appliance to be delivered - were not something we even remotely expected.

My knees hate me. Like most of Houston's townhomes, ours has three stories, with the garage and a guest bedroom on the first floor, the kitchen and living area on the second floor, and the main bedroom and another guest bedroom (that we use as an office) on the third floor. This means I'm climbing the stairs a lot, which is something I didn't have to do at our apartment (which we accessed by elevator) or at my previous one-story rental in Bellaire. 

It's not like I don't need the exercise, but it does leave me out of breath at times. And my middle-aged knees can only take so many steps before they tell me I need to stop climbing for awhile.

I can be loud again. Several years of living in an apartment have trained me to tread lightly, carefully lower heavy items like boxes, and not drag furniture across the floor so as not to disturb the neighbors below. I felt horrible anytime I accidentally dropped a spoon in the kitchen or knocked a book off my desk because I knew that the neighbors beneath us could hear it. After I moved into this house, it actually took me a surprisingly long time to un-learn that behavior. I can hop down the stairs or drop heavy boxes onto the floors and I don't have to worry about upsetting anybody beneath us, because nobody lives beneath us anymore!

I'm going to be poor for awhile. Between the down payment, inspection fees, closing costs, moving costs, the new refrigerator and other expenses associated with buying a home, we have exhausted much of our savings. There are still repairs and upgrades the home inspector identified that we have to do, and at some point our hodgepodge of furniture will need to be replaced with actual living room and bedroom sets. The end result is that I'm carrying debt on my credit cards again, which I hate, and am having to be more frugal with my day-to-day purchases. We knew we would probably be "house poor" for awhile after buying this house, but it's still a bit of an eye-opener. 

With all that said, I wouldn't trade any of it to not be a homeowner again. Now if we could just finish unpacking.

Thanks to Ryan Monceaux for navigating us through the homebuying process and helping us find for we were looking for.

Remembering Lahaina

A week and a half ago, the deadliest wildfire in the United States in more than a century incinerated the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina. The town, on Maui's western coast, was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1820 to 1845 and was the royal residence of King Kamehameha, who was the first ruler of a unified Hawaii. The city, with its shop-lined streets and historic buildings, was a mandatory stop for any visitor to Maui. 

The wildfires, which were initially fed by tinder-dry grasses on the drought-stricken island and fanned by the winds of an offshore hurricane, wrought unspeakable devastation. 2,200 structures have been destroyed and 114 people have been confirmed dead so far. The death toll will climb as search and rescue crews continue to scour the ruins. It may be weeks before the true extent of the devastation is known, but we already know that so many heirlooms of Lahaina's - and Hawaii's - history and culture are gone forever

I visited Lahaina with my parents about a dozen years ago. I never got around to writing about that trip on this blog, but I did take plenty of pictures. I always expected to return to Lahaina at some point; in fact, Corinne and I originally planned to go to Maui for our honeymoon (unfortunately, COVID forced us to change our plans.) 

Now, there's nothing to return to; these pictures from that 2011 trip can only provide a sense of all that has been lost.

Front Street, as its name suggests, is the street closest to Lahaina's waterfront. It was lined with shops, cafés, art galleries and other attractions. The street was designated by the American Planning Association as one of the Great Places in America. Its wooden buildings were no match for the rapidly-moving wildfire.

Lahaina's iconic banyan tree is the largest such tree in the United States. It was imported from India and planted in front of the Lahaina Courthouse in 1873. In the 150 years since it was planted, its aerial roots have dropped to the ground and become accessory trunks, allowing the tree to sprawl across the city's courthouse square. It provided shade for people to sit, gather, listen to music and sell arts and crafts. 

The tree was badly scorched by the wildfire, but is still standing. Efforts are underway to save the tree, but as of now it is unknown if it will survive the trauma of the fire.

The Old Lahaina Courthouse was originally built in 1859 and restored in 1925 and again in 1990. It housed the Lahaina Heritage Museum. Now, only the masonry exterior shell of the building remains.

A view of Banyan Tree Park from the second story of the Old Lahaina Courthouse. With everything else destroyed, Lahaina residents and business owners are using the tree as a navigation reference to find their burnt-out properties.

The Lahaina Heritage Museum exhibited artifacts from the whaling industry, which was critical to Lahaina's economy in the 1800s. Harpoons, flensing tools and other implements were among the items on display, along with whale teeth scrimshaw and old photographs. These have probably all been destroyed.  

The Pioneer Inn was built in 1901 and was the oldest hotel on Maui as well as the oldest continuously-operating hotel in the state of Hawaii. The Best Western - branded hotel had 34 rooms. It was completely destroyed by the fire. 

The Baldwin House was built in 1834 and was the oldest standing residence on Maui, It is named after the Reverend Dwight Baldwin, a missionary and doctor who moved into the house with his family in 1836. It later became a museum. It was also completely destroyed.

Antique furniture, china and other artifacts of Hawaii's missionary history were on display in the interior rooms of the Baldwin House. It is unlikely that much of it survived the fire.

Another view of Front Street, where it faces the Pacific Ocean. Part of the island of Moloka'i is visible in the distance. The stores on the right side of the photograph all burned to the ground.

The Lahaina Jodo Mission was a Buddhist temple established in 1912 for Maui's migrant Japanese community. It featured a shoro with a bell, seen here with a statue of Buddha in the background. The shoro's bell and the copper Buddha statue survived; the rest of the mission went up in flames.

There was a three-story pagoda at the Lahaina Jodo Mission as well. It no longer exists.

Other sites of historic and cultural importance that were lost in the conflagration included the Waiola Church, the Wo Hing Temple Museum, and the Na 'Aikane o Maui Cultural Center, which contained an archive of Native Hawaiian history and artifacts. 

Lahaina faces a long and expensive rebuilding process, and the effort to salvage the city's surviving artifacts will be painful and tedious. Needless to say, the town and its residents will never be the same. The toll of these wildfires, in terms of lives as well as history lost, is absolutely catastrophic and utterly heartbreaking.

If you want to help, multiple relief organizations are accepting donations.