Thursday, February 28, 2019

Houston Cougar Football: the coaching change and the 2019 schedule

Earlier this month the 2019 University of Houston Cougar football schedule was announced. I haven't gotten around to writing about it - or for that matter the coaching change that occurred over the new year - until now because I've been kinda busy, and quite frankly the minds of UH faithful are elsewhere right now anyway.

So without further delay:

     Sat Aug 31     at Oklahoma
     Sat Sep 07     Prairie View A&M
     Fri Sep 13     Washington State (NRG Stadium)
     Thu Sep 19     at Tulane
     Sat Sep 28     at North Texas
     Sat Oct 05     (off)
     Sat Oct 12     Cincinnati
     Sat Oct 19     at Connecticut
     Thu Oct 24     SMU
     Sat Nov 02     at Central Florida
     Sat Nov 09     (off)
     Sat Nov 16     Memphis
     Sat Nov 23     at Tulsa
     Sat Nov 30     Navy

I can't say it's great. 2019 is going to be a tough slate, with a trip to Oklahoma headlining the out-of-conference schedule and defending AAC champion Central Florida rotating back onto the conference schedule. North Texas on the road and Cincinnati at home won't be easy, either. The relocation of the Washington State game to NRG Stadium for the Advocare Texas Kickoff (on a Friday night, no less!) means that the Coogs will play only five true home games this fall; there are no back-to-back home stands. There are also two Thursday night games (although only one of them is at home). Ryan appears to be as unenthused about the schedule as I am.

On the other hand, the Cougars get two well-placed bye weeks this season, they get perennial AAC West nemeses Memphis and SMU at home, and they only have one instance of back-to-back road games. I'm plan to make that two-game roadie with them, as I travel to Tulane for the Thursday night game (and make it a four-day weekend in New Orleans!), and then go up to my former home/employer of Denton to watch them play the Mean Green the following weekend.

Now, on to the new coach who will lead the Coogs through that schedule this fall: Dana Holgerson, who previously served as offensive coordinator here at Houston before going to West Virginia and who is also apparently famous for his second half adjustments.

Before I do so, however, I just want to say one final time that I liked Major Applewhite and I truly wanted him to succeed here. I also understand that there are legitimate criticisms* to be made regarding his dismissal: that he didn't deserve to be fired after a winning season, that the late season collapse was due to factors largely out of his control (i.e. injuries), that he should have been given a third year (as coaches customarily are given) to prove himself. I certainly did not celebrate news of his firing.

And honestly, Applewhite's job was probably safe at the end of the regular season. He set about correcting his season's biggest problem by firing his incompetent defensive coordinator, and worked on putting together a serviceable recruiting class. There was nothing to indicate that he wasn't going to be head coach in 2019, even if he'd be going into the season on the hot seat.

The bowl game, however, changed everything. The Coogs' pathetic and embarrassing performance against Army could not have been excused by injuries alone. The Cougars were utterly unprepared and uninspired; they allowed themselves to be humiliated by a service academy running the triple option. That epic loss, along with the subsequent departure of offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to Florida State**, forced the hand of the UH Athletics Director Chris Pezman and the rest of the administration. Applewhite might have been trying his best, but his best just wouldn't do. His mediocre record spoke for itself, and if he remained at the helm of the program TDECU Stadium was going to be empty in 2019. UH football needed to move in a new direction.***

That new direction occurred thanks to Tilman Fertitta. His money, his personal relationship with Holgerson, and his desire to make the Cougars nationally competitive again, as ESPN's Sam Khan, Jr explains:
The Houston Rockets owner has a lot of titles: CEO of Landry's Inc., a Texas-based restaurant and entertainment company; owner of Golden Nugget Casinos; star of "Billion Dollar Buyer," a CNBC reality TV show, among them. But for UH, it's his role as the school's board of regents chairman and benefactor that is most impactful. And his role in landing Holgorsen was invaluable.
"I've probably known Dana for 10 years," Fertitta said. "I've had cocktails with him many times."
He, too, knew Holgorsen had a desire to return south ("Always, in conversations, he would tell me he missed Houston," Fertitta said). When Herman left in 2016, UH considered Holgorsen, but Fertitta had intermediaries reach out.
This time around, he made a personal call to Holgorsen, and it made a difference.
"They've got a relationship, and that helps, because what it does, at this point, it eliminates the bulls---," Pezman said. "'This is real, this is happening and I'm helping make it happen.'"
When [new Texas State head coach Jake] Spavital told Pezman what he knew about Holgorsen's situation at West Virginia, Pezman relayed that information to Fertitta. Sources told ESPN that Holgorsen had come to a stalemate in negotiations with the school over a contract extension. The point of contention was Holgorsen's desire for additional guaranteed years on his contract and a larger buyout. West Virginia, having just given him a five-year extension following 2016, wasn't willing to meet all of Holgorsen's demands. 
Fertitta, who's worth $4.6 billion, according to Forbes (which also calls him "the world's richest restaurateur"), aimed to find out what it would take, financially, to lure Holgorsen. 
After the Cougars were embarrassed on national television by Army and the school's power brokers reflected on the state of the program, they decided the sizable investment it would take to make a change and land a sitting Big 12 coach was worth the risk.
The result was a five-year, $20 million deal, making him the highest-paid coach in the Group of 5.
Holgorsen's average salary puts him in the top 25 nationally among head coaches. His salary pool for assistant coaches ($4.5 million) is by far the highest in the Group of 5, higher than numerous Power 5 programs, and more than double what Applewhite's staff made ($2.14 million, according to USA Today). The school gave him the extra years he desired and a favorable buyout if he's fired without cause. But the buyout if he chooses to leave is also high in the first three years. 
"We are stuck with him for a few years and he's stuck with us for a few years," Fertitta said. "Hopefully he's here for the next 20 years and we build a statue of him."
Holgerson's decision to leave West Virginia for Houston raised several eyebrows, but it actually made sense for a lot of reasons. Aside from the aforementioned salary negotiations, Holgerson faced challenges at West Virginia, a school that is not located in prime football recruiting country and is a geographic outlier in its own conference - that he won't face in Houston. Back to Sam Khan, Jr:
Even though he moved on to Oklahoma State for a year and then to West Virginia, Houston held a special place in his heart. 
"When I left here 10 years ago, I left here with a frown," Holgorsen said. "Because one, I was going to Oklahoma, but two, I love this city and this university so much. Obviously, things worked out OK, but I always came back. I came back two, three, four, five times a year and enjoyed what this wonderful city has to offer." 
He stayed in touch with numerous friends in the city even though he was 1,300 miles away. He even did a weekly radio show appearance every fall, despite the fact that West Virginia football isn't a hot topic in southeast Texas.
"I thought all the time that he was gone that he always wanted to be back here," said John Granato, a local sports radio host and longtime friend of Holgorsen's. "Ever since I've known him, every chance he could, he's come back to Houston." 
Houston offers something that Morgantown -- or most college towns, where the school is the highest-profile part of the place -- doesn't: a chance to blend in. Holgorsen won't be the most recognizable face in town when he's out socially; James Harden and J.J. Watt have higher Q ratings among the local sports figures. There are more than 6 million people in the city's metro area.
(Seriously, just take a few minutes to read the entire ESPN story.)

Reaction to Holgerson's hire has generally been positive. Ryan is excited about the "competence and gravitas" that Holgerson brings to UH, Sportsmap's Fred Faour says there "are no negatives" to this hire, Paper City's Chris Baldwin praises Fertitta's boldness, and Sports Illustrated's Joan Neisen thinks that Holgerson "might be the missing piece" to a potential run at the College Football Playoff for the Coogs. Even Bleacher Report is putting the Coogs into their preseason top 25 on account of Holgerson's hire.

I'm not willing to go that far yet. Not even the best coaches in the world are going to fill the major gaps in talent and depth that the Coogs exhibited last season, especially on the defensive side of the ball. D'Eriq King's knee is a concern, and as of right now the Coogs lack a capable backup quarterback. Ed Oliver is just one of many talented players who will not be returning this fall. And the schedule is, as I said at the beginning of this post, not great.

I'm not expecting Holgerson to work a miracle this fall, but I do expect to see the team improve as the season progresses, I expect to see an exciting offense, and I expect to see the Coogs, at the very least, beat the teams they're supposed to beat. That means no more losses to Tulsa, Tulane or SMU teams with losing records. And no more historic beatdowns at the hands of a service academy running the triple option.

Football season is still (as of this weekend, exactly) half a year away, and I'll work on my customary season preview as kickoff approaches. Now, back to UH basketball...

* The key word here being legitimate. When Applewhite's firing was announced, a hack sportswriter by the name of Pete Thamel (formerly with Sports Illustrated, now with Yahoo! Sports - heckuva career trajectory there, Pete!) wrote a venomous screed denouncing the entire UH administration for firing him. I'm not going to link to his moronic, libelous drivel; however, if you must, you can click through to it as you read Ryan's or John Granato's responses to it.

** Right after he had just signed a contract extension with Houston, proving that Kendal is an unethical piece of trash, just like his father. It will be fun watching him fail at Florida State.

***Applewhite is moving on to Alabama to be an analyst for Nick Saban's program. He'll be fine; he just wasn't ready to be a head coach.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A word about UH basketball

I rarely write about UH basketball, but I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that they are kicking ass right now. They currently have a 25-1 record, they are ranked in the AP top ten for the first time since the 1984 Phi Slama Jama team, and they are a consensus three seed, and could even get up to a two seed, when the NCAA tournament starts in a few weeks. I've even attended a few games at the magnificently-renovated Fertitta Center this season:

As somebody who has whose childhood memories of the glory of days of UH basketball slowly recede further into memory, this is all a bit surreal. I am enjoying every moment of it. 

And yet... I don't want to enjoy it too much. The Cougars still have several tough games to play, including their conference tournament, and nothing is guaranteed for them in terms of seeding. Furthermore, I don't want the Cougars to be the victims of any spectacular upset that the Big Dance is known for: this team should make it to the Sweet Sixteen and could make it to the Elite Eight or (dare I say it?) even the Final Four, but I don't want to jinx them or get my hopes up too much.

What I will say, however, is that after over three decades, UH basketball is exciting to watch again, and moroever is once again relevant at the national level. A lot of credit goes to coach Kelvin Sampson and his staff for making this happen; he has all the gratitude from a long-suffering UH basketball fanbase.

Airbus axes the A380

Last week, Airbus announced the end of the line for its iconic double-deckered jumbo jet:
European plane manufacturer Airbus said Thursday it will stop making its superjumbo A380 in 2021 for lack of customers, abandoning the world’s biggest passenger jet and one of the aviation industry’s most ambitious and most troubled endeavors. 
Barely a decade after the 500-plus-seat plane started carrying passengers, Airbus said in a statement that key client Emirates is cutting back its orders for the plane, and as a result, “we have no substantial A380 backlog and hence no basis to sustain production.” 
The decision could hurt up to 3,500 jobs and already cost the plane maker 463 million euros (about $523 million) in losses in 2018, Airbus said. 
This isn't much of surprise, considering that the A380 program had been on the chopping block a year ago before being thrown a lifeline by Emirates. I was skeptical at the time that the A380 would ultimately survive, and I was right.

Ben Mutzabaugh explains that the A380 program failed because "it never found a profitable niche:"
While the A380 can carry more passengers than any other commercial passenger plane, the four-engine aircraft also is more expensive to operate compared to modern two-engine jets. For example, Boeing's two-engine 777 models are cheaper to operate and can seat nearly 400 passengers.  
The A380 also required some airports to modify taxiways and airport terminals to be able to accommodate the giant jet. 
Even Boeing's iconic humped 747, its closest in capacity to the A380, has seen sales decline as passenger airlines increasingly prefer two-engine models that are less costly to operate. 
"The very clear trend in the market is to operate long-haul aircraft with two engines [such as] Boeing's 787 and 777, and Airbus's A330 and A350," Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor of Flight Global, says to the BBC.
The A380 began flying for airlines just in 2007, when Singapore Airlines put the jet into passenger service.
Dubai-based carrier Emirates was an enthusiastic supporter of the jet, ordering nearly half of all the roughly 270 A380s Airbus is expected to have made before the line ends.
Beyond Emirates, however, the A380 never found the broad customer base Airbus envisioned.
No U.S. carriers ever gave serious consideration to ordering the jet. About a dozen other global airlines bought the jet, including Air France, British Airways, Korean Air, Lufthansa and Qantas, among others. But, aside from Emirates, the A380 was just a niche player in the fleets of most airlines to fly it.
The end of the A380 serves as a bookend to my series regarding the twilight of four-engined passenger jets. As majestic and exciting as these aircraft might be, there's simply no market for them anymore. Two-engined widebodies simply offer more flexibility and efficiency.

If you haven't yet flown on an A380, however, don't despair: the ones now flying and still on order will likely continue to fly well into the 2020s and perhaps even beyond.

Update: Josh Barro provides an excellent explainer about the economics behind the demise of the A380 program.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Former Cougars represent as the Alliance of American Football kicks off

The state's newest professional football team started their existence with a win on Saturday, thanks in part to some famous former Cougars:
The San Antonio Commanders defeated the San Diego Fleet, 15-6, on Saturday at the Alamodome to win the franchise's first game in the Alliance of American Football. 
And although the game was played about 200 miles away, the win had plenty of Houston flavor. 
Former University of Houston players Kenneth Farrow and Greg Ward Jr. made big impacts in the inaugural win. 
Farrow, a former UH running back, scored the first touchdown in Commanders history. His 3-yard rush in the first quarter gave San Antonio a 12-6 lead and was the only touchdown of the game. 
Ward, a renowned quarterback during his days with the Cougars, made his presence felt at wide receiver. He finished the game with five catches for 65 yards.
In addition to Farrow and Ward, former UH WR Demarcus Ayers and DL Joey Mbu also play for the Commanders.

The Alliance of American Football is an eight-team league trying to make a go of spring football where other leagues (the USFL, the XFL, and even the NFL-backed WLAF/NFL Europe) failed. The league is arranged such that teams are assigned players from nearby colleges, which is why San Antonio has so many former UH players on their teams. It also features some tweaks to the rules of the game, to wit:
No extra points.Teams have to go for two. There are no kickoffs, either, and teams will instead get possession on their own 25-yard line. Kickers are barely involved. Speaking of which...
Onside kicks are replaced by one fourth-and-12 play on the team’s own 28-yard line.This is a terrific idea that I endorse wholeheartedly. 

Overtime is kind of similar to the college system.Except each team gets the ball on the 10-yard line, and they aren’t allowed to kick field goals.
The play clock is 35 seconds instead of 40 seconds.There will also be no TV timeouts. The aim is to keep games under two-and-a-half hours. 
There will be a “sky judge.” (This is not a euphemism for God.)The officiating crew includes a ninth referee who sits in the booth and constantly reviews game action. The sky judge has the power to make calls or overturn penalties in case the on-field officials miss them. This is perhaps the AAF’s most intriguing wrinkle. Assuming it works as intended, it seems like it could be a common-sense solution to some of the NFL’s most glaring officiating issues. New Orleans would have certainly appreciated the presence of a sky judge during the NFC Championship game.
The AAF also argues that it has tapped into a broad array of football talent and experience that will allow it to succeed where previous spring football leagues have failed.
The cast of decorated and respected industry veterans involved in this venture is robust, beginning with AAF co-founder and CEO Charlie Ebersol (whose father, Dick, is a former chairman of NBC Sports) and co-founder Bill Polian, a six-time NFL Executive of the Year. 
Pittsburgh Steelers legends Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu are heads of football development and player relations, respectively. Mike Singletary (Memphis), Steve Spurrier (Orlando) and Mike Martz (San Diego) are among the league’s head coaches. Three-time Super Bowl champion Daryl "Moose" Johnston is general manager of the San Antonio Commanders. 
And the first season will begin with plenty of name recognition filling out each teams’ roster (including former Heisman winner Trent Richardson, ex-Titans starter Zach Mettenberger, and Aaron Murray, who threw more touchdown passes at Georgia than anyone in SEC history). 
Mike Perreira and Dean Blandino are listed as officiating consultants. Shaquille O'Neal, former Minnesota Vikings pro bowler Jared Allen and The Chernin Group (which owns Barstool Sports) are among the known investors.  
The AAF has also gone out of its way to identify one critical difference between itself and other leagues like it that have failed to last very long: It's not interested in competing with the NFL.  
"Our whole goal is just to be complementary (to the NFL)," Ward told CBS Sports last year.
The league has television contracts with CBS, CBS Sports Network, the NFL Network and TNT. In fact, last Saturday night's games on CBS actually got better ratings than an NBA game on ABC. That could be a good omen for the upstart league, although it's also worth remembering that the original XFL had good ratings in its debut weekend as well, and we know how that turned out. I'm also noticing that the AAF is placing a lot of focus on smaller, "second-tier" football markets such as San Antonio, Memphis, Birmingham, Orlando, and Salt Lake City, which seemed to be a losing strategy for the USFL, the WLAF, and the XFL.

And speaking of the XFL: if the AAF does make it through its first season and returns in 2020, it will be competing head-to-head with the second iteration of the XFL (which is expected to place a team here in Houston). This is where things will get very interesting, because it's difficult to assume that there will be enough quality players (or eyeballs) to sustain two spring football leagues. How long will this situation last before one or both leagues fail (or perhaps merge)? And if one or both leagues do succeed, what might it mean for the NFL and for college football?

Time will tell. In the meantime, I will continue to follow the San Antonio Commanders this spring, because I enjoy football and because I want to see folks like Ken Farrow and Greg Ward Jr. do well and perhaps find their way back into the NFL. I'm also looking forward to Houston's XFL 2.0 team next season, and will probably attend some games.

I'm skeptical that either league will succeed long-term. But I hope to be proven wrong.

Flights from Houston to Africa to resume

Ethiopian Airlines is coming to Houston this summer, meaning that this city will once again enjoy non-stop connections to every inhabited continent:
Houston is regaining an important accolade: Bush Intercontinental Airport will offer flights to every continent where people outnumber penguins. 
The airport lost its distinction of offering flights to every continent but Antarctica last year with the cancellation of SonAir's charter to Luanda, Angola. But starting this summer, Ethiopian Airlines will fly to Houston from West Africa three times a week. The news release did not specify from where in West Africa. 
Ethiopian Airlines will become the 21st foreign flag carrier offering passenger flights out of Bush Intercontinental. And it's the first new international airline in more than a year. The airport added a bunch of international airlines in 2014 and 2015, but it then slowed down, adding only Bahamasair in November 2017. 
"Finding the right partner and strengthening our connection with Africa was one of our primary goals in continuing the growth in international travel to the Houston market," Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz said in a news release, "and we are excited to partner with Ethiopian Airlines to make that happen."
The flight to Houston will replace Ethiopian's current service to LAX and be operated via a stopover in west Africa (likely either Accra, Ghana or Lomé, Togo). It will be operated with Boeing 787 equipment. Since both airlines are Star Alliance members, this service allows Ethiopian to plug directly into to United's hub at IAH for passengers and connections. The announcement for this service was made a couple of weeks ago, but a definitive start of service date still has yet to be announced.

I'm not sure I'll ever make use of this particular service - Ethiopia is on the "would be cool to visit, but probably won't get the chance" list - by my Ethiopian co-worker seems excited about using it to visit her family, and the fact that Houston will once again have an air connection to Africa is certainly good for the city's economy and overall prestige.