Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The "Accidental President" passes away

Gerald Ford will be remembered for a lot of things. He was the only President of the United States to hold office without being elected either as President or Vice-President (insert snide remark about the 2000 election here). He was the president who inherited a White House rocked by the Watergate Scandal and the abrupt resignation of Richard Nixon. He was the president who later pardoned Nixon, a controversial decision which is widely believed to have cost him the 1976 election. He was president during the fall of South Vietnam, which was a painful ending to a painful chapter in US history.

Ford, however, will never be remembered as a president who was effective at tackling the issues facing the country at the time; in fact, there have historically been many criticisms regarding his short tenure in the White House: that he was ineffective, that he was an obstructionist (he vetoed a ponderous 66 bills during his two-and-a-half years in office), that he was merely a "caretaker" president, somebody who stepped in after the Nixon administration collapsed whose sole job was to keep the Oval Office seat warm until the next election.

And it's true: Gerald Ford will never be remembered as an "effective" or a "proactive" president in that his administration never successfully resolved the nation's problems or substantially succeeded in establishing its own goals and agendas. But I think the role of Gerald Ford's presidency in American history is more important for what it represented - a necessary period of healing and calm after the trauma of Watergate and the seething disappointment of Vietnam - than what it actually accomplished.

Obviously, I don't have much of a memory of Gerald Ford's presidency; I would have been less than a year old when Ford took office and would have been three and a half years old when he left office. But as a junior in high school, I was required to extensively research Gerald Ford's life and presidency for a major project in my US history class. As I researched his presidency, I developed a sense of respect for him, because I discovered just how awkward and difficult a situation Ford - a man who never had aspirations of becoming President - was placed in once he assumed the role of Chief Executive. The social, economic and political situation of the early seventies was such that I really don't think that anybody could have been a "good" or "effective" President at that time.

The economic circumstances that the United States found itself in when Ford took office was particularly troublesome. By the early 1970s, the industrial and technological superiority that the United States enjoyed after World War II had been eroded. The economies of other nations, notably in Europe and Japan, had finally caught up to the United States and other countries were producing and exporting their own industrial products. The resulting international competition had an adverse effect on several components of the US economy; notably the steel and automobile industries. This shift in the international economy was occurring at the same time a major shift in the domestic economy was occurring: baby boomers were moving into the job and housing markets en masse, driving up home prices while simultaneously driving down wages. Most importantly, however, was the Oil Shock of 1973, when Arab nations turned off thir petroleum spigots in protest of the United States' support of Israel, which had just won the Yom Kippur War. This caused energy prices to soar, which was particularly damaging for an economy and a way of life that relied on cheap energy. The results of this "perfect storm" of economic factors - the recession, inflation, and high unemployment that plagued Ford throughout his two-year term - were simply too much for Ford's administration to overcome.

Added to that was the political turmoil that affected Ford's presidency: the fallout from the Watergate scandal, his decision to pardon Nixon (which, in retrospect, seems sensible but which at the time was incendiary), his battles with an opposition-controlled Congress, the fact that Saigon fell during his watch (even though US military operations in Vietnam had effectively ended by the time Ford became Vice-President) were all political obstacles and setbacks that Ford faced while in office. He also had to deal with his wife's battle with breast cancer, two assassination attempts, international crises such as the Mayaguez incident, the lingering Cold War, continuing turmoil in the Middle East including the outbreak of Lebanon's civil war in 1976, and even a couple of public stumbles that were relentlessly ridiculed by Chevy Chase on early Saturday Night Live skits.

Needless to say, Gerald Ford didn't have it easy. But he accepted his role, he did what he thought was best for the country, he made decisions (such as the Nixon pardon) which he feltto be best but which would ultimately cost him, and I have a great deal of respect for him because of it. He might not have been an "effective" president, but I contend that his calm, unassuming, honest persona was exactly what the nation needed during his term in office. Gerald R. Ford was a good man and a great American, and I mourn his passing.

One final note: Gerald Ford played for the University of Michigan Wolverines in 1932 and 1933; some AP reports about his death claim that he played for "national championship" teams during these years, which is not entirely accurate because at the time Ford played football there was no mechanism for determining a national championship. The AP, of all organizations, ought to be able to acknowledge this: they began crowning football national champions a few years later, when the first AP college football poll was unveiled in 1936.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Former cop plans to sell "how-to" video to drug smugglers

A former police officer in the east Texas town of Tyler is preparing to sell a video which teaches people how to conceal drugs from police searches.
Barry Cooper, who has worked for small police departments in East Texas, plans to launch a website next week where he will sell his video, "Never Get Busted Again," the Tyler Morning Telegraph reported in its online edition Thursday.

A promotional video says Cooper will show viewers how to "conceal their stash," "avoid narcotics profiling" and "fool canines every time."

Cooper, who said he favors the legalization of marijuana, made the video in part because he believes the nation's fight against drugs is a waste of resources. Busting marijuana users fills up prisons with non-violent offenders, he said.

"My main motivation in all of this is to teach Americans their civil liberties and what drives me in this is injustice and unfairness in our system," Cooper told the newspaper.

Cooper is not the first law enforcement officer, active or retired, to speak out against the "War on Drugs." In fact, there is an entire organization of law enforcement officials who feel that the "War on Drugs" is a tremendous waste of time and money that fills our prisons with nonviolent drug offenders yet which does little to actually curtail the use of drugs in this country. Cooper, however, is taking his prinicpled opposition to the "War on Drugs" a step further with his video, and that has, naturally, upset others:
News of the video has angered authorities, including Richard Sanders, an agent with the Tyler Drug Enforcement Agency. Sanders said he plans to investigate whether the video violates any laws.

"It outrages me personally as I'm sure it does any officer that has sworn an oath to uphold the laws of this state, and nation," Sanders said. "It is clear that his whole deal is to make money and he has found some sort of scheme, but for him to go to the dark side and do this is infuriating."
I'd probably be outraged if I were Agent Sanders as well, because this video certainly make his job any easier. (Of course, given that the DEA only interdicts a fraction of the illegal drugs headed into the United States in spite of its $14 billion annual budget and has no appreciable affect on the nation's drug use rates, it's rather obvious that Agent Sanders and his fellow agents aren't doing a very good job to begin with...) However, it's clear that there will be a lot of opposition to Cooper's video; Sanders' plan to investigate the video once it comes out suggests that a legal fight is probably inevitable.

Without knowing the actual content of the video, it's hard to say which way such a fight would go: while one person might see the video as an instructional which shows people how to protect their ever-eroding Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, another might see the video as a "tips of the trade" tutorial for drug smugglers engaging in illegal activity. It sounds like Cooper's video is going to be the latter as much as the former, and, while I sympathize fully with Cooper's opinions regarding the farcical "War on Drugs," it would be hard for me to support a product that essentially teaches people how to be lawbreakers.

However, even if Cooper's video never sees the light of day, his aggressive expression against the "War on Drugs" will hopefully bring more attention to the fact that it is a wasteful failure. When former police officers - the folks on the front line of the "War on Drugs" - are telling you that it's not working, maybe it's time for us to start listening.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The New Orleans Bowl

Rice looks like a team that hasn't played in a bowl game for 45 years.


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Happy Solstice, everyone!

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere (and the longest day of the year in the southern hemisphere). From here, the days will gradually get longer and the sun will gradually move higher in the sky; this process will culminate with the summer solstice on June 21, 2007.

The solstices occur because the earth's axis is not perpendicular to its orbital plane around the sun, but is rather tilted at about a 23-degree angle. This tilt causes the amount of sunlight reaching certain parts of the earth to vary as the earth rotates around the sun. This, in turn, causes the seasons; when the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun, it receives more sunlight; the days are longer, the weather warmer. When the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, as it is right now, the days are shorter and the weather is cooler. Today the earth's orbit is passing through the extreme point of this latter condition.

It's widely held that the December solstice "officially" marks the beginning of winter, just as the June solstice marks the "official" beginning of summer. This is a common misconception, one that even I believed until recently. Since the solstices mark the extremes of the earth's path around the sun with respect to its axial tilt, it's really more accurate to say that, from an astronomical point of view, they mark the midpoint, rather than the beginning, of summer or winter. From a meteorlogical point of view, furthermore, it makes little sense to say that winter doesn't "officially" start until late December, as most colder climates have already had snow on the ground for weeks. A good discussion about this can be read here.

The winter solstice has been celebrated by humankind for millenia. The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia; pre-Christian northern Europeans celebrated Yule. These festivals were supplanted by Christmas as Christianity spread but certain elements of these pagan holidays (notably the Christmas Tree) are still practiced during Christmas. It's probably not a coincidence, furthermore, that the western world marks and celebrates its new year during this time period, especially since the Gregorian calendar is based on the solar cycle. Whether we realize it or not, the celebrations marking the astronomical event of the winter solstice have historically had a great effect on civilization.

So, like the folks over at Houstonist, I wish everyone a happy solstice. It doesn't get a lot of recognition, but without it, we wouldn't have all the other winter holidays we celebrate this time of year. In fact, we wouldn't even have winter!

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Christmas shipping scam

No, that's no misprint: this is not a "shopping" scam. It is a shipping scam, and a pretty clever one at that.

Last Friday, I ordered a gift for Kirby from an online retailer that specializes in children's products. I specified that the item be shipped by ground, even though I recognized that, given the relatively short amount of time until Christmas, the gift might not be delivered in time (which is okay; is a two-year-old really going to realize that the gift was a few days late, after all?).

Instead of processing the order, however, the company sent me an e-mail (which I didn't immediately see because I was out of town Friday and Saturday and therefore away from my inbox) telling me that they "could not guarantee" that the order would be delivered in time for Christmas. They wanted to know if I wanted to pay an extra $40 for expedited, two-day shipping, and they told me that the order was "on hold" until they heard back from me regarding the expedited shipping.

Never mind the fact that I thought I made my desires regarding the manner of shipment evident when I placed my order. Nor mind the fact that, had they not decided to put my order "on hold" and had processed and shipped it as normal, there still might have been a chance that the order would have arrived by Christmas.

But no, this company had something else in mind: by delaying the processing of the order to let me decide if I wanted to pony up an extra $40 for two-day shipping, they essentially ensured that I would have to use two-day shipping in order for it to arrive on time!

I've got to give this online retailer some credit. This is a pretty slick scam, designed to prey on the worst fear of the last minute Christmas-shopping parent: that the presents ordered for the kids wouldn't arrive by Christmas.

This company, after all, could have put a "we cannot guarantee that your order will arrive by Christmas if you choose to ship by ground" disclaimer on their website that people would see as they ordered. But they did not, perhaps because they thought shoppers would accept the risk and decide to ship by ground anyway. Instead, their tactic was to hold received orders while they sent out these concerned-sounding "are you sure you want to ship it by ground?" e-mails (cleverly disguised as standard shipping confirmations that require no response), knowing fully that many customers wouldn't respond to them, if at all, until it was clearly too late for an item shipped via ground to arrive by Christmas.

And if they charge an two-day shipping fee of $40 (which I know to be outrageous, simply because I've done enough two-day shipping via UPS, FedEx or USPS to know how much it really costs) for my one relatively small item, imagine how much they're charging people with large or multiple orders? This is probably a very lucrative scam for this company.

But, as I said above, I wasn't counting on the item arriving by Christmas anyway. And I certainly was not interested in paying the ridiculous $40 surcharge for second-day shipping, especially since it cost more than the item itself. So I could have just responded by saying, "thanks, but just ship it by ground anyway." But I found this this online retailer's attempt to hustle extra money to be rather sleazy and annoying.

So I responded to the company's e-mail. I told them that I felt that their decision to put the order "on hold" was a scam aimed at getting extra money from me. And, because I felt that they were running a scam, I asked them to cancel my order because I simply did not want to do business with them.

The company responded with a lame (and clearly prepared) "we're sorry, it wasn't a scam, we just wanted you to make the choice regarding shipping, etc." message, but they did agree to cancel my order without hassle.

Lori and I then ordered the same product from a different online retailer, one which, so far, hasn't seen fit to place our order "on hold" in order to wring extra money out of us.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Christmas Gift Angst

Yeah, yeah, I'm still here. I just haven't had anything to write about in the last week-and-a-half, especially now that college football season is over, and I really don't have anything to say that hasn't already been said by other local bloggers about Vince Young single-handedly defeating the same Texans team that decided not to draft him, or the Astros not re-signing Andy Pettite, or the push by local brewer St. Arnolds to change the state's laws regarding microbreweries (but if I did write about these things, my responses would be: who really gives a crap about the pathetic Texans, Andy Pettite is inconsistent and not worth $32 million for two years, and more power to the state's microbrewers!).

Anyway, this morning I turn my attention to Christmas. It's less than two weeks away, and Lori and I are woefully unprepared. We haven't even put up a tree yet (and at this point, we aren't likely to) and the chore of putting lights up around the house is only half-finished.

Worse yet, I've barely even begun Christmas shopping.

Of course, part of the reason is because I was waiting until today, i.e. payday - if I'm going to buy presents for people, it would probably help to have money in the bank to do it with. But there's also the more pressing problem: what in the name of St. Nicholas am I going to get for everyone?

Or, for that matter, what do I even want for myself? Every year, I get asked the same question: "what do you want for Christmas?" And every year, I rack my brains to come up with a wish list of items that I think people will get for me. It's not easy.

To be sure, there are a lot of things I'd really like or need, for example money to pay off what's left of my student loans, or a nice plasma-screen HDTV, or a new roof for the sun porch, or a new computer, or implants for my missing front teeth (which I broke while falling off my bike when I was a kid and, after many years and many thousands of dollars' worth of caps, root canals, and posts-and-cores, were finally pulled a few years ago and replaced with a partial). But these items are very expensive and are not things that I would expect anybody to give me as Christmas gifts. So, instead, every year I come up with a list of smaller, less-expensive items that people can easily get for me, such as clothes, books, small electronics and appliances (an iPod, a new toaster oven, a new scanner for my computer, etc.), hardware from Lowes, booze from Specs, etc. Every year, it seems, this annual wish-list becomes more difficult for me to create as the number of these "small-ticket" gifts I receive accumulates. I'm almost at the point where really I want to tell people just to give me money instead of a gift, because the money will come in handy as I go about purchasing the "big-ticket" items I really need.

But back to the other dilemma: what do I get for other people? Some people have an amazing knack for coming up with the perfect Christmas gift without even asking people what they'd like. I possess no such talent, so I have to ask people what they want. Oftentimes I discover that other people have just as hard a time coming up with a wish list as I do. And once I get peoples' Christmas gift lists, I have to enter into intense negotiations with others ("okay, mom, how about I get dad the new fishing rod and you get him the new set of drill bits? What? You say you're uncomfortable shopping at a hardware store?") to make sure that gifts are not duplicated. Then, as I go about shopping, I continually worry in the back of my mind that my gift will be sufficiently equal to what they will give me. If I get somebody a $30 gift, and they give me a $50 gift in return, I feel bad. If I get somebody one present, and they give me two or three presents in return, I feel bad.

Of course, I am continually told that I shouldn't focus on the quantity or quality of gifts; that Christmas is about more important things such as the birth of Christ (which has only limited resonsance with me because I am not a particularly religious person) or being with friends and family, or celebrating the end of another successful year.

Yeah, right.

Ours is a consumer-oriented society, and Christmas, for everything else we'd ideally like it to be, is still a consumer-oriented holiday. It's about the gifts, stupid!

Oh yeah, and then once I finally do my shopping I have to wrap all my gifts. Did I mention that I am horrible at wrapping presents?

Anyway, I'll be spending a lot of time at the stores over the next week. Joy...

Christmas plans are coming into focus. Lori, Kirby and I are driving up to Dallas this afternoon to visit my aunt and uncle and to get my cousin's old bunk bed out of storage so Kirby can use it. We won't be able to stay long, though; one of Lori's co-workers is getting married tomorrow and we need to be back in time for the wedding. Christmas Eve will most likely be spent with my side of the family, as has been the tradition, while Christmas Day will probably be spent with Lori's family. And a couple of days after Christmas Lori, my brother and I are making our way up to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl. I've already got my tickets and hotel reservations.

(Speaking of which [and in spite of the fact that I said that I wouldn't talk about college football again until after the Liberty Bowl], I notice that the UH athletics department is, once again, concerned about ticket sales. Apparently, Coog fans are not yet doing their part in buying tickets to the Liberty Bowl; I've gotten two separate fretful e-mails from UH Athletics Director Dave Maggard on the subject this week alone [even though I've already purchased my tickets], and even people who aren't UH fans are getting robo-calls from coach Art Briles asking them to buy tickets. I really wish Maggard would quit panicking about ticket sales all the time. We had no problem selling out the conference championship game a couple of weeks ago in spite of the gloom-and-doom forecasts of some sportswriters in the days leading up to the game, and Houston fans were well-represented at the Fort Worth Bowl last year as well as at the Coogs' last Liberty Bowl appearance ten years ago. I have no doubt that the UH faithful will adequately represent themselves this time around as well. Relax, Dave, the game is still two weeks away...)

While we're on the subject of Christmas gifts, I need to vent about a gift-giving practice that has become a real peeve of mine. Every year, it seems, somebody - be it a co-worker via the office gift exchange, or a relative on Lori's side of the family, or whomever - gives me a Christmas ornament or a cheap ceramic snowman or a wooden nutcracker as a Christmas gift. "Oh, look! Somebody gave me a talking reindeer for Christmas! It's cute, but what the heck am I supposed to do with it, especially NOW THAT CHRISTMAS IS OVER? Maybe I'll save it for next Christmas and put it out with all the other otherwise useless decorations I've received over the past several years! Oh, boy!" Ugh.

Look, folks: there is not a word in the English language to describe just how annoying, just how uncreative, just how senseless (think about it for a moment) and just how useless I find the practice of giving Christmas decorations as Christmas gifts to be. I beg of everyone: if you can't figure out what to get somebody for Christmas, just get them something that anybody can use, like a gift card to a major retailer or even a $10 bill rolled up and wrapped with a little red ribbon. Unlike the poinsetta plant or the laughing santa doll you're thinking about getting, these will be appreciated and will be useful even after Christmas is over.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Yet another BCS controversy (and other bowl-related thoughts)

Okay, I promise that this will be my last post about college football until after the Liberty Bowl...

Anyway, if it's early December, it must be time for another Bowl Championship Series controversy. UCLA's 13-9 upset over #2 USC in Los Angeles last Saturday, along with #4 Florida's victory over #8 Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game, resulted in Florida leapfrogging #3 Michigan to become the #2 team in the BCS standings and earning the right to face off against Ohio State in the BCS Title Game.

There will be no Ohio State - Michigan rematch. Some sportswriters are outraged by this outcome. Other sportswriters are happy with it. The debate will rage on, long after the January 8th title game is played. Then people will get ready for the 2007 season and the BCS controversy that it will invariably bring. Such is the nature of the Bowl Championship Series.

It didn't have to be this way, of course. Had the Trojans taken care of business against UCLA, this wouldn't even have been a controversy outside of Ann Arbor. USC's decisive victory over Notre Dame two Saturdays ago rightly vaulted them into the #2 spot over Michigan, and had they taken care of business against a 6-5 UCLA squad last Saturday they would have remained there. But they lost, Florida won, Michigan sat idle, the voters turned in their polls, the computers spit out their charts, and this was the result.

Michigan and its fans have a legitimate beef. They were #2 even after their loss to Ohio State a couple of weeks ago; how could they have fallen from second place to fourth place without their team playing a single snap? It's true that Florida's 38-28, come-from-behind victory over Arkansas was sloppy at times and not exactly impressive. And it's also true that Michigan's only loss was a three-point thriller to #1 Ohio State, while Florida's one loss was a ten-point decision to #11 Auburn.

So what happened? The coaches of the USA Today poll and the voters of the Harris Interactive poll, which comprise two-thirds of the BCS rankings formula, essentially decided that they did not want to see a rematch of a regular season game, especially between two schools in the same conference. And, truth be told, I can't really fault them. I never had anything against an Ohio State - Michigan rematch, but Michigan already had its shot at Ohio State. The 42-39 game was a classic, but Michigan lost. Isn't it time for somebody else to take their shot at Ohio State? Why not the champion of the SEC, especially since Florida played a tougher overall schedule than Michigan?

Now, it's not Michigan's fault that the Big 10, as a whole, was weaker than the SEC this year. But that's the nature of college football; the fortunes of various schools ebb and flow from year to year. Nor is it Michigan's fault that USC and Florida had two more weeks to impress the pollsters and tweak the computers after Michigan's season had ended and they could do no more impressing or tweaking of their own. But, again, that is the nature of college football, where different conferences have different schedules. Instead of blasting Florida for having the advantage of being able to play in a conference championship game on top of its regular season, perhaps Big Ten fans should be asking themselves why their conference doesn't have a championship game of its own. Would it kill the Big Ten to add a Missouri or a West Virginia to their conference, split into two divisions, and play a national championship game?

Truth is, the only way for Michigan to guarantee that it would get to play in the national championship game was to have beaten Ohio State last month. They fell three points short, and the people and machines of the BCS standings have now decided that it's time for somebody else to get a shot at the Buckeyes. That's the nature of the BCS: it's imperfect, it's controversial, and, unfortunately, it's likely to stick around for a while. Division I-A College football is no closer to a playoff today than it was a few years ago, and a playoff system would invariably have controversies of its own in any case.

Michigan will go on to face USC, which has some "what could have been?" questions of its own, in the Rose Bowl. Oklahoma will take on Boise State, this year's interloper from a non-BCS conference, in the Fiesta Bowl. We'll see Louisville match up against suprising ACC champion Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl, and LSU will take on Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, which returns to the Superdome after a one-year absence.

Notre Dame? The team that lost to both Michigan and USC? Are the Fightin' Irish even deserving of a BCS bowl? One sportswriter thinks not. But Notre Dame got invited to the BCS dance anyway, because things worked out in their favor. Notre Dame ended up 11th in the BCS standings, but two teams ranked higher than Notre Dame - Auburn from the SEC and Wisconsin from the Big Ten - were ineligible for inclusion in a BCS bowl because the BCS only allows two teams per conference (in this case, Florida and LSU from the SEC and Ohio State and Michigan from the Big Ten) to participate. Given that fact, as well as the Sugar Bowl committee's business-minded desire to tap into Notre Dame's large national following, the selection of Notre Dame was a no-brainer. (Notre Dame is guaranteed an automatic BCS berth if they finish in the top eight of the BCS standings; but that didn't come into play this year.)

That still doesn't answer the question as to whether Notre Dame really deserves to play in a BCS bowl; we'll see how well they do against LSU on January 3rd. But I don't exactly envy Notre Dame's position right now: they have to play the Tigers, who are playing very well right now, in what essentially amounts to a home game for them. It might get ugly; good thing for Irish fans is that Bourbon Street is a short cab ride from the Superdome.

A complete list of all 32 bowl games can be found here. If you're wondering which ones to watch, Sports Illustrated columnist Stewart Mandel ranks all the bowls from best to worst. While some of these games are truly compelling, there are also the yawners. 6-6 Oklahoma State and 6-6 Alabama in the Independence Bowl? How many people are going to tune into see Middlee Tennessee and Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl? Which brings up the annual question: are there too many bowl games?

Well, how many bowls are "too many?" And why should anyone care, anyway? Does it really bother people that the proliferation of bowl games is allowing Rice to make its first postseason appearance since 1961 or is permitting Ohio University to go bowling for the first time since 1968?

I agreed with Sports Illustrated's Arash Markazi two years ago:
At the end of the day, it's still college football and what could be better than college football in December and early January? Saying there are too many bowl games is like saying there are too many presents under the Christmas tree.
And I also agree with MSNBC's Mike Celizic:
What difference does it make how many games there are? No one forces anyone to watch them. If you turn to ESPN33 and stumble across Little Sisters of the Poor playing Madame Plie’s School for Ballet, keep hitting the button on the remote. With all the other tedious drivel on television, why pick superfluous bowl games to vent your spleen on?

In fact, a good thing about the proliferation of bowl games is that, for once, every team that deserves to go to the postseason is going to a bowl game. Every year since 1996 I've kept track of deserving teams that were screwed and shafted out of postseason action simply because there weren't enough bowl games to go around. On four occasions, teams with ten wins were forced to spend the holidays at home. In seven instances, teams with nine regular-season wins missed out on postseason action. I'm happy to announce that this year, no deserving teams have been screwed or shafted out of postseason play. Every team with at least seven wins is going bowling.

Speaking of bowls, I need to make my hotel arrangements for Memphis.

Coogs conquer Conference USA before 31,818 fans

The atmosphere in and around Robertson Stadium last Friday evening was electric. The weather was cold, the stadium was packed with a standing-room-only crowd of 31,818 (so much for the abysmal fan support, right, Dick and John?) and even Lori commented as we walked to the stadium that it felt so much different and so much more exciting than a typical University of Houston home game. That's probably because it was; the 2006 Conference USA Championship Game was the most important game the Cougars have played in at least a decade. And this time, the Coogs did not disappoint.

As has been the case so many times this season, the Cougars actually trailed at halftime, 13-17. It didn't help that the Cougars missed out on a late scoring opportunity from Southern Miss's two yard line when the typically-incompetent Conference USA referees failed to clear USM players off the pile and put the ball back into play before the clock ran out (of course, it wasn't wise for the Coogs to run the ball with 23 seconds remaining and no time outs, either). That triggered a barrage of beer-throwing from a handful of angry fans in the north endzone, which was the only thing embarrassing about the boisterous crowd that evening.

The Cougars once again proved that they are a second-half team, however. Kevin Kolb busted a 46-yard touchdown run on a third-down play midway through the third quarter, the longest run of his career. Kolb later found Biren Ealy open for 33-yard and 32-yard touchdown passes, and the Cougar defense stepped up to keep the Golden Eagles from scoring anything more than a single field goal in the entire second half. The final score: Houston 34, Southern Miss 20. With the win the Cougars claimed their first conference title since 1996 as well as a trip to the Liberty Bowl.

It was probably the most complete game the Cougars have put togwther all year, and it couldn't have come at a better time. Houston generated 443 yards of total offense; in addition to his long touchdown run, Kolb was 19 for 31 with 258 yards and two touchdowns in his last game at Robertson Stadium. And, although the Cougar defense gave up 349 yards of total offense to the Golden Eagles, they also managed to hold USM to field goals on two of their long drives.

The "Unholy Trinity" of University of Houston football - penalties, special teams gaffes and turnovers - still has not been completely exorcised. The Coogs were flagged 8 times for 55 yards, a PAT attempt was botched and the Cougars had to burn a time out on a Southern Miss PAT attempt late in the first half when they had too many men on the field; that time out, of course, would have come in handy at the end of the first half when the Coogs were knocking on USM's door. On the bright side, however, the Cougars had no turnovers.

All in all, a good game and a great night. This was a showing - both on the field as well as in the stands - that the University of Houston needed to have, and it was something the city as well as the nation (via ESPN2) needed to see. A lot of people who hadn't personally attended a UH football game in a long time, if ever, were impressed, and even some of the complainers became believers after the game.

Next up for the Cougars are the Gamecocks of South Carolina in the Autozone Liberty Bowl in Memphis on December 29th. With a win, the Coogs will notch 11 victories for the first time since 1979, win a bowl game for the first time since 1980, and likely earn their first top 25 ranking since 1990 (they are already on the cusp, "also receiving votes" in both the AP and USA Today polls). However, the Cocks, coached by the legendary Steve Spurrier, are without a doubt the best team the Cougars will face all year, and I'm under no delusions about the Cougars' chances in this one.

But I plan to be in Memphis nevertheless. 2006 was the year the Cougars and their fans have been waiting for for a long time, and I plan to have a good time on Beale Street either way.