Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Looking ahead at the 2010 college football season

This week is college football preview week here at MGCR. I'll have my 2010 University of Houston preview up in a few days, and a preview of the North Texas Mean Green is on its way as well. But first, I wanted to take a look at what are expected to be the top (and bottom) teams going into the 2010 season, and make a prediction as to which team will win the BCS National Championship at the end.

This year, I created my own list of what are expected to be the top teams going into the season by considering eight different preseason polls. I included six "human" preseason polls - the AP sportswriters' and USA Today coaches' polls, picks from from the networks NBC and CBS, and top 25 lists from online sports publications Athlon and collegefootballnews.com - and two preseason computer polls - the Congrove computer's preseason rankings available at collegefootballpoll.com, and Jeff Sagarin's preseason rankings posted at USA Today.

Thirteen teams were ranked in the top 25 by all eight of these preseason polls; another three were ranked by seven of the eight polls (Oklahoma was seen as a top-25 program by everybody except CBS Sports, while Sagarin didn't have Wisconsin or Pittsburgh in its top 25). I selected all fifteen of those schools, added all the rankings together and then divided by eight to come up with a "consensus" preseason top 15 for the 2010 season (click on it to read it better):

You can argue that I chose the wrong polls or should have weighted them unequally or included more schools or whatever. But this was just for fun, and besides: as Todd points out, preseason polls are wrong more often then they're right, so they should be taken with a grain of salt.

Alabama is the preseason favorite by all six of the human polls I selected. The two computer polls are slightly less impressed with the Crimson Tide; Sagarin has them 3rd and Congrove has them 4th. The same can generally be said for Ohio State; five of the six human polls have them second, but both computers put the Buckeyes sixth.

Florida averages third and is ranked in the top ten by all eight polls, including first by Sagarin. Boise State, which averages fourth, is ranked in the top ten by all the human polls. The two computer polls, however, differ dramatically as to the Broncos; Sagarin has them outside of the top ten while Congrove has them first. The two computers also like Texas, who average fifth: both of them rank the Longhorns second in the nation. The human voters are more varied in their preseason evaluations of Mack Brown's team, although the AP writers, the coaches and CBS all have Texas in the top five.

TCU averages sixth. All of the polls except for Athlon have the Horned Frogs in the top ten, with NBC and Congrove ranking TCU as high as 3rd. Six of the seven polls, likewise, have Oklahoma in the top ten, with NBC ranking them as high as 4th and CFN, Sagarin and Congrove all placing the Sooners fifth. CBS, however, is not nearly as impressed with OU: they don't even have them in the top 25.

Rounding out the top ten are Virginia Tech, Oregon and Nebraska. Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Pittsburgh and LSU take spots 11 through 15 in my consensus top fifteen.

In case anybody is wondering, USC would have been 12th on this list had I included them. However, they were only ranked by six of the eight polls I picked; the coaches poll does not rank teams on probation and Congrove has the Trojans outside of its top 25. Miami, likewise, would have been 13th, but Athlon and Sagarin don't rank the Hurricanes in their preseason top 25.

On the opposite end of the Football Bowl Subdivision spectrum are what are expected to be the nation's worst football teams in 2010. For that, we have ESPN's famous preseason Bottom Ten, as well as preseason lists that rank all 120 teams, such as CFN, CBS, Pre-Snap Read, Congrove and Sagarin. The bottom line: if you're a fan of Eastern Michigan, Western Kentucky, Tulane, North Texas or any FBS school in the state of New Mexico, you're probably in for a long year (although I will explain in a subsequent post why there is hope for the Mean Green).

So that's the top and the bottom going in to 2010. Who is going to come out of the 2010 season with the BCS title? Here are my predictions for the season ahead:

1. Neither Alabama nor Florida will make it through the regular season undefeated. Yes, the Crimson Tide are the reigning BCS champions. Yes, they bring back eight starters including 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram on offense. But Alabama is replacing almost its entire starting defense. Florida, for its part, has to replace several of last year's key players, not the least of which is Tim Tebow. Furthermore, it's tough to go undefeated in SEC play: Florida didn't do it when they won the conference and BCS Championship in 2006 and 2008, and LSU didn't do it when they did the same in 2007. That the Crimson Tide managed to do it last season is a testament to how good they were last year. I simply don't expect them to pull off the same feat two years in a row, nor do I expect the Gators to be able to do so even if they can regain last year's form. One loss probably won't hurt either team's shot at the BCS title; however, and as with seasons past it's likely all going to come down to who wins the conference.

2. Ohio State won't go undefeated, either. Terelle Pryor and the Buckeyes are very good and in my opinion are deserving of their #2 preseason ranking. But they have road games against Iowa, which returns 14 starters from last year's 11-2 season, and Wisconsin, which returns practically everyone on an offense that led the Big Ten in both yards gained and scoring last year. Ohio State also has tough home contests against Miami and Penn State. That's not a schedule that's conducive to an undefeated season regardless of how good the Buckeyes are. Like Alabama or Florida, the question for Ohio State is if they can limit the number in their loss column to 1.

3. Nebraska, on the other hand, will go undefeated. No more Ndamukong Suh? No problem! Just take a look at the Huskers' cakewalk of a schedule. They play a bunch of patsies out-of-conference, the rest of the Big 12 North is weak, they miss Oklahoma this year and they get the Longhorns (less Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley) at home one mere week after the Texas-Oklahoma showdown in Dallas. Sure, the Huskers have a big question mark at quarterback. And yes, that late-season road trip to Texas A&M is going to be tough. But if the Huskers can maintain a stifling defense and find something resembling an offense, they could enter December with the clearest shot at the BCS National Championship game.

4. No matter how well they do, neither Boise State nor TCU will play for the national title. Aside from the fact that I really don't see either of these teams going undefeated - I fully expect Virginia Tech to knock off Boise State this weekend, as a matter of fact - there is absolutely, positively no way that the exclusionary BCS system will allow a school from a non-automatically-qualifying conference to play for the national title.

5. Oregon and Virginia Tech will be good, but not national-title good. The Ducks and the Hokies both look to build on last year's ten-win seasons. But both schools nevertheless face tough schedules that will probably cost a loss or two. While I think that USC is overrated, Oregon nevertheless has hard road dates against Cal and Oregon State in the Pac-10. And even if Virginia Tech gets past Boise State this weekend, they're still facing formidable ACC matchups against Georgia Tech and Miami in November. Finally, while the Pac-10 and the ACC are both very solid conferences, neither conference is "top-heavy" in that multiple teams are highly ranked. That will lead to a perception, albeit unfair, that they played "soft" schedules.

So what's going to happen? Truth is, I foresee a logjam of one-loss teams going into conference championship Saturday after the final week of the regular season: Alabama, Florida, Texas and/or Oklahoma, Ohio State, and even Oregon and Virginia Tech could all be sitting at one loss, and the resulting implications regarding BCS chaos and controversy would be enormous.

But here's how I see things shaking out: Ohio State will be penalized by their idleness - their season ends two weeks before conference championship Saturday, which means they will be out of the minds of the voters - while Oregon and Virginia Tech will be passed over because neither of them faced any top-ten competition in-conference. That means that the Big 12 and SEC championship games will end up determining the participants of the BCS title game. Alabama will defeat Florida in the SEC Championship, while Nebraska will take care of either Texas or Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. Alabama will then go on to hand the Huskers their only loss of the season in the BCS National Championship Game, thereby securing themselves their second consecutive college football championship.

Of course, I'll probably be wrong about this prediction, just as I have every season before.

Other preseason rankings worth reading are Andy's Staples' top 25 list at Sports Illustrated (I didn't include him in my list because he is already an AP voter) and the exhuastive 120-school countdown over at Pre-Snap Read. For more BCS bowl predictions, see the list that Sports Illustrated put together. Finally, for readers looking for a comprehensive list of each week's televised college football games, I recommend this site.

Let the fun begin!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Katrina, five years later

The full and lasting effects of Katrina on the New Orleans area and the Mississippi Gulf Coast cannot be measured or understood in years, but rather in decades. However, in reading today's Chronicle article regarding the five-year anniversary of the worst natural disaster in recent US history, I did want to look back at some predictions regarding that city's fate that, five years later, turned out to be rather wrong:
After Katrina, some pundits wondered aloud whether New Orleans was all but dead, or whether it was even worth rebuilding. Now such talk seems silly, not just because its beloved Saints are Super Bowl champions, and not just because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is building a $14 billion project, its largest ever, to protect the city from future storm surges. Katrina's wake exposed a vein of intense loyalty that runs deep, in many cases generations deep. Allowing the city to die or worse, contract into a living tourist attraction — the seedy sister of Colonial Williamsburg — was unthinkable.

I remember well some of the prognostications regarding New Orleans's eminent demise in the months after Katrina. I read numerous articles (here's one) suggesting that the city should not be rebuilt because it was in such a geographically-vulnerable area or because it was such a socioeconomic mess; that the diaspora of people - especially the poor - from New Orleans should actually be encouraged because, removed from an environment of concentrated poverty, crime, poor schools and corruption, those people would thrive; or that New Orleans was destined regardless of rebuilding efforts to become the underpopulated, economically-irrelevant "living tourist attraction" the article mentions. I recall reading numerous predictions that Baton Rouge would permanently surpass New Orleans as Louisiana's principal city, much the way Houston surpassed Galveston as Texas's principal city after the Hurricane of 1900.

That, of course, hasn't happened. New Orleans has regained over 70% of its pre-Katrina population - 2009 Census estimates put the city's population at about 355 thousand but more accurate numbers won't become available until this year's census results are reported - while Baton Rouge's 2009 population is estimated to be about 225 thousand. This article mentions that more than 90% of the entire metro area's pre-Katrina population has returned.

In retrospect, the idea that people would, or even should, decide to simply abandon an entire city - even in the face of the devastation wrought by disaster or the problems the city faced even before the disaster - seems pretty foolish. Aside from the social, cultural, familial, economic, legal, capital and generational ties that bind people to their city, there is also the very basic and powerful concept of "home." New Orleans, for all its problems, is "home" to a great many people, and that's why the overwhelming majority of them have moved back. While it's true that many pre-Katrina residents have yet to return - the Lower Ninth Ward, for example, has recovered less than a quarter of its pre-Katrina population - and while it's true that, as the residents have returned, so have the city's pre-Katrina problems - the city's poverty rate of 23% is double the national average and the Crescent City has resumed its role as the nation's murder capital - the simple fact is that New Orleans will not be the Galveston of the 21st Century.

There are post-Katrina success stories to be found in New Orleans - for example, a charter school system that is improving educational performance - but there is still a lot of work left to be done and a lot of questions left to be answered (including these five issues that will affect the city's abilities to withstand the next hurricane). The twin traumas of the recession and the BP oil blowout have hampered recovery efforts, and the psychological strain of a recovery that is now beginning its sixth year cannot be understated. But humans are nothing if not preserverant, and that's why, even after came Hell and high water, New Orleans remains.

USA Today has a rather interesting interactive multimedia site about the effects of Katrina and the recovery effort.

Our airports are better than yours

If at least one online travel publication is to believed, Houston has the best airports in the United States:
You don’t have to be an oil baron to get the most out of Houston’s top-ranked airports—but it helps. The Texas city tops the charts for its VIP-friendly airline lounges, found mostly at George Bush Intercontinental (IAH). For everyone else, both IAH and Houston Hobby came in at No. 2 in the AFC survey for their food and drink (don’t miss the Tex-Mex or Cajun fare at local chains Pappasito’s and Pappadeaux) and second for entertainment—which may reflect that free WiFi. Best of all, Houston’s airports get the job done: they come in third place for on-time performance and second for their competent and down-home-friendly staff.

I think part of the reason why Houston's airports rate so well is because they are so comparatively modern; over the last decade or so, a great deal of investment has been made at both airports, including the opening of Terminal E and, more recently, significant renovations to Terminal C Bush Intercontinental; and the Central Concourse and new ticketing area at Hobby. These improvements aren't over yet; work on Hobby's new baggage claim area continues (hopefully it will be completed soon, because, the temporary claim area is kind of cramped). My only gripe about Hobby is that there needs to be more economy parking; otherwise, the airport is a breeze to get into and out of.

Airline staff has a lot to do with Houston's high ranking, as well. Southwest (Hobby's main carrier) has always made their staff's pleasant and cordial service a key part of their corporate, and as somebody who flies Southwest frequently I think that's generally true. Continental (Intercontinental's dominant carrier), likewise, seems to have a reputation for staff that is courteous, at least when compared to the industry average. Whether that changes when the merger with United (which does not have a reputation for good customer service) remains to be seen.

Local airports were rated on a variety of factors, including design and functionality, food and drink options, shopping, entertainment amenities (such as free WiFi or VIP lounges), on-time performance, ground transportation and the efficiency and demeanor of airport employees. New York, Los Angeles and St. Louis were rated the worst airport cities. A slideshow of the entire list is here, although for some reason many major airports, such as Detroit, Baltimore or Salt Lake City, weren't included.

Because you're never too old, Part III

Earlier this summer, while my parents were out of town on an extended vacation and I had free reign of their living room, I put up a new Rokenbok build. It was more extensive than the award-winning one I created last year, and was real challenge to make everything fit together. But I was pretty happy with the results. Click on any picture for a larger view.

It stayed up for several weeks and we got plenty of use out of it, but Kirby and I were nevertheless sad when it had to come down. Fortunately, it lives on in pictures, both here as well as on the Rokenbok Forum.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Cougar football: looking back at 2009

It's hard to believe that another college football season is upon us already, but it's true: the University of Houston Cougars kick off their 2010 campaign on week from tomorrow.

I realize that I never wrote an end-of-year review of the Coogs' 2009 season. For one thing, I had a lot going on earlier this year (as evidenced by my overall lack of posting in general this spring). For another, the Coogs' pathetic performance in the Armed Forces Bowl left such a bad taste in my mouth that I simply didn't feel like writing about a season that ended on such a sour note. My disappointment has waned with the passage of the offseason, however, and I'm hopeful that the Coogs can put the past behind them and embark on a 2010 season that ends on a much better note.

But before putting the past completely behind, it's useful to take a look at what happened last fall. 2009 was in many ways an amazing year for the Coogs. There were many fantastic victories: the amazing upset of then-5th-ranked Oklahoma State in Stillwater, the thrilling win over Texas Tech before a packed crowd at Robertson (these videos of the "Two Day Drive" still give me goosebumps), a quality win over Mississippi State on the road, a thrilling last-minute victory over C-USA nemesis Southern Miss on Halloween, and this come-from-behind performance at Tulsa that I would not have believed I not seen it with my own eyes:

With the euphoria, however, came the heartbreak. A week after the wild and amazing finish in the video above, the Cougars went to Central Florida and fell to the Golden Knights, 32-37. That loss could be excused by the fact that they were playing back-to-back games on the road, that they were emotionally spent after the miracle at Tulsa, and that the Central Florida team they were playing was pretty good (the Golden Knights ended the season with an 8-4 record). The Coogs' other regular-season loss, a crushing 41-58 defeat at UTEP, is less excusable. While they were coming down off their emotional win over Texas Tech the week before - I even wrote after that game that UTEP had "'letdown' and 'trap' written all over it" - the 2009 Miners turned out to be so bad (a 4-8 record with losses to C-USA cellar-dwellers such as Memphis, Rice and Tulane) that the Coogs should have handled them easily. Then there were the two losses to end the season: a bitter 32-38 result against East Carolina in the C-USA Championship, and of course the 20-47 meltdown against Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. While it's certainly true that the Coogs had trouble getting motivated for that game - their reward for their 10-win season was a trip to the same bowl game to play the same opponent - the fact is that the team still had a lot to play for: a bowl win, a final victory for the seniors, momentum heading into 2010, a probable end-of-season top-25 ranking for the first time in two decades, and good old-fashioned team pride.

A better understanding of what went right and what went wrong for the Coogs in 2009 can be gained by reviewing the statistics.

On offense, the Cougars were (literally) the best in the nation. They were first in the 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense (563.36 yards per game), tied for first in scoring offense (42.21 points per game; they also led the nation in touchdowns with 77), and first in passing offense (433.71 aerial yards per game). Quarterback Case Keenum led the nation in total offense for the second consecutive year, and was sixth in the nation in passing efficiency.

But even then there were some weak spots. The Coogs were only 83rd in the nation in rushing offense, managing 129.64 yards per game). The lack of a ground game was clearly a factor in Houston's losses to Central Florida and East Carolina, where they managed only 46 and 30 yards, respectively.

While the Cougar offense is clearly a pass-based operation, and while the fact that RB Bryce Beall was playing with injuries for most of the season was probably a factor, the fact remains that the Cougars could have used a more robust ground game in 2009 to keep defenses honest, eat up more clock time (Cougars were 114th in the nation in time of possession, holding the ball for an average of only 26 minutes and 51 seconds per game) and conceivably win those games against Central Florida and East Carolina. A stronger running attack is an offensive priority going into the 2010 season.

I do want to take a moment to recognize the offensive line. The line had lost three starters off the 2008 squad and was a point of concern going into the season, but they performed superbly, protecting Case Keenum by giving up 18 sacks all season - better than 2008's 27 sacks allowed and, at 1.29 sacks per game, good for 24th overall. (The Coogs were also second-best in the nation in tackles per loss allowed, but that's probably an artifact of the pass-oriented offense's ability to get the ball out of the backfield quickly more than it is the line's ability to protect the backs.) I'm hoping to see similar results in 2010, along with improvements in creating holes for the ground game.

While the offense was the nation's best, however, the defense was one of the nation's worst. The defense was 111th in total defense, surrendering 451.29 yards per game, and only marginally better in scoring offense, at 95th with 30.07 points per game allowed (and this average includes the good performances against some of the weaker teams on the schedule: 7 points to FCS Northwestern State, 14 points apiece to Memphis and Rice, 15 points to SMU and 16 points to Tulane). The rushing defense was particularly dreadful; they gave up 226.57 ground yards per game and ended the season ranked 115th. They were somewhat better against the pass, coming in 72nd with 224.71 passing yards per game allowed. One of the defense's problems was the inability to get behind the line; they were 85th in the nation in sacks, averaging only 1.64 per game, and 105th in tackles for loss, managing only 4.64 TFLs per game. The defense also had trouble getting the opposing offense off the field; they were 97th in third down conversion defense, allowing the opponent to convert 43% of the time, and even worse on 4th down, allowing the opponent to convert fully 50% of the time.

Of course, as everybody who followed the Coogs last season, there were reasons for the defense's dismal performance. They had very little depth or experience; three true freshmen were playing on the defensive line. The defense was battered and bruised - the fact that the team's bye week occurred early in the year, forcing the players to go 10 straight games as well as the conference championship without a break, might have played a role - and injuries, especially to the front seven, were especially painful. Notably, the loss of senior Matt Nicholson towards the end of the Texas Tech game robbed the squad of critical on-field leadership and experience.

Given those factors, Defensive Coordinator John Skaladany really didn't have a lot to work with and therefore felt limited as to what kind of schemes he could call. Even so, towards the end of the season I was one of many UH fans who begged for Skaladany to try something new - blitz more, take some risks - do something, anything - to stop the bleeding. The fact that he did not, as well as the fact that the defense's struggles were nothing new - they were 100th in the nation in scoring defense the year before - led head coach Kevin Sumlin to decide to make a change. Skaladany was let go after the season ended, and in his place the Cougars brought in Brian Stewart, a coach with NFL experience who set to work retooling the defensive squad over the offseason, notably by switching to a 3-4 alignment that should work to the defense's strengths.

As for the other aspects of the team's 2009 performance: during Art Briles' tenure I became increasingly frustrated with the "unholy trinity" of turnovers, penalties and lousy special teams play that perennially plagued the team. Under Sumlin, however, there has been vast improvement in those areas. For example, the Cougars were 8th in the nation last season in total penalties, averaging only 4.5 flags per game. That's a far cry from a few seasons before, when they were among the top ten most penalized teams in the nation. Turnovers have also been reduced; they lost the ball 26 times last year, which ranked 83rd in a category where a lower ranking is better (and 9 of those turnovers occurred as a result of Case Keenum interceptions the last two games of the season, which is hopefully just an aberration). The Coogs ended the season +4 in turnover margin (their 30 balls recovered were good for the 11th spot nationally), a good improvement over 2008's -6 margin.

Special teams have become markedly better as well, although there is still room for improvement. Houston has done well with kickoffs, coming in at 35th in the nation in kickoff returns with 23.21 average yards per return and five kickoffs run back for touchdowns, and ranked 44th in kickoff return yardage allowed, at 20.91 per opponent return and only a single kick return touchdown allowed. Punting is a different story, however, as the Coogs' punting return defense allowed 12.15 return yards per punt and ended the season ranked 101st, while Cougar punt returners averaged only 8.81 yards per return - 60th in the nation - and did not return any punts for touchdowns last year. Place-kicking could use improvement as well; Matt Hogan was a perfect 12 for 12 on field goals after replacing Jordan Mannisto, who had missed 4 of his 10 ten attempts, but Hogan was only 88% on extra point attempts, including those three misses against East Carolina in the championship game that were a factor in the Coog's six-point margin of defeat.

There's also the focus factor. In 2008 the Coogs had a problem with slow starts in games; oftentimes they'd come out flat, fall behind by several scores, and have to rally in the second half to try to win. That wasn't really an issue in 2009. What was an issue was motivation for certain games, i.e. UTEP and Air Force, where the team simply didn't come out to play at all. While keeping a group of kids motivated and focused for every game is a tough job for any coach, the momentum-killing letdowns like UTEP and Air Force were clearly dark spots on an otherwise-respectable 2009 season and Sumlin and his staff need to ensure that they don't happen again in 2010 if the Coogs are to achieve their goals: namely, winning Conference USA.

So that was 2009. Considering the team's defensive woes as well as the schedule they faced, I actually believe the Coogs overachieved last year (their ten wins were two more than what I had predicted before the season started). It's just too bad that the season did not end on a more positive note. However, perhaps the feeling of "not finishing the job" will provide the team with added motivation and incentive in 2010.

The offseason has generally been a good one for the Coogs, including an impressive signing day haul, the acquisition of a few JUCO transfers (such as DE Matangi Tonga and LB Sammy Brown) to plug some holes on defense, a good spring practice and recoveries to defensive players such as Matt Nicholson and Jackie Candy. There were some disappointments; WRs L. J. Castile and A .J. Dugat and OLs Ari Tatum and Jarve Dean left the team, and RB Charles Sims (ineligibility) and DL Zeke Riser (injury) will have to sit out the year. The losses of the two receivers and offensive linemen probably won't be much of a factor because the Coogs have so much depth at those positions, but the losses of Sims, who was last year's leading rusher, and Riser, who played admirably in spite of being a true freshman last season, will hurt. However, the Cougars got a late break when RB Michael Hayes transferred in from Blinn Junior College at the beginning of August. He was impressive during fall practice and his presence will at least somewhat mitigate Sims' absence.

Now it's time for the fun to begin. I'll have my 2010 preview up in the newxt few days.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The wild west realignment brawl

Just when I thought the latest round of conference realignment was over, along comes a new episode of conference-hopping, this time involving the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and the Mountain West Conference (MWC). There are rumors that Conference USA in general and the University of Houston in particular could somehow become involved as well.

The seeds for the latest and greatest collegiate sports reshuffling were sowed by the previous round of conference realignment, which saw the Big Twelve reduced to ten teams and the Pac-10 and Big Ten expanded to twelve teams. Utah's jump from the MWC, a conference that does not automatically qualify for the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), to the Pac-10, a conference that does, apparently didn't sit well with Utah's big rival, BYU. As they saw how Utes stood to benefit from their association with the Pac-10, the Cougars grew green - as in money - with envy.

So BYU decided to explore leaving the MWC and becoming an independent in football. The LDS-owned school, given its reasonably successful track record as well as the support it enjoys from Mormons nationwide, apparently fancied itself as the Notre Dame of the west; becoming a football independent would allow the Cougars to control their own television revenue stream, Like Notre Dame, play a "national" schedule of their choosing, like Notre Dame, and perhaps even achieve special status relative to the BCS, like Notre Dame. Whether that last part actually happens, however, is open to debate, as si.com's Stewart Mandel explains:
In nearly any season, a 10-2 Notre Dame team will get a BCS berth, no questions asked. It's doubtful a 10-2 BYU team playing its own version of a "national" schedule would get similar treatment from voters. It is possible, however, that just by separating itself as an independent -- by shedding that "non-BCS" stigma -- BYU's perception among voters would improve. It's also possible a couple more years of national rankings might merit an invite from the remodeling Big 12 or another look from the Pac-10.

Then again, it's also possible voters would treat the Cougars like Navy, which won 10 games last season and didn't even crack the final Top 25.

It's easy to see why BYU, as a religious institution with a passionate fan base, would choose to emulate Notre Dame. But the weird reality of college football is that winning more games than Notre Dame (as the Cougars have each of the past four seasons) doesn't turn you into Notre Dame. Playing on national television every week (as nearly every Big Ten and SEC team now does) doesn't turn you into Notre Dame.

If BYU were to go independent, it would need a need a place for its other sports, i.e. basketball, baseball, volleyball and the like, to play, much the way Notre Dame's other sports play in the Big East. It was obvious that the MWC would not be amenible to such an arrangement, BYU began having discussions with the WAC.

The prospect of losing a high-profile program like BYU, however, obviously hasn't been sitting well with the MWC and its commissioner, Craig Thompson. In a move that would make Machiavelli proud, he and the presidents of the remaining MWC schools threw a wrench in BYU's plans by inviting WAC schools Nevada and Fresno State to join the conference. Both schools have long desired to join the MWC and quickly jumped at the opportunity; Wednesday night the presidents and athletic directors of both schools held press conferences to that effect.

Needless to say, the resulting damage to the WAC has been immense. Not only have their dreams of having onetime WAC member BYU rejoin their conference, if only for the non-football sports, been dashed, but they've also now lost one-third of their membership to the MWC (Boise State, you'll recall, made the jump from the WAC to the MWC during this summer's previous realignment rumble). WAC Commissioner Karl Benson, needless to say, is not happy. He intends to punish Fresno State and Nevada any way he can:
Fresno State and Nevada should not expect any parting gifts from the other members of the Western Athletic Conference when the Bulldogs and Wolf Pack leave for the Mountain West.

WAC commissioner Karl Benson said Thursday that each departing school will have to pay a $5 million fee to his league and wait until 2012 to move after accepting the MWC's invitation and dismantling an agreement the WAC was on the verge of completing with BYU.

The Cougars were in line to rejoin the WAC in all sports other than football, in which BYU would have become an independent.

Benson called Fresno State and Nevada's decision "selfish."

Benson is right. It is selfish. But it's clear that he also understands that it's part of the business of modern college football. The inherently unfair BCS system has left schools ruthlessly scrambling for access and advantage, as ESPN's Pat Forde explains:

The root cause of this particular form of conference cannibalism is none other than the BCS. If college football had an equitable means of crowning a national champion, one that was at least in theory open to teams from all leagues, would all this be happening?

"Probably not," Benson said. "That's a fair question. I think we're all chasing the BCS; we're all chasing recruiting exposure and notoriety and the financial windfall that comes with the BCS. We're all positioning ourselves for a bigger piece."

That's why, in this decade, conferences have attacked each other with a remarkable degree of avarice and a general disregard for collegiality. All the high-minded ideals university bigwigs like to talk about have been tossed aside in the brass-knuckles fight for increased revenue.

And in the bigger-is-better world of college sports, the painful side effects trickle down to the weak. The ACC attacked the Big East, which responded by gutting Conference USA. The Big Ten nearly poached the Big 12 out of existence. And once the Pac-10 destabilized the Mountain West by pilfering Utah, that left the MWC and WAC in an eye-gouging struggle to survive.

"In today's intercollegiate environment," Benson said, "[raiding other leagues] has become fairly routine and fairly standard."

Ironically, there's word that the MWC actually tried to lure an additional school away from the WAC: Utah State. The folks in Logan, however, apparently turned down the offer out of loyalty to their current conference:

In an open letter posted on the school's website Thursday, Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes wrote that, upon learning earlier this week of the potential for BYU to leave, "MWC leadership contacted three WAC members inquiring about their interest in joining the MWC."

Then, in somewhat of a surprise, Barnes wrote that "Utah State was the first of these three contacts." Barnes added that Utah State declined the invitation because they were "committed to uphold[ing] our agreement with fellow WAC members", in part because USU "believed all WAC members would remain committed" to the solidarity pact reached by the member schools last Friday.
Utah State's dedication and commitment to its existing conference is refreshing and admirable. But it's also very quaint. The Aggies now risk being on the outside looking in when the dust settles.

And the dust isn't close to settling yet. BYU reportedly has until August 31st to inform the MWC that it is going independent in football, and now that the WAC-for-other-sports option is apparently off the table, a lot of serious consideration is going to have to take place in athletic offices in Provo and church boardrooms in Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, there's late word that Conference USA could become involved in the ongoing realignment mayhem:
Two sources with knowledge of the discussions told the Orlando Sentinel on Thursday one of the scenarios being discussed includes a possible merger of 20 teams from the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA, with the champion claiming an automatic BCS bowl bid. However, the sources stated such an agreement is complex, could easily fall apart and is far from being completed.
A 20-team conference seems a bit far-fetched to me, but one thing I've learned about conference realignment is to expect the unexpected. Another possibility being rumored is a BCS play-in game between the MWC and C-USA:
Late Thursday night, a source close to the situation said that representatives from the Mountain West and another league -- believed to be Conference USA -- met in Colorado to discuss a plan to match the two conferences' champions in a title game, with the winner gaining an automatic BCS berth.

"You're on the right track," said the source. "The lawyers have told them [the BCS] that it's time to give someone else a chance."

There's also been speculation - including tweets from various sportswriters - that the University of Houston could be called upon to round out a 12-team MWC if BYU can be persuaded to stay. Needless to say, these rumors have sparked a flurry of discussion on Cougar message boards that normally would be spending this time of year discussing starting lineups and tailgate menus.

This isn't over yet, and it's likely to get even more interesting in the days ahead.

China's road-straddling tunnel-bus

My cousin, who follows all things China, sent this to me a couple of weeks ago, and it's since been making the rounds in the blogosphere: a bus that straddles the roadway, allowing cars to pass underneath it:
Proposed by Shenzhen Hashi Future Parking Equipment Co., Ltd, the model looks like a subway or light-rail train bestriding the road. It is 4-4.5 m high with two levels: passengers board on the upper level while other vehicles lower than 2 m can go through under. Powered by electricity and solar energy, the bus can speed up to 60 km/h carrying 1200-1400 passengers at a time without blocking other vehicles’ way. Also it costs about 500 million yuan to build the bus and a 40-km-long path for it, only 10% of building equivalent subway. It is said that the bus can reduce traffic jams by 20-30%.
Here is a video of the proposed vehicle with an English translation:

At first glance, I think it's a fascinating concept. But the devil is in the details, and the information currently available about this concept provides precious little in the way of specifics. For example:

How does this massive thing turn? The video indicates that the vehicle is articulated, but given its size it still seems like it would need a tremendous turning radius.

What about the time and cost associated with the removal and relocation of traffic lights, bridges, power lines, trees, etc. necessary to give this 4.5 meter (about 18 feet) sufficient vertical clearance?

What about the manner in which other motorists interact with it? Moving through a tunnel that itself is moving is bound to be a disorienting experience to drivers. There are supposed to be sensors on this contraption to warn motorists if they get too close to the edges of the vehicle or if a truck is approaching that is too high to enter the tunnel. Whether motorists pay attention to these sensors is a completely different story, however. It seems to me like a massive motorist education campaign would need to be undertaken to prepare drivers for interaction with these vehicles. And don't even get me started on pedestrian safety.

The vehicles can be guided by rails or by optical guidance using painted lines. However, optical guidance has run into problems in other applications, due to the paint being obscured by oil, dirt and weather-related fading, so I'm not sure I'd trust optical guidance to reliably guide vehicles of this size. Rail will probably need to be laid, and that's not cheap.

These vehicles are obviously going to be very heavy. Will the roadways - or at least the edges of them where the vehicle's wheels are located - need to be rebuilt in order to support the weight of these things? And if so, does that mean that underground utilities will need to be relocated?

The video suggests that the straddling bus can be parked anywhere along a road when it is not in use, so cars will pass under it and it will not impede the flow of traffic. But what about when the bus needs routine maintenance? I imagine there will still need to be maintenance and storage facilities built to support these vehicles.

I really can't speak to the cost savings this concept claims to produce relative to a traditional subway, given that the economics of infrastructure construction in the Peoples Republic of China are completely different than what I'm familiar with. But fully 90% cheaper than building a subway? Color me skeptical. As expensive as subways might be to build, they are at least a proven technology. This concept is not, and hidden or unforeseen costs are all but certain.

Anyway, the video claims that construction on this concept is set to begin in Beijing later this year. I'm very curious to see if this is true and, if so, what the results will be. If it actually gets built, and if it is successful, it is something that can be economically and politically implemented outside of the People's Republic of China?

The Infrastructurist has an image gallery of the proposed concept. The Transit Pass is skeptical. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 16, 2010

If journalism came with warning labels

Everything else seems to come with warning labels these days, so why not warning labels for news as well? British comedian Tom Scott has created a set of labels intended to warn readers of "sloppy journalism and other questionable content." There's even a .pdf of these labels for people who want to print them out and place them on their favorite (or least favorite) newspaper articles. Unfortunately, there is as of yet no way to place these warning labels on online articles, which is probably where they're most needed.

Here are a few of my favorites:
I found these labels to be humorous and depressing at the same time, because they're so true.

Although the journalism profession has fallen on tough times as of late (i.e. the rise of the internet and the decline of print media), I should be fair in noting that most of the problems these warning labels address are not new to the profession; they've existed as long as journalism has existed. Whether these problems are becoming more prevalent in the industry's current environment is another story.

(Hat tip: The Daily What)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

JetBlue's angry flight attendant

By now everybody has probably heard about the story about Steve Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who walked off the job in dramatic fashion early this week:

After a dispute with a passenger who stood to fetch luggage too soon on a full flight just in from Pittsburgh, Mr. Slater, 38 and a career flight attendant, got on the public-address intercom and let loose a string of invective.

Then, the authorities said, he pulled the lever that activates the emergency-evacuation chute and slid down, making a dramatic exit not only from the plane but, one imagines, also from his airline career.

On his way out the door, he paused to grab a beer from the beverage cart. Then he ran to the employee parking lot and drove off, the authorities said.

He was arrested at his home in Belle Harbor, Queens, a few miles from the airport, and charged with felony counts of criminal mischief and reckless endangerment.

In the days since, Slater has become a folk hero of sorts. A Facebook page created for him now has over 190 thousand fans, and some people have even offered to donate towards his legal defense. While I can't defend Slater's actions - they were illegal and possibly dangerous - I certainly have empathy for him. Flight attendants are on the front lines of a mode of travel that is growing increasingly unpleasant, and his encounter with a rude passenger sent him to the breaking point.

Speaking of the incident that set Slater off:

One passenger stood up to retrieve belongings from the overhead compartment before the crew had given permission. Mr. Slater instructed the person to remain seated. The passenger defied him. Mr. Slater reached the passenger just as the person was pulling down the luggage, which struck Mr. Slater in the head.

Mr. Slater asked for an apology. The passenger instead cursed at him. Mr. Slater got on the plane’s public-address system and cursed out the passenger for all to hear. Then, after declaring that 20 years in the airline industry was enough, he blurted out, “It’s been great!” He activated the inflatable evacuation slide at a service exit and left the world of flight attending behind.

Isn't disobeying and interfering with a flight crew, which she obviously did, a federal offense? Why wasn't this passenger, who felt she was too important to obey Slater's instructions, arrested as well?

She shares blame for this incident, and it wouldn't bother me in the least if authorities made an example of her to the flying public.

Laura Ann Edwards 1974 - 2010

Laura's obituary ran in yesterday's edition of the Conroe Courier. As is my tradition, I am posting it here as well:
Laura Edwards, 36, of Alexandria, Virginia, passed away July 25th 2010 with her family by her side. She is survived by her parents Mr. and Mrs. D.V. Edwards of Conroe, her brother Michael Edwards, brother-in-law Christopher Bride of Dallas, and her boyfriend Josh Rouch of Washington, DC as well as her second family, Tom and Sue Burgess and their children Seth, Zeke and Paul. Laura was surrounded by a strong network of co-workers and friends and will be sorely missed.

Laura was born February 14th, 1974 in Seguin, Texas, grew up in Conroe, Texas, graduating from Conroe High School. She earned a BA in Architecture from the University of Houston before embarking on a successful career in architecture. She designed as well as managed projects focused on the healthcare industry for HKS in Dallas, CSD in Baltimore, and Ellerbe Becket in Washington, DC. Her skill and dedication has left a legacy that will be felt in hospitals across the country.

Laura's memorial service will be held on Saturday August 14th at 2:00pm at the First Methodist Church in Conroe. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to MD Anderson Cancer Center or St. Jude Children's Cancer Center.
It's been almost three weeks since "Monsterchick" passed away, and I still can't believe it. She will be greatly missed.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

SkyWest to acquire ExpressJet

A couple of months ago, we learned the unfortunate news that Houston-based Continental Airlines would be merging with United. The Continental name will disappear, and the merged airline's corporate headquarters will be located in Chicago. Now comes word that Houston's other hometown airline, ExpressJet, is set to vanish as well:
Consolidation in the U.S. airline industry has trickled down to the nation's regional carriers. The USA's largest regional operator -- SkyWest -- today announced that it plans to acquire Houston-based ExpressJet, another regional carrier.

The Houston Business Journal writes that "as per the agreement, ExpressJet will be folded into SkyWest subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines, based in Atlanta. It is expected that ExpressJet will move its corporate headquarters to Atlanta, but maintain an operational support structure in Houston."

ExpressJet was once a Continental Airlines subsidiary known as Continental Express. It later became an independent company but has continued to serve as Continental's regional carrier under the Continental Express brand. It also provides regional services for United Airlines under the United Express brand, operates charter services, and provides the aircraft for Branson AirExpress, an airline serving the Missouri entertainment hub from several cities. ExpressJet attempted to operate some services as a stand-alone carrier in 2007 but ended that experiment the following year.

This is SkyWest's second attempt at an ExpressJet takeover; the first attempt in 2008 was rejected. However, given the ongoing trend towards airline consolidation in general and the United-Continental merger in particular, this time the acquisition made sense from a business perspective.

Nevertheless, it's another blow for Houston, which will lose another corporate headquarters as well as some jobs. For example, a friend of mine who works for ExpressJet has indicated that he expects to be relocated to Atlanta sometime in the future.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Tearing down the Claiborne

About a year ago I picked up on a story about a movement to tear down the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans. It wasn't clear how much momentum the idea had at the time, but this recent article from the Times-Picayune suggests that the idea might be getting some traction:
Hoping to give further momentum to an idea that has picked up a growing number of adherents in recent years, a group of local civic activists and planners today will release a detailed report advocating the removal of the elevated expressway over Claiborne Avenue.

The report suggests turning the 2.2-mile stretch of expressway between Elysian Fields Avenue and the Pontchartrain Expressway near the Superdome into a surface-level boulevard tied into the city's regular street grid, although it says even that might not have to be built in the section of the route between St. Bernard Avenue and Elysian Fields.

The document says eliminating the expressway would have numerous benefits, such as removing an eyesore, reducing noise and air pollution, increasing opportunities for public transit, and promoting investment that would eliminate blight and create economic development in the Treme and 7th Ward neighborhoods.

Although travel times for motorists who now use the expressway would be longer, the increases would be only a few minutes, the report says, and accessibility to the French Quarter and other destinations along the expressway route would "improve substantially with a better-connected street network."
The report, "Restoring Claiborne Avenue," was created for the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition and the Congress for the New Urbanism, which also places the Claiborne on its list of "Freeways Without Futures." While the possible removal of the freeway was apparently greeted with skepticism by the previous Nagin administration, current New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu is open to the idea, suggesting that "it could reconnect two of the city's most historic neighborhoods."

The construction of the Claiborne has been blamed for dividing the communities along its path, causing economic decline to historic African-American neighborhoods such as the Treme. In this regard, New Orleans is no different than other American cities - go here to read an an excellent discussion of the devastating effects of urban freeways on inner-city communities in general and on St. Louis in particular - and is something I've extensively researched. Planners and engineers of the '50s and '60s felt that the ability of automobiles to quickly travel from suburbs to central business districts was more important than the preservation of the (largely-minority) neighborhoods through which these structures passed, a philosophy that in retrospect was very unfortunate and something that, as a transportation planner myself, I'm acutely aware about.

While I'm certainly not a proponent of the wholesale removal of urban freeways - these structures have, generally speaking, become a key part of a city's transportation network and ridding our nation's cities of all of their freeways would make them less accessible, less navigable and more congested - I think there is something to be said for the strategic removal (or relocation, as is occurring with I-40 in Oklahoma City) of some structures. The Claiborne seems to be a sensible candidate for removal simply because it is redundant - through traffic through New Orleans already is served by I-610 to the north, the presence of I-12 on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain allows interstate traffic to bypass the city completely, and in any case the majority of the Big Easy's suburban communities are on the west side of the city, in Jefferson Parish, meaning that the removal of the Claiborne would probably not affect the majority of the region's commuters. The wide right-of-way which the Claiborne currently straddles - approximately 180 feet, according to the Google Earth ruler - also presents some innovative and interesting opportunities - perhaps a multiway boulevard?

To be sure, it is unclear if the removal of the Claiborne would have the desired effect of economic revitalization in the communities through which it passes. The city is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and in any case the city's socioeconomic woes began long before that catastrophe. This is by no means a magic bullet, and if the comments to the Times-Picayune story are any indication there is clearly at least some opposition to this idea.

What is clear is this: the existing Claiborne structure is nearing the end of its design life. Something, whether it be a new elevated structure, an at-grade boulevard, or something entirely different, is eventually going to take its place. The people of New Orleans are at least being given the opportunity to think about and discuss this corridor's future, which they were not allowed to do when the original freeway was built back in the 1960s.

The top ten post-season chokejobs in Houston sports history

A couple of weeks ago, the Houston Press presented their list of the ten best moments in Houston sports history, as well as the "five most heartbreaking." At the top of their ten best list was, of course, the Rockets' back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995.

The Press notes that after the Rockets blew large leads - at home, no less - to the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the 1994 playoffs, a Houston Chronicle headline cynically proclaimed "Choke City." However, the Rockets didn't choke; they went on to win the next two games in Phoenix to win that series, giving rise to the "Clutch City" meme. The Rockets then defeated the Utah Jazz for the conference title, and edged the New York Knicks in seven games to secure the city's first major sports league championship. The following year, the Rockets won it all in even more compelling fashion, battling their way through the Western Conference playoffs as a six seed and sweeping the Orlando Magic in the finals.

But the Press admits that "for now, the Rockets stand alone as the only team to provide Houston thrills without subsequent disappointment." The 2003 Rice Owls baseball team and the 2006-07 Dynamo might disagree with that statement, of course, but I understand the general sentiment. That, combined with some of the items in the Press's "five most heartbreaking moments" list, led me to realize that, in many ways, Houston really is "Choke City" and that one could easily make a top ten list of Houston sports chokejobs. So I decided to do so, focusing exclusively on postseason events (regular season chokes just don't carry the same baggage of disappointment).

By "choke," I mean a situation where a Houston team has the advantage - either a big lead or is favored to win - but fails to do so. Therefore, not all of the myriad disappointing outcomes in Houston sports history qualify as "chokes." While the 1979 AFC Championship, the 1980 and 1986 NBA Finals, or the 1986 NLCS might be dark moments in Houston sports history, they don't count as chokes because the Oilers, Rockets and Astros, respectively, were considered the underdogs in those matchups. Albert Pujol's blasting of Brad Lidge's pitch in game 5 of the 2005 NLCS doesn't count either, especially since the Astros ended up winning the series. The 2005 World Series itself also does not count, because even if the Astros did get swept, they were swept by a White Sox team with a better record and home-field advantage. Besides, the simple fact that the Astros made it to the World Series is good enough to keep it off this list.

So without further ado, I present the Mean Green Cougar Red list of the Top Ten Post-season Chokejobs in Houston Sports History:

10. UH vs Air Force, 2009 Armed Forces Bowl

Maybe I'm putting this here simply because the Coogs' inexcusable 20-47 loss to Air Force in Fort Worth last New Year's Eve is still fresh in my mind. But I think it belongs, considering that Vegas had the Cougars favored by five.

Sure, the Coogs limped into the postseason with a depleted defense and losses in three of their last five games. And yes, it was hard to get motivated to play the same team in the same bowl game as the year before. But with the team's pride, and a possible season-ending top 25 ranking on the line, the Coogs simply did not show up to play. Case Keenum was especially atrocious, throwing six interceptions.

Thus a 2009 season that saw the Coogs upset highly-ranked Oklahoma State on the road, win a thriller over Texas Tech at home, and climb as high as #12 in the polls ended on a sour, unranked note. I can only hope that this bitter and embarrassing season-ending loss motivates the team to do better this fall.

9. Astros vs Cardinals, 2004 NLCS

The Astros had finally done it: they had beaten the hated Atlanta Braves in the divisional series, thereby securing their very first series victory in the baseball postseason. Now they faced off against division rival St. Louis for the opportunity to go to their first-ever World Series.

It wasn't going to be easy; St. Louis was division champion and had home-field advantage. But after falling behind in St. Louis two games to nothing, the Astros swept their homestand at Minute Maid Park to take a 3-2 series lead (Jeff Kent's home run in game five makes the Press's top ten list). That meant they had two chances to seal the deal and go to the World Series. Things looked especially advantageous for the Astros considering that they had ace pitcher Roger Clemens ready for game seven, if necessary.

Alas, the Astros dropped game six to the Cardinals and, in spite of Clemens' presence on the mound in game seven, lost that game as well to yield the series and the league crown to St. Louis. Of course, considering that the Cardinals went on to get swept by the Red Sox in the World Series, thereby cementing their role in baseball history as the team to which Boston's 86-year-old "Curse of the Bambino" ended, maybe the Astros lucked out by losing. Especially since they'd meet the Cardinals again the following October, with better results.

8. Rockets vs Dallas, 2005 NBA Western Conference First Round

This is the mirror opposite of the 1994 series against Phoenix which gave rise to the "Clutch City" meme. The Rockets jumped out to a 2-0 series lead on the road, and, with their next two games at home, looked to be in the drivers' seat. Unfortunately, the Rockets simply couldn't handle such prosperity; they lost the next two games at Toyota Center to surrender their home court advantage, and eventually lost to the Mavericks in seven games. Game seven, incidentally, was a true beatdown: the Rockets got hammered, 76-116.

7. Oilers vs Denver, 1992 AFC Divisonal Playoff

The 1991 Houston Oilers had won their very first AFC Central Division title with an 11-5 record, and had taken care of the New York Jets in the first round of the playoffs. On January 4, 1992, they traveled to Mile High Stadium in Denver. Beat the Broncos, and the Oilers would be one game away from the Super Bowl.

Things started out well enough. At one point the Oilers jumped out to a 21-6 lead. But the offense got bogged down, only managing a single field goal from there on, while the Broncos climbed back to get within a point of the Oilers late in the game. And that's when John Elway worked another one of his miracles. Starting from his own two yard line, Elway methodically marched the Broncos down the field, receiving only token resistance from the Oiler defense. The highlight (or lowlight) of the drive was Elway's 44-yard pass to Vance Johnson on fourth down and ten with 59 seconds left to play. The Broncos kicked a field goal with sixteen seconds remaining to win the game.

With that, the dream of "Super Blue in '92" came to an end. This Oiler chokejob was a harbinger of things to come.

6. Rockets vs Jazz, 1997 NBA Western Conference Finals

The Rockets were one year removed from back-to-back titles and were looking to add a third ring to the Clutch City dynasty. They had even acquired Charles Barkley from the Suns expressly for that purpose. After sweeping Minnesota in the first round and finally defeating their nemesis Seattle Supersonics in the second round, they faced off against the Utah Jazz in the third round.

Maybe the Jazz were the better team that year. And, given that they were up three games to two, maybe they would have won the series regardless of the outcome of game six. But this counts as a choke simply because the Rockets were leading comfortably at home in game six - 90-77 with 6:42 left to play - when they collapsed down the stretch, allowing the Jazz to claw their way back into the game and, with the help of John Stockton's last-second three-pointer, win the game as well as the series.

That would turn out to be the last gasp of the Clutch City Rockets. Eleven seasons would pass before the franchise would notch another postseason series victory.

5. Oilers vs Kansas City, 1994 AFC Divisional Playoff

After a shaky start to the 1993 season, the Oilers rattled off an impressive eleven straight wins, which was enough to secure themselves a 12-4 record, the AFC Central Division title, a first round bye in the playoffs and home-field advantage in the second round against Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Once again, the Oilers jumped out early, leading 10-0 at halftime. And once again, they let the other team back into the game, allowing the Chiefs to score 21 unanswered points in the second half. The Oilers scored a late touchdown to cut the deficit to one point, but all that did was give the Montana-led Chiefs an opportunity to march 79 yards down the field. The game-winning touchdown was scored on a 21-yard Marcus Allen run.

Mercifully, this would be the Oilers' last chokejob while in Houston. Three seasons later, they moved to Tennessee.

4. Astros vs Philies, 1980 NLCS

The 1980 Astros, with a roster full of players whose names are now legendary amongst Houston sports fans - Alan Ashby, José Cruz, Joe Morgan, Joe Niekro, Tery Puhl and Nolan Ryan, just to name a few - notched their first division title with a 93-70 record and secured "Home Dome" advantage in the championship series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

From a baseball perspective, this was an exciting series, with four of the five games going into extra innings. After splitting the first two games in Philadelphia, the Astros won a true pitcher's duel in an eleven-inning game three to put them within one game of the World Series.

But they couldn't get it done. In game four, the Astros managed a two-run lead and at one point were six outs away from winning it all. However, the Astros were unable to pad that lead in spite of bases-loaded situations in the sixth and seventh innings, and in the eighth inning the Phillies scored three runs to go ahead. The Astros tied things up again in the 9th, but Philadelphia won the game in the 10th. In game five, the Astros once again found themselves in a similar situation, up by three runs with six outs remaining. In spite of the fact that Nolan Ryan was on the mound, the Phillies scored five runs in the eighth to take the lead. Once again, the Astros managed to tie the game. And once again, the Phillies managed to win in extra innings.

For most Astros fans, time and the 2005 World Series appearance might have erased the pain of this series. But, given that the Astros were playing at home and were six outs from winning not once but twice, this still counts as one of the bigger chokes in Houston's tortured sports history.

3. UH vs Notre Dame, 1979 Cotton Bowl

Long before it was the Oilers choking to a Joe Montana-led team in the postseason, it was the Cougars. The Coogs, who had managed a 9-2 record, a Southwest Conference championship and a #9 AP ranking going into the bowl, faced off against Notre Dame (8-3, AP #10) on a frigid and blustery New Year's Day in Dallas. The Irish scored the game's first 12 points, but Houston then rattled off 34 consecutive unanswered points to take control of the game. And that's when Joe Montana took over.

Montana, who had been suffering from hypothermia, spent most of the second half in the Irish locker room, drinking chicken broth. With seven and a half minutes left in the game, he returned to the field. Seemingly buoyed by the return of their quarterback, Irish special teams promptly blocked a Cougar punt to score a touchdown. Montana passed for the two-point conversion to make it 34-20. The Houston Veer offense stagnated on the ensuing position and the Irish got the ball back. Montana then marched the team on a 61-yard, five-play drive to score another touchdown and conversion to cut Houston's lead to six.

Again, Houston could do nothing on offense. And again, Montana got the ball back. However, with 1:50 remaining, Houston linebacker David Hodge forced Montana to fumble and the Coogs regained possession. All the Cougars needed to do to seal the win was to gain a first down.

They couldn't. For whatever reason, the Coogs chose to go for it on 4th and one from their own 29 rather than punt, and got stuffed at the line of scrimmage by Notre Dame. That gave Joe Montana a short field and 28 seconds to pull off the miracle, and that was all he needed. Montana found receiver Kris Haines in the endzone with no time left on the clock to tie the game, and Notre Dame, after having their first extra point attempt negated by a penalty, successfully scored on their second attempt to cap off one of the greatest comebacks in college football history, 35-34.

The Cougars would return to the Cotton Bowl the following year and redeem themselves by defeating Nebraska, 17-14, in an eerily similar fashion (a fourth-down touchdown pass with twelve seconds remaining). But the 1979 game has nevertheless gone down as one of the biggest chokejobs in Cougar athletic history, second only to...

2. UH vs North Carolina State, 1983 NCAA Basketball Championship

All these years later it's still a bitter pill for UH fans to swallow, especially considering how far UH basketball has fallen since the Phi Slamma Jama era.

Everybody knows what happened. CBS can't help but repeatedly air the clip during every March Madness broadcast. There's Derek Whittenburg inbounding the ball on a high arch, Lorenzo Charles taking the ball and dunking it over a clueless Hakeem Olajuwon's head, the buzzer sounding, Jimmy Valvano running out on the court madly screaming and flailing his arms, Cougar players crying and pounding the hardwood with their firsts... I've seen this clip so many times but simply can't get desensitized to it. Every time I see it I want to throw up.

It's easy to make excuses for the Coogs, i.e. that they were exhausted after their thrilling victory over Louisville in the semifinal (another moment on the Press top ten list) or that the high altitude of Albuquerque was taking its toll on a bunch of kids from the coast, or that Guy Lewis's decision to order the high-flying Cougar offense into "stall" mode during the second half was a mistake. But in the end, this choke occurred the way so many chokes occur: complacency. As a former player tells the Press:
"We took them seriously, but we didn't take them that seriously," says Bryan Williams, a member of that Phi Slama Jama team. "We were kids — we thought we had it in the bag already. We won that big high game and, for us, we knew we were going to beat NC State, they weren't even supposed to be there, so we knew we were going to walk all over them, and I guess everybody got kinda, well, horse before the cart."
The Cougars managed to make it back to the championship game the following year, but were dispatched by Georgetown. That was the end of Phi Slamma Jama. The Cougars haven't won a game in the Big Dance since.

1. Oilers vs Buffalo, NFL AFC Wildcard Playoff

Speaking of meltdowns caused by complacency, this one is the obvious number one. The Oilers, who led the Bills 35-3 early in the 3rd quarter, allowed Buffalo, led by back-up quarterback Frank Reich, to rally furiously to a 41-38 victory in overtime.

This game has own name - "The Comeback" - and is rated by some people as not only the biggest choke job in Houston history, or pro football history, but sports history, period. It is the very definition of "chokejob," a display of gutlessness and lack of character so jawdropping that almost two decades later it's hard to believe it actually happened. But happen it did, a feat which might never be equalled in the history of sport.

Honorable Mentions: University of Houston vs UCSB, 2004 NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament (the Chandi Jones - led Lady Coogs notched a 27-3 record, a conference title, and a #3 seed going the women's version of the Big Dance, but were bounced out in the second round, 52-56, by #11 seed UC Santa Barbara; to the Lady Coogs' defense, this was essentially a home game for the Lady Gauchos; UCSB got to host the first and second rounds of their part of the bracket) and Rice vs Troy State, 2006 New Orleans Bowl (yes, I know that this was Rice's first bowl game in 45 years. But still: a 17-41 blowout? To Troy State?)

So that's my top ten list. Looking at it, it's easy to understand why Houston sports fans are some of the nation's most cynical and jaded. What say you?

For further reading regarding the Press's top ten (and bottom five): Sean Pendergast's "best of the best" list of the Clutch City Rockets' greatest moments is here. Richard Connelly provides his reflections regarding the lists here. John Royal's own list of Houston's top ten sports moments can be read here, and a list of highlights and lowlights that didn't make the Press's cut (although a couple of them made mine) are here.

My only critique about the Press's top ten list is that it doesn't include Rice's College World Series championship in 2003.

(Speaking of the Houston Press, big-time congrats are in order to a high school classmate of mine, Troy Schulze, who has been named the paper's Arts & Culture Editor.)

On generation gaps

It's been exactly a decade since my grandfather, Dr. Horace Benton Gray, Sr., passed away in Macon, Georgia on August 9, 2000. I still miss him.

Kirby Benton Gray was born in Houston, Texas on August 21, 2004. He missed his great-grandfather by four years, twelve days and about 720 miles.

It's too bad that my grandfather's life did not overlap with my son's. For whatever reason, when I see my son I see some of "Pada" within him. I think they would have enjoyed each other and, even though nobody can be faulted, I am sorry that they never met.

Friday, August 06, 2010


I guess I could consider myself lucky that I managed to go almost 37 years without spending any time in a hospital. My luck ran out last Monday, however.

Late Friday, I had been experiencing digestive problems that I originally assumed were caused by something I ate (specifically, that steak that had probably been marinating in the refrigerator for too long). Saturday it wasn't too bad; I felt mildly queasy but was not in any pain and spent most of the day in bed. Over the course of the day Sunday, however, the generalized bloating I had been feeling began to morph into a localized pain in my lower left abdomen, a pain that gradually grew worse Sunday evening and Monday morning. It got to the point that it became painful to walk, move and even breathe. Realizing that something was seriously wrong, I left the office early Monday afternoon and went to Methodist Hospital's emergency care center on the Southwest Freeway. There they ran routine tests, gave me pain medication, and administered a CT scan on my abdomen.

The resulting diagnosis of acute diverticulitis, while not exactly common for people my age, is by no means unprecedented. The doctor at the emergency center deemed it serious - he was particularly worried about a potential rupture - so he immediately admitted me to the hospital. An antibiotic IV was started and I was transferred from the emergency care center to Methodist's main complex in the Texas Medical Center.

There I lay, from Monday night to Wednesday afternoon, having a generally lousy time. The fact that I was attached to an IV limited my mobility, so I never ventured out of my room. Getting sleep was difficult, on account of the noise and light in the outside hallway, the loud snoring from the guy in the bed next to me, the constant click-clack of the infusion pump, or the simple fact that I was in an unfamiliar place. The fact that I was put on "bowel rest" meant that I could have nothing to eat or drink - all my fluids and nutrients came intravenously. The hospital staff, to their credit, were helpful and friendly and did try to make me feel comfortable, but there's only so much they could do.

Fortunately, I had my laptop with me, and that along with the hospital's wi-fi meant that I could keep myself occupied and even get some work done. I was actually pretty productive over the course of the day Tuesday, owing to the (relative) lack of distraction in my room as well as the fact that I was essentially confined to my bed. However, by Wednesday not even my laptop could keep me from beginning to get bored and restless.

Fortunately, the antibiotics were having their desired effect and the pain in my abdomen steadily decreased over the course of my stay. Periodic blood tests apparently revealed nothing abnormal, either, because by Wednesday morning I was allowed to resume eating (albeit only "clear" foods like broth or gelatin) and on early Wednesday afternoon a group of doctors came in to explain to me that my case appeared to be "uncomplicated" and that I could go home if I so desired. I obviously chose to do so, and by four that afternoon I was given a prescription for antibiotics and was discharged.

Two days later, everything seems okay. The pain in my belly is gone, I am taking my antibiotics as required, I am cautiously easing back into a normal diet, and I even went to the office today, if only for a few hours. My next step is to see a gastroenterologist to have this event examined in more depth - why did it happen, and what (other than eating more fiber) can I do to prevent it from happening again - but I first need to check in with my primary care physician to get a referral. I also get to look forward to the bill. My medical insurance will cover most of it, but not all, and considering how expensive medical care is these days I'm probably looking at coughing up a significant chunk of change.

So now I've finally had my hospital experience. And, having had it, it's something I can definitely say I want to avoid in the future. Ergo, it's time to start making some changes to my lifestyle. The important thing for now, however, is that I am okay.

Methodist is, ironically, the same hospital where I was born.