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.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Ecuador lurches to the left

Although an official annoucement isn't expected until sometime later today, it appears that Ecuador has a new president. Rafael Correa, a former government finance minster with a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Illinois, has apparently won Ecuador's presidential election, defeating right-wing "banana tycoon" Alvaro Naboa, reportedly Ecuador's weathliest citizen, in a run-off last Sunday.

Correa makes it clear that he is a leftist and is no friend of the Bush Adminstration. He says that he considers Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a "personal friend." He has accused George W. Bush of being "dimwitted." He advocates major reforms in Ecuador, and has vowed to reduce payments on Ecuador's foreign debt (which currently sits at over $16 billion, fully half of the Andean nation's estimated 2005 GDP), which has led to jitters from Ecuador's debt holders on Wall Street. He has pledged to renegotiate the petroleum-producing nation's oil contracts with foreign firms to ensure that a larger portion of Ecuador's oil wealth is returned to the country. He is an opponent of the Free Trade of the Americas proposal put forth by the Bush Administration, and he wants to shut down the US military's anti-narcotics operations at an airbase near the coastal city of Manta.

So what does this mean for Ecuador? And what does it mean for the United States?

Given Ecuador's recent political history, my first question is if Correa will even manage to hold office for an entire four-year term. No elected president has been allowed to serve out an entire term of office since Boston-born Architect Sixto Duran Ballen completed his term in 1996; Ecuador's last three elected presidents were either dismissed by Ecuador's National Congress on the grounds of "mental incapacity" (Abdala Bucaram in 1997) or forced from office by popular demonstrations (Jamil Mahuad in 2000; Lucio Guiterrez in 2005). In this context, Correa walks a fine line; if his reforms are deemed too radical by Ecuador's influential, coastal-based aristrocracy, he could find himself in political jeopardy. Likewise, if he backtracks on some of his pledges or is not able to push forth reforms quickly enough, he could face a backlash from Ecuador's sizable poor, heavily-indigenous, highland-based population.

My second question is if Correa will be able to work within Ecuador's fractured and turbulent political environment to be able to make happen all (or even some) of the changes he proposes. It doesn't help Correa that his political party ran no candidates for Ecuador's National Congress, nor does it help that he's reportedly referred to the national assembly as a "sewer" that needs to be reformed. He has pledged to call for a national referendum to rewrite the constitution, a move that could possibly weaken, or even shut down, Congress. Needless to say, his platform probably won't be met with a great deal of enthusiasm within Ecuador's legislative branch. Conflicts with Ecuador's volatile National Congress have hobbled past presidents, and there's no reason to think that Correa will experience anything different, especially given his professed antagonism towards the national assembly.

But will Correa turn out to be another American-hating leftist in the mold of Hugo Chavez, or will he turn out to be a bit more pragmatic in his approach, as Bolivia's Evo Morales has apparently done? This article seems to suggest the latter. While he wants to renegotiate Ecuador's contracts with outside oil firms, he has indicated that he does not plan to nationalize the nation's oil industry. And, although he is a critic of Ecuador's six-year-old experiment in dollarization, he reportedly admits that it probably would not be feasible for Ecuador abandon its monetary policy at this point in time.

And what does all of this mean for the United States? On a strictly national level, probably not much. The political goings-on in impoverished (and relatively obscure) Ecuador, with is population of 13 million people, just isn't going to have a profound effect on the United States one way or another. The United States is Ecuador's largest trading partner and it can easily be argued the Ecuador needs the United States more than the United States needs Ecuador, regardless of what Ecuador's political leanings might be. The bigger question is what Correa's election means in a regional context; Britan's left-leaning newspaper, The Guardian, suggests that his election is another example of an irreversible, anti-American "red tide" sweeping though Latin America. This may indeed be the case. However, declarations made on the campaign trail are one thing; Correa's ability to push his leftist-leaning agenda through Ecuador's fractured and unstable political environment, let alone his ability to even maintain his office within the white-washed walls of the Palacio de Independencia in Colonial Quito, are another thing entirely.

Correa will be sworn in as president on January 15th. As an interested observer of Ecuador and its politics, I'll continue to pay close attention to what happens in this incredibly beautiful yet profoundly poor South American nation.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

UH attendance woes, again

The Coogs are hosting the Conference USA championship game on Friday, and there's concern that the game won't sell out. It would certainly be embarrassing for the University of Houston as well as Conference USA if the nationally-televised game, which is being played in the relatively small confines of Robertson Stadium, did not sell out, but such is the nature of the University of Houston and its lousy fan base.

As of Monday morning, it was reported that only about 10,500 tickets had been sold; Robertson Stadium seats anywhere between 28,000 and 32,000, depending on who you ask, so there's clearly a lot of sales left to be made. Of course, that figure does not include Southern Mississippi's allotment, which went on sale this week. Nor does it take into account the probability that ticket sales will pick up towards the end of this week, as is oftentimes the case for sporting events.

But that hasn't stopped people from speculating and, in many cases, openly fretting about whether the stadium will be full come Friday night. On various UH athletics message boards, more discussion is being devoted to ticket sales than to the game itself.

The local media, likewise, is also getting in on the act. Houston Chronicle sports columnist John Lopez, for example, wrote a blog entry entitled "Why no one seems to care about UH football," decrying the fact that the Coogs are struggling to sell out the most important game they've ever played in Robertson. While he is correct that the Cougars deserve a better level of support than they currently receive, he seems to go to great lengths to make things look worse than they really are:
To have just 10,000 tickets sold five days before kickoff, in a city of nearly five million people, at a school with a student population of more than 35,000 students, is abysmal.
Maybe so. But what Lopez does not mention, however, is that Houston at that point had only had three days - Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday - to sell tickets. Last week was Thanksgiving week, and at the time a lot of people's minds were on the holidays, not a football game two weeks away. Ticket sales should pick up this week, and maybe the resulting number of tickets sold won't be as "abysmal" as Lopez (rather prematurely) declares.

Lopez goes on to compare Cougar attendance to attendance at Dynamo soccer games:
Yet the Houston Dynamo had more 20,000-plus crowds (five) at Robertson Stadium than the Cougars (three) this year.
Unfortunately, in his zeal to make Houston's attendance situation look as bad as possible, Lopez leaves out two facts. First, that the Dynamo played over twice as many games (18) at Robertson than did Houston (7); this means that a higher percentage of UH football games (43%) drew over 20,000 fans than did Dynamo games (28%). More importantly, Lopez neglects to mention the Cougars still outdrew the Dynamo on a fans-per-game basis: the Coogs averaged 20,494 fans/game this season; the Dynamo averaged 18,935, according to the MLS website. And that's in supposedly "soccer-friendly" Houston. Perhaps using the Dynamo as a basis of comparison wasn't such a good idea after all, but there's a reason why he specifically mentions them. As to Lopez's hypothesis as to why "no one seems to care:"
I think there remains a very real bias and perception that keeps casual fans from heading to UH to catch a glimpse of a game. Whether that bias is cultural -- i.e., "I'm not parking my car in THAT neighborhood" -- or what, I'm not sure.
Ah, yes, the time-honored (and racially-tinged) "UH is in a bad neighborhood" argument.
Houston fans are picky. Build a nice venue and they will come. The message is clear: Most fans just don't care about UH football in its current state. Or more specifically: Its current place.
Which brings us to the real point of Lopez's writing: he's trying to shill for a new stadium for the Dynamo:
(UH Athletics Director Dave Maggard) should be negotiating with city officials, along with Dynamo president Oliver Luck, about building a nice, new, 35,000-seat Dynamo/UH/ stadium on those parcels of land across US 59 from Minute Maid Park.
Never mind the fact that the neighborhood across 59 from Minute Maid is just as "bad" as the area around UH, or that the University of Houston and the Houston Dynamo have had a rocky relationship regarding the use of Robertson which would likely keep them from collaborating on a new facility, or that a joint soccer - football facility still wouldn't resolve some major issues between the two sports (such as the football markings on the soccer field, or vice versa, that occur when soccer season and football season overlap).

Nice try, Mr. Lopez. But as somebody who lives in "that neighborhood" adjacent to campus, I don't buy it. There are many reasons for Houston's poor attendance, but "the stadium" and "the neighborhood" are not among them. If being in a "good" neighborhood had a positive effect on ticket sales, then why did only 12,867 people - less than any game UH played this year - come out to see a pivotal, bowl-clenching game between Rice and SMU at Rice Stadium last Saturday? And if Robertson is such a poor facility, than why was attendance at UH football games just as lousy back in the days when the Coogs played in the Astrodome?

Another Chronicle sportswriter, Michael Murphy, realizes that the holiday might have had something to do with the fact that ticket sales are slow, but is neverthless is preparing to hurl invective if the game doesn't sell out:
Ticket sales have been slow, but let's give everyone a mulligan since it was Thanksgiving. Will the fans deliver? Do the Cougars get their sellout? [...] What does it mean if they don't? And if not, do I get free rein to lay the rhetorical wood to the non-fans who failed to show up?
But that's the problem, Murph: if they're "non-fans", they won't care about the game or the fact that they didn't show up. And they won't care if a Chronicle writer rips into them, either. It's no different than if somebody ripped into me for not going to see a Houston Baptist University basketball game. I don't really care about the Huskies, I don't go to their games, and I wouldn't care in the slightest if an HBU fan called me out for not supporting them.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: complaining about the University of Houston's attendance problems won't solve them. And lashing out at people who don't care about UH athletics - which in this case, sadly, appears to be most of the citizens of the Houston area - isn't going to accomplish anything. It's only going to create an aura of negativity around UH football even as they are experiencing their most successful season in fifteen years.

But I do have to wonder why the local sports media focuses so much attention on the University of Houston's fan base, or lack thereof. They never seem to be bothered by the fact that the Rockets are near the bottom of the NBA in attendance, or that empty seats at Reliant Stadium are becoming increasingly common as the woeful Texans trudge through yet another losing season, or that Rice has attendance problems that are worse than UH's.

The fact is: Houston is a lousy sports town. The city does not support their teams when they lose, and barely supports them when they win.

Anyway, I'll be there on Friday, sellout or no. Conference USA's bowl pairings were announced today, and the winner of this game will be headed to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis while the loser will be going to the GMAC Bowl in Mobile. I'd much rather go to Memphis, so I'm hoping the Coogs take care of business on Friday.

The Rice Owls will be heading to the New Orleans Bowl to play the Sun Belt champion, either Troy or Middle Tennessee. Not bad, for their first bowl apperance in 45 years. Lori and I had fun when we made the trip to New Orleans in 2002 to see North Texas knock off Cincinnati.

UPDATE: Murph is now reporting that sales have reached 20,000. That's almost ten thousand tickets sold in three days. I'm not worried about there not being a good crowd at this game.

Thanksgiving review

After spending the last three Thanksgivings with Lori's family at her aunt and uncle's place in Canyon Lake (west of New Braunfels), it was nice to stay at home for the holiday for a change. It's not that I mind traveling for Thanksgiving - I've done it many times before and I'm sure I'll do it many times again - but there's something to be said for not having to pack, not having to fight holiday traffic, being able to sleep in your own bed, not having to ask permission before you raid the refrigerator for leftover turkey, etc...

Thanksgiving festivities were actually held at my parents' house, which is two blocks away from our house. This worked out well for our out-of-town guests (mostly relatives from my mom's side of the family) because our house served as an excellent location for overflow accomodations. My cousin and her husband from College Station stayed with us, as did my brother (whose room at my parents house had been taken over by one of my uncles) and my brother-in-law, who thought that staying with us for a few days would be more fun than sitting by himself in his apartment in Midtown.

Guests began arriving on Wednesday, and that evening we had a crab and shrimp boil, which has become something of a Thanksgiving tradition at my parents' house. The house became even more crowded on Thanksgiving Day, when the rest of Lori's immediate family and some of my parents' friends arrived. There was plenty of food in spite of the large number of mouths to feed: we cooked three separate turkeys as well as a ham, and accompaniments included cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, egg noodles, green bean casserole, dirty rice, an assortment of pies, an incredible chocolate pumpkin cheesecake that our neighbor baked for us, and three separate trays full of stuffing. Needless to say, we all stuffed ourselves nicely.

Thursday evening several of us - Lori, Kirby, her brother, my brother, and a handful of my cousins - decided to see the Uptown Lighting Ceremony marking the "official" beginning of the holiday season. I was worried that we weren't going to be able to find a place to park, but there turned out to be plenty of parking in the Galleria's underground garages. We walked across Westheimer to a section of Post Oak Boulevard that had been closed to vehicle traffic, and waited along with thousands of others for the lighting of the trees along Post Oak and accompanying fireworks display, which turned out to be very nice. Let the consumerist frenzy begin!

This being Texas, Friday morning was spent watching the Texas - Texas A&M game on TV at my parents' house. One of my aunts (who also lives in College Station) and my cousins wanted the Aggies to win. One of my uncles, Lori and her brother wanted Texas to win. My father, my brother and I watched the game wishing there were some way both teams could lose. After the game was over most of my relatives departed.

Friday evening it was my turn to cook, and I did what any sensible Houstonian would do with leftover turkey: I made turkey gumbo. The night before I had boiled the carcasses of two of the three turkeys to create turkey stock, and this made preparing the gumbo a lot quicker than it normally takes. Everybody enjoyed it, and I was rather proud of my gumbo-cooking skills.

Saturday, like Friday, was spent in front of the TV watching college football. Lori and I had planned on doing some house-cleaning on Sunday, but we were still suffering from holiday inertia so we didn't get as much accomplished as we would have liked. But that's okay; we have plenty of time to clean the house this week and it was nice to be lazy and unproductive for a few days.

All in all, a successful and enjoyable Thanksgiving. I haven't stepped on the scales since last week, however; I really don't want to know how much weight I gained over the holiday.

Monday, November 27, 2006

College football: the final week

I was going to post my periodic review of the 2006 college season at the beginning of November, but I never got around to doing so until now. But that's okay; November has turned out to be a pretty fun month for college football fans.

There's still a little bit of football to be played this weekend, but as of right now it looks as if Southern California and Ohio State will meet on January 8 to determine the national champion. Talk of an Ohio State - Michigan rematch ended after the Trojans dispatched #6 Notre Dame, 44-24, last Saturday and moved ahead of Michigan in the latest Bowl Championship Series poll. USC's national title hopes got off-track after an upset loss to Oregon State late last month, but the Trojans have recovered nicely over the month of November. USC still needs to get past UCLA this weekend, but if they do so they would undoubtedly be chosen to face the Buckeyes in the national title game.

This would obviously come as a disappointment to other highly-ranked one-loss teams with valid arguments for inclusion in the title game - Florida as well as Michigan - but until college football does what virtually every other sport on this planet does and implements an actual playoff (something I that I don't expect to happen any time soon), controversies such as this will be an annual occurence.

At the beginning of November, several undefeated teams were vying for a shot at the national championship. The Michigan Wolverines were one such team; they were ranked #2 and were looking to knock off their arch-rivals in a one-versus-two game that became even more meaningful when Michigan's beloved former coach, Bo Schembechler, passed away the day before the game. The resulting matchup was a classic, with the Buckeyes winning 42-39, and it was easy to see why talk of a rematch began even before the final whistle had sounded. Unfortunately for Michigan, who retained the #2 position in the week following that game, the fact that their season was over, while other teams (namely USC) still had two more weeks to impress the voters and computers that comprise the BCS poll, put them at a disadvantage. The Wolverines will play in a BCS game; it just won't be the game that they want to play in.

My preseason pick to win it all, West Virginia, was looking pretty good headed into November. But they were defeated by Louisville, 34-44, in a thrilling Thursday night game. Their national title hopes were dealt a severe setback, and any hope of the Mountaineers' clawing their way back up the polls came to an end when they lost to South Florida last Saturday. Louisville's victory put them squarely in the BCS title game spotlight, but they were ambushed by Rutgers the following Thursday. A victory over Connecticut as well as a Rutgers loss to West Virginia would still put them in one of the BCS bowls as the Big East champion, however. As for Rutgers, their 28-25 victory over Louisville generated some discussion in the national sports media as to the improbable: could Rutgers actually reach the title game? That talk ended when the Scarlet Knights failed to take care of business against Cincinnati the following weekend, however.

Going into November, the Texas Longhorns still had their title aspirations in spite of an early-season loss to Ohio State. An upset 42-45 loss to Kansas State ended those hopes, however, and, as if to add insult to injury, the 'Horns lost to archrival Texas A&M, 7-12, last Friday. This was the first Aggie victory over Texas since 1999.

Notre Dame also had their sights set upon the national title game in spite of their lopsided early-season loss to Michigan, but last weekend's decisive loss to Southern Cal put those hopes to an end. Arkansas, which along with Rutgers was one of the surprising stories of the season, also had their name thrown into the mix over the last week or two; however, their loss to LSU last weekend meant that they would not play for the national title even if they did defeat Florida in the SEC championship game this weekend.

The Wisconsin Badgers end the season with one loss as well, a 13-27 decision to Michigan in September. One would think that they would get a bit more respect because they've run the table since then, but their ridiculous out-of-conference schedule (Bowling Green, Buffalo, San Diego State and Western Illinois) and the fact that they skipped Ohio State in conference play this season means that they're heading to the Capital One Bowl instead.

Other preseason favorites who are now out of the chase for the national title with two losses include Louisians State, Oklahoma and Auburn. LSU found road games to Auburn and Florida too much to handle; Auburn was able to get past Florida but got tripped up by Arkansas and Georgia. Things could have been worse for the Oklahoma Sooners, who will be playing for the Big 12 title this weekend in spite of the preseason dismissal of quarterback Rhett Bomar and a controversial mid-September loss to Oregon. Their loss to Texas in the Cotton Bowl in October, however, sealed their fate.

The nation's only other undefeated program, Boise State, punched their ticket to a BCS bowl after completing their season with a 38-7 win over Nevada last Saturday. This will be the second time that a non-BCS school has crashed the BCS party, but their weak WAC schedule will keep them out of the national title game.

Then there were the true disappointments; teams ranked highly in the preseason that performed much worse than expected. Miami started the season ranked in the top twelve in both the AP and USA Today polls; they end with a 6-6 record and have fired coach Larry Coker. Florida State, likewise, started the season with a top-twelve preseason ranking but ended the season with a 6-6 record. One wonders if the long and storied Bobby Bowden era is coming to an end at Florida State as well. Another top-twelve preseason team, California, now has three losses but is still ranked in both polls.

A handful of teams from the Big East, Pac-10, Mountain West, Sunbelt and WAC, as well as Army and Navy, will play this weekend. The only one of these games which will have any direct bearing on the national title game will be the USC-UCLA matchup in Los Angeles, although if USC loses then the outcome of the SEC championship game between Arkansas and Florida would probably become a factor. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech will meet Wake Forest to determine the ACC title, Nebraska and Oklahoma will play one another to resolve the Big 12 title, and Central Michigan will face Ohio to decide the MAC champion. Here in Houston, the Cougars will host Southern Mississippi on Friday night to determine the C-USA champ. The Cougars are "also receiving votes" in the AP, USA Today and Harris Interactive polls this week. If the Coogs win Friday, and if they defeat their SEC opponent in the Liberty Bowl, they will probably end the season with a top-25 ranking. Those are a couple of big "ifs," however; Southern Miss defeated the Coogs when the two teams met in Hattiesburg this year, and whatever SEC team Houston faces in the Liberty Bowl will be a real challenge as well.

North Texas ends their year with a disappointing 3-9 record. Controversies surrounding the firing of coach Darrell Dickey aside, the Mean Green have a lot of rebuilding and regrouping to do over the offseason.

Sometimes all I can do is shake my head and sigh...

A homeowners' association in a southwestern Colorado town is demanding that a resident take down a Christmas wreath shaped like a peace symbol. The president of the homeowners' association claims that other residents are complaining that the decoration is a protest against the war in Iraq or a Satanic symbol, and is threatening to fine the resident $25 a day if the decoration is not removed.

Some residents who have complained have children serving in Iraq, said Bob Kearns, president of the Loma Linda Homeowners Association in Pagosa Springs. He said some residents have also believed it was a symbol of Satan. Three or four residents complained, he said.
The homeowner denies that the symbol is a protest against the Iraq War. "Peace is way bigger than not being at war," Lisa Jensen, the resident at the center of the controversy, says. And the "peace symbol is a Satanic symbol" claim, a favorite among Christian fundamentalists who would like us to believe that the symbol actually represents an upside-down, broken cross, ignores the true history of the symbol: it is a combination of the semaphoric signals for the letters "N" and "D," standing for Nuclear Disarmament. But, if you're the president of a homeowners' association in a tiny town near the Colorado - New Mexico border who gets offended by a freaking Christmas decoration, you probably don't let facts get in the way of your argument.

This wouldn't be the first time that a person included a peace symbol in a Christmas decoration. Perhaps people remember the peace symbol that was a prominent part of a suburban Cincinnati man's famous Christmas display, which featured 25,000 lights synchronized to a Trans-Siberian Orchesta tune and was included in a Miller Light commerical. Funny that I don't remember anybody complaining about his peace symbol. Maybe people in suburban Ohio, unlike people in small-town Colorado, have better things to do with their time than complain about Christmas decorations.

But wait: this story gets even better! The president of the homeowners' association used this opportunity to go on a power trip:

Kearns ordered the (subdivision's architectural control) committee to require Jensen to remove the wreath, but members refused after concluding that it was merely a seasonal symbol that didn’t say anything. Kearns fired all five committee members.

So much for the idea of coming to consensus with your fellow residents in matters related to the aesthetic well-being of your neighborhood!

Jensen does not expect that the homeowners' association will be able to make her pay the fine and has refused to take down the decoration until after Christmas.

Good for her.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Rice goes bowling

By virtue of their 31-27 victory over SMU earlier today, the Rice Owls are assured of their first trip to a bowl game since 1961.

My hat is off to Rice coach Todd Graham and his team.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cougars end regular season with 9-3 record

They won. They're 9-3. They're Western Division champions. That's all that matters.

Yes, it was ugly. Memphis is one of the worst teams in all of Division I-A, and the Coogs did everything they could do to give the game away to the Tigers. The "Unholy Trinity" of penalties, turnovers and poor special teams play that has plagued the Cougars all season long was present once again. The Cougars fumbled twice, and Memphis blocked a UH field goal attempt with 2:07 to play and ran it back 80 yards for a touchdown that sent the game into overtime. The Cougars also racked up thirteen penalties for 105 yards. The offensive line's performance wasn't too great as well; Memphis focused on blitzing Kolb and sacked him an astounding seven times.

However, the Cougars managed to hold off Memphis in overtime. The Tigers missed a 40-yard field goal on their possession, and kicker Ben Bell hit his 17-yarder on the Coogs' possession to give Houston the hard-fought win on the road. An ugly victory is always better than a pretty loss.

It is disappointing that the Cougars played such a sloppy and unfocused game against such an inferior opponent. Did the players and coaches not learn anything from their disastrous experience against Louisiana-Lafayette earlier in the season? To be fair to the Coogs, however,, it should also be noted that they were battered, bruised and exhausted. While most other Division I-A schools have had a bye week or two to rest over the course of the season, the Coogs have played twelve games in twelve weeks.

With the win, the Coogs notched their fifth consecutive victory, secured their most successful season since 1990's 10-1 campaign and locked up home field advantage for the Conference USA Championship game, which will be played on the evening of December 1st against either Southern Miss or East Carolina. Should the Cougars win that game, they will return to Memphis to represent the conference in the Liberty Bowl on December 29th.

Last August, I predicted that the Cougars would win eight games over the course of the regular season. I wasn't too far off; in fact, I'm glad that they were a game better than I predicted them to be:

I believe they will defeat Rice, Tulane, Grambling, ULL and take two of UTEP, UCF and Tulsa at home. They'll exact revenge against SMU in Dallas, and win one of their road games against USM and Memphis. A win over Oklahoma State is also a possibility, but after the Fort Worth Bowl debacle against Kansas I'm not confident enough to predict a Cougar victory over even a struggling Big XII school. And Miami, well, I'd be happy to see the Coogs cover the spread.

The Coogs did defeat Rice, Tulane, Grambling and SMU. They beat Memphis, but lost to USM. They exceeded my expectations in many ways: the Coogs swept their home slate of UTEP, Tulsa and UCF (although, to be fair, UCF and UTEP turned out to be a lot weaker than I expected), they almost pulled off the upset against Miami in the Orange Bowl, and they defeated Big XII opponent Oklahoma State at Robertson Stadium. But the Coogs also, inexplicably and unforgivably, lost at home to a rather weak Louisiana-Lafayette team. Had the Cougars taken care of business against the Cajuns, they'd be 10-2 and likely ranked in the top 25 right now. With a good showing in the conference championship game and their bowl game, the Coogs could still manage to end the season in the top 25, but oh, what could have been!

With the regular season complete, the Coogs now have almost two whole weeks to rest up and get healthy before they host the Conference Championship. Early reports are that ticket sales for this game are brisk, which is encouraging: a big crowd would look good for ESPN's TV cameras; Houston's inability to sell out the conference championship game would not.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Last weekend, an acquaintance of Lori's, her husband, and their two small children came to stay with us. Their oldest child is Kirby's age, about two years and three months.

Their child introduced Kirby to the concept of squealing and screaming for no reason. Kirby has picked up on this concept rather enthusiastically.

Ah, yes, the terrible twos...

Mattress Mac lashes out at UNT administration

I've been periodically providing updates about my other favorite college football team, the University of North Texas. The Mean Green Eagles are not having such a good time right now; the team has a 3-7 record and is headed towards their second consecutive losing season. Last week, the UNT administration decided that it was time for a change at the helm and fired head coach Darrell Dickey. Dickey will coach out the remainder of the season. Dickey was UNT's head coach for nine years; the Mean Green's record over those nine seasons is 42-62.

News of the firing did not sit well with Houston furniture mogul Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale. McIngvale, an alumnus of the University of North Texas and a personal friend of Dickey, even took out a full-page ad (click here to see it in .pdf form) in the Denton Record-Chronicle to protest the firing. In the ad, which is an open letter to the UNT administration, McIngvale asks that UNT's football practice field, which was named after him when he donated one million dollars to the school for construction of a new athletics facility a few years ago, be re-named after Darrell Dickey instead. If not, McIngvale demands that his donation be transferred to the school's famous One O'Clock Lab Band.

In his ad, McIngvale argues that Dickey should not have been fired because he led the Mean Green to four consecutive appearances in the New Orleans Bowl, which he claims is a "a feat which is nearly unparalleled in college football." (One wonders what Mattress Mac would say, then, about Michigan's record of 31 [and counting] bowl appearances, all of which in games much more prestigious than the New Orleans Bowl.) McIngvale lauds Dickey's leadership of the team following the tragic death of quarterback Andrew Smith two years ago as well as his loyalty and support for the University of North Texas, and declares that "UNT will not find a better coach for the price they were paying, period." He continues:
I teach my children that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear — Darrell often did — four bowl games on a pauper’s, not a prince’s budget. He should be recognized as such and should have been given a fair chance to turn around the team he loves so much.
Whether Dickey should have been fired, now, only two years removed from his last bowl appearance, is certainly a subject of legitimate debate. However, McIngvale's implication that Dickey's four consecutive bowl appearances constitute some sort of amazing feat, given UNT's meager resources, is slightly overblown. While the Mean Green did indeed win the Sun Belt Conference and go to the New Orleans Bowl four years in a row from the 2001 season through the 2004 season, it also needs to be pointed out that:
  • the Sun Belt is by far the weakest conference in Division I-A;
  • in spite of the fact that they dominated the Sun Belt, UNT's out-of-conference record during those four seasons was an abysmal 3-18 (with one of the three wins coming against a I-AA school);
  • these out-of-conference losses were not all "body bag" games for big paychecks against powerhouses like Texas, Oklahoma or Arkansas (as McIngvale suggests); UNT lost a considerable number of out-of-conference games to "lesser" programs such as Florida Atlantic (before they joined the Sun Belt), Baylor, Air Force and South Florida as well; and
  • the Eagles lost the New Orleans Bowl in three out if its four appearances there (Lori and I were at the Superdome for UNT's lone victory in 2002 against Cincinnati).
So, while it's true that the North Texas program did experience a level of success that it hadn't seen since the Hayden Fry days of the 1970s, it's equally true that the program was never mistaken for a national powerhouse during those four seasons. Dickey, furthermore, was never able to use the success he had in the Sun Belt Conference to take his team to the next level, i.e. winning out-of-conference games and making appearances in top 25 rankings. The last two years, in fact, were a step backwards for the program, and UNT's administration simply felt that it was time for a change to be made.

You would think that McIngvale, as a businessman, would understand this "produce-or-get-fired" concept; Dickey stopped producing and now he's out of a job. However, Mattress Mac instead blames the program's recent downturn on the untimely loss of Andrew Smith. This is a peculiar scapegoat. Smith's car crash occurred right before the start of the 2004 season, in which the Mean Green had a winning season and made their fourth bowl appearance. That would suggest that the team regrouped from the emotional devastation of losing a fellow player to have a reasonably successful year. Why would the emotional trauma of this loss not manifest itself until the 2005 season?

Even more peculiar is McIngvale's demand that his one million dollar donation to the athletics program be transferred to the One O'Clock Lab Band if the practice field is not re-named in Dickey's honor. This donation was made in the summer of 2004 and was intended for construction of a new athletics center; this facility is now complete so it can be assumed that McIngvale's donation has been spent. It would be difficult for North Texas to transfer one million dollars from the athletics department to the music department if said money no longer exists. Furthermore, McIngvale's demands regarding the use of his two-year-old donation imply that such gifts somehow have "strings" permanently attached to them. While it is logical to assume that big-dollar boosters (such as McIngvale) expect influence and access in return for their generousity, there's something about his demands that go against the basic premise of charitable giving: his money was a gift to UNT. Once you give something away, it's not yours anymore.

One point McIngvale raises that is legitimate is the relatively low funding level for UNT football. Mattress Mac correctly argues that head coaches at UNT make less than assistant coaches as powerhouse schools and notes:

Albert Einstein’s definition of Insanity: Keep on doing what you’ve always done and expect different results. If the football budget isn’t raised considerably – the results will never get better.

Interestingly enough, USA Today just released a comparison of compensation packages for all but a handful of Division I-A's 119 head coaches. Dickey's total compensation package (salary plus incentives) of $266,625 falls towards the bottom of the list, a far cry from the $3,450,000 package received by Bob Stoops or the $2,840,000 earned by Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. Perhaps, as Mattress Mac suggests, the Eagles would see better on-field performance if they were able to afford a more talented and experience coaching staff than the one they currently possess. Of course, for a program that plays in the low-profile Sun Belt and only averaged 16.4 thousand fans per game in 2005, finding the money to raise the football program's budget will be something of a task.

While UNT's decision to fire Darrell Dickey can be debated, Mattress Mac's decision to place a full-page ad in the local newspaper, publicly denouncing the UNT administration and placing conditions upon his donation to the school, is disappointing. It reveals a sense of narcissistic arrogance and entitlement on his part. "Look at me," McIngvale screams. "I'm a big donor with influence, and if the UNT makes a decision I don't agree with I'll throw a temper tantrum!" It also indicates that McIngvale is more concerned about Darrell Dickey as a person than he is about UNT football as a program.

This afternoon, UNT officials announced that they would honor McIngvale's demand.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Coogs clinch C-USA West title

Since I was up in Dallas for business late last week (where I am again for the first half of this week as well), I decided to stay through Saturday to catch the University of Houston's game against the SMU Mustangs at Gerald J. Ford Stadium on the SMU campus.

Things weren't going well for the Coogs in the first half. They jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead, but then the Unholy Trinity of University of Houston football - penalties, turnovers and lousy special teams play - began to manifest itself. The Coogs fumbled deep inside SMU territory on a botched handoff, which led to a Mustang score. Later, the Coogs jumped offsides while SMU was attempting a field goal, which gave the Ponies a first down that they later converted into a touchdown (to add insult to injury, the field goal SMU attempted sailed wide). Then the Cougars had a punt blocked well inside SMU territory. The Mustangs capitalized on these miscues as well as a confused UH defense and rattled off 24 unanswered points to make the score 24-14 at halftime. Things weren't looking good for the Cougars.

But then the Coogs did what they have done in the second half of so many games this season: they stepped up and started playing smart. Anthony Aldridge ran off a 77-yard touchdown run - his second of the day - and Jackie Battle added a 61-yard scoring scamper of his own to put the Cougars on top. Kevin Kolb did not have a great day, amassing only 147 passing yards and a touchdown, but his perfect strike to Donnie Avery to convert a third-and-19 from the shadow of the Coogs' own goal line midway through the fourth quarter was a back-breaker for the SMU defense. Houston's defense did their job as well, holding the Ponies to a single field goal in the second half and recovering a fumble that sealed the deal. The Cougars won, 37-27, and notched their eighth win of the season.

Even better: Rice's double-overtime win over Tulsa a few minutes later secured the Western Division championship for the Cougars. If the Coogs can take care of Memphis next Saturday, they will host the Conference USA Championship at Robertson Stadium the evening of Friday December 1st. The winner of that game will represent the conference in the Liberty Bowl December 29th.

Another Dallas-area team, the University of North Texas Mean Green, notched their third win of a disappointing season with a 16-7 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette. This is the Cajuns' third loss in a row. How did the Coogs manage to lose to these guys?! Unfortunately, the Mean Green's victory was too little and too late for coach Darrell Dickey, who was fired by UNT athletics director Rick Villareal last week. Dickey will continue on as head coach for the final two games of the 2006 season.

This was my first visit to Ford Stadium. I really liked it. SMU has a very beautiful campus. I was especially impressed by their tradition of tailgating along the tree-lined "Boulevard" that stretches through the heart of campus. All in all, it was a good afternoon on Mockingbird Lane.

Not to be outdone, the Cougar mens basketball team opened their season with an 102-99 victory at Rhode Island this evening. Right now, things are rolling for University of Houston athletics.

Congratulations Dynamo

Okay, so I've already expressed how I feel about the overwhelmingly defensive nature of soccer, which makes 0-0 or 1-1 ties commonplace, and the fact that these ties have to be broken by the peculiar mechanism of the penalty kick, a tiebreaking procedure that is unique to soccer. Yesterday's MLS Cup was yet another example of what I think is wrong with soccer and why soccer will never be anything more than a niche sport in the United States.

Nevertheless, it's fun to have a local team that actually wins championships, for a change. Thanks and congratulations are in order for the Houston Dynamo.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Coogs defeat Tulsa, 27-10

Last Saturday's Conference USA matchup between the University of Houston Cougars and the University of Tulsa Hurricanes was supposed to be a pivotal battle to decide who would take the lead in the conference's western division. Instead, it turned out to be an easy victory for the Coogs, who all but shut down the Golden Hurricane offense (Tulsa's one touchdown was a result of an unfortunate Houston fumble inside the ten yard line) while amassing 471 yards of their own against what was supposed to be Conference USA's strongest defense.

A respectable crowd (by University of Houston standards) of 22,452 was there to see the Coogs notch their third consecutive victory and seventh of the season, equaling their best win total since 1990. For all the teeth-gnashing about Houston's attendance this season, the Coogs end their home schedule with an average of 20,494 fans per game - an improvement of over five thousand fans per game over 2005's dismal attendance average.

With the win, the Coogs control their own destiny in the Conference USA championship race; if they win the next two games on road against SMU and Memphis, the Cougars will host the conference championship game at Robertson Stadium in December. Win that, and the Coogs are on their way to the Liberty Bowl.

The Coogs are now "also receiving votes" in both the AP and Coaches' polls. Who knows where they'd be right now had they not blown that game against Louisiana-Lafayette a few weeks ago?

Meanwhile, in Denton...

A follow-up to my screwy liquor laws post of a few months ago: Denton voters have overwhelmingly approved a local option election which extends beer and wine sales to all areas inside the city limits. Previously, beer and wine sales were limited to areas of Denton which were inside the city's 1977 municipal boundaries, when the city first approved a local option election.

Opponents argued that "making alcohol more accessible could worsen societal problems such as alcoholism and drunken driving." As if keeping the convenience store on the south side of the intersection of Teasley Lane and Ryan Road from selling beer and wine, even though the convenience store on the north side of said intersection could sell such products, would really make a difference.

Denton voters also chose to eliminate the practice of requiring local bars and restaurants
to obtain a private-club permit in order to serve mixed drinks to patrons.

My take on the midterm elections

I don't devote a lot of time to politics on this blog; it's really not my favorite subject to discuss and there are other political blogs out there that do a much more thorough job, on both the local and national levels, than I ever could. However, I thought I'd at least say a few things about Tuesday's election.

I am surprised by the results. I expected that the Democrats would take over the House of Representatives, given Bush's unpopularity, frustration over the war in Iraq and the so-called "six-year itch" that historically favors the opposition halfway through a president's second term. But I expected Republican redistricting efforts and the much-ballyhooed Karl Rove "ground game" to limit Democrat gains to twenty seats at the most. Instead, the Democrats have picked up 29 seats, with a handful of races left to be decided. All in all, that's a pretty emphatic mandate for change from American voters. I also thought that Democrat reconquest of the Senate was a "bridge too far," given that the Democrats had to win in "red" states such as Missouri, Tennessee, Montana and Virginia in order to make their dream of recapturing the Senate a reality. However, unless there is a major change in the outcomes of the Virginia and Montana results in the coming weeks, the Democrats have apparently pulled it off and will control both houses of Congress when the new session begins in January. The Democrats picked up all these Republican seats without losing a single seat of their own, which is a rather remarkable political feat.

In the hours since the election, I've heard the argument that the results of this election were more a vote "against" the Republicans more than they were a vote "for" the Democrats. That's certainly possible; a lot of people are going to be spinning Tuesday's results one way or another for a long time to come. The bottom line, however, is that the Bush Administration is going to spend its final two years being forced to work with (or against, as the case might be) a Congress controlled by the opposition. What results that arrangement might have remain to be seen, but the effects have already begun to manifest themselves, as evidenced by the resignation of embattled Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday (who was replaced by Texas A&M University President Robert Gates).

Texas is still a predominantly-Republican state, and the "winds of change" felt elsewhere in the nation amounted to little more than an gentle breeze here. Rick Perry was re-elected to the governor's mansion in spite of the fact that over sixty percent of Texas voters voted against him; all of the other statewide races were won by Republicans as well. I'm not a fan of Governor Helmet-Hair by any means, but the writing was on the wall when all of Chris Bell, Carole Keeton-Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman decided to run against him and, subsequently, divide up the anti-Perry vote such that nobody could win except him.

Of the few local races that were competitive, one of them ended in delicious irony: Democrat Nick Lampson, who was forced out of the House of Representatives after his seat was essentially redistricted out from under his feet, now gets to occupy the seat formerly held by the architect of said redistricting, indicted former Representative Tom DeLay. Lampson won the 22nd Congressional District, 51.8% to 41.7%, over Houston City Councilmember Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, and for the next two years this predominantly-Republican district will be represented by a Democrat.

Having watched and listened to Sekula-Gibbs on City Council over the past several years, I can honestly say that I've never been very impressed with her. Nevertheless, the fact that she got over forty percent of the vote as a write-in candidate (she could not actually be listed as the Republican candidate on the ballot because Tom DeLay resigned from Congress after he had already won his party's primary) is impressive; she ran an effective campaign. Sekula-Gibbs, incidentally, will get to warm Lampson's seat as the 22nd Congressional District's Representative through the holiday season, winning a special election to fill what was left of DeLay's unexpired term. The results of this election represent the only Democratic pickup in the state's House representation (although there will be a runoff in the 23rd Congressional District out west). No other of the local House races were particularly competitive; I was hoping that local debate teacher Jim Henley would fare better than 38.5% of the vote against Republican John Culberson in the 7th Congressional District, but no such luck. Here in the 18th Congressional District, Democrat "Queen Sheila" Jackson-Lee easily and unsurprisingly won re-election with almost 77% of the vote.

The Democrats fared somewhat better in the state House, picking up four or five seats (which is good news for Texas's moribund state Democratic Party but unlikely to result in any major legislative changes). Two such races were heavily contested here in the Houston area. Hubert Vo easily won his rematch against Talmadge Heflin in State Rep District 149, which is another example of a Democratic victory in a suburban "red" district, and Martha Wong was knocked off by Ellen Cohen in State Rep District 134 by a decisive margin. Like Sekula-Gibbs, Wong was once a Houston City Councilmember and, like Sekula-Gibbs, I've never been particularly impressed by her, so I was personally pleased by this result. Here in State Rep District 147, my neighbor (he lives three streets away) Garnet Coleman was unopposed in his bid for re-election.

Kuff crows about Democrat progress at the national, state and local levels here. John explores the predictable sour-grapes whining from assorted right-wingers here. For ongoing political updates and analysis, I recommend Taegan Goddard's Political Wire blog.

Many political pundits are already looking forward to 2008 and wondering what Tuesday's results might portend for the upcoming race to replace Bush in the White House. Personally, I don't really care. A lot can happen in two years (if, in 2004, you'd have told me that the Democrats were going to regain control of both houses of Congress in 2006, I would have called you a liar) and, quite frankly, I've had enough politics for awhile.

On a personal note, I'm glad to have been able to help my visually-impaired brother-in-law navigate through the ponderously long electronic ballot at his precinct at Houston Community College's central campus. He repaid the favor by patiently waiting for me as I voted at my precinct at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, and then hung out with Lori and me at our house to drink a cold beer (or several) and watch the election returns. Beer and democracy: the perfect combination!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Say goodbye to Sadie

Our six-week stint as dog owners has come to an end. Last week, Lori and I sadly agreed that Sadie, as friendly as she was, was simply too big and too rough for Kirby and therefore had to go.

We really did want to provide a good home for a stray dog. And we did understand that it was going to be a chore, especially for a dog as big and as hyperactive as she was. I didn't mind the digging and chewing so much - that's what puppies do, after all - and I enjoyed taking her for walks (especially since I needed the exercise). But she loved Kirby just a bit too much; she would constantly jump up on him and knock him into walls and floors. Attempts to train her not to jump up on Kirby proved unsuccessful. She was also becoming increasingly aggressive with Hermes, which concerned me.

Maybe if we had more experience with dogs, or had more time to properly train her, or if she were a little smaller (she was a good 10 pounds heavier than Kirby) or older, things would have worked out differently.

So last weekend, Lori regretfully took Sadie to a place that will take good care of her until she finds a new home. Hopefully, that will happen soon. She's a good dog and would be a great pet for the right family.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Looks like I'm about to get fatter

I always overestimate the number of trick-or-treaters that appear at my doorstep.

Now I have a whole bucket of chocolate candy sitting in my living room and, well, you know, I can't just let all that food go to waste...

Monday, October 30, 2006

UH's attendance problems, and why complaining won't solve them

Last Saturday I went to Robertson Stadium to watch the the University of Houston Cougars host Conference USA opponent Central Florida. The weather was great, the tailgating was excellent, and the game was exciting. The Cougar defense struggled mightily, giving up a whopping 530 yards to the Golden Knight offense, and the Cougars found themselves down by a score of 17-21 at halftime. But the Coogs stepped up in the second half; the UH offense took advantage of a UCF defense that was equally abysmal to score 34 points, and the UH defense, for all their troubles, managed to make a crucial third-down stop and create a turnover in the fourth quarter to seal the win. The Coogs won, 51-31, and exacted revenge against a team that beat them last year. With the win, the Coogs improved to 6-3 on the season and clinched bowl eligibility.

The worst aspect of the game, other than the horrible defense, was the poor attendance. Only 13,242 showed up to see this game, and the complaining from the Coog faithful (that is, the ones that actually show up to the games) continues to reverberate on message boards and blogs across the city two days later. Even the campus newspaper has gotten into the act, angrily suggesting that the high-school-like turnout is the reason why the University of Houston is derisively known as "Cougar High." Houston Chronicle sports reporter Michael Murphy, likewise, has also been very critical about attendance at UH football games; he called the turnout of 18,154 for the UTEP game two Saturdays ago "a joke," "dreadful," and said that "UH fans should be embarrassed;" following this past weekend's game, it appears that he (as well as many die-hard Coog fans who read and respond to his blog) are even angrier (read all the comments, if you have the time).

As somebody who has attended UH football games since I was born, who regularly drove back to Houston on weekends from places like Austin and Denton just to see the Cougars play, and who even delayed my flight back to Dubai last month by a couple of days just so I could catch another UH game, the fact that so few people bother to show up to see this team play troubles me greatly. Cougar football has always struggled to draw decent crowds, and over the years I've joined other UH fans on various message boards in writing volumes about Cougar football's attendance problem and ways to possibly fix it. I've even devoted an entire page to the problem on my website.

Why does an institution that has been around since 1927, has produced about two hundred thousand alumni during its existence (most of whom live in the Houston area), has an enrollment of 32,000 students, and is in a metropolitan area of 4.5 million people draw so poorly? Last year the Coogs just barely avoided falling below the NCAA's Division I-A attendance cutoff of 15,000 fans per game, and while this year the Coogs should fare slightly better due to the decent turnouts for Oklahoma State and Grambling, the draw of only 13 thousand fans for an important conference game on a beautiful Saturday afternoon is nevertheless as baffling as it is depressing.

As I noted on a previous post about the Coogs and their attendance problems, the causes of UH's inability to put fans in the stands are many. Some of these factors (or as many angry diehard UH fans would say, "excuses") are related to the team's on-field performance, while others are related to structural factors associated with the University of Houston and the metropolitan area as a whole which have nothing to do with the team itself. Some of them are perfectly valid. Some of them are essentially ridiculous. But they all, collectively, contribute to the reality of the University of Houston's attendance problems.

To list the reasons that are most often given:
  • the program's poor performance over the last fifteen years has caused a lot of people to "give up" or to otherwise ignore the program;
  • Houston is a "fair-weather" or "front-runner" city whose sports fans only support teams, pro or college, when they are winning;
  • much of the local population is made up of transplants from other parts of the country or the world that have little to no interest in the local schools;
  • the Coogs' membership in non-BCS Conference USA causes people to perceive the program as an inferior, "second-tier" product and therefore ignore it;
  • the University of Houston's status as a "commuter" school with a large "non-traditional" student population and its relatively small number of students living on-campus creates an apathetic student which, in turn, becomes an apathetic and unsupportive alum;
  • local sports fans are not interested in watching teams they've never heard of, such as Central Florida or Alabama-Birmingham; they are only interested in attending UH football games when a "marquee" opponent (e.g. Texas, Miami, Oklahoma State) comes to town;
  • the school's location adjacent to "a bad neighborhoood" (Third Ward) scares people away from games;
  • the local sports media does not cover the University of Houston to the same extent that they cover pro teams, Texas or Texas A&M;
  • the University of Houston administration does a poor job of supporting the program or marketing it to students, alumni and the region alike;
  • game times conflict with work, family or personal obligations, reducing the number of people able to attend the games;
  • people would rather stay at home and watch football games (UH or otherwise) on TV than travel out to the stadium and be at the mercy of the elements; and
  • there is simply too much competition for the entertainment dollar in a place as large and as diverse as Houston.
Many of these factors (or, if you must, "excuses") are, like it or not, legitimate. I do believe that the University of Houston's status as a so-called "non-traditional" or "commuter" school, with a small on-campus population and a relatively large percentage of older, foreign and part-time students, creates a smaller pool of supportive alumni than does a university with a "traditional" student population. It is absolutely true that Houston is, by and large, a "fair-weather" sports town that only supports local teams when they are winning. (Don't believe me? Ask the Rockets.) And the problem regarding Conference USA's perception as a second-tier conference is a very real factor as well; the exclusionary nature of the Bowl Championship Series, as well as the amount of coverage the national sports media gives to the six BCS conferences (as opposed to the five non-BCS conferences) creates a perception that non-BCS programs like Houston are not "big-time" and therefore unworthy of support.

And, to be sure, some of these factors are being addressed. The University of Houston is preparing to unveil a new master plan that, among other things, increases the number of students living on campus. This, in turn, will hopefully increase the percentage of "traditional" students that are likely to support their school's athletics programs while they are at school as well as after they graduate. The Cougars, under Art Briles, are bowl-eligible for the third time in four years and the program is, on the whole, much more successful than it was under Kim Helton or Dana Dimel. Hopefully, by creating a program that wins with more consistency than it loses, the Cougars will attract some of the "fair-weather" fans to the stands (of course, following up an upset victory over Oklahoma State with an upset loss to Louisiana-Lafayette doesn't help).

Other factors are harder to address. There's nothing that can be done about Conference USA's perception as a "second-tier" conference except for the schools of said conference to collectively start beating the "big boys," finding their way into the top 25 rankings, and strengthing the conference's reputation. Given the tremendous resource and recruiting advantages possessed by the BCS schools over the non-BCS institutions, that's easier said than done. There will always be competition for the entertainment dollar in this city; this isn't Auburn or Tallahassee or Lubbock, where there is literally nothing to do on a Saturday other than watch the football game, and there are always going to be people who would simply rather spend their Saturdays at the Greek Festival, at the Renaissance Festival, at a movie or at a fishing pier than at a football game. Among those who are willing to spend their weekends watching football, it's a simple fact that the University of Houston (and, for that matter, Rice and TSU) faces fierce competition from "big-time" schools such as Texas and Texas A&M as well as the pro offerings of the Texans (and I'm not the only local blogger who understands this). And I'm afraid I just don't have an answer for the tens of thousands of apathetic UH alumni who live within 50 miles of Robertson Stadium yet don't bother to attend the games. If they weren't involved as students (and many of them weren't, for whatever reason), then chances are they're just not going to be involved as alumni.

Some of these reasons for non-attendance are less compelling. While I'm sure that the 2:30 kickoff time for the Central Florida game was a problem for some people - I'd personally have a hard time attacking somebody for not going to the UH game because the early kickoff interfered with his child's soccer game - the fact is that every school in the nation faces a similar situation. I'm sure kids play soccer on Saturdays in Ann Arbor or Knoxville, too, yet there's still 100,000 people in those stadiums on a given Saturday regardless of kickoff time. Anybody who considers themselves a UH fan but who decided not to see the game just because the Coogs were playing Central Florida (as opposed to a BCS school like Oklahoma State or a school with a famous band like Grambling) ought to be ashamed of themselves; the team should be able to count on their support regardless of whom they're playing. And I am especially annoyed by people who would rather stay home (or go to a bar) and watch the game on TV than attend the game in person. Last week some woman even logged on to to complain about the fact that the Buffalo Wild Wings in Rice Village wasn't showing the UH game on TV when the actual game was being played only five miles away! Unbelievable! And, while local coverage of UH sports could be better, blaming the local media such as the Houston Chronicle for Houston's attendance problems is little more than a pointless exercise in scapegoating.

But whatever the reason for poor attendance at UH football games might be, and whatever validity or weakness that reason might have, there is one absolute fact: continually whining about the attendance problem will not solve it.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've read a great deal of angry teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing about the Coogs' ongoing attendance problems on various Houston Cougar online forums. People have written about how angry, disgusted and embarrassed they are about their fellow UH fans. People have blasted the university administration for not supporting the athletics department and the athletics department for not promoting the game. I've seen posters call out the generic "apathetic alumni" and "apathetic students," blaming them for the program's attendance woes. The inevitable "if we don't draw better we're going to have to drop football"-type posts have appeared. In short, I've read a lot of bitching, moaning, whining, crying, griping, fussing and complaining. And while I agree with the sentiment, and while I'm sure that it's cathartic for the "true" UH fans to get their frustrations off their chests by blasting the "untrue" fans, the simple fact is that not one bit of bitching, whining or complaining is going to solve the University of Houston's attendance problems.

As a wise old fan on one of the UH athletics message boards said last week, bitching about attendance never put a single butt in any seat. All it does, instead, is reinforce the cloud of negativity that continues to hang over this struggling program. I'm sure assistant coaches at universities that compete with the University of Houston for high school recruits have been working overtime over the last couple of days, scouring the UH message boards on the internet and cutting and copying every angst-ridden diatribe about Cougar football attendance that they can find, in hopes of using the words of its own fans against the program ("see, attendance at UH games is so bad it's all Cougar fans can talk about!") as the fall recruiting season heats up.

What I'd like to see, rather than the constant barrage of complaints, are some reasonable suggestions as to how to get more people to come to the games. For example, the apathetic students and alumni: it's hard to convince people such as these to attend UH sporting events if they have no interest in doing so, and shaming them into attending (for example, by telling them how much they suck if they don't support their school's athletics programs) is not likely to acheive positive results. So how do we entice them to come to the games and to support their own school's football program? Maybe we tell them about the wonderful tailgating scene that's evolved since games were moved from the Astrodome to Robertson Stadium, or that Art Briles' offense is as exciting and as unique as you'll see anywhere in college football, BCS schools included. It's easier to attract flies with honey than vinegar, after all.

Over the last day and a half, I've seen an encouraging grassroots effort begin to develop on at least one UH athletics message board; posters are discussing ways to invite family, friends, neighbors and co-workers to this weekend's game. Sample e-mail texts to send to "lost sheep" are being posted for review and replication; some posters are planning to paper the campus with flyers, people are comparing notes as to how many "extra" people they'll bring to this weekend's game. Some fans are looking for solutions to the attendance problem, and, regardless of how many extra fans their efforts might result in attracting, their efforts are better than the endless complaining.

I will always be concerned about UH's attendance struggles, but I've come to accept the fact that complaining about them will not solve them. I cannot control who goes and who doesn't go to the games; I can only control my own actions. So, I go to as many games as I can. I bring extra people to the games when I can. And I take comfort in the fact that, however great UH's attendance problems might be, I am not part of them. I ask for other UH fans to do the same.

If you have any interest in University of Houston athletics, and if you can make it to this weekend's game, I humbly suggest that you do so. The Coogs will be kicking off at 2:30 aganist last year's conference champion, the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricane. Tulsa has a solid team which finds itself parked just outside the top 25 in both the AP and USA Today polls. Unless the Cougars host the Conference USA championship game, this will be the last time prolific, record-breaking senior quarterback Kevin Kolb steps out onto the Robertson Stadium grass. The weather is supposed to be good. The pre-game and post-game tailgating, I promise, will be excellent. Come check it out; the team needs your support, and you might just be surprised at how much fun you have.

I'll be there, whether you are or not.