Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Houston 75, #17 Connecticut 71

And 2013 ends with a minor miracle.

To be sure: I am not a James Dickey fan and I do not like where Cougar basketball is right now. But I nevertheless have to give credit where credit is due, and hope that this is a good omen for UH athletics heading in to 2014.

The year that went by very quickly

They say that as you get older, the years go by faster. Nevertheless, I'm really surprised at how quickly 2013 seems to have passed. It really feels hard to believe that a week from Thursday will mark my one-year anniversary at my "new" job!

2013 was not a particularly eventful year for me, and perhaps that's why it seems to have flown by as quickly as it did. The new job - adjusting and settling in - was in and of itself the big story of the year. I really didn't experience any life-changing events in 2013 (although I will miss Genghis), and the fact that I had to accrue vacation time from scratch at my new job limited the amount of traveling I did. Other than day trips to place like Galveston or San Antonio, the only true "vacation" I took was in early August, when Kirby and I made our annual trip to Denver to see my brother and his girlfriend. We had a good time - we rode the Royal Gorge Railroad and visited Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde National Parks - but it was a relatively short trip and I could really use an extended, true vacation in 2014.

2014 may turn out to be a more eventful year for me, for a variety of reasons. We shall see. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Fourteen losses and counting

The longest losing streak in Houston pro football history stands at 18, courtesy of the 1972 and 1973 Houston Oilers.

The Houston Texans, who yesterday ended their disaster of a 2013 season with their fourteenth consecutive loss, may very well tie or even break that record next season.

Sure, they'll have a new coach. And the top pick in the draft, who may or may not also be the team's new quarterback (I still think Case Keenum is serviceable, given some off-season preparation and a better offensive line, but I admit to being biased). And, hopefully, healthy key players back like Arian Foster and Brian Cushing.

But as this fall's meltdown showed, this team has serious problems - everywhere - that do not lend themselves to quick fixes. It's going to take time for a new coach to come in, clean house, implement his philosophy and install his personnel. And the results are likely to be painful at first.

Which is is why I expect the losing streak to continue when the 2014 season kicks off.

But I'll worry about that when it comes. For now, I'm just glad the 2013 season is over.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

From a (rather reluctant) Black Cat and myself!

(And after the holidays are over, I'm going back on that diet. Ugh!)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Plant that milkweed, folks!

It's in short supply, and it's having an adverse impact on the monarch butterfly population:
Nationwide, organizations are working to increase the monarchs’ flagging numbers. At the University of Minnesota, a coalition of nonprofits and government agencies called Monarch Joint Venture is funding research and conservation efforts. At the University of Kansas, Monarch Watch has enlisted supporters to create nearly 7,450 so-called way stations, milkweed-rich backyards and other feeding and breeding spots along migration routes on the East and West Coasts and the Midwest. 

But it remains an uphill struggle. The number of monarchs that completed the largest and most arduous migration this fall, from the northern United States and Canada to a mountainside forest in Mexico, dropped precipitously, apparently to the lowest level yet recorded. In 2010 at the University of Northern Iowa, a summertime count in some 100 acres of prairie grasses and flowers turned up 176 monarchs; this year, there were 11.

The decline has no single cause. Drought and bad weather have decimated the monarch during some recent migrations. Illegal logging of its winter home in Mexico has been a constant threat. Some studies conclude that pesticides and fungicides contribute not just to the monarchs’ woes, but to population declines among bees, other butterflies and pollinators in general.

But the greatest threat to the butterfly, most experts agree, is its dwindling habitat in the Midwest and the Great Plains, the vast expanse over which monarchs fly, breed new generations and die during migrations every spring and autumn. Simply put, they say, the flyway’s milkweed may no longer be abundant enough to support the clouds of monarchs of years past.
Demand for crops such as soybeans and corn is such that more and more open grassland where plants like milkweed flourish is being plowed under and put into agricultural service. These crops, which are genetically-modified to be resistant to herbicides, are then sprayed with weed-killers that prevent milkweed from growing back, even in unplanted areas such as along roads or ditches. The result is that the Midwest, which is a critical monarch hatching ground, is increasingly devoid of the only plant monarch larvae can eat.

The monarch has been under increasing pressure for awhile now - I wrote about a drop in their population back in March of 2010 - but it's gotten to the point that the monarch is now listed as a "near threatened" species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Efforts to replenish milkweed sources are underway, as the article notes, and even some major corporations are participating. But the big problem the monarchs face right now is awareness; or, more specifically, the lack of it in regards to the threat they face.
Dr. Taylor, of Monarch Watch, said he was convinced that the annual migration to Mexico can be revived; butterfly populations, he said, can fluctuate wildly from year to year as weather and habitat change. The insect’s troubles probably were as deep, or deeper, during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, he said. But so far, he said, monarch backers are mostly preaching to the choir, “and the choir’s of limited size.” 

Northern Iowa’s Dr. Jackson said it would take a much larger — and speedier — effort to undo the impact of thousands of square miles of habitat loss. 

“Monarchs are just like other iconic species,” she said. “Once people stop being accustomed to seeing them, they stop caring and they forget. Support drops like a ratchet.” 

Cool British Airways billboard

This billboard is in Piccadilly Circus in London. That's the actual flight number and origin city of the aircraft.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 Houston Cougar Football Attendance

As we wait for bowl season to begin - I'm still determining the logistical feasibility of traveling to Birmingham to see the Cougars play Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass bowl on January 4th - I've updated my Houston Cougar football attendance graph.

The cougars averaged 24,256 fans per game in 2013. This is tickets sold, of course; it was pretty clear that the number of actual "butts in seats" was lower. This is a decline of 3,029 fans/game from a year ago and 7,475 fans/game from two years ago.

The decline in attendance, while disappointing, is not unexpected. The Cougars were coming off a losing 2012 season and played home games in two separate venues (Reliant Stadium and BBVA Compass Stadium) due to construction of the their new home stadium. Additionally, other than BYU there really wasn't a "marquee" team on the home schedule to attract casual fans.

I expect attendance to increase in 2014. The Cougars will be playing in their brand-new on-campus stadium, which will attract fans if for no other reason than novelty, and this years 8-4 record might being some folks back that were frustrated with 2012's disappointment.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Houston 34, SMU 0

The Cougars broke their three-game losing streak in convincing fashion at Reliant Stadium last Friday, shutting out the SMU Mustangs and avenging last year's embarrassing blowout.

The Good: for the Coogs, the story of the season is the defense. Three interceptions. Two fumbles. Five sacks. Only 83 rushing yards allowed. And Houston's first shutout of a conference opponent since 1989.

To be fair, things might have been different if SMU's experienced, dual-threat quarterback, Garrett Gilbert, had not been sidelined with a leg injury. But he was unable to play, and his backup, redshirt freshman Neal Burcham, was generally ineffective.

The Cougar offense, meanwhile, regained some semblance of a rhythm after struggling mightily over the past month. With 365 total yards, two touchdowns by air and two more by ground, they scored as many points on Friday as they did in their two previous games combined.

The Bad: although the offense did perform better against SMU than it had against the three previous opponents it faced, it still sputtered at time. Quarterback John O'Korn completed less than 60% of his passes and threw two interceptions, and the running game really didn't get established until late in the game when the outcome was no longer in doubt. The Cougars are going to need to take a close look at their offensive line over the offseason. And, while not as bad as last week, the offensive playcalling was at times truly bizarre.

What it means: The Cougars end the 2013 regular season with an 8-4 record. This three-win improvement over last season exceeded my preseason expectations; considering that they lost their four games by a total of 20 points, with a few breaks here or there it could have been even better! Considering how young this team is - only a handful of seniors are being lost - there's no reason to believe that next year could be even better, provided O'Korn and his counterpart Greg Ward continue to mature, problems with the o-line are remedied, and the defense retains its newfound aggressiveness.

There's one game left to play. By this time next week the Cougars will know which bowl they're going to.