Thursday, December 31, 2009

Armed Forces Bowl

I don't want to talk about it, other than to say that it really, really sucked. Six interceptions, Case? Seriously?

I'll have my end-of-year review of the 2009 University of Houston football season up in a week or two. But I think it's safe to say that, in winning 10 games this season, the Cougars actually overachieved. The defense was one of the nation's worst this past season, due partially to the fact the the Coogs just don't have the athletes on that side of the ball, but also due to the fact that Skladany simply isn't a very impressive defensive coordinator. The team's problems, however, don't stop with the defense. Sumlin and his staff have a lot of work to do during the course of the offseason on both sides of the ball.

It's a very disappointing way to end what in many respects was a fun season, but there's nothing to do now except look ahead. Go Coogs!

Saying goodbye to 2009

Nobody does it quite like JibJab:

Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

To those who think there are too many bowl games:

Granted, Idaho and Bowling Green might not be powerhouse football programs in big-time conferences. And with their just-above-mediocre seasons (both with 7-5 records coming into the game), nobody is going to mistake either school for Texas or Alabama.

But: in what way was the sport of college football harmed by yesterday's thrilling Roadys' Humanitarian Bowl between the two, which featured 15 points being scored in the final minute of the game?

A frequent chorus I hear from pundits and fans alike is that there are "too many" bowl games. And to be sure, there are a lot of them. Every team with a winning record, and several with 6-6 seasons, gets to go to a bowl game now.

But how, exactly, does that hurt football?

In this case, the players from Idaho and Bowling Green got an end-of-season reward and some national TV time, and those of us who enjoy college football got to watch a fun game with an exciting finish. Where's the harm in that?

For those of you who complain about the proliferation of postseason bowl games, I have a simple solution: don't watch the ones you don't think are "worthy." Let the rest of us will enjoy games like the Humanitarian Bowl.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Hoping that everyone is having a safe, fun and fulfilling holiday season!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

2009 UH Cougar football attendance

Although the season did not end with the Conference USA championship that the Cougar faithful had hoped, the 2009 University of Houston football season was, relatively speaking, a successful one at the turnstiles. The Coogs averaged 25,242 fans across six home games this fall, an increase of 3,723 fans per game over last season. This is Houston's highest attendance average since the 1991 season, and this was the first time since the 1984 season that the Cougars had no home games with less than 20,000 fans in attendance. Furthermore, this average was helped by the 32,114 fans that attended Houston's game against Texas Tech - the largest home crowd the Cougars have had since returning to Robertson Stadium in 1998. My historical wins-versus-attendance graph has been updated accordingly.

While attendance at University of Houston football games is still not where it ought to be, compared with other football programs of similar stature, there is no question that crowd averages are trending upward. Certainly, winning football has a lot to do with this. However, other developments, such as the significant (and on-going) increase in on-campus housing, are also doubtlessly playing a role.

Let's hope the trend continues in 2010.

The subprime mentality

Of course, nobody expected the recently-passed CARD Act to completely keep greedy banking companies from screwing their customers. The legislation eliminated some rather odious practices of credit lenders, but banks quickly found some loopholes to exploit. From the Chronicle's Loren Steffy:
To dance around the new consumer protections on credit cards, First Premier Bank is now issuing a card with an interest rate of 80 percent. Previously, First Premier had a card that charged $256 a year in fees for a $250 credit line. The new laws won't allow that - they cap fees at 25 percent of the credit line -- but they don't limit interest rates.

Now, obviously, First Premier is charging this rate because it's extending credit to some of the riskiest borrowers in the market. But it shows the subprime mindset at work. Banks will do whatever they must, circumvent whatever laws are written, to continue to tap this highly lucrative market of extending credit to people who shouldn't have it.

That's right: a card with an 80 percent interest rate. That used to be known as "usury." I guess now it's just known as "standard business practice," at least for the bank in question.

It can be fairly argued that such a scheme is the only way for people with bad credit histories to repair their credit scores, or that credit is such an important commodity that it should be available, in some form, to everyone, including people who really shouldn't have it. At the end of the day, however, practices such as this are simply predatory. These kinds of cards are targeted at people who've already proven that they can't manage debt. The bank knows that the overwhelming number of these people are not likely to show any newfound responsibility for their credit management and that most of them will eventually default, but if they can make a lot of profit in the form of interest in the meantime, then who cares that these people will likely end up in a worse financial situation than they were before?

Steffy also hits upon something else that I completely agree with:
It also shows the myth of those who believe the Community Reinvestment Act forced banks to make subprime mortgages. There was no need to force them. Banks rushed into the market, slobbering after customers they knew couldn't pay. The subprime mentality dictates that an irresponsible borrower is worth more than a responsible one.
Although there are valid arguments regarding the role of some government regulations and policies in the subprime housing bubble (for example, the Fed keeping interest rates low), I've never brought into the idea that the CRA was in any major way responsible for the housing bubble. I've yet to hear a cogent argument as to why a law passed in the 1970s to combat the discriminatory practice of redlining was responsible for a housing bubble in the 2000s. The CRA is a scapegoat for the "unregulated free markets are always good and government regulation is always bad" crowd, attempting to excuse a phenomenon that was, in fact, caused largely by the unregulated ability of lenders to make money off of people who should never have been allowed to buy homes in the first place.

Apparently, some bankers have not learned their lesson.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Breaking the silence

Yes, I am still here, and this blog is still active, although I realize that "active" is a relative term. I haven't generated a lot of new material lately.

As I have noted in previous posts, my current focus is on some ongoing, unresolved changes in my personal life. I've also had some pressing issues in my professional life (unfortunately, a RFP that I spent many long hours working on did not result in my company's landing the project). I've furthermore been busy with some travel (to Florida in mid-November and to North Carolina in early December; I'll have pictures and recaps of both up shortly) as well as the standard holiday rush (although I am pleased to announce that I am done Christmas shopping). Lori and I are also currently dealing with an unfortunate and distressing situation regarding Kirby's education that will probably require us to find yet another school for him in the near future. All this means that posting on this blog has been sparse over the past few months and will likely continue to be so well into 2010.

Unfortunately, I haven't had time to write about the last few games of the UH Cougar football season (the Coogs ended the regular season with a 10-2 record and the Conference USA West division championship but unfortunately lost the conference's title game to East Carolina). However, I will provide a full season recap after the Cougars complete their bowl game, a rematch of last year's Armed Forces Bowl showdown against Air Force.

I also haven't had time to add my thoughts about the latest trouble in Dubai. Last month's announcement that the Emirate was attempting to restructure the mountain of debt under which it was struggling sent a brief wave of panic through world financial markets and, predictably, generated another flurry of Dubai-bashing articles from the Western press. A Times of London report on the latest crisis featured a cartoon of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum drowning in a sea of debt; this apparently offended Emiriati authorities such that the paper was banned from distribution in the UAE. British journalist Johann Hari, whose hatred of the Emirate seems to know no limits, meanwhile took the opportunity to describe Dubai as "morally bankrupt" and a "sinister mirage in the desert."

Bashing aside, I think that British academic Christopher Davidson and Harvard economist Edward Glaeser have the best takes on what is going on over there right now. In sum: Dubai is currently facing some serious problems, and there are likely going to be changes in the way business is done there, but rumors of the city-state's impending death are grossly exaggerated. On a personal note I think it is going to be a long time, if ever, before I make any more business trips there.

Anyway, I have a backlog of posts that I want to clear over the next few weeks. Shortly after the new year begins, however, this blog will probably go silent again for awhile, at least until things in my personal life are resolved. Afterwards all will be revealed and I'll hopefully get back to the business of writing on a regular, or at least semi-regular, basis.

In the meantime, I've tweaked some of the links in my blogroll, adding new sites I enjoy reading and removing a bunch of old sites which are either dead or which I no longer bother to read. I've also added word verification for comments. This is a step I really didn't want to take, but the increasing amount of comment spam I have been receiving (most of it Japanese porn spam; go figure) has forced me to turn on this option. I apologize for any inconvenience.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Confessions of a jaded Houston sports fan

At halftime of today's game, when the Texans were up 20-7 on the undefeated Indianapolis Colts, my thought wasn't "oh, wow, the Texans have a chance for a huge upset!" but rather "hmmm, I wonder how the Texans are going to blow this one?"

(For the record, the Texans blew it by scoring only seven points the entire second half, while allowing the Colts to score 28 points, seven of which came on an interception returned for a touchdown.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cool map of the day

Via GOOD, a really neat map of the Interstate Highway System drawn in the style of a map of the London Underground:
Click for a larger view. The "major" Interstates (east-west highways ending in 0 and north-south highways ending in 5) are colored; the "minor" interstates are gray.

Hat tip to Matt Yglesias.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Not to gloat or anything, but...'s kind of cool to see this kind of development planned for a rail station that I helped locate.

This particular corner of Lewisville, close to the intersection of I-35E and the 121 Bypass and right across the Interstate from Vista Ridge Mall, has already seen significant retail, office park and multifamily development. So the kind of density, land use and amenity mix being planned makes sense for this area. My only question is how they'll deal with the floodplain issues.

Kuff and Greg have more.

Monday, November 02, 2009

#17 Houston 50, Southern Miss 43

Thirty-six seconds.

That's all it took for the University of Houston offense to score the game-winning touchdown against Southern Mississippi last Saturday.

In shouldn't have come down to that, of course. The Cougars were leading by a comfortable eighteen points early in the fourth quarter, but then the defense became complacent and that, along with an inopportune Cougar fumble, allowed the Golden Eagles to mount a furious fourth-quarter. USM tied the game with 57 seconds remaining and everybody in the stadium thought that overtime was in the works.

Everybody, that is, except for Case Keenum and the rest of the Cougar offense. With all three time outs at their disposal, The Cougars marched right back down the field to score with 21 seconds remaining. Southern Miss then got the ball back and attempted to tie it up, but USM QB Martevious Young's hail mary pass into the endzone was batted away and the Cougars held on to win, 50-43.

Keenum was his usual impressive self, completing 44 of 54 passes for 559 yards and five touchdowns. He was also intercepted once and sacked once, but still performed well enough to earn a helmet sticker from Lou Holtz on ESPN's College Football Final. The Cougars also gained another 191 yards on the ground for a whopping 750 yards of total offense. But the real story of the game came from the Cougar special teams, which blocked one USM field goal and two USM extra points, running one of them back for a two point conversion of its own. That equated to seven points that turned out to be the difference in the game.

With the good came the bad, however. Houston's defense played reasonably well for three quarters but was completely dominated in the fourth, allowing three Southern Miss touchdowns. In all, the Golden Eagles gained 608 yards of total offense and suffered no turnovers. Houston running back Bryce Beall, on the other hand, fumbled the ball three times. Needless to say, the coaches will be spending a lot of time working with him on his ball handling skills this week.

The important thing, however, is that the Coogs came away with the W. As a result of the win, the Cougars move up from #17 to #13 in the AP poll. They're now 15th in the Coaches poll and 15th in the BCS standing as well. In order to crash the BCS party, they need to be at least 12th. With non-automatic-qualifiers TCU and Boise State already in the top ten, however, I don't think the Cougars are going to be busting the BCS this year. That loss to UTEP really hurts in that regard. However, UTEP's loss to UAB last Saturday also means that the Cougars are once again in control of their own destiny regarding the division championship.

Which is significant in that the road doesn't get any easier from here. The Cougars now travel to Tulsa to play their second game of the "Golden Trifecta" against the Golden Hurricane. Needless to say, Tulsa has revenge on their minds after their 70-30 beating at the hands of Houston last season. The Coogs are in for another struggle, and the young defense must improve.

Given the history of the two schools, it should be no surprise that Saturday's game was as hard-fought as it was. Since the two teams joined Conference USA in 1996, USM has traditionally been Houston's nemesis. The games are oftentimes close - past scores inclide 56-49, 15-21, 29-35, 27-31 and even 3-6 - and the Golden Eagles command a 7-3 lead over the Coogs in the series.

New stadium for North Texas; could one be on the way for Houston?

The University of North Texas announced last Thursday that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board had approved their request to build a new football stadium in Denton. Groundbreaking is to occur later this month, with construction scheduled to be completed in time for the 2011 season. The new stadium will be located on the other side of Interstate 35E from Fouts Field and will seat about 30,000.

This is a great step forward for the struggling Mean Green football program. 57-year-old Fouts Field was old and lacking in amenities and its sightlines weren't great. Denton ISD's new stadium on the north side of Loop 288 put it to shame, and it's hard to recruit high school students that are used to better facilities than the ones your school is offering.

The University of Houston is in the same boat. As much as I love Robertson Stadium, the fact is that it is even older than Fouts Field - it was built in 1940 - and is simply substandard in terms of amenities such as locker rooms, press boxes, restrooms, concession areas, luxury suites and the like. It really needs to be upgraded, or even replaced. To that end, the University has just put out a Request for Qualifications (see .pdf here) for a feasibility study to renovate or even replace Robertson Stadium. Several options are going to be considered, including the possible construction of a new stadium on the intermural fields at the corner of Cullen and I-45 (a prospect that is appealing to me) or on the other side of Brays Bayou from campus in MacGregor Park. Any new stadium would have to have a capacity of 40,000 fans, up from Robertson's current capacity of about 32,000.

The RFQ comes as no surprise, as new Athletics Director Mack Rhoades has experience building new stadia from his time at Akron and was brought to Houston precisely for this reason. What is a bit of a surprise is the speed at which the University of Houston wants the study completed; the RFQ closes on November 23rd and the study could begin as soon as early January 2010. Clearly, the University of Houston administration wants to move forward with these facilities upgrades as soon as possible.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

The weather was wonderful, our morning tailgate was successful, the Cougars managed a thrilling 50-43 victory over Southern Miss, we had a good neighborhood Halloween Party and Kirby did pretty well with his trick-or-treating candy haul. All in all, a pretty good Halloween. Here are some pictures.

Kirby the Dinosaur bears his teeth and tries to look scary:
The neighborhood Halloween party featured an inflatable moonwalk for the kids to jump around in. The festivities were briefly marred, however, when a mischevious Kirby ran back behind the castle and unplugged its air blower, causing it to deflate. Fortunately, nobody was hurt and the moonwalk was quickly reinflated. Lori the Witch was on hand to keep Kirby from disrupting the party any further:

My costume was that of a happy, if not sunburnt, University of Houston fan. The noon start time was good in that it meant that the game did not conflict with trick-or-treating activities, but Houstonians simply aren't used to games so early and attendance suffered as a result:

Happy Halloween, and Go Coogs!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Too much bubble bath soap?

I probably need to watch Kirby a little more closely when he's pouring bubble bath soap into my parents' bathtub. I think he used a bit too much the other evening: Oh, well. At least he had a good time and was completely clean by the time he got out.

Meet the giant swallowtail

That's right, another butterfly post!

Papilio cresphontes is larger and has a somewhat different yellow-and-black pattern than its cousin Papilio polyxenes. It is, in fact, the largest butterfly native to the United States.
I caught this guy hanging out on my neighbor's lantana. He (or she) was cooperative enough to let me get this photograph.

As beautiful as these insects are, they are sometimes considered pests to the citrus industry because citrus trees are a host plant for giant swallowtail caterpillars. I, on the other hand, might plant a lemon tree just to attract more of these guys.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Because you're never too old, Part II

In addition to GeoTrax, I have also been putting together a considerable Rokenbok collection. I consider Rokenbok to be perhaps the greatest toy so far invented by humankind: it's a construction toy, a remote-control toy, a model train and an action toy all rolled up in to one. I started collecting Rokenbok before Kirby was even born, but due to his age didn't really start playing with it and him until earlier this year.

Over the summer, the Rokenbok company issued a "monorail building challenge:" build and create a video of an original and unique Rokenbok monorail system, and have a chance to win a $100 Rokenbok gift certificate. I decided to enter the challenge to have fun building and playing with Kirby (and to get some free monorail components in the process), so I cleared the living room floor at my parents' house (they were out of town for most of the summer), and set to work. Here's Kirby playing with what I came up with:

The layout featured two separate monorail trains which interacted with various action modules. Other action features included a remote-control crane and several remote-control trucks. Even though Rokenbok is recommended for children ages six and older, Kirby has already mastered the remote control aspect of the toy:
Needless to say, Kirby and I were very sad when the time came to dismantle the layout and return mom and dad's living room to its original state:
Here is the video I created, edited and submitted in time for the early September deadline:

I didn't think I had the technical expertise, the materials or (especially) the time to create a layout worthy of winning. I also wasn't satisfied with the quality of the video I submitted. Like I said, I didn't expect to win anything and, indeed, I did not come close to winning the popular vote held on the Rokenbok forums.

So imagine how surprised I was when I was informed that I had received the "Judge's Award," bestowed upon my design by a panel of Rokenbok employees who decided that my layout best demonstrated "all of the capabilities of the Rokenbok Monorail System and how it interacts with the rest of the Rokenbok world." Needless to say, I was pretty pleased. Not only did it mean a $100 Rokenbok gift certificate - more stuff for me and Kirby - but I have now been officially declared a "King of the Rok" by Rokenbok creator Paul Eichen himself!

That being said, I'm not merely being humble when I say my design was honestly not the most complicated or inventive. Take a moment to view some of the other entries in the contest. Some of the designs that were submitted are nothing short of amazing.

Houston defeats SMU 38-15, improves to 6-1

I realize it's been exactly one month since I last updated this blog. As I mentioned a couple of months ago, things are happening in both my personal as well as my professional life right now such that blogging is going to be light for awhile.

I'm still here, however, and I'm still following the University of Houston Cougars as they make their way through what so far has been an extremely exciting season.

It's probably a good thing that I was too busy to write an entry about Houston's soul-crushing 41-58 loss to Texas-El Paso back at the beginning of October. In one game, the team managed to undo everything that they had accomplished by beating Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. The Coogs dropped out of the top 25, their shot as a "BCS Buster" ended, and whatever slim chance quarterback Case Keenum had to win the Heisman Trophy vanished. The Cougars simply weren't mentally prepared for what was clearly a "trap" game, and UTEP, which is otherwise not a very good team, took full advantage of the opportunity. The Houston defense was particularly pathetic, allowing Miner RB Donald Buckram to amass an embarrassing 262 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Not even Case Keenum's 51 pass completions, 536 passing yards and five touchdown passes could make up for the rest of the team's poor performance. In one game, the Cougars went from being a potential top ten team to a team that was now not even in control of its own destiny to win its division.

Going in to a tough out-of-conference showdown against SEC opponent Mississippi State in Starkville, there was plenty of concern as to the effect of such a devastating loss on such a young team. Could they put the loss behind them and refocus? Or would the team take a nosedive? "The Coogs can still have a great season. They can win Conference USA and go to a bowl and be remembered as the team that continued to put UH football back on the national map," wrote Chronicle columnist Richard Justice shortly after the loss. "In the end, they'll be judged more on what they do after UTEP than what they did against UTEP."

If that's the case, then so far the Cougars deserved to be judged well. Since the UTEP debacle, they've rattled off three straight victories: a 31-24 defeat of Mississippi State (putting the Coogs at 4-0 for their nonconference schedule and 3-0 against teams from BCS conferences), a 44-16 beatdown of Tulane in the Superdome (the Cougars only led 9-6 at the half, but scored 20 unanswered points in the third quarter; I made the trip and had a great time at the game, on Bourbon Street and at Mother's), and, last weekend, a 38-15 homecoming victory over Southern Methodist.

Case Keenum did not put up his usual numbers gainst SMU; he "only" completed 25 of 36 passes for 233 yards and one touchdown, but in the end it didn't matter. The Cougar running game racked up 161 yards on the ground, and the defense recovered three SMU turnovers and held the Mustangs to o-for-10 on third-down conversions. SMU didn't even find the endzone until the fourth quarter, when they tried to mount a late rally, but a Charles Sims touchdown run with less than six minutes remaining sealed the win for the Cougars.

So now the Cougars find themselves bowl-eligible at 6-1 and are ranked 17th in the AP poll and 16th in the Coaches poll. There's still a lot of football left to be played, however, starting with a game against the always-tough-to-beat Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles at Robertson Stadium on Halloween. They then have back-to-back road games against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane and the Central Florida Golden Knights (we'll call this portion of the schedule the "Golden Trifecta...") before returning home to play Memphis and Rice to end the season. And the Coogs still need UTEP to lose at least one more game in order to reclaim the driver's seat in Conference USA's western division.

But one thing is for certain: so far, and even in spite of the ignoble loss to UTEP, the Cougars have exceeded everybody's expectations for the 2009 season. Here's to hoping that they can keep it up.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

#17 Houston 29, Texas Tech 28

Nobody knows what the future will hold, of course. But years from now, if the Cougars are a member of a BCS conference, are playing in a 40-thousand seat on-campus stadium that they regularly fill, and are enjoying season after season of bowl victories and top 25 rankings, perhaps people will look back to last Saturday's 29-28 victory over Texas Tech as the program's turning point: the day when, after so many years of wandering in the wilderness, it all came together for University of Houston football.

First, there was the pre-game tailgate. Since moving out of the Astrodome over a decade ago, the University of Houston has progressively developed an excellent pregame tailgating culture. Last Saturday, however, it reached a completely new level as people arrived earlier than they ever had before in greater numbers than they ever had before. That incredible atmosphere alone doubtlessly made many first-time visitors to Robertson Stadium UH fans. It certainly impressed the folks from my office that I invited to my group's tailgate, and they plan to come back for more games.

Then there was the crowd: a boisterous, over-capacity gathering of 32,114 - the largest crowd UH has attracted since moving games on campus over a decade ago - was on hand to see the game. While that number might not sound impressive in relation to the crowds that some big-name schools attract, it's a huge step forward for a University of Houston program that has always seemed to struggle with poor attendance. Yes, there were lots of Texas Tech fans there. But the crowd was overwhelmingly comprised of Cougar fans, and they were loud and spirited the entire game. Many of them were there for the first time. And many of them will be coming back. At the very least, the standing-room-only crowd provides a real incentive for the UH administration to push forward with long-discussed plans to refurbish or replace Robertson Stadium.

And then, there was the game.

I've always said that the two best and most exciting UH football games I had ever attended in person were 1990's 36-31 victory over Texas A&M in the Astrodome and the 1996 56-49 victory over Southern Miss at Robertson in 1996. Last Saturday's thriller tops them both.

Make no mistake: the Red Raiders are a very good team. They showed it last Saturday, as they gained 484 yards on offense and limited the prolific Cougar offense to just three touchdowns on defense. Texas Tech led the game 21-13 at halftime and 28-20 late in the third quarter. The Cougars played well, too, amassing 579 offensive yards of their own and limiting the high-flying Red Raider offense to only seven points in the entire second half.

Texas Tech, however, led for most of the game, and had several chances to put the game away. Unfortunately for them, the Cougars would simply not back down. Early in the 4th quarter and up by five points, Texas Tech drove to the UH one yard line and attempted to score a touchdown on fourth-and-goal that surely would have put the game out of reach. The Cougar defense stopped them. On the following drive, Houston drove into Texas Tech territory and looked to take the lead, only to be intercepted. But the Cougar defense once again stood tall, forcing the Red Raiders to punt the ball away.

What happened then, with under six minutes to play and the ball at the UH 5 yard line, was something that will forever live in University of Houston lore: the "Two-Day Drive" (so named because it started before midnight and ended shortly afterward). 16 plays. 95 yards. 4 minutes 58 seconds. Touchdown. If you haven't seen it yet, here's part one, courtesy of ESPN:

And here's part two:

The video does not do justice to the absolute bedlam that engulfed Robertson Stadium when UH quarterback Case Keenum (38 of 58 for 435 yards and one touchdown) scampered into the endzone to score what would prove to be the winning touchdown. With 49 seconds left and only needing a field goal to win, Texas Tech desperately tried to march back down the field. But thanks to the UH defense (as well as the Red Raiders' lack of timeouts), the Cougars held on for the nail-biting 29-28 win.

The win is remarkable considering that Houston did not play their best football of the season. The Cougars were penalized 8 times for 74 yards, including one penalty that negated an interception. The UH defense allowed 163 rushing yards to a team that had managed a total of only 86 rushing yards in their first three games combined. Special teams missed two field goals. Keenum's 65.5 percent pass completion rate, while decent, was lower than usual. He also was sacked twice and intercepted once. The Coogs also got some help from Texas Tech mistakes: aside from the Red Raiders' two turnovers and 8 penalties, there was also head coach Mike Leach's decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 when a field goal probably would have put the game out of reach, as well as Tech's decision to use their three time outs early in the second half.

Still, a win is a win and their second-consecutive victory over a Big XII opponent was a huge one for the Cougars, one that proved that the stunning upset at Oklahoma State two weeks ago was no fluke and that the Cougars are indeed a team to be respected. The nation has noticed. The Cougars are now ranked #12 in the AP poll and are being mentioned as possible "BCS Busters" by national media outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Case Keenum is also getting some serious attention as a Heisman candidate.

In my opinion, it's too early to think of the Cougars as a "BCS Buster." They'd have to go undefeated in order to do so and that's still a tall order. The team now needs to go on a grueling three-game road trip; Saturday's game against Texas El-Paso has "letdown" and "trap" written all over it and the showdown against SEC team Mississippi State two weeks from now looms large. Nevertheless, if you had told me before the season started that the Cougars would be 3-0 and ranked right outside the top ten right now, I wouldn't have believed you. This has been an incredible start to the 2009 football season and I am thoroughly enjoying it.

It will be months, if not years, before the true significance of last Saturday's game and its Two-Day Drive will be known. But, from where I stood that night at a packed Robertson Stadium, watching the Cougars drive 95 yards in five minutes to win a game over a Big XII opponent, you'd have a hard time convincing me that University of Houston had not finally reached its turning point. After suffering for so long through so many seasons of mediocrity and apathy, this is a much-needed and well-deserved time for the University of Houston, its athletes, its coaches, its students and its alumni. May it only continue.

Go Coogs!

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Dubai Metro

It's been abut a week and a half since the Dubai Metro opened for regular service. During its first week of operation, the new rail system was besieged by curious residents and suffered some technical malfunctions. This is to be expected. However, as the technical glitches are worked out and the novelty fades, the question remains: will people in a city as automobile-dependent as Dubai actually use the system?

Yes, they will. At least some of them. Eventually. Depending on various factors. In this regard, Dubai is no different than any city in the United States.

Obviously, there is a certain segment of the population that will be using the Dubai Metro on a pretty frequent basis, simply because they will have no choice. These are the laborers who do not own automobiles and who currently depend on the RTA's bus network to get around town, and these are the people who are going to be required to ride the Metro for at least part of their journey as the RTA restructures the bus network to feed into the rail lines.

And just as obviously, there is a certain segment of the population that will not use public transportation, even in the form of a sleek, fully-automated train system, under any circumstances.

For everyone else, the answer will depend on how convenient the Dubai Metro is for the trips they need to make. Right now, the system's utility is probably limited to a rather small percentage of Dubai's population of "choice" riders; that is, people who have their own automobiles. The Red Line is the only alignment that is currently in operation, and only 10 of the 29 total planned stations are open. Unless you both live and work near one of these stations, you're probably not going to choose to use the train.

However, once the remaining Red Line stations are opened, and once the Green Line is complete and operational sometime next year, then the system will be more useful to more people simply because its service footprint will be larger. Once again, however, this footprint will be limited to a relatively small area around the stations. "Choice" riders will generally not want to use feeder buses to get to the stations, nor will they want to walk to stations in Dubai's 110-degree summertime heat. The Dubai Metro does feature park and ride facilities that people can drive to, but these are located at the ends of the Emirate. Residents who live towards the center of Dubai are probably not going to drive to one end or the other simply in order to ride the train. Taxi queues will be provided at all Metro stations, however, and that along with Dubai's relatively cheap taxi fares might make that a viable manner of accessing the trains.

One weapon the RTA does have in its arsenal to encourage Metro ridership is the SALIK toll system. The RTA could put more toll checkpoints along major throughfares like Sheikh Zayed Road in order to discourage private automobile use. And, although the severe slump Dubai is experiencing because of the economic crisis has lessened traffic on the roads somewhat, if and when Dubai's economy recovers, the horrendous traffic congestion will inevitably return, thereby creating another natural disencentive to driving.

And finally, don't forget the business travelers and the tourists. Dubai has a lot of them and, for getting around it's either the taxi or the Dubai Metro. Dpending on how close their hotels are to stations and how comfortable they are with rail transit in their native countries, a significant number of them could choose to ride the train, which would generate a real boost to ridership.

The bottom line: it's going to be interesting to see just how well the Dubai Metro actually does. I'm cautiously optimistic.

On a completely personal note, it's great to see a project that I helped design, even if only in a very minor role, come to fruition.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Houston 45, #5 Oklahoma State 35

How big was last Saturday's 45-35 upset of 5th-ranked Oklahoma State in Stillwater last Saturday? Consider this:
  • The last time the Cougars beat a top ten team was November 12, 1988, when they beat #10 Wyoming 34-10 at the Astrodome. I was a sophomore in high school at the time, and I remember watching that game with my family and my friend Gwen.
  • The last time the Cougars beat a top ten team on the road was November 10, 1984, when the Coogs traveled to Austin and beat #3 Texas, 29-15.
  • The last time the Cougars beat a top ten team out of conference was Cotton Bowl against Nebraska on January 1, 1980, when they won 17-14. The Cougars ended the season with an 11-1 record and ranked #5.
  • And the last time the Cougars beat a top ten team, out of conference, on the road, outside of a bowl game: you'd have to go back to September 23, 1967, when the Cougars traveled to East Lansing, Michigan and manhandled the #3-ranked Michigan State Spartans, 37-7.
That is, until last Saturday.

Sure, you can argue that Oklahoma State was overrated at #5, and that might speak to the inanity of ranking teams so early in the season, before they've had a chance to really prove themselves on the field.

And sure, you can say that the Coogs got lucky when Case Keenum's pass into the endzone on fourth-and-goal was tipped by Oklahoma State defender and miraculously fell into the arms of Cougar running back Bryce Beall for a touchodwn. Take that amazing play away and the outcome of the game could have been very different. But hey, that's the way the ball (literally) bounces sometimes.

What cannot be argued or attributed to luck, however, is this: Oklahoma State had no real answer for the Cougar offense, which gained 512 total yards and found the endzone five times. Cougar quarterback Case Keenum was electric, completing 32 of 46 pass attempts for 366 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for another touchdown, was only intercepted once and was never sacked. The Cougars were also able to move the ball well on the ground, racking up 146 rushing yards on 36 carries.

Thanks to their explosive offense, the Coogs rushed out to a 24-7 halftime lead. Oklahoma State made a comeback in the 3rd quarter, however. I'll admit that, as a longtime (and, given the last couple of decades or so, fairly jaded) UH fan, I had pretty much given up hope late in the third after Oklahoma State star receiver Dez Bryant ran back a punt return 82 yards for a touchdown, cutting the Cougars' lead to three, and OSU running back Beau Johnson, with the help of some pretty pathetic tackling on the UH defense's part, followed with a score on a 37-yard touchdown run to give the Cowboys the lead. I thought that a repeat of last year's game, wherein the Coogs led at halftime in Stillwater but were manhandled by OSU in the second half and ended up losing 37-56, was in the works.

But the Cougars never accepted such a fate. They maintained their composure and fought back in the fourth, regaining the lead on Beall's 1-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-goal and, after Oklahoma State scored again, answering with Beall's highlight-reel catch of Keenum's tipped pass in the endzone. When UH defender Jamal Robinson tipped a Zac Robinson pass into his own hands and ran it back into the endzone to put the Coogs up by 10 with 3:14 remaining, the Coogs knew that the upset was theirs for the taking. All they had to do was keep OSU from staging a last-minute comeback. They did.

As a fellow Cougar fan wrote on his Facebook page right after the game ended: That. Just. Happened.

For long-time Coog fans such as myself who have suffered through so many years of why-am-I-even-watching-this-crap disappointment, and who have had to watch as the grossly unfair BCS system has continually widened the gap between "have" schools like OSU and "have-not" schools like Houston, Saturday's game was sweet vindication. At long last, the Coogs are back on the national stage, as their #21 ranking in this week's AP poll - their first appearance in the polls since 1991- will attest.

Now it's up to the Cougars to prove that last Saturday's upset wasn't a fluke. They'll get that chance in two weeks, when another Big XII team, Texas Tech, travels to Robertson Stadium for a nationally-televised showdown that will doubtlessly feature a lot of offense. In that regard, it's good that Houston has two weeks to refocus, to heal and to prepare for this crucial game.

As for me, I'll continue to bask in the warm afterglow of the Coogs' biggest win in a quarter-century for a few more days.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Time to gloat

According to the scale in the bathroom, I have managed to lose 22 pounds since April.

I'm still not where I want to be in terms of my weight; if I can shed another ten or fifteen pounds between now and the end of the year, then I'll be close to what I think my ideal weight should be. Of course, it's going to be hard to keep the fat off, much less lose even more, as the holidays approach. However, I'm proud of the fact that I've made so much progress over the past few months, and the success I've had certainly provides incentive and motivation for me to continue in my quest to become at least somewhat healthier.

Because you're never too old, Part I

The greatest thing about being a father is that it gives you an excuse to buy all the cool toys that didn't exist when you were a kid.

I first started collecting GeoTrax (sound warning) back in 2005, when Kirby was still an infant. I liked the rugged, versatile, expandable and colorful nature of the toy, and I figured that one day Kirby would enjoy it, too. Four years and some $1,500 (give or take) later, I've amassed quite a collection. This layout current occupies a good 2/3rds of the back patio: At first I felt a bit guilty about my obsessive desire to collect GeoTrax products and build massive layouts with them, but then I discovered an entire website devoted to like-minded individuals and now I don't feel quite as bad.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

2009 Preview: University of Houston Cougars

I realize kickoff is only hours away at this point, so I guess I'm better late than never in getting this season's preview up.

Last season was a pretty good one for the University of Houston Cougars. The team adjusted to a new coaching staff and fought through the adversity caused by Hurricane Ike to win eight games, including victories over two ranked teams for first time since 1984 and their first bowl victory since 1980. The team hopes to build on last year's success to have an even better season in 2009. At the top of the to-do list for the team is to win Conference USA's Western Division, contend for the C-USA Championship, and maybe, just maybe, be under consideration as a so-called "BCS buster."Are the pieces in place for any of those goals to be reached?

When it comes to the offensive side of the ball, the answer is most likely "yes." The Cougars return eight starters, including almost all of the skill position players from an offense that finished second in the nation last season in total offense with almost 563 yards per game. That's a pretty impressive feat, considering that going into the 2008 season the conventional wisdom was that the adjustment to a new coaching philosophy and the lack of experience at wide receiver would cause the offense to take a step backward.

The Cougars will be led by junior quarterback Case Keenum, who led the nation in total offense last season with 403.2 all-purpose yards per game and was named Conference USA offensive player of the year. Most of his weapons return, including running back Bryce Beall, who ran for 1,247 yards, caught for another 500 yards, and had 17 touchdowns in a surprising freshman debut, and a bevy of highly capable wide receivers, such as Tyron Carrier (80 receptions for 1,026 yards and 9 touchdowns last year), Patrick Edwards (back in action after a devastating leg injury against Marshall last season) Chaz Rodriguez and Kierrie Johnson. And if that weren't enough, it's likely that the offensive lineup will be joined by highly-rated freshmen such as running back Charles Sims and wide receiver A.J. Dugat, who was just cleared to play earlier this week.

There are concerns about the abilities of the offensive line, which lost three starters from last year's team. The line will be anchored by senior center Carl Barnett and, while there is depth and experience at all five positions, the big question is how quickly this fall's new lineup can come together as a cohesive unit in order to open lanes for runners and protect Keenum (last year's line gave up 27 sacks, which was an improvement over the 34 sacks given up in 2007 but was still too many). Needless to say, an injury to Case Keenum would be a devastating blow to the offense. While backup quarterback Cotton Turner isn't exactly horrible - I've watched him in practice - he simply can't move the offense like Keenum.

So that's the 2009 University of Houston offense, a.k.a. the "good news." Now it's time for the "not-so-good" news, i.e. the defense.

Let's face it: the 2008 University of Houston defense wasn't what could really be considered "good." They gave up over 413 yards per game, enough to be ranked 100th (out of 119 FBS teams) in total defense and, in surrendering almost 31 points per game, almost as bad (91st) in scoring defense. The defense's complete meltdown against Rice last November, in particular, still sticks in the collective craw of the UH faithful. And that was with a defensive line that featured experienced players All-Conference standout Philip Hunt (18.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks) and Tate Stewart and a secondary that featured several veterans such as Kenneth Fontennette and Earnest Miller. With those players gone, and with many of the holes they left behind being plugged by transfers and true freshman, I simply cannot expect this defense to be any better in 2009. In fact, I fully expect it to be worse.

The only returning starter on the defensive line is junior tackle Isaiah Thompson. He'll be joined by returning lettermen Tyrell Graham and David Hunter and a plethora of true (as in, straight-out-of-high-school) freshmen, including Radermon Scypion, Zeke Riser, Tyrone Campbell, Kelvin King, DeAnthony Sims and walk-on Ameen Behbahani. While the story on some of these incoming freshmen is that they are talented and were highly-recruited, the fact remains that they are probably undersized and definitely inexperienced at this level. The defensive line is going to be the weakest link in the defense this fall.

Things look a little better at linebacker, which returns senior experience in C.J. Cavness and Matt Nicholson as well as sophomore Marcus McGraw, who had an excellent debut last season (he led the team in tackles). Speed and depth are issues at this position, however. The secondary will be led by senior cornerback Brandon Brinkley, who had 74 tackles and four interceptions last year. Opposing quarterbacks will likely avoid throwing his way and instead try to pick on safeties Carson Blackmon and Nick Saenz. There's experience in the secondary, but they'll need help from the defensive line in the form of a pass rush if they're going to have a better overall season than they did last year.

One positive aspect of last year's team is that head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff did a decent job exorcising away the "Unholy Trinity" of turnovers, penalties and bad special teams play that had plagued the Cougars under the Briles regime. Special teams were markedly improved last season - punter Chase Turner would have been one of the nation's higher-rated punters had the offense given him more opportunities to show his talents last season - and the Cougars were no longer among the top ten most penalized teams in the nation last season. The Coogs still need to work on ball control, however; last year the team gave the ball away 28 times but recovered fumbles and interceptions only 22 times for a -6 turnover margin.

Unfortunately, last season the team showed a tendency to start out slowly and quickly find themselves trailing by several scores in the first half of games. Sometimes they were able to mount furious second-half comebacks in order to win games, as they did against Alabama-Birmingham and UTEP. On other occasions, such as against Colorado State and Marshall, those rallies fell short. I'm willing to attribute last year's slow starts to the adjustments required of a new coaching staff and philosophy or the mental disruption caused by Hurricane Ike. But this pattern simply cannot manifest itself again this season; the coaching staff needs to prepare this team to play for every game and they need to come out of the tunnel swinging.

The Cougars' schedule starts out rather tough. After a season-opening tune-up game against FCS opponent Northwestern State, the Cougars have to travel to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to play an Oklahoma State team that is ranked 9th in the preseason AP poll. After a well-placed bye week, the Coogs return to Houston to play Texas Tech in what should be a sold-out Robertson Stadium. The Cougars then go on a formidable three-game road trip to El Paso to play the revenge-minded UTEP Miners, then to Starkville, Mississippi to play an improving Mississippi State team, and finally to New Orleans to play Tulane. The schedule then lightens up a bit, as the Coogs play four of their final six games in Houston. The Cougars have back-to-back home games against SMU and Southern Miss, then hit the road to play Tulsa and Central Florida, and then return to Robertson Stadium to close out their season against Memphis and Rice. However, none of these games will be gimmes: Southern Miss has historically given the Cougars fits, Tulsa will be seeking to avenge last season's 70-30 thumping at the hands of the Coogs, and anybody who thinks Rice is an easy win for the Coogs wasn't paying attention last year, or the year before, or the year before that.

What does the national sports media expect from the Cougars this fall? Overall, previews for Houston have generally been positive, which a consensus emerging that, due to its prolific offense, the Cougars are in for a pretty good season. Of the college football preseason magazines, Dave Campbell's Texas Football predicts that Coogs will finish 10-2 and win Conference USA. Athlon, Lindy's and The Sporting News all expect the Cougars to, at the very least, win their division. NBC Sports and CBS Sports are also in agreement that the Cougars will win Conference USA West.

Several college football websites are also big on the Coogs. envisions a 10-win regular season for Houston, with an undefeated record in conference. concurs with that assessment, as does a columnist for who also foresees the Coogs defeating East Carolina in the Conference USA Championship game. The Congrove Computer Ranking system at (which has accurately predicted Houston's record within two games 9 out of the last 15 seasons) is only slightly less optimistic, predicting a 9-3 record for Houston with a loss to Tulsa that would leave the Coogs 2nd in their division. The Quad blog at The New York Times, which provides a thorough write-up for the Coogs, says that Houston is the 30th-best team in FBS, also foresees a 9-3 regular season campaign, and believes a conference championship is in the cards as well.

Sports Illustrated ranks the Coogs #57 to start the season and envisions an 8-4 overall record, with a 6-2 conference record and a second-place finish behind UTEP in C-USA's Western Division. Jeff Sagarin's preseason rankings, meanwhile, have the Coogs slotted 66th with a starting rating of 70.69. When other team's ratings as well as home field advantage are taken into account, this implies that a 8-4 record (with losses to Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Mississippi State and Tulsa) is predicted for Houston.

So what do I expect? Overall, I think the Cougars are definitely a team on the rise, and there are few teams in the country, even among the BCS elite, that will be able to stop its offense. But while the offense can score points on just about anybody, the defense, likewise, can give up points to almost anybody. The squad simply has too many weaknesses, especially on the defensive line, for me to expect that they'll be able to effectively stop the run or mount a pass rush, and, unless this defense finds a way to play well beyond its abilities, opposing teams with any offensive confidence whatsoever are probably going to be able to score at will. The Cougars are going to be involved in several 56-49 -type games this fall, and whether the Cougars come out ahead or behind will depend on things like turnovers and special teams performance.

I'm going to go on record as predicting an eight-win regular season for the Coogs. I think they will lose their matchups against Big XII teams Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, and I also think that road losses to two of Mississippi State, UTEP and Tulsa will occur as well. Southern Miss will also be very tough, but I think the home-field advantage will give the Coogs the edge. This final regular season record of 8-4 (6-2 in conference) will likely earn the Coogs second place in their division as well as a fifth-consecutive bowl appearance.

If the defense shows improvement over the course of the season, then 2010 could be the season that UH fans are waiting for. But right now, the team is still a year away.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to head over to Robertson Stadium. It's tailgating time!

UPDATE: The Coogs took care of business this evening, cruising to a 55-7 victory over Northwestern State.

Name that Kroger!

In Houston, there seems to be a popular practice of assigning names to inside-the-loop Kroger stores based on characteristics such as the store's appearance, location, or the demographics of its clientele. I don't know how long ago this tradition came about or why it only involves Kroger-brand stores and not Randalls or HEB stores.

Anyway, Jeff Balke runs down the names for four inside-the-loop Kroger stores, starting with the best-known of the "named" Krogers:

Disco Kroger
Montrose at Hawthorne (near Westheimer)

The original. I don’t know when people started calling it Disco Kroger. I first started going there when I worked across the street. I also had my truck towed from there when I stupidly parked in its parking lot during a show at Tower Theater (you know it now as Hollywood Video – sigh). But, if you’ve ever been in there later at night, particularly on the weekends, you understand just how it got its name.

Ghetto Kroger
Shepherd at 11th

As far as I know, I’m the one that handed this Signature store with the name dating back to this post about how crappy that store can be. I first started going to Ghetto Kroger when it was decidedly less ghetto many MANY years ago. It was also significantly smaller. I’m told this will be the largest Kroger store in the US when re-modeling is complete. To understand its ghetto nature, all you have to do is go in there, see the construction and note ZERO signs saying “Please excuse our mess” or anything like that. I guess in a few months, we’ll have more ghetto to love.

Zombie Kroger
Shepherd at 20th

As outlined here, Zombie Kroger is so named because it is marked both by really sweet, exceedingly slow elderly people and a dearth of checkers most of the time. Plus, it seems to be in some sort of vortex that swallows normal time and has soda that looks like Windex.

Posh Kroger
West Gray at Dunlavy

Only recently this River Oaks store (pictured) got its name for both its clientele and the fact that you feel as if you are walking on diamond-encrusted floors and breathing caviar-infused air as you mill about in this hoity toity market. I see a blog post in my future.

Somebody in the comments also suggested that this last Kroger be named "Deco Kroger" due to the architectural style of the shopping center where it is located. My brother-in-law Danny has referred to this particular store as "Hot Chick" Kroger due to the number of attractive women who shop there.

Continuing Jeff's theme, here are names for four more inside-the-loop Kroger stores:

Combat Kroger
Cullen at Polk

If you attended school at the University of Houston, you probably shopped here. And you probably understood exactly why it was called Combat Kroger. Anyway, it might be an aging, grimy, understaffed, poorly-managed, run-down store in a sketchy part of town, but at least it usually has most of the things I'm looking for when I shop there. An added bonus is that I've never been mugged while shopping there. At least, not yet.

Buffalo Kroger
Westpark at Buffalo Speedway

One of Jeff's commenters suggests that this upscale Kroger Signature store nestled between Greenway Plaza and West University Place be called "Spanish Kroger" due to the Mediterrenean-style architecture of the shopping center in which it is located. Local Kroger management took the recent arrival of HEB's new Buffalo Merket across the street seriously enough to remodel and upgrade the entire store; clearly, they do not want this new competition to one day cause the store to be known as "HEB's Bitch."

Medical Kroger
Old Spanish Trail at Cambridge

Another one of Jeff's commenters believes that this particular store is a "ghetto Kroger" as well, but I've never gotten that impression shopping there (when your home store is Combat Kroger, after all, you're pretty forgiving). I've always called this store "Medical Kroger" simply due to its location near the Texas Medical Center. I'm curious if there are other names for this particular store.

Does-Anybody-Really-Shop-Here Kroger
South Main Street at Kirby Drive

This one isn't too far from Medical Kroger; I guess it could also be called "Reliant Kroger" due to its location close to Reliant Stadium. Visit this store sometime and the name will make sense; every time I've been there, the place has been practically deserted. My understanding is that this store used to be located at the now-moribund shopping center at the corner of Kirby and Braeswood, where it faced the residential neighborhoods it served. Then it was "upograded" into a characterless building down the street with its back turned towards the neighborhoods it used supposed to serve. Therefore nobody shops there anymore, at least in part due to the fact that cheaper groceries are available at both the Super Target and the Fiesta nearby.

Any others?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

North Texas 20, Ball State 10

It might not have been the prettiest win in the world, but the Mean Green started the season off right with tonight's victory over Ball State in Muncie, Indiana.

Going into the game, all eyes were on Riley Dodge, the son of UNT head coach Todd Dodge, in his first collegiate start as quarterback. He performed admirably, completing 23 of 33 passes for 216 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He scrambled for another 73 yards as well. His lone mistake was an ill-advised pass in the endzone that was picked off: a freshman error that he will learn not to repeat.

Dodge and the passing game aside, and as I suspected in my season preview, the Mean Green relied on the ground game, amassing 296 yards and chewing up the clock in the process (North Texas held the ball for over 37 minutes). In addition to Dodge's scrambles, running backs Cam Montgomery (17 carries for 149 yards) and Lance Dunbar (16 carries for 63 yards and a touchdown) were both as good as advertised in this effort.

The much-maligned Mean Green defense also had a great evening, allowing Ball State a total of only 309 yards and a single touchdown (which occurred following a UNT fumble will inside their own territory). UNT's defense was especially effective in third-down situations, holding the Cardinals to only two conversions on 15 attempts.

To be sure, there were still some problems. Mean Green special teams struggled, as kicker Jeremy Knott missed two field goals (although, to be fair, both were from 47 yards out). North Texas also committed 9 penalties for 81 yards, including an unnecessary hold by linebacker Tobe Nwigwe on Ball State quarterback Kelly Page that negated a Royce Hill interception return for a touchdown. But these are all problems that can be rectified over the course of the season. The main thing is that the Mean Green put together a solid game on both sides of the ball and, in the first game of the season, equaled their entire win total of last year.

It could be argued that Ball State, which has lost a lot of last year's talent especially on the offensive side of the ball, is going to be in for a rough season. But that shouldn't take away from the fact that a team that finished 1-11 last season went on the road to upset a team that finished 12-2 last season. This is an encouraging start to UNT's 2009 campaign, and after last year's disaster it is a performance that Mean Green coaches, players and fans alike can be happy about.

Houston doesn't need zoning, but it does need better development regulations

Early last week, Andrew at neoHouston had an interesting article about the ongoing controversy regarding the Ashby High Rise, a residential tower proposed to be built amidst a neighborhood of single-family homes near Rice University. Andrew explains that, in other cities, this controversy would be handled by a set of land-use regulations known as zoning. He provides some history of zoning and explains why this form of land-use regulation is not right for Houston, but also laments some of the drawbacks to Houston's current approach towards land development regulation:
Houston has avoided the worst of these policies by staying away from conventional zoning. Ironically, however, Houston has adopted many of the same ordinances and policies of other cities. As an example: when platting land for development, if the developer does not explicitly denote another land use, the city REQUIRES the land be restricted to single-family residential uses. Because these regulations are hard-coded into the legal description of the land they are extraordinarily difficult to change in the future. Houston also has parking and setback requirements taken straight out of the conventional zoning world.

The result of the regulations we have are the same as the results of the regulations in other cities: low density, pedestrian-hostile development disproportionately dominates the city – not because this is all the market demands, but because it’s all that is legal to build. Doing anything different exposes a developer to a regulatory situation that’s a headache at best and a nightmare at worst.

So while we like to think that we’re scarcely regulated, the facts are quite different. Houston has a pretty average amount of land use regulation, but where it is different is the scattered and unpredictable way in which the City enforces its regulations. The Ashby development is the poster-child for the problems with Houston’s approach.

As somebody who served as a development review planner for three years in a Texas city with zoning (Denton), I completely agree that Houston has done well by avoiding this form of regulation. Ideological arguments against zoning aside - I'm no enemy of the free markets myself, although I don't agree with the idea that "markets always know best" and believe that at least some regulations are necessary - I have a pragmatic objection to conventional ("Euclidean") zoning being implemented in Houston. Simply put, trying to implement zoning in a city as developed as Houston is today would be a messy exercise in futility. I liken it to closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, because it would do about as much good.

For Texas cities, the zoning amendment process is regulated by Section 211 of the Texas Local Government Code. It requires, among other things, public hearings for proposed zoning changes, notification of adjacent property owners, a recommendation on the proposed zoning by a municipality's appointed planning commission, and final approval by the city's elected governing body (i.e. city council; because amendments to the zoning map are essentially amendments to municipal law, they must be ultimately approved by the city's law-making body). This process is a lengthy as it is cumbersome. Generally, a simple majority of council votes is needed to approve zoning amendments. However, in cases where property owners representing 20 percent or more of the land area surrounding the property proposed to be rezoned are in opposition to the amendment, or if the planning commission recommends against the proposed change, then a supermajority (75 percent) of council votes are required to approve the change. In this way, surrounding property owners, for better or for worse, have a great deal of influence in how adjacent properties are used.

Instituting a conventional zoning ordinance in Houston would mean several things: the local planning bureaucracy would need to be enormously expanded in order to handle the tremendous caseload that zoning enforcement and amendment actions in the nation's fourth-largest city would entail. Much of this expanded bureaucracy would be funded through developer application fees, increasing the "cost of doing business" for developers, and there would still probably be at least some supplementary funding required of this larger bureaucracy through the city's general, taxpayer-funded account. Because Houston has been unzoned for so long, there would invariably be kaleidoscopic array of nonconforming uses and structures that would have to be dealt with, and a multitude of variance requests and rezoning applications (following the process I outlined above) would result. Planning Commission and City Council meetings are long enough as it is today; adding a bunch of zoning cases to every meeting's agenda would make these meetings even longer. It also would create a very divisive political process, pitting existing property owners screaming "NIMBY" against developers looking to profitably development property they own. Land use disputes here in Houston are generally rare because people recognize that the city has limited powers to regulate them; indeed, the the controversy surrounding the Ashby High Rise is unique due to its rarity. In Denton, which at the time I worked there had five percent of Houston's population, such controversies occurred with regularity.

As an alternative to Euclidean land-use controls, Andrew suggests a form-based approach to development regulation:

Fortunately, there’s a straightforward solution for the issues Houston is facing. The Congress for the New Urbanism is an organization that has been dedicated to the development and advancement of new municipal policies to make urbanism in cities legal again. One of the tools the CNU has advocated is called “SmartCode.”

SmartCode is an effort to combine the many facets of development regulation (subdivision and platting regulations, building regulations, traffic and parking regulations, etc) into a single, streamlined, compact document. Its entire goal is to stay away from land-use controls (which unreasonably inhibit the market and create constant conflict at City Hall), and focus on simple, predictable, results-oriented standards.

In essence, SmartCode divides different scales of buildings into different “transect-zones”, defines how the street should be designed to accommodate the needs of different scales of development, and leaves the rest to the market. Contrary to popular belief, SmartCode is not about “style;” the standard code does not contain any.

A form-based approach Andrew is suggesting could regulate aspects of development such as building height and setbacks. I don't think any such code should regulate aspects of development such as minimum lot size or dimension or, outside of certain special districts in neighborhoods, historic areas or around transit stations, building design. In not even sure such a code should regulate standards such as lot coverage or landscaping, although, given Houston's historic flooding problems, there might be some restrictions on the maximum amount of permeable area allowed on a lot in order to retain and absorb rainwater runoff. I agree with Andrew that minimum parking standards should be scrapped. Let individual developers decide how much or how little parking they need for the development they are proposing, and encourage creative collaboration between neighboring property owners on shared or community parking facilities. Obviously, land uses and densities (in the form of floor-to-area ratios for commercial development and units per acre for residential development) would not be regulated.

However, because it would divide the city into zones that regulate development, and also because form-based regulations would, at least indirectly, affect the type of use and density of a given property, it is certain that such SmartCode would still be considered a type of zoning and therefore subject to Section 211 of Texas Local Government Code. That suggests that the same drawbacks that a standard zoning ordinance would entail - a larger municipal bureaucracy, a multitude of nonconforming structures that need to be regulated, the slow, expensive and cumbersome zoning amendment process, the power of adjacent property owners to limit development based on supermajority requirements, longer Planning Commission and City Council meetings, owner-versus-developer controversies and a polarized political environment - would also result from a form-based code.

With that said, I don't think these problems would manifest themselves to the same degree as would occur under a traditional, use-based zoning code. As Andrew explains, the relative simplicity of the regulatory framework involved in such a code could keep these issues to a minimum:
Because of how few requirements there would be, the most common request for variances would almost certainly be for added height as areas originally categorized as T3 or T4 develop more intensely. The city policy should be for a simple “upgrade” from one category to the next highest so long as the developer builds infrastructure – most importantly street connectivity – appropriate to the intensity of development.
Based on my experience in Denton, the greatest controversy surrounding zoning amendments was generated by the proposed land use change itself; the size and placement of what would be permitted under a zoning change oftentimes wasn't an issue or was a secondary issue to the change in land use itself. By eliminating regulations relating to land use or density from a Houston-specific form-based code and limiting the variance and amendment process to building height and placement, the bureaucratic caseload generated relative to a traditional zoning code would likely be reduced, as would the potential for controversy. This is not to say that no proposed changes - upgrading a property from one transect type to another - would generate controversy; there would likely be less of it, and it would be narrowly focused, but it would still be there.

Given that outcome, as of right now I am not fully convinced that a form-based code is the type of development control that Houston needs, although I do think Andrew makes a compelling case for it and I'm certain it's a better alternative than traditional land-use-based zoning. What I am convinced of is this: as Houston's urban core continues to densify, conflicts like the one surrounding the Ashby High Rise that are still relatively rare today are without a doubt going to become more and more common in the future. My fear is that some point, more and more citizens are going to become affected by these controversies and are going to become disillusioned with the City's current approach to land development regulations such that they are going to demand a mechanism to deal with these disputes, including traditional use-based zoning (and in that regard its worth noting that Houston's last attempt at zoning in 1993 barely failed in a referendum). The conversation regarding development regulations that Andrew is putting forward is something that the City of Houston needs to have sooner rather than later.

Monday, August 31, 2009

2009 Preview: North Texas Mean Green

I'll have my season preview for the Cougars up in a few days, but right now it's time to devote some attention to the other of this blog's two namesakes.

Going into the 2009 season, the good news for North Texas fans is, well, things can't get much worse from last year's 1-11 campaign. Last season was without a doubt one of the worst and most disappointing in Mean Green history. The team suffered several blowout losses - only one loss was by less than ten points - and its one win was against a team that was not considered a full member of the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision last season.

There was hope, going into 2008, that the Mean Green could build upon what had been a prolific and entertaining spread offense in 2007, as well as an improvement in the defense engineered by the return of coordinator Gary DeLoach, to improve on 2007's 2-10 campaign. Instead, the team took a step backwards on both sides of the ball. The offense, which scored 24.8 points per game in 2007, managed 20.0 points per game in 2008 - 102nd in the 119-team Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring - and turned the ball over 33 times. The defense, as bad as it was in 2007, was even worse in 2008, surrendering an a cringe-inducing 47.6 points per game and ranking dead last in the FBS in both total defense and scoring defense. Special teams were a sore spot as well, as the team finished 111th in punt returns and 114th in kickoff returns.

I saw North Texas in person once last season, when they came to Houston to play Rice. I went to Rice Stadium expecting to see a high-scoring shootout between two prolific offenses, and early in the second quarter, with Rice leading 28-20, it appeared that my expectations would be met. But then the Mean Green fell apart and the Owls ran off 49 unanswered points in route to an ugly 77-20 blowout. Quarterback Giovanni Vizza threw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, UNT special teams missed an extra point and a field goal and muffed a kickoff reception, and the North Texas defense simply had no answer for the Owls' passing and receiving combo of Chase Clement and Jarrett Dillard. It was clear at that point that the Mean Green were in for a frustrating season.

Indeed, the best thing that can be said for the 2008 season is that it is over. All that the Eagles, led by third-year head coach Todd Dodge, can do now is shake off their disappointment from last year and resolve not to let such a disaster happen again in 2009.

There will be some changes his fall, most notably behind center. Coming off a disappointing year and realizing that he was in competition for the starting job with the coach's son, Giovanni Vizza saw the writing on the wall and transferred out of North Texas. The task of quarterbacking this team now falls upon Riley Dodge, who is familiar with his father's offense from his time at Southlake Carroll High School. The problem with Dodge is that he's very inexperienced at this level. He spent some time playing at receiver and quarterback last season before being suffering an injury, which garnered him a medical redshirt. If the Mean Green are to have any success at all this fall, Riley Dodge is going to have to adjust to the college game, and do so quickly.

It doesn't help matters that the offense also lost one of its biggest weapons last season, receiver Casey Fitzgerald, to graduation. In fact, there was a great deal of turnover throughout the receiving corps, and a lot of newcomers will be counted upon to catch Dodge's passes this fall. However, the team retains a potent weapon in senior running back Cam Montgomery, who rushed for 928 yards and nine touchdowns last year. His backup, Lance Dunbar, also proved to be capable last season before he was sidelined with an injury. For all of the importance that the spread offense puts on the pass, the lack of experience behind center as well as the receiving corps as well as the strength of the running game suggests that the Mean Green are probably going to rely heavily on the ground game for at least the first portion of the season. This might be a good thing, as it has the potential to eat up clock and keep the porous UNT defense off the field. The offense can take solace in the fact that the offensive line was one of the few areas of improvement last season and returns experienced and intact. They'll be needed to create holes for the running game as well as protect the young quarterback behind them.

The fact that the team is returning nine starters on defense would normally be a good thing. However, given how bad the defense was last season, that may not be the case. Fortunately, the Mean Green defense is not entirely bereft of talent: lineman Eddrick Gilmore and linebackers Tobe Nwigwe (111 tackles and three interceptions last season) and Craig Robertson all had respectable seasons last year. The linebacking corps appears to be solid, and the secondary, which lacked any help in the form of a pass rush, at least showed improvement over the course of the season. The biggest problem is a relatively inexperienced defensive line that could not stop the run and could only manage 11 sacks all last season. They have to get better if North Texas is going to have any chance this fall.

New special teams coach Shelton Gandy has his work cut out for him. Last year, this portion of the Mean Green's game was abysmal: it made only 12 of 17 field goal attempts, gave up an average of 13.1 yards and two touchdowns on punt returns, gave up an average of 31 (!) yards and three touchdowns on kickoff returns, and did not manage a robust return game themselves. At this point, any improvement on special teams would be welcome.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the national sports media does not expect a lot from North Texas this fall. foresees a three-win season for the Eagles, while, whose Congrove Computer algorithm has accurately predicted UNT's season record eight out of the last fourteen years, expects another 2-10 campaign. The New York Times is also on record as expecting a 2-10 campaign. Sports Illustrated ranks UNT 119th out of 120 FBS teams (ahead of FBS newcomer Western Kentucky, who was the only team UNT beat last season) and foresees a 2-10 season for the Mean Green as well, good enough for eighth place in the nine-team Sun Belt Conference. CBS Sports concurs with that projected placement. Jeff Sagarin's preseason rankings put North Texas 165th in all of Division I and dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision; his numbers would imply that a winless season is in store for UNT.

So what do Todd Dodge, his staff and his players need to do in order to best these bleak predictions and improve on last year's dismal campaign? Well, just about everything. On offense, the team needs to improve its scoring efficiency: with the defense as bad as it is, an average of 20 points per game just isn't going to cut it. Cam Montgomery and Lance Dunbar, as solid as they are, cannot do this by themselves. Riley Dodge and the receiving corps, as inexperienced as they all might be, need to take pressure off the running game by getting the ball down the field and into the endzone. The defense is still going to give up a lot of points, but if they can be more successful stopping the run and mounting a halfway-effective pass rush, both things they did not do with any consistency last season, they can at least keep games close and give their offense a chance to put enough points of their own on the scoreboard to win. Another thing the team as a whole needs to do is improve on a turnover margin that was 116th in the nation last year. That means limiting turnovers on the offensive side of the ball and forcing more turnovers on defense. Better special teams are a must, as well.

These are all things easier said than done, however, and if the team does not improve this fall then the fate of head coach Todd Dodge, a high school coaching legend at Southlake Carroll who came to Denton amidst high hopes and great fanfare, will likely become an issue. UNT Athletics Director Rick Villarreal would have a tough decision to make in that situation, especially due to the fact the Dodge will still have two years remaining on his contract after this season.

For everybody's sake, let's hope that it doesn't come to that. Aside from a trip to Alabama, the Mean Green do not face a particularly onerous schedule in 2009: there are no back-to-back road games and key Sun Belt foes Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic come to Denton. If Riley Dodge can grow into his role and lead the offense to greater productivity, and if the defense can at the very least not be as bad as they were last year (and let's face it: there's no place to go but up), then there will be definite hope for the future of the Dodgeball era. It's too much to expect the Mean Green to put together a winning season in 2009, but if the team can manage at least three wins and climb out of the cellar of various offensive, defensive and special teams statistical categories, then the season will be fairly considered a success.

Harry's take on the upcoming season at is worth a read as well.