Thursday, December 22, 2016

UH football: coaching change, Las Vegas bowl, and season wrapup

When Tom Herman was hired, I wrote the following:
If Herman is successful at Houston, it is probable that he will move on to another job at a higher profile school in a three or four years. That’s fine with me, because it will have meant that he left the program in better shape than he found it; my only request for Coach Herman is that he not screw the Cougars the way Kevin Sumlin did when he left for Texas A&M (who cost the Coogs a Sugar Bowl appearance by spending too much time negotiating with the Aggies and too little time preparing for the Conference USA Championship Game).
Unfortunately, Tom Herman did indeed screw the Cougars, not because he left for his dream job at Texas after only two years - he clearly had his foot out the door the entire time he was here - but because he abruptly departed immediately following his team's final game of the season and took most of his coaching staff with him in the process, leaving UH to prepare for its bowl game with a skeleton staff and a bumnch of players who felt betrayed and demoralized.

Tom Herman (or "Vermin," as he's now known on UH message boards) will be well-compensated in Austin, to the tune of $28.75 million over five years, plus incentives. I hope he's worth it. Herman has only been a head coach for two years, and while some of his wins have been impressive (Florida State, Oklahoma, Louisville), he's also had some disappointing losses (UConn, SMU). For a man who preaches the importance of winning conference championships, he managed a rather sad 2-3 record in the AAC West this past season, good enough for fourth place. Herman is also a less-than-stellar 6-4 on the road. Those numbers won't cut it on the Forty Acres.

In the wake of Herman's departure, the University of Houston conducted a coaching search that reportedly included high-profile names such as former LSU head coach Les Miles, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, and West Virginia head caoch Dana Holgerson, but ultimately settled on promoting from within and elevated offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to the head coach position.

Applewhite took the helm of the program just in time to lead the Cougars to their bowl appearance in Las Vegas against Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State. Even given its status as a lower-tier bowl game, the Las Vegas Bowl would have been a nice win for the Coogs, as it would have assured the Cougars of back-to-back double-digit-win seasons, probably would have earned them a place in the final top 25, and at the very least would have ended a dsappointing season on a high note.

Alas, that didn't happen. The Cougars jumped out to a 10-0 lead and led 10-6 at halftime, but completely collapsed in the second half. Greg Ward Jr ended his college career in sour fashion, throwing four interceptions, and the offense could only manage a pathetic 25 rushing yards forthe entire game. The Aztecs scored the game's final 34 points, and SDSU RB Donnel Pumphery broke the NCAA career rushing record against the UH defense. In retrospect, it was probably too much to expect that the Cougars, with its players demoralized and its staff hollowed out, would win this game. But that doesn't make the blowout loss much easier to stomach.

So a season that began with so much promise ends with a whimper: the Cougars failed to win their conference or go to a New Year's Six Bowl, their head coach abruptly abandoned them after only two years (and an entire season of distracting, media-fueled speculation), and, after being ranked as high as #6 during the season, the team won't even crack the season-ending top 25. The Big XII's decision not to expand - the UH program had hoped to be invited into the ranks of the Power Five - only added insult to injury.

Normally, a nine-win season which includes victories over to-ranked Oklahoma and Louisville, and the program's highest average attendance since 1978 would be cause for celebration. But the 2016 UH Cougar football season leaves a rather bad taste in my mouth.

Nothing to do but move forward now. Although I admit to being underwhelmed by the Applewhite hire - the last time the Coogs promoted from within it turned out to be a disaster - I've liked the guy ever since he was quarterback at Texas (he played when I was attending graduate school there) and so I'm giving him the benefit of a doubt. That being said, there are a lot of things he needs to do - quickly - in order to keep the 2017 season from being a true disaster. The first order of business is assembling a staff. Then he has to figure out how to fill the holes going into the 2017 season; the team is losing a lot of talent - Ward, cornerback Brandon Wilson, linebackers Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser, defensive end Cameron Malveaux, just to name a few - and he also needs to find a way to fix the offensive line, which was the team's most glaring weak spot in 2016. The Chronicle's Joseph Duarte has a list of these and other tasks for Applewhite to attend to.

The 2017 season features games against former SWC foes Rice and Texas Tech and easy, fun road trips to San Antonio and Tulane. The Coogs also get the three teams they lost to this season - SMU, Navy and Memphis - at home next fall. There's certainly reason for optimism heading forward.

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