Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Here's to hoping that everybody has a wonderful holiday season, and best wishes for 2012!

Cougar football: a new coach and a new conference

The last few weeks have been pretty crappy ones for Cougar football fans such as myself. I've been so bummed out that I haven't been able to bring myself to write anything about the end of the season until now.

After making it through the entire regular season undefeated, the Cougars suffered a catastrophic 28-49 loss at home to Southern Miss in the Conference USA Championship Game. The Cougars were unfocused, uninspired, and completely befuddled by a superior Golden Eagle gameplan. The offense was out of sync and unable to move the ball against USM. Case Keenum was off-target much of the time and threw two interceptions, and when he did find his receivers they oftentimes couldn't catch the ball. The rushing game, meanwhile, could only manage 55 total yards of offense all afternoon. The UH defense was similarly exposed, giving up touchdown passes of 69 and 61 yards and allowing 207 yards to USM's rushing attack. Special teams performed poorly as well, allowing a punt to be blocked and returned for an easy Golden Eagle touchdown.

It was the Cougars' worst performance of the year and it came at the worst possible time. The nationally-televised loss cost the Coogs their shot at a BCS Bowl (and all the money and prestige it would entail), any chance Case Keenum had of even being invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony evaporated, and the team plummeted in the AP rankings from #7 to #20. If the Coogs lose to Penn State in the Ticketcity Bowl in Dallas on January 2nd, they will likely become the first team in college football history to win twelve games and not even end the season ranked in the top 25. Richard Justice, in one of his last columns as a Houston Chronicle sportswriter, explains just how costly the loss was for the UH football program:

Rather than the Sugar Bowl's estimated $17 million payoff, the Coogs likely will be getting around $1 million. Because bowl money is shared with 11 other Conference USA members, UH's net loss probably is $2.5 million.

Also lost were prestige and a chance to prove once and for all that UH belonged on the national stage. Unfortunately, UH proved all the people who had doubts correct.

The 12-1 Coogs will forever be seen as a paper tiger that rode a weak schedule up the ladder, and when confronted with a real test were run off the field.

"It was a very, very tough locker room, obviously, for a lot of guys who've accomplished a lot this year," UH head coach Kevin Sumlin said.

UH fans will forever wonder if Sumlin was fully engaged with his team during a week when his name was connected with the job openings at Texas A&M and Arizona State.

There's absolutely no doubt that the rumors flying about Kevin Sumlin's possible move to Texas A&M the week of the game served as a distraction to the team, and, quite frankly, after blowing the most important game of his career to date, many UH fans (myself included) were ready to see him go. A week and a half after the conference championship loss, Sumlin finally made it official: he was headed to College Station to become the next head coach of the Texas A&M Aggies.

It remains to be seen if the Aggies will be pleased with Sumlin (or $cumlin, as he's now known on UH athletics message boards) at the helm of their football program. While there's no denying that he's a good coach based on what he did here at Houston, the fact is that he is 0-2 in championship games in lowly Conference USA and, more tellingly, is also 3-7 without Case Keenum at quarterback. As such, I'm somewhat skeptical that Sumlin will be able to lead the Aggies to great success as they join the SEC - the nation's toughest football conference and a conference he has no previous coaching experience in - next year. We'll see.

With Sumlin's departure, assistant head coach Tony Levine was elevated to the head coaching position on an interim basis. A few days ago, the "interim" was removed from his job title as Athletics Director Mack Rhoades officially introduced him as the program's next head coach. The 39-year-old Levine had been an assistant at UH since the 2008 season; he played wide receiver at the University of Minnesota and his experience as an assistant includes stints at the high school, college and professional levels. While the players and some UH faithful reacted positively to the hire, other UH fans who were hoping for a "name" coach were less enthused. Of course, only time will tell if Levine will be successful here, but I imagine he can quickly make a lot of new friends if he is able to lead the Coogs to victory in the bowl next week.

As head coach, Levine will have one advantage that no previous UH coach has had: membership in an automatically-qualifying BCS conference. The falling dominoes of conference realignment that have occurred over the past several months - Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, TCU and West Virginia to the Big XII, Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC - meant that a spot had finally opened for Houston in one of the nation's six AQ conferences. Earlier this month, the Big East announced that Houston, along with Central Florida, SMU, Boise State and San Diego State, will be joining that conference in time for the 2013 season.

Critics point out that this move by the Big East is a desperate attempt to remain viable, that the geographic spread of the conference is unwieldy, and that there's no guarantee that the Big East will be able to retain its BCS berth long-term, especially since the current BCS arrangement expires after the 2013 season. And that's all true. But it's also true that the new Big East is still, top-to-bottom, a stronger conference than C-USA. The fact that the Big East remains a power basketball conference doesn't hurt, either. In the end, this move was a no-brainer for the University of Houston.

There's nothing for the Cougar football program to do now except lick its wounds and move on. The bowl provides a chance for redemption, and although 2012 will be something of a rebuilding year for a team losing so many talented seniors, it will give Levine time to grow into his role as coach and get the team ready for Big East play in 2013.

But oh, what could have been...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

ESPN College Gameday

Yesterday ESPN College Gameday came to the University of Houston for the very first time. Kirby and I went up to campus to check out the festivities, as they were.
Early in the morning, some posters on UH message boards were wringing their hands about what the perceived as a "sparse" crowd behind the College Gameday set, which they felt looked bad on television. However, by by the time we got there shortly after 10 am, the crowd was pretty decent.
Here's another view of the crowd right behind the College Gameday set. Houston's cheerleaders were prominently featured, but SMU's cheer squad was also in attendance made it on TV as well. Kirby poses in front of the famous ESPN College Gameday bus.
This is as close as I could get to the set itself. That's Lee Corso on the left and Kirk Herbstreit on the right.
One more crowd shot. The maroon Washington State flag in the center somehow makes its appearance at every ESPN College Gameday show every Saturday.
In a moment that will go down in University of Houston Cougar lore, at the conclusion of the broadcast Lee Corso uttered an expletive before he put on the Shasta head and predicted Houston to defeat Southern Methodist. We weren't standing in front of a speaker, so we didn't hear it at the time (which is probably a good thing for Kirby's sake), but the incident quickly made it on to YouTube. The reaction from the rest of the ESPN crew (as well as UH track legend Carl Lewis, seen wearing red in the picture above) is priceless (language warning):

Corso later went back on television and apologized for his outburst.

The Cougar nation also got some national props for "the coolest kid ever," the son of a former UH player who dressed up as the Heisman Trophy.

As it turned out, Corso's profanity-laced prognostication was correct. That afternoon, the Cougars convincingly defeated SMU, 37-7, to notch their eleventh straight victory of the season. This Friday the Cougars will square off against Tulsa, with the winner capturing the Conference USA Western Division.

Only time will tell when, or even if, ESPN College Gameday makes another visit to the University of Houston campus. But yesterday's event was a real treat, and the publicity was a real boon to the school, its students, its fans and its football program. Go Coogs!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Iowa State knocks off #2 Oklahoma State, 37-31

I'm wondering if I should include this game on my list of the top ten upsets in college football history, should I ever decide to update it. The Cowboys went into Ames as 27-point favorites. They leave with their national title hopes likely crushed.

Granted, Oklahoma State was playing one day after their women's basketball coach, Kurt Budke, was killed, along with three others, in a plane crash. That may have affected the team's focus. It's also possible that the Cowboys were looking past a 5-4 Iowa State team and were thinking about their big showdown with Oklahoma the following weekend.

But still: with a shot at the national title on the line, the Cowboys should have taken care of business. It just goes to show that anything can happen in college football, and that making it through the regular season undefeated is a rare feat indeed.

Which is why I'm worried about the Cougars against SMU tomorrow...

The Astros in the American League

Pardon me while I vomit:
MLB commissioner Bud Selig announced Thursday afternoon that the sale of the Houston Astros from former owner Drayton McLane to new owner Jim Crane has been unanimously approved.

As part of the agreement, the Astros will be moved to the American League West in 2013, with Crane getting a $70 million discount on the sale price of the team. That will even out baseball’s two leagues at 15 teams apiece and allow for the fair implementation of two additional Wild Card spots. It also means that interleague play is going to be a year-round thing.

I knew this was coming as part of the sale of the franchise to the new owner, and I understand Major League Baseball's desire to equalize the number of teams in the two leagues (the National League currently has 16 teams while the American League has 14). But, as somebody who grew up a loyal follower of the National League, I don't like it.

I don't like the designated hitter. It takes a lot of strategy out of the game.

I don't like the fact that the Astros will be giving up their long-standing divisional rivalries against teams like the Cardinals, Cubs and Reds and replacing them with new divisional "rivals" like the Angels, A's and Mariners.

I don't like the fact that playing those new divisional "rivals" on the road means 9 pm start times for television.

I don't like the fact that the presence of insufferably arrogant Yankees and Red Sox fans will now be an annual occurrence at Minute Maid Park.

I don't even like the fact that the Astros will get to play the Texas Rangers more often since both teams will now be in the same division. The two teams already play each other every year anyway. Big deal.

Nope. Don't like it at all.

To be fair to new owner Jim Crane: the move was forced on him. He didn't have a choice.

Of course, if he can't breathe some life back into the moribund team, which lost a franchise-record 106 games last season, it really won't matter which league the Astros are in because they won't be worth watching anyway.

The Astros will move to the American League beginning in the 2013 season.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cougars are 10-0 and can make it into the BCS if they win out

Time to breathe some life back into this blog.

I had actually started several posts over the last month and a half - about the death of Steve Jobs, about the Cougars, about the tragedy that has occurred at Penn State - but for whatever reason I never got around to finishing any of them in a timely manner. I just been too busy or too lazy to put up any new entries, hence the lack of recent posts.

But enough excuses. I want to take a few minutes to gloat about the University of Houston Cougar football program, which is having its best season since the Run and Shoot era of the late 80s.

Right now, they are 10-0 and are only one of three undefeated teams remaining in FBS (LSU and Oklahoma State being the other two). They are ranked #11 in the BCS standings; if the Coogs manage to win the rest of their games (SMU this weekend, at Tulsa the day after Thanksgiving, and then the C-USA Conference Championship, most likely at Robertson against Southern Mississippi) they are assured of a spot in one of the BCS bowl games. QB Case Keenum's name is beginning to reappear in Heisman conversations. This is happening even as rumors of impending announcements regarding Houston's move to the automatically-qualifying Big East conference and groundbreaking for a new stadium continue to circulate.

Oh, and did I mention the ESPN College Football Gameday is coming to Houston this Saturday for the first time ever?

Indeed, it's an amazing time to be a UH football fan. One decade after the infamous 0-11 season that marked the low point of Cougar football, the Coogs have a chance to end the regular season undefeated and "bust the BCS." But the road ahead is not going to be easy. SMU knocked off TCU earlier this season and has a potent offense. Tulsa has a mobile quarterback in D. J. Kinne that is sure to give the Houston defense fits and road games are never easy. And Southern Miss, should the Cougars meet them in the conference championship, is 9-1 and is ranked #20. The team can see the promised land off in the distance, but it's going to be an uphill climb to get there.

This is to take nothing away from the season that the Coogs have had so far. I've enjoyed every minute of it. But now that they've gotten this far, there would still be a sense of disappointment if they didn't finish the journey. It's all in their hands.

Go Coogs!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Honest Abe

For somebody who's about to load up on candy, Kirby doesn't look too happy. Either that, or he's completely "in character," considering that Abraham Lincoln never exactly looked happy in any of his photographs...
Happy Halloween, everyone!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Cougars at 4-0

Can it really be possible that one-third of the college football season is over already? It feels like it just started...

Anyway, the Coogs are 4-0 and I only have a few things to say about their last two games.

Houston 35, Louisiana Tech 34: yes, so this was the biggest comeback in University of Houston football history. Down by 27 points with 5:11 remaining in the third quarter, the Cougars rattled off 28 answered points for a thrilling win over the Bulldogs in Ruston. And that's great, except for one thing: it shouldn't have come to that.

The reason the Cougars had to mount such an incredible second-half comeback is because they played like absolute crap for the first 40 minutes of the game. They weren't prepared, they were sloppy and out of synch on both sides of the ball, and they let Louisiana Tech, a team that was led by a 17-year-old true freshman at quarterback and was taken into overtime by FCS program Central Arkansas the week before, utterly dominate them. Why? Moreover, why do these lackluster starts requiring such heroic comebacks happen so often? As Dustin Resnik argues:
As much as you might want to, you can't ignore how the first two and a half quarters played out. How does Houston, a team with hopes of becoming the next BCS buster or joining a BCS conference, get outplayed so massively by a mediocre-looking Louisiana Tech squad?

Every time the Cougars show flashes of brilliance, there's a slip up. For every huge comeback, there was two and a half quarters of ineptitude. For every 2009 stunner of Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, there is the UTEP loss from the same year.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to bring you down after a win for the ages. But there are better teams than Louisiana Tech left on the schedule. We'll know the Cougars have really made it when they don't need the 27-point comeback.

Can the Coogs find a way to play with that same intensity - to bottle that 20 minutes and play like that for an entire game? Because that would be something to see.

I agree. It's time for this talented, senior-laden team to play with full intensity from the opening kickoff. 27-point comebacks might be thrilling, but they're not necessary if the team plays the way they should.

Houston 56, Georgia State 0: fortunately, there were to be no problems with slow starts at home last weekend against an FCS Georgia State football program that is in only its second year of existence. The game was really little more than a scrimmage for the Cougars, as they rolled up 732 yards of total offense. Case Keenum was pulled in the third quarter after completing 29 of 34 passes for 415 yards and two touchdowns and Houston notched their first shutout since 1999. In fact, the most remarkable thing about the game was not what happened on the field, but what happened in the stands around it: the attendance was 32,005, a number that would have been unthinkable for any UH game, let alone a game against an obscure FCS opponent, just a few years ago. It really is amazing what winning, building more on-campus housing, marketing the games to the students, and cultivating a thriving tailgating scene can do for a program that used to struggle so mightily at the gate.

Next up for the Cougars is a Thursday night trip to El Paso to play the UTEP Miners. The Miners might not be very good this year, but the Cougars have traditionally had their hands full with UTEP in the Sun Bowl and their disappointing meltdown there two years ago - another disaster which was caused by a lackluster start - is still fresh in the minds of UH faithful.

Drought could cost Houston area 66 million trees

A sobering footnote to a problem I wrote about a couple of weeks ago:

If you've driven around any of the greener areas of the city like Memorial Park or Hermann Park, you no doubt have noticed a large number of dead or dying trees covered in browning leaves well short of winter. According to Trees for Houston, the city and its surrounding counties could lose 66 million (yes, MILLION) trees as the result of a drought that doesn't show any signs of letting up.

Adding insult to injury, the city is considering spending $4.5 million to remove dead or dying trees on public property -- more than 13 times what they spend on the same service in any given year. The number of trees they would remove if city council approves the measure would be around 15,000 from parks and esplanades.

As the drought continues with little end in sight, more trees will likely succumb to dehydration as well as bugs and disease that ravage trees weakened by the dry conditions.

That is a staggeringly depressing result of the drought. Not only will losing so many trees take an aesthetic toll on the area, but it will also result in economic loss (not only do trees raise property values, but now the city is having to spend money it doesn't have cutting so many dead ones down). The negative impacts of tree loss on this scale will also extend to erosion control, floodwater absorption (assuming it ever floods in Houston again), shading and cooling (trees help reverse the urban heat island effect) and air quality. Furthermore, given the time it takes for the tree canopy to regenerate, these negative effects could be particularly long-lasting.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Houston 48, North Texas 23

Last weekend I took Kirby up to Denton to see the Houston play North Texas in the inaugural game at Apogee Stadium. The $78 million stadium is a sorely-needed replacement for Fouts Field, which was built in 1951 and which was where I watched many a Mean Green football game when I lived in Denton.
As the University of Houston continues to move towards constructing a replacement for aging Robertson Stadium, there are definitely a lot of lessons they can learn from Apogee's design. The sightlines were good and the concession areas were well-planned. I especially liked the width between the seating rows, which made it possible to walk past people without bumping into their knees.
The Mean Green were clearly pumped up to be playing their very first game in their new stadium and gave the slow-starting Coogs all they could handle in the first half. Mean Green quarterback Derrick Thompson, pictured above, completed 21 of 33 passes for 172 yards and ran for another 41 yards. The Cougars did a decent job keying in on UNT's most potent weapon, holding Mean Green running back Lance Dunbar to 62 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
The Cougars clung toa 20-17 lead at halftime, but took over the game in the second half by scoring 28 unanswered points. In the picture above, Case Keenum stands in the shotgun flanked by running backs Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall. Keenum had an impressive outing, completing 26 of 41 passes for 458 yards and five touchdowns. Hayes led the rushing attack with 13 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown.
Kirby had a dilemma: he could either cheer for his father's undergraduate alma mater or his mother's graduate alma mater. At first he cheered for the Mean Green, but as the Cougars began to pull away he appeared to switch loyalties... The Cougars won handily, 48-23.
The Green Brigade performs at halftime (due to budgetary limitations, Houston did not bring a band or even cheerleaders in spite of the relatively short distance between Houston and Denton). The "home" side of Apogee Stadium features a nice provision of club seating and luxury boxes that simply didn't exist at Fouts Field and will hopefully generate income for the program.

A rather unique view of the stadium can be seen in this cool "gigapan" photograph. A decent contingent of UH fans were on hand for the game, as the photo shows. (Kirby and I are in the photograph, if you zoom in to the lower right side of the stadium and look carefully...)

I had expected this to be a tough game, given the circumstances, so the fact that the final score wasn't a "blowout" does not surprise or concern me. The Mean Green, meanwhile, are a team in rebuilding mode but played admirably. They will improve, and Apogee Stadium is one of the reasons why. The new stadium is attractive to fans as well as recruits and, with a seating capacity of about 31,000, is well-suited to the program's current needs. The 28,075 in attendance, in fact, is the third-largest crowd in Mean Green football history.

Kirby and I spent the night in Denton. It was a bit eerie waking up the following morning of September 11th, because Denton was where Kirby's mother and I were living when it all happened ten years ago.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Coogs exact revenge on UCLA with 38-34 victory

Two weeks shy of a year ago, the University of Houston suffered a devastating defeat to UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Not only did the Cougars' BCS-busting aspirations come to an end with a 13-31 loss at the hands of the Bruins, but the Cougars also lost both starting quarterback Case Keenum and backup quarterback Cotton Turner to season-ending injuries. The rest of the season was a disaster, as true freshmen were thrust into the quarterback role, and the Cougars limped out of the season with a disappointing 5-7 record.

Last Saturday afternoon at Robertson Stadium, it was time for some payback. And payback the Cougars got, with a satisfying 38-34 victory over those same UCLA Bruins.

It wasn't easy. The Cougars jumped out to a 10-0 lead after the first quarter and led 31-14 at the half. But the Bruins responded in the second half with two unanswered touchdowns. The Coogs came up with another touchdown in the fourth quarter, but UCLA found the endzone late in the fourth and, trailing by only four points and with the Houston defense reeling, lined up for an onside kick that would have given them a good chance to win the game had they recovered. However, the Cougar special teams did their job by smothering the onside kick, and the Coogs held on for the 38-34 victory.

The Cougar defense might feature a new look with eight new starters, but on Saturday it was its usual dreadful self, giving up 554 yards of total offense to the Bruins. The run defense continued to struggle, surrendering 128 yards to UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin and 87 yards to quarterback Richard Brehaut (who replaced starting quarterback Kevin Prince after he was injured). Furthermore, the Cougars had no answer for UCLA tight end Joseph Fauria, who used his height advantage (he is 6'8") to pull down six receptions for 110 yards.

Fortunately, UCLA's defense wasn't any better when it came to stopping Houston's offense. Case Keenum returned from his injury in fine form, completing 30 of 40 passes for 310 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Running backs Bryce Beall (69 yards and one touchdown for eleven carries) and Michael Hayes (42 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries) accounted for the majority of the Coogs' 159 yards gained on the ground. Tyron Carrier led UH's receiving crops with 10 catches for 138 yards and a touchdown. He fumbled what would have been his second touchdown into the endzone, but luckily UH offensive lineman Chris Thompson was able to fall onto the loose ball in the endzone for a crucial Cougar score. Houston also benefited from a UCLA missed field goal and extra point that proved to be the difference in the score.

The nail-biting nature of the game aside, this was a huge win for the Cougars. They start out their season with an all-important confidence-building victory over their highest-profile opponent (and only opponent from a BCS-AQ conference) on this year's schedule, and they gain a measure of revenge in doing so.

31,144 were in attendance, which wasn't quite the sellout that the UH athletics department was hoping for but was nevertheless a good showing, especially considering the brutal weather conditions that had been predicted. Fortunately, the unbearable heat and humidity never materialized, but I continue to believe that not playing home games in September at night is a mistake.

Drought + wind = power outages (and fires!)

Well, it turns out that the "dry" side of Tropical Storm Lee, which passed through Louisiana last weekend, did last Saturday night what the "dry" side of massive, panic-inducing Hurricane Rita couldn't do back in 2005: cause my power to go out.

The prolonged drought that has plagued the Houston area (and most of Texas, for that matter) has killed or at the very least weakened the local tree canopy such that Lee's wind gusts caused massive tree limbs to snap and fall all around my neighborhood. A couple of limbs landed in the streets, impeding vehicular access until they were cut with chainsaws and removed. And, right down the street from me, a limb fell on the power line that serves my house.

Not only did the limb take down the line, leaving my entire block without power, and snap a utility pole, requiring its replacement and therefore causing a lengthy delay in power being restored, but it also caused a transformer to blow, which in turn caused a small fire in a garage apartment three houses down from me. Needless to say, the presence of several fire trucks on my street late Saturday night was as dramatic as it was disconcerting.

The fire was quickly extinguished, but power wasn't restored until the following evening, which was rather annoying. Kirby and I sought refuge Saturday night at his mother's house two blocks away, and, being unable to start the generator that served us so well during Hurricane Ike a few years ago but which hasn't seen action since, Sunday afternoon Kirby and I went down to Sugar Land to stay with my girlfriend Michelle. (Yes, I have a girlfriend now. More about her in a future post.)

I've joked in the past about a tropical storm or hurricane being what it would take to break the devastating drought here in the Houston area. However, considering the weakened condition of the city's trees, maybe it's better that we not get our much-needed rain in that manner. These trees are so parched and fragile that a direct hit from even a minor hurricane would certainly cause much more tree-related havoc in the form of power outages, road blockages and structural damage than what occurred during Ike.

At least the rainbands from Lee that did reach Houston brought a little bit of precipitation Saturday evening. Not much, obviously, but until this drought finally lifts every little bit helps.

Friday, September 02, 2011

And so it begins

Usually, this is the time of year when I write previews for upcoming college football season. However, events of the past couple of weeks (including my awesome end-of-summer trip to Hawaii, pictures of which are coming soon) have prevented me from writing anything this time around.

Which is actually okay, because I really have no idea what to expect from the this fall's installment of college football; not at the national level (Oklahoma is the preseason #1 and Alabama is the preseason #2, but if past history is any indication neither one of these teams will be playing for the BCS title come January) and certainly not at the local level. Even though Case Keenum is back for a sixth season and the Cougars have a relatively easy schedule, I really don't know just how well, or how poorly, the University of Houston football program is going to do this fall.

While I'm obviously grateful that he has been granted a sixth season, which Case Keenum will be returning behind center for the Coogs this fall? The one whose name began appearing in Heisman conversations during the 2009 season or the one who threw 14 interceptions in the last five games before he was injured? And while Keenum has plenty of weapons at his disposal in terms of wide receivers and running backs (including Conference USA Freshman of the Year Charles Sims, who sat out all of 2010 for academic reasons), he's also going to be behind an offensive line that lost three starters from last season and has been completely reconfigured.

Then there's the defense, which was utterly atrocious last season. Last year, the Coogs were 103rd (out of 120 FBS teams) in total defense and 114th in run defense, giving up more than 200 yards per game on the ground. Granted, you can win with a mediocre defense if you have a good enough offense. But therein lies the rub: the UH defense is going to need to make massive strides if they want to improve to merely mediocre this season.

To the credit of head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff, they have spent the offseason trying to plug some holes on the defensive side of the ball. They brought in immediate help for the struggling secondary when they recruited junior college transfers D. J. Hayden and Chevy Bennett, defensive backs who both played on Navarro College's 2010 NJCAA national championship team. Both of them expect to start. The defense also gets a boost with the return of defensive lineman Zeke Riser, who had an impressive true freshman season in 2009 but missed all of last season with an injury. Nor does it hurt that linebackers Marcus McGraw and Sammy Brown, both of whom had strong seasons last year, return.

But as for overall improvement on the defensive side of the ball - they can't get much worse, after all - I'll believe that they're improved when I see it.

Finally, I'm not convinced that this schedule is as easy as it looks. The revenge-minded Cougars start the season with UCLA at home, which win or lose is going to be an emotional match for them (given the size difference between the two teams that was apparent at the Rose Bowl last year even before Keenum went down, I'm fully expecting a loss), and the following week's game in Denton against a North Texas team that will be fired up to play their first game at their new stadium has "trap" written all over it.* From there, the Cougars travel to Ruston to play Louisiana Tech, and back-to-back games on the road are never easy.

After what should be an easy home game against Georgia State, the Cougars go back on the road to play UTEP in El Paso, and we all know what happened the last time the Cougars played there. The following week's home game against an East Carolina team that beat the Cougars for the Conference USA title in 2009 is not going to be a walk in the park, either. After another home game against Marshall, the Cougars then host a Rice team that always gives the Cougars their best shot and in fact have beaten them twice in the last three seasons. Then it's back on the road to play Alabama-Birmingham, whom Houston has only beaten once at Legion Field.

The season ends with another back-to-back road trip against Tulane, a home match against an improving SMU team, and a season-ending trip to play a Tulsa squad that beat the Cougars at Robertson last year. These last two games will likely decide whether the Cougars win C-USA's western division and make it to the conference championship game.

If Case Keenum can regain his 2009 form, the new offensive line performs well, and the defense makes enough improvement to at least be competitive, then this fall could be a good one for the Cougars. They could win ten or eleven games, secure the division title and have a shot at winning the conference. But if the defense continues to be abysmal, the new offensive line can't protect Keenum or open holes for the running game, or Case has a bad season (or, God forbid, gets injured again), then the 2011 campaign could very well be a disappointing one for the Cougars and their fans. I'm obviously hoping for the former, but after last season's disappointment I refuse to make any great expectations for this team.

For what it's worth,, which has accurately predicted Houston's record within two wins or losses ten out of the last seventeen seasons, foresees a 10-2 regular-season, while Sports Illustrated expects the Coogs to notch a 9-3 record this fall. If the Cougars win 9 or 10 games but do not win their division, however, I think the players, coaches and fans will generally consider the season to be a disappointment. With conference realignment threatening to cause some major changes in the college football landscape, the Cougars need to have a breakout season this fall in order to make some noise on the national stage and to have any hope in being in a better place with the dust settles.

The important thing, however, is that the wait is over. College football is finally here, and I couldn't be happier. Here's to hoping for an exciting season at the national level and a very successful season for the Cougars.

* I don't know what to expect from North Texas under new coach Dan McCarney, either. Obviously last night's 16-41 loss to Florida International was not the way the Mean Green wanted to start the season, but it's going to take time for the new coaching staff to get their philosophy and their personnel in place. 2011 is going to be a rebuilding year for North Texas, and hopefully some improvement will become evident as the season progresses.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Are the Aggies going to the SEC? Is Houston going to the Big XII?

Just over two weeks remain until the 2011 college football season kicks off. This is the time of year when players focus on practice, coaches focus on starting lineups, and fans focus on tailgating menus. Over the past week or so, however, the college football world has been distracted by some off-the-field developments. I'm not talking about the scandal surrounding the provision of impermissible benefits to University of Miami football players, although those allegations, if proved to be true, could put the Hurricane football program on the death penalty. I am, rather, referring to some conference realignment activity that's originating here in Texas.

As late as last weekend it looked like Texas A&M, apparently upset at the perceived monetary and recruiting advantages that rival Texas would gain through its own network and also perhaps having remorse over not making the move when the Big 12 was on the verge of imploding a year ago, was on its way to the Southeastern Conference. However, the Aggies' move to what is almost certainly the nation's strongest football conference will not be immediate, since the presidents and chancellors of SEC schools met last Sunday and issued the following statement:
“The SEC Presidents and Chancellors met today and reaffirmed our
satisfaction with the present 12 institutional alignment. We recognize, however,
that future conditions may make it advantageous to expand the number of
institutions in the league. We discussed criteria and process associated with
expansion. No action was taken with respect to any institution including Texas
The statement simply means that the Aggies aren't joining the conference right now. It clearly leaves the door open for the Aggies to join the SEC sometime in the future. The fact that the SEC schools' leaders were meeting - on a Sunday in the middle of August, no less - to discuss realignment was by itself very telling. This action is merely a legal maneuver on the SEC's part; a step in the process of bringing A&M to the SEC.

Last Monday, Texas A&M's Board of Regents met and voted to give A&M President R. Loftin Bowen permission to “take action on conference alignment," which essentially gives him approval to begin negotiations with the SEC. They also appointed a new Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System who is clearly in favor of the move. Loftin attempted to temper the impatience of starry-eyed Aggie fans by describing the potential realignment as a "lengthy process" but nevertheless indicated that the move was likely to occur. "It's not so much what's wrong with the Big 12, it's what's right for Texas A&M and where we want to go in time," Loftin said in a not-so-subtle dig at the conference of which they have been a member since 1996. At this point, it's clear that the Aggies have their hearts set on leaving the Big 12 and joining the SEC. The only question is when. (Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples offers more insight on the current state of affairs, which he describes as "a divorce in which the squabbling couple has nine children.")

Of course, the Aggies' move to the SEC has the real potential to set in motion a chain reaction of school and conference movements that could change the college football landscape. For example: if the SEC took Texas A&M as their 13th member, would they need to add a 14th member to balance out their geographic divisions? If so, who? And, if the Aggies left the Big 12 (which in spite of its name only has ten members following the departure of Colorado and Nebraska), would the Big 12 stand pat or would they add a member to replace A&M? If so, who? And depending on what the SEC and Big 12 do in terms of potentially adding new schools, what does that mean for the rest of the college football landscape? If you're a conference realignment buff, the possibilities are endless. Is this another step towards the much-anticipated development of four sixteen-team "superconferences" (an eventuality I continue to oppose, even though I think it is inevitable)?

Of interest to me as a University of Houston fan is the speculation that the Cougars could be called upon to join the Big 12 if and when the Aggies go east. Cougar faithful, after all, desperately want out of Conference USA, which does not automatically qualify for the Bowl Championship Series and is therefore one of the "have-nots" in the college football world. Getting into the automatically-qualifying Big 12, and being able to play major schools like Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma on a regular basis, would be an enormous step up for the program. Houston is definitely in the mix, if the Austin-American Statesman is to be believed:

The Big 12 school official told the Statesman he had heard that the Big 12, to survive in the event of A&M's departure, would consider inviting Notre Dame and Arkansas to join, but he admitted those schools were unlikely to be interested. Other possibilities, the source said, include Houston, Louisville, Brigham Young and Air Force. He saw TCU — which joins the Big East next year — as an unlikely school to approach.

The Cougars definitely have their supporters. An official with Texas A&M apparently feels that Houston would be a "viable" replacement for the Aggies in the Big 12 (although once they leave the conference, A&M will obviously have no say in the matter). Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel says that Houston is his "clubhouse leader" for inclusion in the conference. Houston's inclusion in the Big 12 also has support from elected officials, and even the Chronicle's Richard Justice - a UT alum who has been accused of slighting UH in the past - has written in favor of Houston's inclusion.

Working against the Coogs, of course, are the program's traditional Achilles' heels: attendance and facilities. While Houston's football attendance has definitely been on the upswing over the past few years, the 31,728 fans per game the Cougars attracted last season (their best since 1981) was well below the 40,043 fans per game that Baylor, which has the Big 12's lowest attendance, attracted last season. And while Cougars appear to be on track to top the 10,000 mark in season ticket sales for the second consecutive year, it's still below the goal of 15,000 tickets that UH athletics director Mack Rhoades has set and is well below the 25,000 or 30,000 that a BCS-AQ conference like the Big XII would like to see. It can be argued that UH will be able to sell more season tickets in the Big 12, since local sports fans are more likely to come out and see the Cougars play Texas and Oklahoma and Texas Tech than they are to see Conference USA opponents like Marshall or Central Florida or Tulane, but the Big 12 would much rather see current commitment from Houston's fan base rather than future potential.

As far as facilities are concerned, a fundraising campaign to replace the small and aging Robertson Stadium continues. As of this afternoon $60 million has been raised, which is half of the new facility's estimated cost. Negotiations continue on naming rights for the lead gift, which would push the fundraising total past the $80 million mark where bonds for the remaining cost can be issued and groundbreaking could occur. Another $40 million, however, is required for upgrades to aging Hofheinz Pavilion, and efforts to secure those funds have not yet begun. There is speculation that the Cougars could address their facilities problems in the short-term by playing football games at Reliant Stadium and basketball games at Toyota Center.

There are other issues affecting Houston's potential inclusion as well, and television is at the top of the list. The Houston area is already a strong SEC market, what with all the alumni of LSU and other SEC schools living in the city, and A&M's transfer to the SEC will make it more so. Can the addition of Houston "shore up" the lucrative local television market for the Big 12? Maybe, but adding the Cougars certainly won't replace the number of television sets that the Big 12 is going to lose at a state or national level when A&M leaves.

Then there's the University of Texas. They rule the Big 12 roost, and the conference isn't going to do anything that's not in the Longhorns' best interest. Does Texas want to give Houston an advantage in the fertile Houston recruiting area by elevating the Cougars to BCS-AQ status? Has UT athletics director DeLoss Dodds gotten over his anger regarding the "bleachergate" embarrassment of a decade ago?

A lot, of course, will depend on what answer the Big 12 receives from the other schools they approach as a possible replacement for Texas A&M. As the Statesman article notes, Notre Dame and Arkansas are unlikely to agree to join the Big 12; the former is happy as an independent and the later is happy in the SEC. TCU, likewise, is beginning their first season as a member of the autmatically-qualfying Big East (their fourth conference affiliation since the Southwest Conference exploded) and probably isn't looking to make another move right now. For those reasons, I've heard from various sources that BYU is at the top of the Big 12's list. That program has traditionally been successful and has a nationwide television following through the Mormon church. But they're also beginning their first season as a football independent, they have their own TV contracts, they don't play sports on Sunday (which would create scheduling headaches for basketball and non-revenue sports) and they're geographically distant from the rest of the conference. If BYU says no, the Big 12 could always approach Air Force or Louisville instead of Houston.

As of right now, I am skeptical that the Cougars will be invited to join the Big 12. There are just too many factors - low season ticket sales and a geographically-limited television market chief among them - that work against Houston's favor. I think the only way UH gets the nod is if all of the aforementioned schools say no and/or the conference receives political pressure to replace one Texas public school with another.

Depending on what happens, however, opportunities for the Cougars to move up in the college football world could nevertheless occur if A&M's shift to the SEC sets off a row of falling dominoes that, for example, opens up a spot for UH in the Big East. For that reason, the University of Houston needs to make itself look as attractive as possible to potential conferences. Fans need to buy season tickets and keep Robertson filled to capacity on game day. The administration needs to continue its fundraising efforts in its quest to upgrade the university's dilapidated sports facilites. And the team needs to continue to perform on the field. In that regard, a repeat of last year's 5-7 disappointment would be a disaster.

(In my perfect world, the Cougars would be joining the Aggies in a move to the SEC. But Elvis will be seen riding a winged unicorn across the downtown skyline before Houston is playing the SEC.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Relaxing at the pool

Kirby seemed to enjoy a lazy day at the swimming pool last weekend. At least I hope he enjoyed it, because his summer is coming to an end. Second grade starts next week!

Monday, August 08, 2011

UAE national murdered near Texas Medical Center

Although I've long since become desensitized to the violence that happens in this city, I am nevertheless disgusted by this story:

A 28-year-old military officer from the United Arab Emirates who came to Houston to care for his cancer-stricken father was shot to death by robbers Sunday.

Salem Saif Al Mazrouei was killed about 10:30 p.m., shortly after he and his father returned from prayers at a mosque to their rented apartment in a gated complex in the 8100 block of El Mundo, police said.

The family has been staying at the apartment in south Houston while the father undergoes treatment at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Al Mazrouei and his father had just returned from prayers at the mosque on Almeda near Old Spanish Trail and had stopped by their apartment to gather sweets for what was probably a Ramadan gathering at another apartment in the same complex. The two were followed inside their apartment by two thugs who tried to rob them. When he and his father tried to escape, Al Mazrouei was fatally shot. The criminals then took off in his rented Toyota Avalon, which was later found on the other side of highway 288.

Although the Chronicle article doesn't mention it, a story about this crime in The National suggests that the father and son, who are from the emirate of Ras al Khaimah in the northern part of the UAE, might have been targeted because they were wearing "national dress," i.e. robe and headdress:

“They were wearing their traditional Middle Eastern dress, and by some accounts you could assume they were targeted because of that, but we don’t know that for certain right now,” said Officer M Miller, a Houston police homicide investigator.

If that's the case, then this might be a hate crime in addition to being a carjacking, robbery and murder. But the investigation is ongoing, and the murderers remain at large.

I am repulsed by this crime not only because it is a senseless murder, but also because it happened to a person whose family had decided to come all the way to Houston from the Emirates to seek cancer treatment for their father.

The National article speaks highly of the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, and Sheikh Kalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, donated $150 million to M.D. Anderson earlier this year, which says a lot about the esteem with which M.D. Anderson is held in the UAE.

Since this site still gets a fair amount of web traffic from the UAE, I would like to say this to anyone from there that might be reading this, be they Emirati or expat: these scumbags are not representative of the people of Houston. Right now there is nothing to suggest that this crime is anything other than an isolated incident, and the thugs who committed it will eventually be caught and brought to justice. Do not let this horrible crime deter you from seeking treatment at M.D. Anderson.

Salem Saif Al Mazrouei leaves behind a wife and 2-month-old son in the UAE. I extend my condolences to the Al Mazrouei family.

UPDATE: both suspects in Al Mazrouei's murder have been apprehended.

Colorado 2011

A couple of weeks ago, Kirby and I made our annual summertime trip to Colorado to visit my brother David, see some sights and get away from the oppressive Houston summer. That last part didn't work out too well; Denver was almost as hot as Houston while we were there. But we still had a great time, exploring the mountains as well as seeing some sights in and around Denver and Colorado Springs.
I try my hand at throwing and shaping pottery at the Denver Art Museum. My creation didn't turn out so well, so I think I need a little more practice...
The Colorado River starts out as a stream on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. From here, these waters will head down through western Colorado, through Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon, and eventually end up in Lake Mead on the Arizona/Nevada border.
A mother moose and her baby graze along the banks of the Colorado River. They were no more than ten feet away from the walking trail, but didn't seem to mind all of the humans taking pictures of them.
Snow! Well, okay, slush. But it was good enough for Kirby.
The view from the alpine tundra section of Rocky Mountain National Park, elevation about 11,500 feet.
A male elk makes an interesting post for the camera. We were pleasantly surprised by all the wildlife we came across while in the park.
A yellow-bellied marmot forages along the alpine tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park. Marmots hibernate for eight months of the year; the other four months are spent eating and mating. Not a bad life!
Kirby tests his carpentry skills at the Denver Childrens Museum. We were only there for a couple of hours; I've mentioned before that the museum is only a fraction of the one he is used to here in Houston, so he ran out of things to explore rather quickly.
Impressive sandstone rock formations at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.
Another view of the formations at the Garden of the Gods.
Kirby, David and I pose in front of some of the formations at the Garden of the Gods. I had to take this picture to make mom happy...
Not too far from the Garden of the Gods is the Cave of the Winds. It was Kirby's first time inside a cave. He seemed concerned about the lack of light so I'm not sure he was particularly impressed.
Traveling up the Pikes Peak Highway. There is something amazing and perhaps a bit humbling about seeing a sign informing that, even after you've been climbing up the road for a few miles, you're still a vertical mile below the summit of the mountain, or looking ahead of you and seeing switchbacks far ahead and high above you and thinking, "wow, we still have to go all the way up there?" The toll is $40 per car, so bring your money as well as at least half a tank of gas if you go, but the road is almost completely paved now, there are several places to stop along the way, and the views are absolutely stunning.
Another way to reach the top of the mountain is to take the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. which operates diesel multiple units from the town of Manitou Springs to the summit. They were sold out the day we went, which is why we used the toll road, but the train might be a fun thing to do if I ever get the chance to visit the mountain again.
The end of the cog railway almost seems to dangle over the side of Pikes Peak. At 14,110 feet, not only are you well above the tree line, you're also past the point where vegetation grows at all. In Colorado Springs the temperatures were in the 90s, but at the top of the summit the temperature was in the high 40s.
Pikes Peak is Kirby's second trip atop a fourteener (his first was Mount Evans, two summers ago). I was out of breath up there, but the thin air didn't really seem to bother Kirby.
Looking down from the top of Pikes Peak. That's Colorado Springs off in the distance below. After Kirby, David, his girlfriend and I left the summit, we drove back into Colorado Springs for an excellent dinner at the Phantom Canyon brewpub. We then walked around downtown Colorado Springs for a little bit before returning to Denver.
Kirby cools his feet in a man-made waterfall in the new children's garden of the Denver Botanic Gardens. The gardens have completed a lot of expansions and enhancements, including this children's garden, since the last time I visited.
I found Japanese section of the Botanic Gardens to be especially picturesque and enjoyable.
Kirby poses next to another stream in the Botanic Gardens. The plants and flowers might not have impressed him too much, but the water features sure caught his attention...

We had a great time. It helped that this time we spent a few more days in Colorado than we have in the past, and I even got to visit my friend Rebecca, whom I hadn't seen in years. We'll be back soon - hopefully in wintertime, so Kirby can play in the snow and perhaps even learn to ski.

Right now I'm looking forward to my next trip at the end of August. I'm going to Hawaii for the first time. Woohoo!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

No more panhandling at outside cafes

Good news for outdoor diners:
City Council on Wednesday passed a ban on panhandling within 8 feet of a sidewalk cafe. Violation of the buffer zone is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $500.

"You're sitting at an outdoor table at a restaurant. Someone comes and looms over you and starts asking for money. That's an intimidating situation, and you don't have really an opportunity to escape," Mayor Annise Parker said.

City ordinance already prohibited panhandling within 8 feet of ATMs, parking meters, bus shelters and gas pumps. The council extended the rule to outdoor dining establishments.

I certainly don't have a problem with this new ordinance. Jokes about anybody actually eating outside in this weather aside, people should be allowed enjoy their meal or sip their beer in peace without being approached by a foul-smelling bum looking for money to score his next crack rock.

Whether the law will have any real effect is a different matter. Homeless people, generally speaking, aren't aware of or simply don't care about laws that restrict them from panhandling. I say this as somebody who has been accosted by homeless people seeking change while filling up my tank on multiple occasions, even though panhandling within eight feet of gas pumps is, as the article says, illegal. And the police likely won't put a lot of emphasis on enforcing this ordinance when there are so many higher-profile crimes that require their attention.

Enforcement issues aside, the best way to deal with panhandlers is simply not to give them any money. When somebody gives money to a homeless person, even if only to make that person go away, they're only reinforcing this negative behavior. And aggressive and/or threatening panhandling should always be immediately reported to the police, as this represents a public safety hazard that law enforcement is likely to take seriously.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thanks for nothing, Don!

Last May, as the Houston area suffered the effects of a springtime drought, I remarked that I "would prefer that Houston's next opportunity for significant rainfall not come courtesy of a hurricane or something."

Well, as the region prepares to enter my least-favorite month, it still is in sore need of some wet weather. We've had a few storms here and there, but it hasn't been nearly enough and I'm now beginning to think that a tropical system is indeed going to be our best bet for some significant, drought-busting precipitation.

Which is why I wasn't the only Houstonian who spent the last few days hoping that Tropical Storm Don would head this way and dump a few much-needed inches on the city. I can handle the winds and the relentless local media hype of a tropical storm, as long as it brings rain but doesn't become another Allison. Hell, at this point I would even welcome a category 1 hurricane.

Alas, Don veered away from the upper Texas coast this weekend and made landfall in the vicinity of South Padre Island, bringing the Houston area nothing more than a few rainbands' worth of scattered showers. And with a high pressure system firmly in place over the region and highs expected in the 100s for the coming week, there is truly no relief in sight.

Knowing our luck, the region's extended drought is going to be broken sometime in August or September with a massive hurricane, which will trigger another evacuation gridlock nightmare, unleash a storm surge which will wipe out all those nice beach houses that have just been rebuilt after Ike, submerge the city under 20 inches of rain, bring ashore 100-mph winds that will knock over trees and tear roofs off houses, and leave me and my neighborhood without electricity for two weeks.

Monday, July 18, 2011


This past weekend, a ten-mile section of the I-405 freeway which links western Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley through the Sepulveda Pass was completely closed for construction. Although there was much worry that the closure of this vital stretch of highway would lead to a "carmageddon" of traffic gridlock in the Los Angeles area, the freeway was reopened ahead of schedule and the feared calamity of paralyzed traffic never came to pass.

A couple of thoughts:

1. What does it say about the cultural gravity of Los Angeles that the closure of 405 was the weekend's biggest national news story? I know LA is the nation's second-largest metropolitan area as well as the country's entertainment center. But it nevertheless seemed a bit strange that a closure of a section of freeway in this city appeared to be the top story of several major media websites, ahead of arguably more important items such as the ongoing debt ceiling negotiations in Washington or a tabloid scandal in Britain that threatens to bring down an entire media empire. Last year The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf wrote about "The Tyranny of New York," whereby the city dominates America's media such that everything that happens there becomes national news. Perhaps we can speak of "the tyranny of Los Angeles" as well?

2. Motorists are not water molecules. We describe traffic as analogous to fluid: the movement of vehicles is referred to as "traffic flow." Areas of recurring congestion due to merges and lane closures are referred to as "bottlenecks." As such, there's always a fear that the closure of a major section of roadway will cause massive traffic backups, much as the closure of a valve on a pipe causes water to back up.

However, at the wheel of every vehicle is a human being who makes choices as to where to drive or to drive at all. If motorists are made aware of a major closure - the 405's shutdown was well-publicized - they will choose alternate routes to get to their destination or decide not to make the trip at all. That obviously happened in Los Angeles this past weekend, as there was reported to be 65% fewer automobiles on the LA freeway network than on a normal weekend (the fact that the closure occurred over the weekend also probably helped, although as anybody who's been to Los Angeles knows, heavy traffic is just as frequent on Saturdays and Sundays as it is during the work week).

This is why traffic nightmares did not occur in Manhattan after the West Side Highway was shut down in 1973 or in San Francisco after the Embarcadero Freeway was demolished following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989: people were aware of the closures and simply altered their travel habits accordingly. (This, incidentally, is also one of the reasons why widening a freeway does not, in the long term, relieve traffic congestion: people become aware of the added capacity of the widened freeway and begin using it for their trips, and the new capacity is eventually completely absorbed by all those new motorists.)

Another closure of the 405 is scheduled for next year. It will likely be just as much of a non-event as this weekend's closure was, and hopefully the rest of the nation won't be subjected to constantly hearing about it.

Japan claims Women's World Cup

Have I mentioned the the thing I hate the most about soccer is that so many games - especially championship games - are decided by penalty kicks? (Oh yeah: I have. I don't even like them when my team wins.)

Such was the ending of yesterday's thrilling Women's World Cup championship. After playing to a 2-2 tie after 90 minutes of regulation time and 30 minutes of extra time, Japan defeated the United States 3-1 in penalty kicks to clinch their first-ever World Cup title.

It really is a disappointing way to decide a game. But the truth is that it never should have come to PKs. The US took the lead twice - once in regulation and once in extra time - and twice they allowed Japan to equalize. The Americans simply missed too many scoring opportunities on offense - shots on goal that hit the posts or otherwise went wide - and suffered from some sloppy play on defense (Japan's first goal, for example, was created by the fact that the Americans couldn't manage to clear the ball out of the penalty box).

As disappointed as I am in the way the game ended - the fact that the United States lost as well as the fact that it was decided on goofy penalty kicks - I can't help but be impressed by the tenacity and determination of the Japanese team. They were underdogs throughout the tournament and pulled off three compelling upsets in the knockout stage - against host Germany and Sweden as well as the United States - to claim the championship. They also provided some joy and pride for a country that just a few months ago was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami that resulted in 23,000 deaths and a nuclear emergency. That's something that everybody, Americans included, can feel good about.

But I still hate penalty kicks.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The tragedy of Nauru

The remote Pacific island of Nauru is the world's third-smallest independent nation by land area (it is 8.1 square miles in size; only Monaco and Vatican City are smaller). It's also a nation with a very tragic story, as musician - turned - CNN iReporter Johnny Colt writes:
Nauru is battling a failed economy, widespread poor health and a natural environment ruined from the inside. They're the kinds of things that aren't altogether different from what's facing many of the rest of us, but they're magnified in a place that's only a tenth the size of Washington, D.C.
Nauru is a phosphate rock island. The island's economy has historically relied on the mining of phosphate, which is used to make fertilizer and other products. However, these phosphate sources have now been virtually depleted:
Not long ago, Nauru was one of the wealthiest nations on Earth: The phosphate mines, before they dried up, gave the nation the second-highest per-capita GDP in the world. But today, 90% of its residents are unemployed and the nation's economy sags under enormous debt. The phosphate mineral money that brought Ferraris to the island in the 1970s and '80s has dried up, leaving all those sports cars to rust. Today, most Nauruans live on about 90 to 100 Australian dollars a week.
As small as Nauru is, only about 20% of the island is actually inhabitable. The other 80% has been rendered uninhabitable and unarable due to mining operations:

Nauru's topography looks kind of like a top hat. The center of the island jumps up in elevation. A small band of greenery about a thousand feet wide and a coral-laden beach create the perimeter, and most of the population lives in the brim.

The middle is called the topside. That's where the phosphate is -- or was, before most of it was mined and shipped off. From the descriptions, getting excited to see this place is like getting excited when your friend smells something totally disgusting and hands it to you to smell. You just have to smell it.


Mining for phosphate is a simple process: You dig it straight up out of the ground while leaving the jagged pinnacles of coral behind. No need for an underground railway. No phosphate miners see a doctor for black lung.

But a hundred years of strip mining -- first by a parade of foreign administrators of the island and eventually by Nauru itself after it gained independence in 1968 -- have left two-thirds of the island uninhabitable and killed about 40% of the surrounding marine life, according to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In Nauru's mining history, no one has bothered to rehabilitate the post-mined topography. So much of the island's green skin has been peeled back and left raw and exposed to the elements. It looks like a moonscape. And like the moon, people can neither live nor grow food there.

The lack of sufficient space for agriculture, as well as the island's remoteness and the grinding poverty of its people, has created yet another problem:

Nothing here is fresh. Phosphate mining has left nowhere to produce food. A head of lettuce costs $18 Australian.

So most of what people eat is low-cost and fried to make up for in taste what it lacks in freshness.

Today, about 40% of the population is diabetic, owing at least partly to poor nutrition.

And then there is the issue of climate change, which could possibly result in rise of ocean levels. Nauru's population, as was explained previously, lives along the island's low-lying peripheral ring. If sea levels rise, there's no place for them to escape.

One particularly heartbreaking aspect of Nauru's plight that Colt didn't mention in his report is the manner in which the island's profits from its phosphate mining were squandered. A percentage of the island's phosphate mining earnings were placed into the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust, which was intended to support the island's citizens once the phosphate reserves were mined out. However, the trust was very poorly managed; dubious investments were made in everything from real estate to a now-defunct Australian Rules football team to a failed London musical. The Trust has now been decimated and the country is destitute.

I've always found the story of Nauru to be fascinating, not only because I find small countries to be inherently interesting but also because I am endeared to the tragic situation that the people of this island find themselves in. I don't know how Nauruans are going to overcome the myriad problems they currently face, but I follow their plight and hope for the best.

I'd love to visit one day, even though getting there isn't easy and tourist facilities are minimal.