Wednesday, December 16, 2015

2015 Houston Cougar football attendance

I finally got around to the annual update of my wins-versus-attendance graph for UH Cougar Football:
The Coogs averaged 33,980 fans over seven home games, which is an increase of 5,666 fans per game since last year and almost ten thousand fans per game since the 2013 season. This is Houston's largest average attendance since the 1979 season (37,847). This attendance average, furthermore, would not have been possible in Robertson Stadium, which had a maximum capacity of 32,000.

Thus, for all the hand-wringing about the number of people attending Houston football games, things are clearly trending in the right direction.

(Updated 1/21/16 to reflect Peach Bowl win)

Interstate 14

Texas is getting another interstate. Eventually:
Interstate 14 will be cobbled together mostly from U.S. 190 and other existing roads to create a new freeway from western Texas to the Louisiana border. The Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Coalition, based in Austin, announced the designation Tuesday.

The interstate will take years to build as highway segments must be brought up to freeway standards such as no at-grade intersections and various safety upgrades to allow for higher speeds.

According to the coalition, I-14 will connect Killeen, Belton, Bryan-College Station, Huntsville, Livingston, Woodville and Jasper before terminating at Texas 63 at the Sabine River.
To be clear, I-14 wouldn't "terminate" at that location; it would simply continue into Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and potentially South Carolina as part of the "14th Amendment Highway."

I've known that this is been in the works for awhile. I'm less clear on the purpose Interstate 14 is supposed to serve. It's being billed as a "Forts to Ports" highway, even though it doesn't directly serve any ports here in Texas (and the military is likely to continue to rely on railroads to move the bulk of their material to and from port facilities anyway). Given that Texas is one of the few states in the country without an Interstate link between its capital in its largest city, it seems like it would make more sense for Interstate 14 to generally follow the route of US 290, rather than 190.

At any rate, it will be a long time before I-14 comes to full fruition. As of today, the only section of US 190 here in Texas that could possibly meet interstate standards is the stretch that runs from Copperas Cove to Belton and serves Fort Hood. Maybe a few miles of H. K. Dodgen Loop running along the south side of Temple would qualify as well, if direct connectors from I-35 were built. Otherwise, as is the case with Interstate 69, the realization of I-14 will be a slow and piecemeal process.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

AAC Championship: Houston 24, Temple 13

The Cougars clinched their first conference championship since 2006 last weekend, defeating the AAC East champion, 22nd-ranked Temple, at TDECU Stadium. (Check out these awesome pictures of the game.)

The Good: Greg Ward, Jr was his usual self, rushing for 148 yards and two touchdowns. The Cougar defense forced two turnovers, stopped three Temple fourth-down conversion attempts and limited the Owl offense to a single touchdown.

The Bad: The UH offense sputtered in the second half, with three-consecutive three-and-outs even as the Owls scored the game's final ten points. Temple quarterback P.J.Walker had his way with the UH defense, passing for 287 yards and a touchdown.

The Ugly: Employees of security contractor CSC, in a (generally unsuccessful) attempt to keep students from rushing the field after the game, were filmed physically assaulting people. This story made national news, and the University of Houston has terminated its contract with CSC as a result.

What it means: By virtue of being the highest-ranked "Group of Five" school, the Cougars have punched their ticket to the so-called "New Year's Six" group of bowl games; they will face Florida State in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta on December 31.

Whether the Coogs can beat the Seminoles, I have no idea. What I do know is that, regardless of the Peach Bowl's outcome, the 2015 season is an unqualified success. 12 wins, a conference championship, a "New Year's Six" bowl: this was the year long-suffering UH fans have been waiting for, and I don't think anybody, save the most delusionally-optimistic of UH fans, could have predicted something like this back in August. (I sure as Hell didn't!) I'm pretty happy right now.

Go Coogs!

North Texas hires a new football coach

Welcome to Denton, Mr. Littrell:
North Carolina offensive coordinator Seth Littrell will be named head coach at North Texas, the school announced on Saturday night.

Littrell and the Tar Heels are in their first ACC title game Saturday against Clemson.

Littrell, 37, has been at UNC the past two seasons. Before joining the Tar Heels, he was an offensive coordinator at Indiana (2012-13) and Arizona (2009-11). He also was an assistant at Texas Tech from 2005 to 2008.
Before Littrell was hired, the Denton Record-Chronicle's Brett Vito argued that this is a hire that North Texas must get right:
(Interim head coach Mike) Canales hinted at just how important UNT’s new coach would be to the program’s hopes to improve in his final appearance with the Mean Green.

“I wish the new coach the best of luck because this place means a lot to me,” Canales said. “I want to see it be successful and back to going to bowl games. They will do great things and this program will go right back to where it needs to be.”

McCarney had the Mean Green at that point back in 2013, when UNT produced one of the greatest seasons in program history — a 9-4 campaign capped by a win against UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

UNT just couldn’t sustain that momentum, slid back to 4-8 and finally 1-11, leaving the 2013 season as the only winning campaign in the past 11 years.

The empty stands UNT played in front of for most of the year are a glaring indication that the Mean Green are going to do more than just field a team at a nice venue to convince all but their most loyal supporters to come out.

Miss on this decision, and UNT could be looking at an even longer stretch of floundering football, one that will further diminish what support the school has to work with in terms of support going forward at a time other programs UNT competes with in the state appear to be on the rise.
This is the key issue: North Texas has excellent facilities, most notably Apogee Stadium, completed in 2011 at a cost of $78 million. It is located in the recruit-rich DFW Metroplex. It has the 5th-largest enrollment in the state. There is no reason why this program cannot be competitive in Conference USA.

Yet the Mean Green continue to struggle, both on the field and at the gate. An announced crowd of 8,305 attended UNT's season-ending loss to UTEP, although as Vito reports (and as anybody who watched it on TV can attest) that the actual number of people in the stands was much lower. The program averaged 13,631 for its season just concluded - the lowest average, Vito reports, since 1998. That's not the type of return that UNT athletics expects on its investment, and it's not the type of return that makes the program sustainable.
UNT just can’t afford to miss on this hire. It’s been a long, long time since UNT was consistently successful back in the early 2000s under Darrell Dickey, who led the Mean Green to four straight conference titles beginning in 2001.

Ironically, Dickey was named the interim coach at Memphis on Sunday after Justin Fuente left for Virginia Tech.

UNT has to start stringing together winning seasons again like it did for a while under Dickey. The school and its supporters have invested far too much to see the program continue to flounder.

UNT has searched for an answer to how to spark its program ever since that run of winning seasons.

The school has a new stadium and a spot in Conference USA.

Soon it will have a new coach. For UNT’s sake, the school had better hope it will have the final piece of the puzzle with its new head coach as well.
What about Littrell's coaching experience?
Littrell has excelled while guiding UNC’s offense in 2014 and 2015. The Tar Heels are averaging 495.7 yards per game this season. Before UNC, he served as offensive coordinator at Indiana University, which finished ninth in the nation in total offense in 2013, averaging 508.5 yards per game. Littrell first became an offensive coordinator during a three-year stay at the University of Arizona from 2009-11. He was the co-offensive coordinator in 2010 and took over the job full-time the following season.

Littrell, an Oklahoma native, last worked in Texas from 2005-08, when he was the running backs coach at Texas Tech. He is a University of Oklahoma graduate and was a running back and team captain on the Sooners’ 2000 national championship team.

Littrell went into coaching after his playing days and has coached in seven bowl games.
Looks pretty good. Having been a Mean Green fan since I moved to Denton in 1999, and following the football program's ups-and-downs through the tenures of Darrell Dickey, Todd Dodge, Dan McCarney and Mike Canales (twice, in an interim capacity), I can only hope that Littrell succeeds. I guess we'll find out, starting in the fall of 2016.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Houston 52, Navy 31

The Cougars won the AAC West title in convincing fashion last Saturday, manhandling 16th-ranked Navy in front of a sellout crowd at TDECU stadium.

The Good: Greg Ward Jr, who missed last week's loss to UConn with an injury, completed 26 of 35 passes for 308 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown. Brandon Wilson, who was switched from cornerback to running back to take the place of an injured Kenneth Farrow, rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Demarcus Ayers had eight receptions for 161 yards and one touchdown, including a pair of highlight-reel catches. He also threw for a touchdown. The defense utterly smothered Navy's potent triple option, holding the Midshipmen to just 4 of 11 third down conversions and limiting Heisman hopeful Keenan Reynolds to 84 yards and one TD on 19 carries.

The Bad: Reynolds had a good day in the air, completing 13 of 16 passes for 312 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. That being said, Navy's preferred offense is not pass-oriented, and they were clearly out of their comfort zone.

The Ugly: Although Navy probably didn't need to be prolonging the inevitable by spiking the ball when they were down by 21 with less than a minute remaining, the smattering of boos from UH fans was uncalled for. You don't boo a service academy, folks!

What it Means: The Cougars will face Temple at TDECU Stadium for the American Athletic Conference Championship next Saturday. The winner will likely be the "Group of 5" representative to the "New Year's Six" group of prestigious bowls.

Thanks to the win, Houston also reappears in the College Football Playoff rankings at #19. Tom Fornelli at CBS Sports thinks the playoff committee is slighting them:
I'm not exactly enraged over this, but Houston just doesn't get enough credit for being 11-1 simply because it's in the American Athletic Conference. I know the AAC isn't a Power Five conference, but it currently has three teams ranked by the committee. It deserves a bit more respect than it gets.

This is a Houston team that not only beat a Navy team that was ranked No. 15 last week, but beat it by 21 points. Its sole loss (at 6-6 UConn) looks really bad, but it's important to realize the Cougars lost on the road without their starting quarterback.

So while I'm not going to sit here and say Houston should be in the top 10, at 11-1, with the season it has had, it certainly deserves to be higher than No. 19 if Navy was able to reach No. 15 last week.
More important to UH faithful is that head coach Tom Herman, who had been rumored to be in the running for other head coaching jobs around the nation, is apparently sticking around in Houston for a little while longer:
Houston Cougar head coach Tom Herman yesterday sought to set aside the rumors that he’s been considering leaving the University of Houston. Addressing the media in advance of Saturday’s American Athletic Conference title game, Herman stated that he and the school have agreed in principle to terms for a new contract.

“We have agreed in principle,” Herman said. “That is probably the best way to put it. We are working out the details of a contract, I don’t want to speak on any specifics, because those aren’t worked out yet, but we are moving in the right direction and have agreed in principle on the generalities of what is next."

“I’m here right now,” Herman continued. “And again, these things take twists and turns along the way as they sometimes do, but I don’t anticipate that happening. That is about all I am going to say about it.”
I'm not going to be completely comfortable about this until the contract is signed, nor am I under any illusion that Herman is going to stay at UH for more than a few more years. But it would have left a bad taste in my mouth if he had decided to move on after just one season. Thanks to him, this season has been successful beyond my imagination, and I think he can do greater things here if he stays a little while longer.

That includes a win over a tough Temple Owl team and a Conference Championship on Saturday.

Some 5-7 teams get to go bowling

Some teams with losing records will be going bowling this season:
It’s official: There will be multiple teams with losing records playing in bowl games next month.

With only currently 75 bowl-eligible teams to fill 80 bowl berths, at least two bowls will need teams with 5-7 records. And there could be as many as five teams with losing record earning bowl berths because not enough teams reached six wins to fill the record 41 bowl games, including the College Football Playoff title game.
I've always pushed back against the argument that there are "too many" bowl games. Nobody's forcing anyone to watch the ones they find uninteresting or unworthy, and as a college football fan I agree with something that former Sports Illustrated sportswriter Arash Markazi once said: "At the end of the day, it's still college football and what could be better than college football in December and early January? Saying there are too many bowl games is like saying there are too many presents under the Christmas tree."

That being said, you have to wonder if we've reached the bowl saturation threshold. Bowl games are supposed to be a reward for teams that had a successful, winning season. More recently, the proliferation of bowl games has meant that anybody who manages a .500 record goes to a bowl. Now we've come to the point where teams with losing records get to go bowling.

While we've come a long way from when deserving teams were routinely shut out of bowl games - I used to keep tally of the winning teams that were Screwed and Shafted out of postseason play - it appears we've reached the point where bowl games are an award for participation, rather than an actual reward for success.

Unless, perhaps, it's success in the classroom, which will decide which schools with losing records make it to the postseason:
Teams with 5-7 records will become eligible for at least two bowl bids and as many as five, based on their Academic Progress Rates. The NCAA Division I council approved a recommendation made by the football oversight committee Monday to fill the record 41 bowls with five-win teams because not enough teams will meet the standard bowl-eligibility requirements.
To no one's surprise, a certain school on South Main has made the list of potentials:
Based on 2013-14, Nebraska has the best APR among 5-7 teams, at 985. Missouri and Kansas State are next on the list, with an APR of 976, followed by Minnesota (975), San Jose State (975), Illinois (973) and Rice (973).
Nebraska, as the first team in line for a bowl invite based on APR, announced Monday night it will play in a bowl if invited.
Missouri, however, will decline any potential bowl. In order for the Owls to make it into the postseason, other schools listed above will have to decline invites as well, and a couple of teams fighting for bowl eligibility will have to lose on Saturday:
Kansas State can become bowl eligible Saturday with a win at West Virginia, but the Wildcats should get in either way. Georgia State (5-6) visits Georgia Southern and South Alabama (5-6) hosts Appalachian State as those teams seek to reach bowl-eligibility based on record and shut out the 5-7 teams with high APRs.

In the past 20 years, only three teams with losing records have received bowl berths: Georgia Tech (2012), UCLA (2011) and North Texas (2001).
I remember that 2001 North Texas team well, because I lived in Denton at the time. They went 0-5 out-of-conference, but their 5-1 in-conference record was good enough for them to clinch the Sun Belt title and go to the New Orleans Bowl.

At the time, the idea of a team with a losing record going to a bowl seemed like a bizarre oddity, a once-in-a-generation fluke. But now it appears to be becoming commonplace.

Guy V. Lewis, 1922-2015

The legendary University of Houston basketball coach has passed away:

Guy V. Lewis, the self-professed “good ol’ boy from Arp” and father of the Phi Slama Jama basketball dynasty at the University of Houston, has died. He was 93.

Lewis died Thursday in Kyle.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Hall of Fame Coach Guy V. Lewis, who passed away this morning," UH athletic director Hunter Yurachek said on Twitter. "A true Cougar legend."

With his signature red polka-dot towel in hand, Lewis was the winningest coach in UH history, compiling 592 victories and making five Final Four trips while coaching such stars as Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in 30 seasons from 1956 to 1986.

Off the court, he was regarded as a visionary and innovator for putting together the 1968 “Game of the Century” against top-ranked UCLA at the Astrodome and for being one of the first college basketball coaches to embrace racial integration in the South.

“He belongs on a pedestal with the greatest coaches ever to coach the game,” Drexler said. “Where the game of basketball is today is because of Guy V. Lewis.”

I'm glad Lewis lived long enough to see himself finally get inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Given his contributions to the sport, he should have been inducted much sooner. The fact that he never won a national championship - North Carolina State's miracle finish against the Cougars in the 1983 NCAA Championship will always be a dark spot in this city's sports history - was the only blemish on his amazing legacy.
“The coaches I hated coaching against were the real good ones, and Guy was one of those,” legendary UCLA coach John Wooden said in 1998. “I think Guy took a bum rap because he never won a national championship.”
Lewis led the Cougars to Final Four appearances in 1967, 1968, 1982, 1983 and 1984. Those accomplishments seem even more amazing today, considering the dumpster fire that UH basketball has been lately.
Guy Vernon Lewis was born on March 19, 1922, in Arp, Texas, just outside Tyler, the son of an independent oil wildcatter at the height of the East Texas oil boom.

After serving as an Army Air Corps flight instructor in World War II, Lewis returned and played two years at Rice and eventually decided to attend UH in 1946. A 6-foot-3 co-captain, Lewis was the leading scorer on the first two UH basketball teams in 1946-47.

Lewis returned to UH for the 1953-54 season, serving two seasons as an assistant before his promotion to head coach when Alden Pasche retired in 1956.

UH reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1961, one of 14 appearances under Lewis. In all, Lewis coached 15 All-Americans and 10 NBA first-round picks, among them Donnie Schyerak, Gary Phillips, Hayes, Chaney, Drexler, Olajuwon, Dwight Davis, Dwight Jones, Otis Birdsong, Rob Williams and Michael Young.

Three players – Hayes, Drexler and Olajuwon – are in the Hall of Fame and were voted among the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all-time.
Guy and his wife, Dena, who passed away shortly before he did, lived in the same University Oaks neighborhood where I grew up and where my parents still live. So it's not a stretch to say that I've lost a neighbor as well as a legend. 

Thank you, Guy, and rest in peace.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Houston 17, Connecticut 20

Yep. It was a trap game.

The Good: Brandon Wilson returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. The Cougar defense only allowed two UConn field goals off of four UH turnovers.

The Bad: Those four turnovers (two fumbles, two interceptions) tell the story of the afternoon for the Coogs. The offense was held to a season-low 318 yards and one touchdown. The defense was burned on a trick play for a UConn touchdown. Elandon Roberts was ejected from the game after being called for targeting, and knocking out of the game, UConn starting QB Bryant Shirreffs.

The Ugly: The Cougars had a lot of injuries going into this game, and appear to have even more as a result of it. Kyle Postma started behind center in place of an injured Greg Ward Jr, but he was so ruthlessly battered by the Husky defense - the makeshift offensive line, itself ravaged by injuries, simply could not protect him - that he had to be replaced by Ward in the fourth quarter. Running back Kenneth Farrow was injured late in the game as well.

What it means: Houston's quest for an undefeated season is over, but they still have a chance to win the ACC's Western Division and advance to the Conference Championship with a win over Navy at TDECU stadium next Saturday. But they need to get healthy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Houston 35, Memphis 34

I'm still not sure how the Cougars managed to win this one:
Perhaps it was playing before a record crowd crammed inside of TDECU Stadium. Maybe it was playing a 8-1 Memphis football team that was the best opponent the University of Houston had faced the entire season. It could be as simple as sideline guests JJ Watt and DeAndre Hopkins contaminating the Cougars with the crapiness of the Houston Texans.

No matter the reason, for the first 29 minutes of the Saturday night’s game, the Cougars weren't playing like an undefeated college football team. Down 20-0, having gained just 24 yards on offense with only four first downs for the game, the Cougars appeared dead in the water. Then quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. was knocked out of the game, and under backup Kyle Postma, the offense sprang to life, scoring on a 30-yard pass from Postma to Linell Bonner just before the half.

Still the Cougars were down 34-14 with 14 minutes remaining in the game and hopes of the perfect season, the conference title, and a New Year’s Bowl were rapidly falling away. Of the 282 teams that have trailed by at least 20 points in the fourth quarter, none have come back to the win, and UH was positioned to become number 283. But as the clock reached zero, after the 48-yard field goal attempt of Memphis’ Jake Elliott went wide right, the Cougars were the somewhat miraculous 35-34 victors to go 10-0 on the season. (See our slideshow of photos from the game here.)
The Good: Kyle Postma. He completed 21 of 33 passes for 236, a touchdown and no interceptions. He also rushed for 49 yards and another TD. Demarcus Ayers led all receivers with 13 receptions for 127 yards. While the Memphis defense managed to hold the Cougar ground attack to less than 100 yards, they still managed to give up four rushing TDs. Houston's defense had a rough day, but still forced two turnovers and, at games' end, keep Memphis at the very edge of Elliot's field goal range, resulting in the game-saving miss.

The Bad: Greg Ward Jr had perhaps his worst start at QB (fortunately, his ankle injury isn't serious). Memphis gained 278 yards through the air - Tiger QB Paxton Lynch was 20-for-32 passing with two touchdowns and an interception - and 212 yards on the ground. They manhandled Houston's defensive line and converted 12 of 19 third downs. Houston receivers dropped several catchable passes.

The Ugly: There's really no other way to describe the first half. The Tigers had Ward rattled and the running game contained; Houston's first six possessions all ended in punts. In the second half, Memphis defender Reggis Ball purposely tried to injure Ayers by twisting his leg after a play was whistled dead. This thug move should have gotten him ejected, but the referees didn't even see it. In fact, the officiating of this game was blatantly one-sided, with many calls (or non-calls) benefitting the Tigers.

The Beautiful: 42,159 was the largest on-campus crowd in the history of University of Houston football. The fans were loud, and the overwhelming majority stayed until the end even though things looked bleak on more than one occasion. I would like to think that this game represents a turning point in terms of this city's support of Cougar football.

What it means:
It was probably a game the Cougars should have lost. It was definitely a game that, in recent years past, the Cougars would have lost. But Herman’s got this team believing that it can do anything. And it’s a team that’s dealt with lots of adversity this season — the offensive line has been hit by injury after injury, Postma started the season as a back-up wide receiver, key contributors on defense were missing this game because of injury, the receiver and running back cops are decimated by injury, and yet the Cougars found a way to pull out the win, go to 10-0 on the season. And yet all that matters for Herman is winning the conference title.
The conference title is still a few steps away, but it became much more realistic after last Saturday's miraculous finish. Next up for the Coogs is their first-ever trip to Storrs, Connecticut to face the Huskies. Trap game, anyone?

Rockets fire Kevin McHale

Can't say I was expecting this:
Eleven games into a 4-7 Houston Rockets season that has sped past concerning and is careening toward disastrous, Alexander pulled the trigger and fired head coach Kevin McHale, as first reported by Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski. Assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff will be the interim head coach when the team takes on Portland tonight at Toyota Center.

The move comes as a surprise, insomuch as nobody could have foreseen this coming when the season began. However, it was evident from opening night that this team had major issues. They lost their first three games of the season, each by 20 points, before going on a four game winning streak. However, that string of wins was followed by four more losses, many of the same embarrassing variety as the first three losses of the season.

A 111-95 loss to Boston at home Monday night, a game the Rockets led midway through the third quarter, was the final straw. The Rockets' brass had seen enough. McHale had clearly lost his players and the confidence of the franchise, and he was done.

The team had plenty of excuses for its poor start — injuries, the integration of Ty Lawson, the close association with the Kardashians (ok, I made up that last one) — but it all boils down to this team's treatment of defense as optional instead of integral, and energy levels that fluctuate worse than those of a narcoleptic. In short, this team just doesn't appear to give a shit. At the very least, they didn't give a shit about McHale or they wouldn't have been habitually losing to lottery teams by double digits.
The performance of the Rockets this season has certainly been disappointing, especially coming off their success at the end of last season. Nevertheless, it's a bit unexpected to see the same guy who coached this team to that success last season get the axe so early this season.

With that said: Les Alexander has owned the Rockets long enough to know that Houston is a fair-weather, front-runner sports town, and he probably understood that his franchise was hemorrhaging the interest and goodwill it created among local sports fans with its abysmal performance to start the 2015-16 season. Realizing that dwindling fan support equals dwindling revenues, Alexander decided to make a change at the top. Whether it makes a difference on the court remains to be seen - that discussion is for people who know more about basketball than I do - but at least Alexander can show local fans that he's being proactive, thereby holding their interest in his product.

No word as to when the Rockets will announce McHale's permanent replacements, but there are plenty of potential candidates.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Houston 33, Cincinnati 30

The Cougars faced their toughest test of the year in the rain last Saturday, but came away with a close victory after the Cougar defense forced four straight incompletions on Cincinnati's last possession.

The Good: The Cougar defense accounted for 9 of Houston's 33 points. Brandon Wilson intercepted Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel and returned it 51 yards for a touchdown. Kiel was also sacked in the endzone for a safety. UH special teams recovered a muffed Cincinnati punt, which would later lead to a score. The Cougar offense employed a clock-chewing, grind-it-out approach in the rain, amassing 266 yards on 66 carries and maintaining possession for 37 and a half minutes. Keeping the ball out of the hands of the Bearcat offense was a good idea, because...

The Bad: Kiel absolutely torched the Houston secondary for 523 passing yards and four touchdowns. Until the final series of the game, the Cougar defense simply had no answer for him and his receivers. Greg Ward threw two interceptions. Running back Ryan Jackson left the game with a broken collarbone and is out for the rest of the season. Cornerback William Jackson III suffered a knee injury and is probably going to miss the next two games.

The Ugly: The Bearcats amassed 11 penalties, three of which were unsportsmanlike conduct flags - including one on coach Tommy Tuberville - after a single play. The Cincinnati meltdown led to an easy Houston score. Another Houston touchdown, however, was called back on a highly-questionable offensive pass interference penalty.

What it Means: The Cougars remain undefeated and, at 9-0, have surpassed last season's win total. Next up is a home game against a ranked Memphis team whose own aspirations for an undefeated season came to an end last weekend against Navy. The Tigers will be angry, and if Memphis QB Paxton Lynch is anywhere as close as effective against the Houston secondary as Kiel was, the Cougars could be in for a long afternoon.

The Houston Press's John Royal (who appears to have borrowed the "good, bad, ugly" format from me!) has more.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Houston 34, Vanderbilt 0

The Cougars put together their most dominating performance of the season on a rainy Halloween night, shutting out Vanderbilt and remaining undefeated.

The Good: The Cougar defense was obviously the story of the evening. They forced a fumble and three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown by William Jackson III, and held the Commodores to a paltry 185 yards of total offense. On the offensive side of the ball, Quarterback Greg Ward Jr completed 15 of 23 passes for 221 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He also rushed for 33 yards and a touchdown. Kenneth Farrow led all rushers with 82 yards and a touchdown.

The Bad: Ward fumbled the ball twice in the rain, and was held below his per-game rushing average for the year. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, it didn't matter.

The Ugly: There really wasn't anything ugly about this game, other than the weather. And while I know that there's no point in complaining about attendance, I would have liked to have seen a crowd larger than 29,565 at this game. Yes, it was raining, parts of the city had flooded earlier in the day, and a lot of people had Halloween activities to attend. But I was really expecting an undefeated, ranked team playing an SEC opponent to draw a bit better. Coach Tom Herman is not impressed, either.

What it Means: This was Houston's first shutout of an SEC school since 1969 (when they blanked Mississippi State 74-0). The Coogs beat the Commodores, who won against Missouri last week, by 17 points more than Georgia, 23 more than Ole Miss and 25 more than South Carolina. Where's our SEC invite?

The 8-0 Cougars host Cincinnati on Saturday for homecoming. The Bearcats will be the best team, record-wise, that the Coogs have faced this season.

Hopefully the crowd will be more to my - and coach Herman's - liking.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Houston 59, Central Florida 10

Houston started out this game very sluggish, and Central Florida actually led 10-7 with a little over two minutes left in the first half. But then the Coogs woke up, scoring 17 points in the final 2:05 of the half en route to a 59-10 rout of the Golden Knights.

The Good: Houston got the "never won at Brighthouse Networks Stadium" monkey off their back in a big way, accumulating 600 yards of total offense. The Golden Knights had no answer for the Cougar ground game, which accumulated 366 yards and five touchdowns on 48 carries. UH's defense held Central Florida's hapless offense to a paltry 280 yards and forced four turnovers, including an 85-yard fumble return by Brandon Wilson that was Houston's only score for the first 27 minutes of the game.

The Bad: Penalties continue to be a problem for the Cougars, who were flagged seven times for 87 yards. That being said, "bad" can only describe the 0-8 Central Florida Knights. They just looked awful.

The Ugly: Would describe the Cougars throughout most of the first half. Following Wilson's fumble return for a touchdown, they punted four times, went three-and-out twice, and amassed a whopping total of 49 yards offense. After UCF scored to go ahead, it looked like a major upset was possible. The Cougars are going to see their undefeated record come to an end if they have that poor of a start against Vanderbilt, Cincinnati or Memphis.

What it Means: This loss was the end of the line for Central Florida head coach George O'Leary, who retired following the game. The Cougars are 7-0, are moving up in the polls, and will face Vanderbilt at TDECU Stadium on Halloween night.

SciGuy leaves the Chronicle

Eric Berger, the Chronicle's longtime science and weather writer, is moving on:
Hey everyone, as you may know by now I am leaving the Chronicle to write about space for Ars Technica. 
It has been a wonderful 17 years at the Chronicle. I have written this blog for more than a decade, and for the most part it has been a labor of love. I have literally written thousands of posts and approved 100,000s of comments. 
But all good things must come to an end. To keep track of my future endeavors be sure to follow me on Facebook or Twitter. 
I will be writing more about space and weather than ever.
For a moment I was worried that Berger's departure meant the end of his days blogging about the weather as well. His (now dormant) weather blog at the Chronicle was the best source for local meteorological information and was a mandatory morning read for me, and I wasn't looking forward to the desperate search for a new accurate and hype-free source of local weather information. But upon checking his Facebook page, I discovered this:

Space City Weather

Update your links and favorites accordingly.

Berger's departure appears, at least from my vantage point, to be another nail in the Chronicle's coffin.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Houston 42, Tulane 7

Last Friday the Cougars made their first trip to Tulane's new Yulman Stadium in New Orleans... and came back with a win. 

The Good: Quarterback Greg Ward Jr was his usual electric self, completing 17 of 25 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 77 yards and three scores. Wide receiver Demarcus Ayers also put on a show, gaining 283 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, one of which was a punt return. The Cougar defense, meanwhile, smothered the Green Wave offense, forcing them to punt 11 times and holding Tulane of a paltry 262 yards of total offense.

The Bad: Tulane scored a touchdown on a fake punt to notch their only score of the night and keep from being shut out. As good as the defense played, they forced no Tulane turnovers. Ward threw his first interception since the Louisville game.

The Ugly: The game was very sloppy: Houston committed 10 penalties for 99 yards, including a penalty on special teams that kept DeMarcus Ayers from scoring a second touchdown on a punt return. Tulane, for their part, had 12 penalties for 133 yards. Houston's makeshift, injury-plagued offensive line is a real concern. They were manhandled by Tulane's defensive line, and things are so bad that UH is holding tryouts for walk-on linemen.

What it Means: Houston is now 6-0 and bowl-eligible. It's hard to believe that the season is half-over already!

Next up for the Cougars is a trip to Orlando to play Central Florida. The Golden Knights are 0-7 on the season, but the Cougars should not take them lightly, as they are 1-5 all-time against UCF and have never won a game in UCF's stadium.

Friday, October 16, 2015

International flights from Hobby are now a reality

As of yesterday:
Passengers on the first flight out of Hobby Airport's new international concourse were greeted bright and early Thursday morning by a line of cheering Southwest Airlines' employees, whooping and hollering as travelers entered the concourse.

A mariachi band serenaded them as they waited at the gate. And before boarding their 8 a.m. flight for Cancún, fliers got a handshake from Mayor Annise Parker and Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly.

Paul and Pamela Curry, from the Katy area, were counting on this excitement. They were going to travel this weekend anyway, and Pamela saw the opportunity to be on Southwest's first flight.

"I figured Southwest being Southwest, they'd make an event out of it," she said. "And they have."
Paul chimed in, saying he enjoyed walking into the concourse to applause. 

Their ultimate destination is Akumal, south of Cancún, where they can go snorkeling in a turtle sanctuary.

Thursday marks the first time Hobby has had full-fledged international service since 1969.
"Sun is coming up, and it really is the dawn of a new era here for the city of Houston," Kelly said during a news conference.
Southwest spent $146 million, $10 million less than expected, on the 280,000-square-foot complex with five gates, a larger ticketing area and a Customs inspection station. Four of the five gates are preferentially leased by Southwest, and they're "swing gates" that can accommodate both domestic and international travelers. Seven more gates can be added later.
In order for Southwest to implement international service from Hobby, they had to convince City Council to ignore a temper tantrum from United Airlines as well as convince Mexican and US aviation authorities to waive treaty-specified limitations on flights between the two countries.

In addition to Cancún, Southwest now flies from Hobby to Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo in Mexico; San Jose, Costa Rice; Belize City, Belize; and seasonally to Aruba. Flights to Montego Bay, Jamaica and Liberia, Costa Rica, begin in November. As of now Southwest has not announced any other international services out of Hobby, and to my knowledge no other airlines, foreign or domestic, have indicated that they will themselves to Hobby's new international facilities.

One airline that will never be using Hobby's international gates under any circumstance, however, is US Airways. Today was their final flight as an airline:
It's the end of the line for US Airways.

The airline that started as a tiny airmail service 76 years ago is retiring as part of a 2013 merger with American Airlines. The final US Airways flight is scheduled to take off from Philadelphia on Friday.

It's a small part of a huge trend that's affecting how more than 660 million domestic air travelers fly every year.

Fourteen years ago, the United States had 10 major domestic airlines. Now, the competing major carriers have merged into four: American, Delta, Southwest and United.

Together, they control about 87% of the domestic market, MIT's International Center for Air Transportation said.
I previously covered this merger here, here and here. Does its completion mark the end of the consolidation trend in the domestic airline industry, at least for now?
Are more megamergers coming? Will four be cut to three? Unlikely, says Winston. "Mergers are very risky propositions. They don't necessarily work well." Corporate cultures can clash. Merging complicated computer reservation and scheduling networks can be bumpy, at best. Just ask United Airlines, which was still struggling to smooth its operations five years after its megamerger with Continental Airlines, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Appropriately, US Airways' last run will be Flight 1939, the year it all began. The flight will depart Friday from Philadelphia, heading to Charlotte and then Phoenix and San Francisco. From there, it will take off again and fly east, ending its celebratory journey on Saturday back in Philly, in the state where its history began.
CNN has an infographic of airline consolidation showing that, since the century began, we've gone to 10 major airlines to just four; not shown is JetBlue, who would round out the top five.

Houston, we have another post-season chokejob

The Astros had a great season, performing much better than most people expected. I don't think anybody would have believed you if you had said back when the season begun that the team that struggled not to lose 100 games last season would notch an 86-76 record, make the playoffs, and beat the almighty Yankees in the Wild Card game. Winning baseball has returned to Houston after a very long absence, and the future is looking bright for the young team.

With all that said: I will reluctantly have to add the Astros' series against Kansas City to my list of top post-season chokejobs in Houston sports history. This is simply due to the meltdown in the eighth inning of game 4. The Astros were leading by four runs, at home, and were six outs from winning the series when Carlos Correa committed an error, the relief pitching fell apart, and the Royals were allowed to rally with a five-run inning. The Royals tacked on another two runs in the ninth to win the game and force a gave five in Kansas City. That is, by definition, a chokejob.

The Astros had one more opportunity to win the series last night, but the bullpen's meltdown gave the Royals all the momentum playing in their own ballpark, and the better-than-expected season came to a disappointing end.

As successful as the 2015 season was for the Astros, there is room for improvement. A better road record is a start: their 33-48 record in road games was the worst in the American League. And yeah, they gotta learn to keep their focus in the postseason.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

North Texas fires Dan McCarney after inexcusable loss

Yeah... When you pay an FCS school $425k to be an easy homecoming win, and they instead come to your stadium and utterly humiliate you, it's time for a change:
Dan McCarney was fired as North Texas' head coach Saturday night following a devastating loss to Portland State in the Mean Green's homecoming game.

The Vikings hammered UNT 66-7, the largest margin of defeat for a Football Bowl Subdivision team in a game against a team from the Football Championship Subdivision ever.

The loss dropped UNT to 0-5 for the first time since the 2008 season and continued a rapid downhill slide following the Mean Green's Heart of Dallas Bowl win following the 2013 season.

UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal confirmed the school's decision to part ways with McCarney in a hastily called press conference that took the place of the Mean Green's regular postgame interview session.

"This football team has continued to struggle more and more each week in the last three or four weeks," Villarreal said. "It started at the beginning of the season. We are not in position where we are competitive really in any phase of the game."
After their nine-win season and bowl victory over UNLV a couple of seasons ago, I truly expected to see North Texas continue to improve. They had an excellent new facility in Apogee Stadium, Conference USA was a step up from the Sun Belt, they were located in the talent-rich DFW Metroplex and Dan McCarney had had some success at Iowa State. Instead of improving, the program has plummeted. The Mean Green went 4-8 last season, are winless halfway through this season, and as of right now  might very well be the worst FBS program in the nation; Sagarin ranks the Mean Green 195th out of 253 Divsion I football teams and dead last in the FBS.

Granted, Portland State is a good FCS team, having beaten the Pac-12's Washington State earlier in the year. But a 66-7 drubbing? Villareal did what he had to do to placate what's left of the UNT fanbase and to begin the search for somebody to right the ship.

McCarney finishes with a 22-32 record over four-and-a-half seasons at North Texas. Offensive coordinatior Dan Canales will reprise his role as interim head coach (he last led the team in 2010, after Todd Dodge was fired) for the rest of the 2015 season.

Houston 49, SMU 28

Last Thursday was a busy night for local sports, with the Texans playing the Colts at NRG Stadium, the Astros in a playoff game against the Royals and Kansas City, and the Coogs hosting the SMU Mustangs at TDECU Stadium. After getting off to a slow start - SMU actually led for much of the first half - the Cougars rattled off 35 unanswered points to notch their fifth win of the season.

The Good: After getting torched by SMU for much of the first half - the Cougar defense surrendered 287 yards and three TDs to SMU in the first 24 minutes of the game - the defense forced fumbles on the next two SMU drives. Both turnovers were converted into touchdowns to put the Coogs ahead for good, and the defense shut down SMU's offense in the second half. Houston focused on their ground attack in this game, running the ball 48 times, and all seven Cougar touchdowns were rushing scores (four by quarterback Greg Ward, Jr and three by running back Kenneth Farrow). Ward also completed 16 of 18 passes for 243 yards; he hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in two games, but that hasn't mattered.

The Bad: Other than the slow start and a single Cougar fumble (which could probably have been ruled an incomplete pass instead), there really wasn't too much to be upset about. Except...

The Ugly: Three offensive linemen suffered injuries in this game; at least one, and probably two, are done for the season. Although it's suspicious for so many O-linemen to go down in a single game, there doesn't appear to be any definitive evidence that SMU's defense was intentionally trying to harm them so this is probably just a case of bad luck. Nevertheless, the offensive line is the weakest component of the UH offense and injuries like these are devastating.

What it means: With the win, the Cougars are 5-0 on the season and make their first appearance in the AP Top 25 since the 2011 season. 

Next up for the Coogs is a trip to New Orleans to play Tulane in another nationally-televised game Friday night.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Houston 38, Tulsa 24

The Coogs went on the road last Saturday and came back home with their first conference win of the season.

The Good: Quarterback Greg Ward, Jr had his best game of the year, accounting for an astounding 455 yards in total offense. He completed 22 of 38 passes for 273 yards and he also rushed 20 times for 182 yards and 3 touchdowns. This performance was enough to earn him a helmet sticker on ESPN's College Football Final as well as some Heisman-related love from FOX's Stewart Mandel. Running back Kenneth Farrow, meanwhile rushed 19 times for 159 yards and two touchdowns. The Cougar defense had five sacks, seven tackles for loss and forced two turnovers as they held the Golden Hurricane to their lowest point total of the season. Finally, the Cougars only had 3 penalties for the entire game.

The Bad: The Cougar offense was clearly not playing at its best. As good a game as Ward had, he could not find any receivers in the endzone. Receiver Stephen Dunbar fumbled a reception for Houston's only turnover. The Cougars failed to convert on fourth-down three times and were barely 50% on third-down conversions. Twice, the Cougars made it into Tulsa's red zone and came away with no points.

The Ugly: Special teams are going to cost the Cougars a game if they don't improve. Kyle Bullard missed two field goals, and punter Logan Piper put the Cougar defense in bad positions twice: once on a shanked 24yard punt, and once on an ill-advised fake punt attempt that was smothered by Tulsa. 

What it means: Once again, the Cougars play less-than-perfect football on the road but still manage to come up with a win. They are now 4-0.

Next up is a nationally-televised home game against SMU tomorrow night.

Astros shut out Yankees, advance to ALDS

Ever since I was a child, a dream of mine was that the Houston Astros would one day meet the New York Yankees in the World Series, and beat the crap out of them.

You see, I've always held a strong dislike for the Yankees. Part of that dislike is, admittedly, based on jealousy of their storied history. But that dislike is also based on their insufferably arrogant fanbase or the fact that the baseball world seems revolve around them, simply due to the city in which they are located: a perfect example of the Tyranny of New York.

For the lowly Astros to beat baseball's pre-eminent team? What a dream!

Okay, so last night's game wasn't the World Series - it was a one-game play-in between two wild card teams (an dubious addition MLB made to its postseason just a few years ago), and it occurred as a result of the Astros being moved from the National League to the American League (something I still dislike) - but it was still a postseason victory over the evil, hated Yankees. A shutout victory, no less. At Yankee Stadium.

So I guess my dream really did come true. In a sense.

For a team that hasn't been in the playoffs since their World Series appearance a decade ago, struggled not to lose 100 games a year ago, and that struggled to make the playoffs this year after a late-season slide that saw them lose 15 of 22 games at one point, winning this play-in game is a huge step forward.

Next up for the Astros is the Kansas City Royals in the American League Divisional Series.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Houston 59, Texas State 14

Last Saturday night the Cougars exacted revenge for one of the most catastrophic losses in program history by dispatching the Texas State Bobcats at home, 59-14. The game was essentially over by halftime; most of Houston's starters were out of the game by the end of the third quarter.

The Good: The Greg Ward, Jr show was in full force once again. The electrifying quarterback completed 17 of 21 passes for 274 yards and career-high four touchdown; he added 91 yards rushing and two more touchdowns with his feet.  Wide receiver Demarcus Ayers had eight catches for a career-high 126 yards and two touchdowns. The UH defense, meanwhile, recovered four turnovers: two fumbles and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

The Bad: Discipline remains a problem for Houston, which committed 10 penalties for 69 yards. But even worse is the ACL tear that backup quarterback Adam Schultz suffered in the second half; his short career as a Cougar is over. Kyle Postma, who had played the beginning of the season as a wide receiver in order to address a lack of depth at that position. will take over as backup QB. That's not good news for the thin receiving corps.

The Beautiful: The 35,257 in attendance for this game is the second-largest on-campus crowd in UH history. The number was helped by Texas State, whose fans came out in force and whose band was impressive, but there were also clearly more sections of the stadium filled with UH fans than there were at the opener against Tennessee Tech. Win and they will come!

What it means: Nobody's going to mistake this year's Bobcat squad for an elite team, but the win does erase much of stench of  one of the worst losses in UH football history. With the win, the Coogs improve to 3-0.

Next up for Houston is a road trip to Tulsa to face the 2-1 Hurricane in the first conference game of the year.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Remembering Rita

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Rita. Although the storm wrought significant devastation to the Beaumont area, it will best be remembered for the panic it triggered in Houston. As the storm, with its 175 mph winds, barreled towards the city, people with visions of Katrina fresh in their minds panicked and made an unorganized, headlong retreat out of town. Highways were gridlocked; people died.

Ten years ago I wondered if the people of Houston overreacted to the storm:
I believe it would have helped if the overall reaction to the storm were a bit more measured and rational in the days before it hit. I think the local news media deserves most of the blame in this regard; they hyped this thing for all it was worth and, in my opinion, needlessly panicked a lot of people. Hurricane predictions 72 hours before landfall are notoriously inaccurate, meaning that the storm more than likely was going to spare Houston a direct hit. This, indeed, is what happened to Rita: it veered off to the east and only brushed Houston. Secondly, there was almost-universal agreement among weather professionals that the storm, which was indeed a category five as it churned over the warm sea earlier in the week, would weaken as it moved into cooler waters closer inland and would not be as intense once it made landfall. This, again, is what happened to Rita, as it weakened from a category 5 out in the Gulf to a category 3 when it made landfall. I wish that these facts, as well as the locations and the designs of the evacuation zones themselves, had been more prominently explained by the local media (as well as elected officials), as it no doubt would have caused a lot of people who were not in areas of high risk, such as Katy or Cypress or Tomball, to assess the situation a bit more objectively before they decided to jam the highways leading out of town. That, in turn, would have helped to allow the people that were in truly high-risk areas to get out first.
But instead of rational, calm discussion of the hurricane, the uncertainties inherent in its projected path, the effects of wind on areas several dozen miles inland, and the like, what we got were a bunch of blow-dried local television anchors and weather-guessers orgasmically screaming about a monster category five hurricane heading our way and bringing with it certain death and destruction to the city of Houston. The media also focused on the evacuation story, which in my opinion created a very clear implication of "everybody else is getting out why they still can, and you should be getting out, too."
The evacuation map that the local television news should have been showing every 3 minutes during their Rita coverage.
While the Chronicle's Eric Berger doesn't think Houston overreacted to Rita - the storm "scared the bejesus out of me," he writes - he does place blame on elected officials and emergency preparedness personnel for the deadly disaster that was the botched evacuation:
State, county and city officials were unprepared. While the storm’s forecast was dire, public officials made no real effort to discern between those who must evacuate — residents in low-lying areas vulnerable to storm surge — and those on higher ground who should ride out the storm.

Emergency planners also never established a plan for contraflow, so inbound lanes of freeways sat unused. Gas stations ran dry, both in communities where people were evacuating from, and locations along the clogged freeways.

As a result, of the 113 deaths in Texas only six could be directly attributed to the storm, whereas the other 107 deaths were caused indirectly, primarily due to to the haphazard evacuation process.
Eric, however, doesn't mention the local media's role in the disaster that was the Rita evacuation. This isn't to say that he, as a member of the local media, was part of the problem; Berger has actually been one of the more level-headed news sources when it comes to hurricanes. But any narrative of the clusterfuck that was the Rita evacuation that mentions poor preparation and mixed messaging by local officials but fails to explore the local media's role is simply incomplete. As Texas Monthly's John Nova Lomax recalled earlier this year:
Hyping weather events is not unknown in other cities, of course, but it’s unlikely that any other place has suffered a tragedy as serious as Houston’s Rita evacuation, when incorrect and/or possibly overblown weather forecasting led to more Texans dying than during Allison, Ike, Alicia, and Carla combined: 107 died in accidents, in fires, or of exposure, trapped under a broiling sun at the side of an interstate in one of the largest traffic jams in American history.
I'm not exactly sure where Lomax gets the "combined" figure from; the number of people killed in the Rita evacuation is indeed more than the number of people that were killed by Hurricane Carla (34), Hurricane Alicia (21) and Tropical Storm Allison (21) combined, but when you add the 84 people killed by Hurricane Ike in Texas, you reach 160 fatalities. That does not diminish the fact that 107 people - one of whom was the mother of a good friend of mine - needlessly perished in a tragedy created by fear, poor planning, poor messaging and media over-hype.

I clearly remember some television reporters at the time claiming that the City of Houston and Harris County were under mandatory evacuation orders - something that simply was not true. At no time did I ever hear a reporter, an anchor, a weatherman repeat the mantra that anybody living in this region should know by heart: run from the water, hide from the wind. It led to chaos.
Those in flood-prone coastal areas were wise to flee. It was all those who got in their way—people from places like Sugar Land, West University, and Tomball—who created the problems. Of the estimated 3 million who fled, only 1.2 million or so had been advised to. And as Mayor Bill White pointed out at the time, families were taking all of their cars, fearing that their houses would blow down and their cars would be submerged.
North and west of areas like Clear Lake, this made little logical sense, but logic had drowned a couple of weeks earlier. The entire city was then in the grip of Katrina Terror: a fear that our city would be plunged beneath brown waters, that law and order would wash away, that looters would pillage the corner Fiesta Marts and Spec’s, hauling away their ill-gotten swag. That once the mighty Rita came through, the winds were gonna bring down trees, the rains would flood the town and bust the levees, and then...

Well, nobody seemed to snap to the fact that Houston had no levees, nor does our city sit in a basin at or below sea level.

And so hundreds of thousands of people fled who had no need to flee, even if Rita had hit Houston head-on. There were the 23 senior citizens who burned to death on a faulty chartered bus while being shuttled from their facility in Bellaire, where it barely even rained, to Dallas. A 51-year-old man and two of his children lost their lives when their car overturned en route from Dallas to their hometown of Sugar Land, a suburb well beyond the threat of storm surge. A Houston toddler was killed along the side of Highway 59 near Lufkin when another Houstonian fell asleep at the wheel after twenty hours on the road and ran her over. These were tragedies, made all the worse by the fact that none of these people should have been where they were when they died. 
I live right around the corner from the nursing home where those 23 elderly people were being evacuated from: a facility that is fifty miles inland and not in an evacuation area, even for a category 5 storm.

Has the region learned its lesson? In terms of evacuation procedures, I would like to think so. We now have a contraflow evacuation plan that did not exist when Rita approached. Local officials are better coordinated as well; I think they did a great job getting the right messages out when Hurricane Ike hit three years later. But a lot of people have moved to Houston since Rita and might not have the experience or knowledge regarding whether to stay or go when a storm approaches. As for the local media, well, the best way to deal with their hyperbole is to simply pay them no attention.

It's worth remembering the disaster of the Rita evacuation, in order to ensure that it never happens again. The Chronicle's gallery of images of gridlock is here. My blog entries as Rita approached are here, here and here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

No more nonstops to Stavanger

Given the collapse in oil prices, this was probably inevitable. This 44-seat, all-business-class flight from Houston to Norway's energy capital had a very specific purpose, and it wasn't for tourists or people visiting their Scandinavian grandparents.

Nevertheless, it's kind of sad to see this rather unique service to one of Houston's Sister Cities come to an end. Perhaps this kind of service could resume if oil prices ever recover.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Houston 34, Louisville 31

Only two games into the season, and Tom Herman already has a signature win under his belt: a road upset of the Louisville Cardinals. The Coogs and the Cards traded the lead throughout the fourth quarter, until Greg Ward Jr's 15-yard touchdown pass to Demarcus Ayers with about three minutes left in the game put Houston up for good. Louisville tried to tie the game with a 53-yard field goal attempt, but it was partially blocked by the Cougars and fell short.

The Good: Brandon Wilson ran back a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. The Cougar defense recovered two fumbles and intercepted Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson twice. They also held the Cardinal offense to a mere 70 rushing yards. Greg Ward completed 23 of 33 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns; he and running back Kenneth Farrow also combined for 207 rushing yards.

The Bad: Greg Ward's one interception was run back 59 yards and resulted in a Cardinal touchdown a few plays later. The defense struggled against backup Cardinal quarterback Kyle Bolin, who replaced Jackson in the third quarter. Kicker Kyle Bullard missed two field goals. And, even though the Cougars recovered four turnovers, they could only score three points off of them.

The Ugly: Houston was flagged seven times for 78 yards. This included a controversial targeting penalty on Howard Wilson, who was ejected from the game. Tom Herman was subsequently penalized 15 yards for bumping into a referee when he disagreed with the call. Louisville committed 9 penalties of their own for 80 yards. All in all, a sloppy game.

What it means: While this is not a monumental upset - Louisville was not ranked going into this game, and with a game against Clemson tomorrow night, they're staring 0-3 in the face - it is still a win on the road against a P-5 school that was favored by almost two touchdowns. This is something the Cougars have not accomplished since 2009. It's a significant step forward for a program that is rebuilding under a new coach, and it came way ahead of schedule.

Next up for the Coogs is a game against the Texas State Bobcats at TDECU Stadium on September 26th. Can UH exact revenge for the disaster that occurred three years ago? Moreover, coming off this in and against an in-state opponent that travels well, will fans pack TDECU stadium and shut the local whiners up?

Be there and find out!

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Houston 52, Tennessee Tech 24, and attendance... Again.

Although the score was probably closer than it should have been - the Coogs really had no business giving up three touchdowns to a middle-of-the road FCS team - the 2015 UH season started with a win last Saturday at TDECU Stadium.

Dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward had an excellent game, completing 21 of 28 passes for 275 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He also rushed 13 times for 107 yards and 2 touchdowns. Demarcus Ayers led all receivers with 10 receptions for 121 yards, and Kyle Postma, who is listed as the third-string quarterback on the roster but was added to the wide receiver ranks for this game, impressed with four catches for 82 yards and the Coogs' only passing touchdown. The defense, for its part, held the Tennessee Tech rushing game to less than one yard per carry, and special teams looked good with 138 kick return yards.

There were some problems, however. Notably, multiple breakdowns in the Cougar secondary that allowed Tennessee Tech to score on plays of 71 and 77 yards. The Cougars would end up allowing Tennessee Tech wide receiver Brock McCoin to rack up a jaw-dropping 264 receiving yards. In fairness, it's worth mentioning that one of these long touchdowns occurred in late fourth-quarter garbage time. However, for a secondary that was supposed to be the strength of a defense, this performance is unacceptable - especially against an FCS school - and needs to be addressed immediately. The Cougars also fumbled the ball five times, although only one of those was recovered by Tennessee Tech; bad snaps between the Coogs' freshman center and the quarterback were partly to blame. Running back Kenneth Farrow, who is supposed to be the team's main offensive weapon, carried 11 times for only 49 yards and missed the second half of the game. Finally, the Cougars committed nine penalties, one of which negated a touchdown on a punt return.

All in all, however, it was a a solid win for the Cougars as well as a good start to the Tom Herman era. However, some people are not happy about Saturday's game. Not about the game, mind you, but the announced crowd of 30,479 who were on hand to see it.

One of those is John Royal of the Houston Press, who claims that "TDECU Stadium was disappointingly empty on Saturday night, the crowd of 30,479 falling well below the stadium’s capacity of 40,000." Royal attacks the UH fanbase for failing to sell out the opening game of the Tom Herman era, calling it a "a fickle and nearly extinct beast."

He illustrates his point with a picture featured prominently at the top of the article of a mostly-empty north grandstand of TDECU Stadium, with the caption "the UH fanbase decided to skip Saturday's opening game." However, when one looks more closely, ones sees the UH band drumline on the field and no players on the sideline. In other words, the picture of the stadium was taken well before kickoff, during the band's pre-game performance, and does not accurately depict the amount of people that were present during the game itself. The use of this photo is purposely misleading, and is poor journalism on the part of Royal as well was the Houston Press editors that approved it.

Another media malcontent is Kelsey McCarson, who declares in a article about the game that "Houston's alumni are some of the worst in college football" because the home opener did not sell out. "It’s the alumni’s fault. Period," McCarson writes. "The students were there. The stadium is new. The team looked good. But the house wasn’t full."

Both Royal and McCarson are UH alumni, so I'm sure they want the UH program to do well both on the field and in the stands, and wanted the 2015 season, as well as the Tom Herman era, to open with a sellout.

But the program's achilles heel has always been its attendance. I'm painfully aware of that, and I even graph the team's average attendance after each season:
UH football season wins (magenta bars) and average attendance (blue line) since 1965.
What sticks out in my mind is that 30,479, while not as good as the 40-thousand-plus who showed up to witness the season-opening debacle against UTSA last season, is actually decent considering the program's historical woes at the gate. Only three times since 1990 have the Coogs even averaged 30 thousand fans a season, and for so many years, especially during the Jenkins-Helton-Dimel Era of Suckitide, UH football crowds averaged in the teens to low twenties. Ten years ago, for example, Houston had 19,981 for its opening game against Oregon at Reliant Stadium.* A decade later, the team breaks 30k against Tennessee freakin' Tech... and people are disappointed!

These 30 thousand fans, furthermore, came out even though several other potentially-attendance-sapping events were taking place in Houston that day: the first-place Astros playing at Minute Maid Park, the Aggies and Arizona State drawing about 62 thousand fans to NRG Stadium at the same time this game was playing, the Labor Day Classic between Prairie View and TSU at BBVA Compass Stadium, Rice and Houston Baptist having home games of their own, even the final Mötley Crüe concert in Houston at the Toyota Center. Against that type of competition for the local entertainment dollar, and playing an FCS opponent with no name recognition whatsoever, I think the Cougars held their own.

The program is making progress at the gate.

Fans like McCarson, who have only been attending UH football games since 2006, probably don't have the same kind of perspective that older fans - those of us who sat through Kim Helton's program-destroying incompetence and Dana Dimel's 0-11 season - possess. (Nor, in this case, does McCarson really seem to want to gain such a perspective: when posters on the message board, of which McCarson is a member, pointed the above facts out to him, his response was, "You guys are idiots. I'm out.")

With all that said, 30,479 is not where the UH program ultimately wants to be, especially if it wants to join a "Power 5" conference like the Big XII:
(UH Athletics Director Hunter) Yurachek concedes that the progress the program has made behind the scenes needs to translate into wins on the field in order to bring attendance up to where it needs to be. “Attendance is a big piece. Most Power Five conference schools are selling 25,000 to 30,000 season tickets, and right now, we’re in the 15K range. We need to get that to 20 or 25K,” Yurachek estimates. “On TV, a stadium that’s half full doesn’t show well.”
Furthermore, the school is making a controversially large investment into its athletics program as a whole, one that is almost certainly unsustainable in the long term and will need to be replaced by actual revenue from ticket- and merchandise-buying fans. For those reasons, continuing to grow the program's fanbase is a must. 30,479 is a long way from where the program was and there is reason for optimism, but it is not where UH football needs to be.

In that regard, one thing that was extremely promising to me as I sat in the stands last Saturday was the student section of the stadium. It was packed, and the kids were rowdy. That is the program's future season ticket base, and the school needs to continue in doing the good job it is doing in cultivating it. (There was a time during the Jenkins-Helton-Dimel Era of Suckitude when there was no student section to speak of. I know because I was a student during that time.)

A final thought on Royal's and McCarson's articles: I've never understood the idea that attacking or otherwise complaining about the people who don't show up to the games - whether they be alumni or casual fans - is going to somehow make things better. It might allow people to vent because the team they love is not garnering the support they think it deserves, but I seriously doubt that calling out a group of people for being "fickle" or "the worst" is going to entice them to attend. Has bitching and moaning about attendance ever succeeded in putting one pair of butt cheeks in one seat at one sporting event at the University of Houston? I'm willing to bet not. You entice people by the games by encouraging to come and by giving them a good experience (which includes winning) worthy of their time and money when they get there, not by telling them how lousy they are.

I asked this same question almost nine years ago, after a game against Central Florida at Robertson Stadium.

The announced attendance for that game was 13,242.


*Yes, it was a Thursday night game and a lot of people might have decided to stay home on account of the Katrina evacuees next door at the Astrodome, but still... We couldn't break 20k against the Oregon freakin' Ducks!

Thursday, September 03, 2015

2015 Houston Cougar football preview

My favorite time of year is finally upon us! The first college football games of the season are underway as I write this, and the University of Houston kicks off in less than 48 hours from now at TDECU Stadium, where they will be hosting Tennessee Tech. What do I expect from my beloved Coogs this year?

Looking Back: The Cougars notched an 8-5 record in 2014, capped by a miraculous 25-point fourth-quarter comeback against Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Bowl. However, the season was an overall disappointment, capped by unforgivable upset losses to UTSA on TDECU Stadium's opening night and to Tulane on Homecoming. Those losses cost Tony Levine his job after only three seasons as head coach.

The Big Story for 2015: Levine's replacement, Tom Herman, has an extensive coaching pedigree, most recently serving as offensive coordinator for last year's national champion, Ohio State.

Reasons for Optimism:  Given Tom Herman's previous coaching experience, as well as the fact that he's assembled by what all accounts is a strong staff, one would expect a significant upgrade over the previous regime in terms of coaching and play-calling abilities. Talented players, such as bruising RB Kenneth Farrow and mobile QB Greg Ward Jr, return on offense. The defense is experienced; every player on the two-deep released earlier this week is a returning letterman, and the secondary, anchored by seniors Lee Hightower, William Jackson, Adrian McDonald, and Trevon Stewart, might actually one of the best in the nation.

Reasons for Pessimism: in spite of all the positive buzz surrounding Tom Herman, he hasn't coached a game yet. There's always a learning curve associated with becoming a head coach for the first time, and there are bound to be hiccups along the way as he settles into his new job. My biggest on-field concern is the offensive line. Only one OL on the entire two-deep weighs more than 300 pounds, and there are three freshmen (two true, one redshirt) listed; whomever starts at center will be making his very first snap at the college level this Saturday. There's not a lot of depth in the receiving corps, and the defensive line (which switches to a 3-4 alignment this fall) loses three starters from last year.

It's also worth mentioning that even though Greg Ward Jr is returning, there's no guarantee that he'll be starting at quarterback. Utah transfer Adam Schultz is also vying for the job, and we're likely to see both play on Saturday. It's too early to fret over a "quarterback controversy," but as of right now this position remains unsettled.

The Schedule: the schedule is generally favorable; the Coogs have seven home games and host two of their tougher in-conference opponents, Memphis and Cincinnati, at TDECU Stadium. The Cougars also get Vanderbilt, their lone opponent from a Power 5 conference, at home on Halloween.

What the Computers Think: Sagarin starts Houston at #60 in the nation with a starting rating of 71.11. This would imply a 9-3 record for the Coogs when opponent ratings and home field advantage are taken into consideration. Congrove, which has accurately predicted Houston's record within two wins 12 out of the last 21 seasons, ranks the Coogs 71st to begin the season and envisions a 7-5 record. Massey starts Houston at the 75th position and foresees an 8-4 record.

What I Think: If the Cougars end up with another eight-win season in 2015, pigskin pundits will ask why Houston bothered to change coaching staffs, and whether they actually experienced an upgrade. That being said, there are just too many uncertainties with this team - new coaching staff, undersized and inexperienced offensive line, a new scheme in the defensive front seven, weakness at the receiver positions - that make it difficult for me to predict anything more than an eight-win season, especially with Louisville and Central Florida on the road and Memphis, Cincinnati and an SEC team at home.

I am going to predict eight wins for the Cougars over the course of the regular season. That may be good enough to win the AAC west, if they can get past Memphis. But a conference title is probably too much to ask in 2015.

See ESPN, Bloguin, Athlon, SBNation, and Maddux Sports for further previews of the 2015 University of Houston football team. USA Today has an excellent overview of the entire American Athletic Conference.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Katrina, ten years later

Yesterday, August 29th, marked the tenth anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. It devastated communities along the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana: 1,833 people lost their lives, over 350 thousand homes were destroyed, and an estimated $180 billion worth of property was damaged. Katrina was especially ruinous to the city of New Orleans: levee failures caused 80% of the city to be flooded for weeks, one hundred thousand housing units were damaged or destroyed, the city was almost entirely evacuated, and the storm created a level of human suffering unparalleled in recent American history.

Shortly after Katrina hit, I pondered the devastated city's future (see here and here) as well as its effects on neighboring locales such as Baton Rouge and Houston. Given the level of death and destruction New Orleans experienced, as well as the geographic conditions that made it so vulnerable to not only Katrina but future storms as well, did it even make sense to rebuild the city at all?

In retrospect, of course, the idea that an entire city was just going to "go away" - a city that has been there for almost three centuries, that anchors a metropolitan area of 1.2 million people, and that also happens to serve as the port at the mouth of the nation's largest and most important navigable waterway - is absurd. The Big Easy was always going to be rebuilt after Katrina. And while the city has met many milestones in its post-Katrina reconstruction, its recovery has been very uneven. Its population is one example, as The Atlantic's Laura Bliss reports:
According to the Data Center, more than half of New Orleans neighborhoods have now recovered to more than 90 percent of the occupied households they had prior to Katrina. Census estimates from July 2014 put the city’s population at 384,320, about 79 percent of its 2000 population of 484,674. Compared to 2000, about 100,000 fewer African Americans and 9,000 fewer whites live in New Orleans. The city is more diverse now: Its Hispanic population has grown by a little more than 6,000. There are more Asian Americans, too. (Notably, studies have shown that the post-Katrina rate of return for Vietnamese citizens was faster than the citywide rate.)

Still, thousands have not returned to the city they used to call home. We don’t know precisely how many or all of the reasons why. We do know that African Americans of low socioeconomic status, who lived in impoverished neighborhoods hit hard by Katrina, have been among the least likely to return. For example, as of 2013, only 30 percent of residents of the low-income, predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward had returned, according to Al Jazeera.

But out of all groups, it seems to be children who were the least likely to return to New Orleans. From 2000 to 2010, the Data Center reports, the number of children under the age of 18 living in New Orleans decreased by 56,193, or 43 percent. Presumably, their parents found better conditions outside the city, or found it too hard or expensive to move back.
The Crescent City, furthermore, has an affordable housing problem even as it remains saturated with blighted properties, still suffers from a high crime rate, its transit agency still only provides a fraction of its pre-Katrina services, the city has a 27% poverty rate and a huge income gap, and it struggles to attract major corporations and high-paying jobs.

Just as the idea that New Orleans could have been completely abandoned after Katrina is utterly ridiculous, a competing theory that arose in the days following the storm - that Katrina would "wipe the slate clean" and allow New Orleans to be "reborn" - to rise, phoenix-like, and become a better place to live, work and play than it was before - has proven to be just as fanciful.

In short, while the population of New Orleans today is smaller, older and more diverse than it was before Katrina, the city itself still suffers from the same problems, many of which were exacerbated by the storm and many of which are due to social and structural issues that are exceeding difficult to solve, hurricane or no.

Obviously, ten years is an insufficient period of time to survey the aftermath of an event as big and as catastrophic as Katrina on a city as large and as complex as New Orleans; its effects will continue to be felt for decades to come. A decade after Katrina, its recovery is nowhere near complete.

Shortly after the hurricane's landfall I also pondered the notion that Baton Rouge, which had been inundated with upwards of two hundred thousand Katrina evacuees, would replace New Orleans to become become Louisiana's pre-eminent city, much the same way Houston replaced Galveston as Texas's most important city after the hurricane of 1900. That proved not to be the case; the city's temporary New Orleans contingent made the trip back to their homes as soon as they were able to do so, and Baton Rouge's 2010 population was about the same as its 2000 population.

Finally, as Katrina evacuees made their way to Houston both before and after the storm's landfall, I pondered the effect of all these new residents on my city. Perhaps no city outside of New Orleans was affected by the storm as much as Houston, both in terms of the people it absorbed as well as the panic that it created among the population a few weeks later, when Rita approached and hundreds of thousands of people participated in a disastrous evacuation of the metropolitan area. Back to Laura Bliss:
The city of Houston received more Katrina evacuees than anywhere else in the country. As many as 250,000 arrived at the peak of the storm, many landing in the city’s Astrodome. An estimated 150,000 were still living in Houston a year later. For thousands of those evacuees, living conditions in Houston were not good. According to a 2006 survey by the city of Houston, about a quarter of former New Orleans residents who were displaced to Houston (including those displaced by Rita, which hit the Gulf less than a month after Katrina) were staked out “in FEMA-funded apartments in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods on the city’s southwest side.”

The influx slammed Texas government. Housing was scarce and often unaffordable for evacuees. Schools, transit systems, and Medicaid programs were overwhelmed. A 2006 report from the office of former Texas Governor Rick Perry beseeched the feds for $2 billion in extra funding to cover the costs of this new, highly vulnerable population, which included Rita’s victims. (The state, and others, did receive extra federal assistance to assist evacuees.)

To make matters much worse, longtime Houston residents were wary of Katrina evacuees, who were overwhelmingly poor and black. Residents complained of a crime wave connected to their new neighbors, which was later debunked. But the negative tone lingered. In 2010, an annual citywide survey revealed that 58 percent of Houstonians felt that the overall impact of the evacuees on the city had been “a bad thing.”
The "myth" of a crime wave in Houston caused by Katrina evacuees is explored in this article from Rice University's Urban Edge blog. It does note that violent crimes such as homicides and robberies increased following Katrina, but that other types of violent and property crime did not increase. "If a bunch of violent New Orleans residents were taking over the streets of Houston, it would be unlikely they’d commit homicide but not other crimes," the article notes. Nevertheless, the perception that Katrina evacuees created a spike in the local crime rate remains.

Ten years later, a large number of Katrina evacuees have remained in Houston:
As New Orleans marks the 10th anniversary of Katrina this week, many who called the city home in August 2005 will be absent. Tens of thousands swapped one of the nation’s most distinctive and historic cities for the car-centric urban sprawl and homogenous modern suburbs of a metro area of six million people that is today about five times larger than greater New Orleans.
Estimates vary, but of the 250,000-odd evacuees who arrived in Houston after the storm, up to 100,000 likely stayed permanently.

“We call Houston ‘New Orleans West’,” said Mtangulizi Sanyika, an academic who left New Orleans after his house flooded and ended up staying in Texas when his wife found a job at a hospital. Sanyika is chairman of the New Orleans Association of Houston, which is planning a series of commemorative events.


Carl Lindahl, a University of Houston professor, said that two sections of the displaced population in particular tended not to return: parents of young children, who felt Houston was safer and had better schools, and the elderly, who believed New Orleans lacked social services.
Which goes back to some of the basic issues New Orleans faces, issues that were part of the city before Katrina and which need to be addressed if the city is to fully recover. In the meantime, countless individuals still continue to live as citizens of two different cities at the same time:
Spread out across Houston’s vastness, the exiles remained linked by their common culture, said one of the evacuees, Dallas McNamara, a photographer. “Things like music allowed people to get together,” she said. Bands formed. Branches of New Orleans-based churches set up in Houston. Restaurants opened.

“I think people are kind of surprised by how much they like Houston. They have a nicer home, they like the schools. They’re blown away by the amount of driving that they do but they tend to become pleasantly surprised,” McNamara said. Still, she added, “I do miss the politeness that was just ingrained … and there are more rules here. You can’t walk out of the bar with your cocktail or beer.”
For Sanyika, “The most negative aspect of Houston for most New Orleanians is the transportation. The other is the food. It’s a very different kind of taste,” he said. “A Texas gumbo doesn’t taste quite the same.”

He misses the organic way that “New Orleans culture bubbles from the bottom up, from the streets, the neighbourhoods, the working class people especially”, but said he is happy in Houston. “You never lose your cultural heritage and roots, you simply learn to integrate them in whatever environment you find yourself in,” he said. 

The 73-year-old still visits New Orleans regularly. “When I leave there is always a sadness,” he said. “New Orleans is in your soul, your heart, your roots, it anchors who you are and you take it with you wherever you go.”
Given their geographic and economic similarities, Houston and New Orleans always have been and always will be closely linked to one another. Katrina only made those bonds stronger.

I've followed the story of New Orleans' recovery on this blog; see posts I wrote ten months, one year, three years and five years after Katrina.  

The New York Times has a lengthy but excellent multimedia presentation regarding the ten year anniversary of the storm: "Ten years later, it is not exactly right to say that New Orleans is back. The city did not return, not as it was," it notes.

Slate takes issue with a handful of Katrina myths, including the idea that "everything is better now." The Chronicle has its own slideshow of debunked myths. The Data Center has an entire page full of facts and graphs regarding the state of New Orleans, ten years after, and the series of articles at Vox and The Atlantic are worth perusing as well.