Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Great Southwest Airlines Meltdown of Christmas 2022

My brother and his wife made what they thought was going to be a short trip to town for Christmas. However, when they went to Hobby Airport to try to return to Denver last Monday, they found themselves to be just two of thousands of victims of the Great Southwest Airlines Meltdown of 2022:

A massive storm has blanketed much of the U.S. with snow, slowing air travel during a peak season and causing tens of thousands of flight cancellations. The holiday meltdown at Southwest Airlines, however, has far eclipsed its competitors.

By Wednesday afternoon, the company had canceled more than 2,500 flights planned for the day, which amounted to 62% of the day's total, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.

By contrast, as of Wednesday afternoon, United Airlines had canceled just 11 flights scheduled for the day; while American Airlines had canceled 23, FlightAware said. Each figure accounted for less than 1% of the respective company's total flights.

In an interview with ABC News' Byron Pitts, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday described the wave of flight cancellations at Southwest Airlines as a "shocking and unacceptable level of disruption." Meanwhile Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said the problems at Southwest Airlines "go beyond weather."

While the snowstorm grounded flights in and out of key airports in Southwest's network, the historic scale of cancellations stems from the company's uniquely complex flight coordination model and its antiquated internal scheduling systems, according to flight experts, Southwest Airlines officials and union leaders.

Southwest's meltdown was the result of multiple factors, including bad weather, high holiday travel volumes, the carrier's unique point-to-point route network (as opposed to the hub-and-spoke system of most other carriers) and, most notably, an antiquated dispatching system:

In addition to its complicated model for assigning flights, Southwest Airlines also suffers from an antiquated internal system used for managing and staffing those trips, company officials, union leaders and experts said.

"They've had IT-related issues in terms of tracking their crews and scheduling," said [industry observer Ross] Feinstein, formerly of American Airlines. "Issues with what they use to monitor aircraft locations, crew, flight attendants, all of the above."

Casey Murray, the president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said in a statement on Tuesday that the technology used internally to oversee staffing and scheduling has faced difficulties stretching back at least a decade.

"We all know that the company has had its head buried in the sand when it comes to its operational processes and IT," Murray said. "We aren't undermanned. We're undermanaged."

A vice president of the same union went into further detail regarding Southwest's stunningly inadequate scheduling platform:

Captain Mike Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), told Insider on Tuesday that while the winter storm was a "catalyst" for the disruptions, the company's "outdated" scheduling software created the snowball.

He explained the system tracks the company's pilots and flight attendants' whereabouts, but it got so overloaded that it could not keep up.

"When we get out of position, it's a tough task for our schedulers to put it back together, and right now they're having to do it by hand," he explained. "The problem is the software just doesn't keep track of us."

For example, he explained one flight had two pilots and three flight attendants assigned to a flight but needed one more flight attendant for the plane to legally fly.

There were several deadheading flight attendants onboard, meaning they were being flown to another city for an assignment but were "ready, willing, and able to work" that flight as well.

But, because the system didn't know they were on that aircraft and the flight attendants couldn't get in contact with crew scheduling, the company canceled the flight when it didn't need to. 

"Even though we had a crew available, [scheduling] had no idea those flight attendants were in the back of the airplane."

It turns out that even though they were warned about the need to upgrade critical corporate infrastructure, Southwest's C-suite has been more focused in making its investors rich through dividends and stock buybacks. The resulting situation, which Southwest staff predicted in internal memos, has created catastrophic conditions for tens of thousands of travelers, who have scrambled to complete their trip by any means available. Many travelers don't even know where their luggage is. Hotels around Hobby Airport, which is dominated by Southwest, bore the effects of the chaos:

Many passengers found new routes with different airlines through George Bush Intercontinental airport, others caught buses, booked rental cars or had family members drive long distance to pick them up, said Britney Moreno, front desk manager at Courtyard by Marriott Houston Hobby Airport, which has seen a wave of Southwest passengers. 

“I’ve had people drive to Waco or New Mexico; they’re getting rental cars and leaving but even then, there’s a wait time because there aren’t many rental places with availability,” Moreno said.

The 150-room Courtyard hotel hit about 50 percent occupancy on Monday night, when they hotel had been planning for much lower occupancy, she said.

“We were actually hoping it would be very slow since it was a holiday, but the whole weather situation happened and from there it got busy,” Moreno said. By late Tuesday afternoon, much of the initial rush was dissipating as customers rearranged their plans, she added.

Other hotels were planning for a slow weekend too. Miya Ball, front officer manager at Hilton Garden Inn Houston Hobby Airport, said the 136-room hotel had expected to achieve about 30 percent occupancy over the weekend. Instead, its occupancy climbed to 90 percent Monday night as disheveled passengers and flight attendants filled the hotel.

“It’s bringing in that extra revenue we weren’t expecting, but we’ve had a lot of guests coming in who are very frustrated,” Ball said. “It’s been very chaotic; however we have the availably to help.”

Southwest even resorted to putting passengers on buses to reach their final destinations, thus defeating the purpose of air travel entirely:

This is all happening as ABC13 saw Southwest passengers arriving to Hobby not by plane, but by bus. Overnight, one bus drove 24 hours from La Guardia Airport in New York and arrived at Hobby Airport.

"It was so hard and in spite of it, Southwest looked out for us to get a bus to come here," one of the passengers onboard the bus said. 

Another bus carrying 52 passengers drove 16 hours from Denver and arrived at about 5 a.m. Wednesday.

"We took bathroom breaks, got food, did what we could to make them comfortable," Eric Miller, who drove 21 hours from Denver, said.

My brother and his wife were relatively lucky; they simply had to return to my parents' house to spend an extra couple of days there, and were able to fly back to Denver today via United Airlines out of Bush Intercontinental. The same can't be said for so many other people who are still trying to find a way to get home.

Southwest founder Herb Kelleher must be spinning in his grave right now. 

Simple Flying, One Mile at a Time, and the Houston Press have more.

Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl: Houston 23, Louisiana-Lafayette 16

The Cougars ended their football season with a 7-5 record, as I predicted last month. What I got wrong was the way they arrived at that record; instead of losing to a 7-3 East Carolina team on the road, the Coogs played their best football of the year and dismantled the Pirates, 42-3. And instead of defeating a 4-7 Tulsa team at home, they opened up a massive can of quit on Senior Day and got embarrassed, 37-30.

The team's reward for going 7-5 was a trip to Shreveport to face the 6-6 Ragin' Cajuns in a frigid Independence Stadium. The game did not start out well for Houston, as ULL led 16-6 at the half. But the Cougars rallied in the second half to pull off the win and bring their all-time bowl record to 13-16-1.

The Good: QB Clayton Tune and WR Tank Dell could have opted out of this game to prepare for the NFL draft. They chose, instead, to play their final game of their UH careers with their teammates. Tune passed for 224 yards (including a 41-yard pass to KeSean Carter on 1st and 30!), rushed for 55 more, threw three touchdowns and had no interceptions. Two of those TD passes were to Dell, including the go-ahead score with 20 seconds remaining. It was a fitting end to both of their tenures in UH jerseys.  

The defense struggled in the first half but stepped up in the second half, keeping the Cajuns from scoring as well as recovering three turnovers.

The Bad: The Cougars started out slow, allowing the Cajuns to score on their first drive of the game and jump out to a 16-6 lead at halftime. The Cougars didn't even find the endzone until 3 minutes left in the second quarter, and kicker Kyle Ramsey missed the extra point. The Coogs also allowed the Cajuns to go three-of-three on fourth down attempts and were flagged 7 times for 61 yards.

What It Means: The Cougars began the 2022 football season with a a top 25 ranking and realistic expectations for a conference championship and New Year's Six bowl. They end it with a bowl win over a .500 Sun Belt team after a 7-5 regular season. To say that the season was a disappointment would be an understatement. Things don't get easier from here, either, as the Cougars now join the Big 12 conference for the 2023 season. Could this be their last bowl appearance for awhile?

The Cougars are now 7-3 all-time against the Ragin' Cajuns, going all the way back to 1946 when the UH program played its very first game against what was then known as Southwestern Louisiana Institute. 

The Cougars will open the 2023 season against the UTSA Roadrunners at TDECU Stadium on Saturday, September 2, 2023.

Andy Yanez has more.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Pope Sixtus V

I have a lot of things I'd like to write about from our whirlwind Thanksgiving trip to Italy a few weeks ago, and hopefully I will be getting around to doing so over the next couple of months.

In the meantime, here's one of the first items of interest I came across in Rome: a Pope who was also an urban planner.

Within the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome is the tomb of Pope Sixtus V. He is famous (or perhaps infamous) in the urban planning profession for his ”Plan for Rome,” which consisted of leveling entire neighborhoods within the city in the late 1500s in order to build wide, straight boulevards between the city’s major churches. Although these boulevards made travel through the ancient city easier, he was resented by the large number of households and businesses he displaced. 

His Baroque “urban renewal” scheme would be copied by others, notably by Haussmann in his “Renovation of Paris” in the 19th century... and arguably by American highway engineers of the mid-20th century.

North Texas makes a coaching change

The Mean Green have a new football coach:

North Texas has named Washington State offensive coordinator Eric Morris as the Mean Green's new head coach, the school announced Tuesday afternoon.

Morris has deep roots in the state, having been a star player for Mike Leach at Texas Tech, a successful head coach at the FCS' Incarnate Word in San Antonio and a proven developer of both quarterbacks and prolific offenses.

Morris replaces Seth Littrell, who was fired on Dec. 4 after going 44-44 over seven years at the school. North Texas is headed to its debut season in the American Athletic Conference next year.

Littrell's .500 record actually makes him one of the more statistically successful UNT head coaches in the program's recent history. But Littrell was also 0-5 in bowl games, 0-2 in conference championship games, and - of particular importance to Mean Green faithful - 1-6 against Metroplex rival SMU. 

Following their loss to UTSA in the Conference USA championship game a couple of weeks ago, and with the change in conferences looming, the UNT administration decided that the time for a change had come. 

"I am incredibly honored to be the head football coach at North Texas," Morris said in a statement. "I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity given to me by (new UNT AD) Jared Mosley and President Smatresk to lead UNT Football into a new era in The American. As a native Texan, I understand the pride and standard of Mean Green football and I am humbled to be able to lead this storied program. My wife, Maggie, and our boys are so excited to return home. We can't wait to meet the team and get to work."

In addition to playing for Mike Leach (I am shocked and saddened by his sudden death) at Texas Tech, Morris was also on Kevin Sumlin's staff here in Houston in 2010 and 2011. In four seasons as the head coach at Incarnate Word, he went 24-18 and led the Cardinals to a pair of FCS playoff appearances.

Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will serve as UNT’s interim coach during their Frisco Bowl showdown against Boise State on Saturday.

Piper 2009 - 2022

A couple of weeks ago, we had to say goodbye to Corinne's rat terrier mix, Piper (aka "Barking Barker," "Pooping Pooper," "Ridicu-dog," "Cheesehound," "Sentient Tripping Hazard," etc.).

She was not the world's healthiest animal to begin with, and as she grew older Piper began to struggle with issues such as arthritis and intestinal infections. Over the past few months she really began to deteriorate; her back legs were giving out from beneath her, she was losing control of her bowels and she was beginning to show signs of dementia. While we were in Italy her condition took a turn for the worse and she could no longer walk. Once we returned, and after consulting with the vet where she was being boarded, Corinne made the difficult decision to end Piper's suffering.

Piper loved humans, but she didn't get along with other dogs. When we took her outside she would frequently snarl and growl at bulldogs and german shepherds that were three times her size. 

Piper was a member of the "Begging Bunch:" whenever we were in the kitchen, she, Black Cat and Little Girl would be in there with us looking for a handout. As mean as she was to larger dogs, she covered in fear of the cats.

Piper was truly ridiculous. She would try to fight dogs several times her size but was deathly afraid of my cats. When she was excited or wanted food, she would bounce up and down on her front paws or "tap dance" between them. But she was not graceful; in fact she was one of the clumsiest dogs I've ever met. 

She was a connoisseur of cheese as well as cat poop, but was very finicky about her normal food. If a little bit of puréed pumpkin wasn't mixed in with her normal dog food, she was rarely interested. But when she was truly hungry, she would eat so quickly that a mixture of dog food and pumpkin would become encrusted on the tip of her nose. 

Instead of going potty when we took her outside, she would spend her time leisurely sniffing every plant and blade of grass. She wasn't happy unless her doggy toys were strewn all over the apartment. And she liked to bark for no reason, as the video below indicates.

One of her favorite spots in our apartment was the balcony. When a beam of sunlight hit a spot on the balcony concrete, Piper would immediately lay out in it for a nap.

Piper liked to ensure that there was no cheese left on any of our dirty dishes before we ran the dishwasher. 

Piper was a rescue; Corinne adopted her when she was still a puppy. Piper was with Corinne when we met, and she didn't have to accept me as her "other" human. 

But she did. 

When the weather turned cold, Piper knew how to stay warm.

One of the last pictures I had of Piper on my phone was when we took her to visit my aunt Dorothy, shortly before her 100th birthday last summer.

It's been over two weeks since Piper passed, and we're still in a bit of pain. I haven't even been able to write about her passing until now. Losing a pet sucks.

With that said, Piper's bark will live forever, thanks to this video I strung together of her many random barking episodes:

Rest in peace, Ridicu-dog. We'll miss you.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

NOLA at night

My Southwest flight from Miami to Houston a couple of weeks ago made a stop in New Orleans, and our final approach into MSY took up over the heart of the Big Easy.

This picture would have been better had it not been for the reflection from inside the cabin, and there was no way I could take it without also getting the front of the airplane's engine. But I took it anyway, because I normally don't approach MSY from this direction and the clear evening provided a great view of the city:

The circular building on the far left is the Superdome, and Canal Street runs vertically through the left of the picture. The French Quarter is in the lower center, bounded by Canal to the left, Rampart to the top, and the Mississippi River at the bottom. Tremé is in the dead center of the photo, and Marginy is the neighborhood closest to the engine. You can even see the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway at the top of the photo.

Cougars lose to SMU in shootout, then get past Temple in a nail-biter

I've been very busy these past few weeks: back-to-back weekend weddings in Louisiana, a trip to Miami for a conference, and tomorrow Corinne and I are going to Italy (!) to visit some of her family for Thanksgiving. So I haven't had a lot of time to write about UH football. Some quick thoughts about the last two games:

Houston 63, SMU 77: That's right... The Cougars scored 63 points. And lost.

The combined 140 points in this game set the NCAA single-game scoring record for two teams in regulation; for purposes of comparison, the score of the most recent basketball game between the two schools was Houston 75, SMU 61.

Clayton Tune threw for seven touchdowns in this game and rushed for one more, while SMU QB Tanner Mordecai threw for nine touchdowns and ran for a score as well. The difference in this game is that Tune threw three interceptions, while Mordecai threw none.

I don't know why neither team decided to play defense - I wasn't playing close attention to this game because I was watching another Houston sports team that evening - but the end result was a loss that Ryan describes as "hard to digest." 

Houston 43, Temple 36: Vegas had the Coogs favored by 20 in this game, but the Owls didn't get the memo. They pulled out all the stops, even scoring on a fake field goal attempt, and kept pace with the Cougars the entire game. Temple actually took a one-point lead with 1:22 left in the game; however, Clayton Tune found wide receiver Matthew Golden open for a beautiful 44-yard touchdown pass with 40 seconds left to seal the UH victory.

A bright spot for Houston was RB Stacy Sneed, who rushed for 143 yards and two touchdowns. 

Coming off the previous week's shellacking at SMU, Houston's defense gave up 533 total yards to Temple in this game. Before the season began, UH defensive coordinator Doug Belk was being hyped up as a future head coach. Once the season ends, he's likely to find himself unemployed. 

What It Means: The Cougars are now bowl-eligible with two games left to play in the 2022 season.

Due to my upcoming trip, I will not be able to watch or attend either of the final two games. If I had to guess, the Coogs will lose at East Carolina and defeat Tulsa at home to end with a very mediocre 7-5 record. Then it's on to a minor bowl game.

This is not what anybody expected when the season started, and it's certainly not a harbinger of success as the program moves to the Big 12 next year.

The Astros claim their second World Series title

Although it's old news at this point, I want to belatedly acknowledge the Astros' second World Series championship

To the extent that there is such a thing as a "must win" sports title, this was it. A third-straight World Series loss would not only have been a grave disappointment, considering how well the team did this year, but it would also have solidified the "the Astros can't win unless they cheat" narrative from the team's legions of haters across the nation.  

This championship puts the sign-stealing scandal that tainted the Astros' 2017 title firmly in the past, and proves that the Astros in their current iteration are a team that can cleanly win it all. The haters can continue to hate, but they can't put an asterisk next to this championship. This one is legit.

Of course, it was also important for the Astros to win one for Dusty. Dusty Baker is a Hall of Famer regardless, but he needed that World Series win as a manager to round out his storied career. 

Finally, for longtime fans, this World Series title heals a wound that goes all the way back to the 1980 NLCS, when the Astros lost to the Phillies in heartbreaking fashion. Twice, they were six outs away from their first World Series appearance. And twice, they choked. 42 year later, the franchise gets a measure of revenge on Philadelphia.

To be honest, I wasn't particularly optimistic about the Astros's prospects for victory in this Fall Classic, because they were facing another NL East team that was red-hot coming into the World series, just as the Nationals were in 2019 and the Braves were in 2021. And indeed, after Justin Verlander's meltdown in Game 1, and again after Lance McCullers, Jr got blasted for five home runs in Game 5, I got that feeling of dread familiar to every Houston sports fan. 

But the Astros imposed their dominance in amazing fashion - the Game 3 no-hitter (only the second no-no in World Series history!), Chas McCormick's amazing home-run-robbing catch in Game 5, Yordan Álvarez's monster three-run blast in the deciding Game 6 - and won it all in front of their fans at Minute Maid Park. 

Justin Verlander finally got the "no wins in the World Series" monkey off his back. Jermey Peña became the first rookie position player to win World Series MVP. Trey Mancini winning a World Series after battling colon cancer. There's no shortage of happy stories with this team.

Since the 2017 season, the Astros have won five AL West titles, have gone to the ACLS six times in a row, have gone to the World Series four times, and have won it all twice. This is the longest sustained period of success in Houston sports history, so much so that the team is now being described as a "dynasty."

Add this to the fact that the Astros have utterly *owned* the fabled New York Yankees in the postseason during this run, and it becomes all the more amazing postseason, and it becomes all the more amazing for Houston sports fans such as myself. There was a time were I wouldn't have even conceived that this was possible. 

So congratulations, guys. You've made us proud.

Here's a compilation of the top ten plays of the 2022 World Series:

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Houston 42, South Florida 27

A homecoming victory over a struggling South Florida squad has the Cougars just one win away from bowl eligibility. 

The Good: Quarterback Clayton Tune passed for 380 yards and four touchdowns. Tune becomes the 3rd quarterback in UH history to pass for 10,000 yards in his career. Freshman running back Stacy Sneed ran for sixty yards, including the first two touchdowns of his career.  

The Bad: The Cougars started the game a bit sluggishly. After scoring first, the Coogs let the Bulls rack up two unanswered touchdowns to briefly take the lead. Penalties continue to be an issue for the Cougars as well. They were flagged 10 times for 95 yards.

The Cougar defense gave up a rather disappointing 429 total yards of offense to the Bulls. Fortunately, the Bulls were not able to convert those yards into points; they were only one of four on 4th down conversions, and USF's final score was in garbage time.

What it Means: Houston is on a three-game winning streak, and needs only one more win to become bowl-eligible.

Next up for Houston is a trip up I-45 to play SMU.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Houston 38, Navy 20

The Cougars traveled to Annapolis and came back home with a solid win.

The Good: Clayton Tune passed for 261 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions. Two of those touchdown passes were caught by freshman wide receiver Sam Brown. Another freshman, running back Stacy Sneed, rushed for 100 yards. The Cougar defense intercepted Midshipmen QB Tui Lavatai twice and only allowed two Navy scores (one of which was a touchdown in garbage time). Defensive lineman Nelson Ceasar blocked a Navy field goal attempt. 

The Bad: The Cougars fumbled the ball three times, one of which was scooped up by Navy for a defensive score. 

The Encouraging: The Cougars committed only 4 penalties for 25 yards the entire game, and were not flagged at all in the first half. 

What It Means: While 2-5 Navy is not going to be confused for a good team, this is nevertheless an important win for the Coogs - by far, their most complete game of the year - and a road win to boot. With this victory, the Cougars now have a 4-3 record.

Next up for the Coogs is a home date against South Florida.

Andy Yanez and Ryan share their thoughts.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

SOFIA flies off into the sunset

Last month, a unique flying observatory made its final flight:

NASA’s one-of-a-kind 747 SOFIA flying telescope flew its final mission on Sep 28, wrapping up a career revealing mysteries of the universe that will keep astronomers busy for years to come.

SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) was a unique airborne observatory operated by NASA in partnership with the German Aerospace Center (DLR). It was a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry an embedded telescope, and was able to fly into the stratosphere at altitudes of up to 45,000 feet. That put the flying observatory above 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere, allowing astronomers to study space in ways not possible with ground-based telescopes.

Engineers modified a Boeing 747SP to carry the DLR’s 38,000-pound, 100-inch reflective telescope. They also developed a “garage door” on the plane that rolled up to let the telescope work, as the plane flies above clouds and water vapor. SOFIA was also equipped with interchangeable instruments, to help the telescope make the right type of observations for a given mission.

It was one of the largest open ports ever flown on an aircraft, and the largest certified to fly at all altitudes and speeds with the door open. Pilots couldn’t even feel when the door was open. The stability of the telescope itself was equivalent to keeping a laser pointer steady on a penny from 10 miles away.

SOFIA was fully operational for 8 years, and logged 732 nights of observing. It helped astronomers worldwide study a wide range of cosmic events and objects invisible to other telescopes.

SOFIA was based out of Palmdale, California for most of the year, but would occasionally fly missions out of Christchurch, New Zealand to scan the skies over the southern hemisphere as well (here's a map of all 732 of its flights). The long-range, high-altitude 747SP, aircraft, previously in service with Pan Am and United, was ideally suited for this purpose.

NASA deemed the flying observatory as too expensive to operate past its 2021 fiscal year, which is why its mission ended at the end of September. It's a bit sad, but just another instance of the obsolescence of four-engined aircraft such as the 747SP. 

NASA inventories the ways in which "SOFIA changed our understanding of the universe," including the detection of the first type of molecule to ever form in the universe and insights into star formation.   accomplished by SOFIA during its mission. Sumeet Kulkarni details some of the instruments used and discoveries made by by the flying telescope. Simple Flying hopes the aircraft will end up at a museum once it is fully decommissioned; the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy complex at Dulles Airport outside of Washington, DC and Space Center Houston are possibilities.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Houston 33, Memphis 32

I still don't believe what I saw last Friday night. 

After playing three quarters of mistake-ridden, uninspired football, the Houston Cougars rallied from a 19-point deficit in the fourth quarter to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against the Memphis Tigers at Liberty Bowl Stadium.

The Good: After Memphis kicked a field goal to take a 29-13 lead with eight minutes in the game, the Cougars went on a 20-3 run sparked by a Jayce Rogers 100-yard kickoff return. The Cougars scored a touchdown on their next possession thanks in part to QB Clayton Tune converting two fourth-and-longs, one of which was a sack-evading scramble on 4th and 11 that Ryan calls Ryan calls "the play of the year." The Coogs also got lucky when a Tiger defender dropped a sure interception off a tipped pass. 

Then the Cougars recovered the onside kick attempt. Then they scored once more to take the lead with 18 seconds left. Then they sacked Memphis QB Seth Henigan at midfield as time expired to seal the win... You just have to see it to believe it:

The Bad: The entire game up until the fourth-quarter rally had been crap. The UH offense sputtered, managing only seven points through three quarters. Through three quarters Tune had 220 passing yards but only one touchdown to show for it, and he also threw an interception. The Houston defense allowed Henigan to rack up 241 passing yards, a touchdown and no interceptions; the Tigers gained another 156 yards and a score on the ground. The Cougars committed seven penalties for 75 yards - better than previous games, but still bad.

With 3:30 left in the game, Memphis had a
99.9% chance of victory, according to ESPN
The Ugly: The Cougars left lots of points on the field before their rally. Bubba Baxa missed a chip-shot field goal at the end of the first half (by the end of the game he would be replaced by Kyle Ramsey), and the Cougars failed to score from the Memphis 1 yard line early in the second half. They also failed to convert two two-point conversion attempts. 

Make some of those scores, and maybe this rally wouldn't have been quite as necessary.

What It Means: Add this game to the list of miracle comebacks the Cougars have accomplished in recent program history (Ryan inventories them, including the miracle comeback against Pitt in the 2014 Armed Forces Bowl). In addition to being exciting for the fans, it's a much-needed confidence boost for the players. And the fact that it occurred against a nemesis like Memphis makes it all the better. 

But it also masks some continuing problems for the team, including slow starts by the offense and lapses by the defense. 

The Coogs are now 3-3 heading into a much-needed week off. They're just a couple of plays away from being 5-1. 

They're also just a couple of plays from being 0-6. 

Andy Yanez shares his observations.

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Houston 24, Tulane 27

Another late-game collapse by the UH defense. Another overtime. Another loss.

The Good: In the fourth quarter and trailing by seven points, the Cougars put together back-to-back touchdown drives that were as clean and as creative as anything the UH offense has managed all season. QB Clayton Tune was 6 for 7 on these two drives for 96 yards and a touchdown (to Nathaniel Dell), while RB Brandon Campbell, who was held out of last week's game, added eight carries for 24 yards and a touchdown. In between the two scoring drives, the UH defense held Tulane to a three-and-out. Did I mention that there were no penalties?

These two fourth-quarter drives gave the Cougars the lead and showed what the UH offense is capable of accomplishing if they played balanced, mistake-free football. Alas, so much of the team's offensive production this season has been anything but mistake-free.

The Bad: Tulane QB Kai Horton was the team's third-string quarterback, but you wouldn't know it by the way he played. Nowhere was this more evident on Tulane's last drive of regulation. Down seven and with 3:40 on the clock, Horton methodically marched the Green Wave 75 yards down the field in two minutes and 25 seconds to tie the game. Horton's shovel pass to Tyrick James on fourth-and-goal made the entire Houston defense, including DC Doug Belk, look utterly stupid. Horton ended the game with 132 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Ugly: Oh, where to begin? Let's see...

  • Houston's offense struggled in the first half. The Coogs' first three drives were a punt, a blocked field goal, and a punt. The field goal attempt was actually Baxa's second; the Cougar sideline, for whatever reason, called timeout during his first attempt. Which makes this the first time I have seen a football team ice its own kicker.
  • Tune fumbled the ball during a QB sneak in the third quarter, and Tulane ran the recovered fumble back 57 yards for a score. 
  • A promising clock-chewing, 15-play drive for Houston in the second half ended in yet another missed Bubba Baxa field goal attempt.
  • Houston's overtime possession was an uninspired three-and-out that resulted in Baxa's only successful field goal try of the evening.
  • During Tulane's overtime, Houston was flagged for a pass interference penalty that put the Green Wave ten yards closer to the goal line. They scored the game winning touchdown two plays later (The Cougars were "only" flagged nine times for 70 yards this game... Improvement?).

"Ugly" is the only way to describe the state of Houston Cougar football right now. 

What It Means: The Coogs came into their three-game home stand hoping to heal what ailed them; instead, they dropped two out of three and currently possess a 2-3 record. Right now I'm struggling to see where any remaining wins will come from. 

Given next season's conference move, this will also likely be the last time Houston plays Tulane for awhile. The Coogs now have an 19-8 all-time record against the Green Wave; Ryan takes stock of a rivalry coming to an end.

Houston has another Friday night game next week, this time at Memphis. 

Chris Baldwin laments the lack of the creative offense that was supposed to be Dana Hologrsen's hallmark. Andy Yanez takes stock of another overtime loss. Ryan plainly notes that the Cougars just aren't a good team right now.

Billy Joel at Minute Maid Park

A couple of Fridays ago, Corinne and I went to see Billy Joel play at Minute Maid Park. Seeing the legendary New York singer-songwriter in person was something of a bucket list item for both of us. It was our first time seeing a concert at the baseball stadium as well.

Billy Joel obviously has a considerable repertoire, and he managed to fit his biggest hits into the two-hour-long concert, including "Just The Way You Are," "The Longest Time," "My Life," "You May Be Right," "Uptown Girl," "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me," and, of course, "Piano Man."  Several songs of his that I'm less familiar with, such as "The Entertainer," "Pressure," "Allentown" and the epic "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" also made the setlist.

I was hoping to hear "I Go To Extremes" while Corinne was looking forward to hearing "The Downeaster Alexa." Neither song made the setlist, unfortunately; in fact, the only track off Storm Front was his Boomer history lesson that everyone claims to hate but can still sing along to, "We Didn't Start The Fire." (Joel needs to release an updated version of that song that captures all the crazy shit that's happened over the past eight years or so, and title it "This Is A Dumpster Fire.")

In addition to his own music, Joel sprinkled his performance with covers from The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen (who, like Joel, was born in 1949), and ZZ Top. His guitarist, who has some considerable vocal talent of his own, treated the audience to a rendition of the Italian aria "Nessun Dorma," and Joel's percussionist (who also had impressive vocal skills) spliced "Dancing in the Street" into the middle of "River of Dreams."Allowing members of his band to take over a couple of songs gave Joel a chance to rest his vocal cords, although he continued playing the piano the entire time. All in all, pretty good enegy for a 73-year-old man.

It's worth remembering that Joel has not put out a new album since 1993 - almost 30 years. Yet he's still such a legend that he can fill a 40-thousand seat baseball stadium with his fans.

That said, I'm not sure Minute Maid Park is going to become a preferred concert venue for me. The acoustics were fine, but a venue that large means that you don't have a great view of the person performing unless you want to pay the big bucks for the field seats. Billy Joel's stage was set up in deep center field, while most of the audience sat in the stadium's seating area. The distance was considerable; being in the 400 level on the first base side, Joel was little more than a dot to our eyes. The big screens were partially obscured by speakers and other equipment as well. I wish I hadn't forgotten my binoculars. 

However, the bottom line is that my wife and I finally got to see Billy Joel live, and had a great time.

The concert setlist is here, while the Houston Press's concert review is here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Houston 34, Rice 27

The Cougars went into their game against crosstown rival Rice as 17-point favorites. They struggled to pull out a seven-point win.

The Good: Cougar wideout Nathaniel "Tank" Dell had seven receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown, while RB Ta'Zhawn Henry carried 17 times for 112 rushing yards and a score. On defense, D'Anthony Jones had two sacks and two forced fumbles against Rice QB TJ McMahon, the second of which was scooped up and run into the endzone by defensive lineman Nelson Ceaser for a touchdown. Backup safety Thabo Mwaniki intercepted McMahon on Rice's following drive, which should have sealed the win as there were only about two minutes left in the game. However... 

The Bad: The Cougars failed to manage a first down (which would have allowed them to run out the clock) on their ensuing possession. They punted the ball back to the Owls, who were able to march down the field and almost score a game-tying touchdown with 24 seconds left on the clock (and no time outs). Sound familiar?

The Ugly: The usual: horrible tackling, an oftentimes-sputtering offense, poor pass defense (Houston allowed McMahon to pass for 334 yards), and penalties (ten flags for for 110 yards). The Cougars are now the most-penalized team in FBS. 

Dana Holgorsen is frustrated with his team. If message boards and social media are any indication, Cougar fans are frustrated with Dana Holgorsen.

The Devastating: Houston's best defensive player, Derek Parish, suffered a torn bicep during the game and is out for the rest of the season. Given that linebacker Malik Robinson suffered a season-ending injury the week before, and linebacker Donovan Mutin, defensive back Gervarrius Owens and cornerback Art Green are all dealing with injuries that could keep them out of the next game, things are truly dire on the defensive side of the ball. 

What It Means: The Cougars retain possession of the Bayou Bucket, and end their out-of-conference slate with a 2-2 record. However, UH could very easily be 0-4 right now. This is not a good team, and injuries have made it worse.

The Coogs open conference play against Tulane at TDECU Stadium on Friday.

Andy Yanez, Ryan Monceaux and Chris Baldwin have more.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Houston 30, Kansas 48

The Cougars jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and then let the Kansas Jayhawks outscore them 48-16 the rest of the way in what turned out to be a dud of a home opener at TDECU Stadium.

The Good: Cougar RB Ta'Zhawn Henry. He rushed 15 times for 56 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes for another 107 yards and a score. RB Brandon Campbell broke off a 40-yard run for a touchdown as well.

The Bad: The gameday experience at TDECU. The lines to get into the stadium were slow. Concessions were understaffed and waits for food and drink were long. I realize that things were complicated by the rain and the 70-minute lighting delay that sent everybody under the concourse for cover, but it just didn't seem like gameday operations were adequately prepared for Saturday's game. Which is disappointing, considering they had two extra weeks into the season to get ready. 

Also, the stadium announcer's "third down in the third ward" cheer is just stupid. 

The Really Bad: The sputtering Cougar offense. Six out of Houston's 11 drives ended in a punt, a turnover (there were two), or a failed fourth-down conversion. QB Clayton Tune was sacked four times, and the offense attempted way too many ineffective running plays up the middle for little or no gain. The coaching staff's decision to settle for a field goal on the Coogs' longest drive of the day (late in the game, with the team down 18) was also a head scratcher. 

The Ugly: Houston's run defense was utterly clowned by Kansas QB Jalon Daniels, who rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns, passed for 158 yards and three scores, and was not sacked or intercepted once. Three games into the season, and it's obvious that the Cougar defense has no answer for mobile quarterbacks.

The Really Ugly: Tackling (or lack thereof), players out of position, and penalties (10 flags for 73 yards). These problem areas indicate a lack focus and discipline on the part of the Coogs.

The Really, Really Ugly: A sideline altercation between WRs Sam Brown, Jr and Joseph Manjack IV made national headlines and epitomized the disarray that the team is currently experiencing.

What It Means: Three games into the season, and it's clear that the Cougars are simply not a good team. In fact, at this point I'm beginning to doubt that they'll even have winning season. 

I don't know if it's because they lost so much talent from last year's team, or because everybody brought into their offseason press, or because there's serious discord in the locker room, or because Dana Holgorsen is spending too much time at the bar and too little time preparing for games. What I do know is that right now this program is a dumpster fire. What I also know is that many of the 30,317 who showed up to watch the game last Saturday are not going to make another trip to TDECU anytime soon.

Kansas is now 4-0 all-time against Houston. Up next for the Cougars is crosstown rival Rice.

Ryan takes stock of some of UH's numbers through the first quarter of the season (they aren't pretty). Dana Holgorsen takes the blame for not having his team "ready to go," while defensive lineman D'Anthony Jones apologizes for letting the fans down. Chris Baldwin notes how the loss has killed excitement for UH football.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

#25 Houston 30, Texas Tech 33

For the second week in a row, a Cougar road game came down to overtime. This time, however, the outcome was not as favorable for UH.

The Good: For the second week in a row, the Cougars battled back from a 14-point halftime deficit and led the game with less than a minute to play. Derek Parrish was a beast on the Houston defense: he forced a fumble, racked up 4.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss - both American Athletic Conference records - and earned National Defensive Player of the Week honors. When he wasn't being sacked by Parish, Red Raider QB Donavan Smith was throwing interceptions: three of them, including one returned 54 yards for a UH touchdown by Jayce Rogers.

The Bad: For the second week in a row, the Cougars were sloppy and undisciplined. Poor tackling, dumb penalties (Houston was flagged 11 times for 121 yards), dropped passes, a pair of turnovers, poor offensive execution, a missed field goal because Tune took a sack that put the Coogs out of Baxa's range)... Hologrsen said it himself after the game: "We didn’t play well enough to win. Just a whole lot of stupid stuff. Stupid, stupid, stupid, undisciplined stuff."

Well coach, you're being paid $4 million a year to fix it. I know back to back games on the road are tough, but eliminate just a few of those mistakes and the Cougars could have left Lubbock with a win. For example:

The Ugly: For the second week in a row, a brilliant Tank Dell punt return for a TD with a stupid penalty. For the second week in a row, the Cougars allowed the opposing team to tie the game with less than a minute on the clock. 

But worst of all? The UH defense allowed Texas Tech to convert 4th and 20 in the first overtime. 

That's right. 4th and 20.

In the second overtime, Smith would run virtually untouched into the endzone to secure the Texas Tech victory. 

What It Means: The loss knocked the Cougars out of the top 25, where they probably didn't belong to begin with. The Cougars have now lost 10 out of the last 11 games against once-and-future conference mate Texas Tech; the last time they beat the Red Raiders in Lubbock was 1990.

Next up for Houston is their first home game of the season, against a Kansas team that just beat West Virginia on the road in overtime. Uh-oh.

Andy Yanez and Chris Baldwin have more.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

#24 Houston 37, Texas-San Antonio 35 (3 OT)

The Cougars overcame a sluggish start in front of a raucous Alamodome crowd to rally from a 14-point deficit and kick what should have been the game-winning field goal with 23 seconds left in the game. Alas, the Roadrunners marched down the field to kick the tying field goal in the time remaining. Three agonizing overtime periods ensued before the Cougars were able to escape with a win. 

The Good: Early in the fourth quarter, Derek Parrish deflected a pass by UTSA QB Frank Harris that landed into the hands of Nelson Ceaser for an interception. One play later, Clayton Tune found Joseph Manjack IV in the endzone, who made an amazing one-handed catch to tie the game. In the third overtime, Tune somersaulted over a UTSA defender and into the endzone to score what would be the game-winning two-point conversion.

The Bad: For much of the game the Cougars just looked rough. Dropped passes. Poor tackling. Stupid penalties, including several jumps offsides, two kickoffs out of bounds, and a holding call that negated what would have been a Tank Dell punt return for a touchdown early in the game. Tune looked tentative at times, holding onto the ball too long, taking four sacks, and fumbling once. The offense sputtered, as four Houston possessions were three-and-outs. The UH defense, meanwhile, was frustrated by Harris all afternoon, as the Roadrunner signal-caller ended the game with 337 passing yards and three touchdowns as well as 63 rushing yards and a touchdown.

The Ugly: UTSA was able to march down the field to kick the game into overtime with 23 seconds left on the clock and no time outs. That is inexcusable on the part of the Houston defense and suggests that the Cougars' secondary could be a real liability this season.

What It Means: Respect needs to be given to the Roadrunners. They were 12-2 and conference champions a year ago, they were playing in front of the fifth-largest crowd in UTSA program history (I was there; it was loud), they had a ten-game home winning streak going, and they had that game circled as a statement win. That the Cougars were able to grit it out in spite of all the mistakes they made and win in a grueling three overtimes is a testament to this team's character. There's a lot of work that the Cougars need to do, but don't let the final score or three overtimes take away from a hard-fought, quality road win for Houston.

Next up for the Coogs (who dropped one spot in the AP poll) is a trip to Lubbock to take on former SWC and future Big XII rival Texas Tech.

Chris Baldwin shares his thoughts on what he calls an "epic game", while Brad Towns breaks down the "kill shot" that was Tune's pass to Manjack after the interception. 

Austin skyscraper to be tallest building in Texas

Houston has claimed possession Texas's tallest building for the past forty years. Looks like that's about to change:

Since its completion in 1982, the 75-story JPMorgan Chase Tower on Travis Street in downtown Houston has stood as the tallest building in Texas—an honor that will soon be taken from the Bayou City thanks to a new skyscraper currently under construction in downtown Austin.

As first reported by the Austin American-Statesman's Shonda Novak, Lincoln Development Company and Kairoi Residential announced new details on Tuesday about its partnership on the project. The structure will be called Waterline, according to Novak, and will reach 1,022 feet in the sky by the time of its projected completion in late 2026—placing its peak a mere 20 feet higher than Chase Tower, which measures 1,002 feet.

Downtown Austin's skyline has certainly changed quite a bit since I lived there in the late 90s; as the city has grown, so has its number of tall buildings:

Waterline will join a menagerie of high-rises currently under construction in downtown Austin, which has seen a dramatic boom in population in recent years. According to the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the city's metro area saw a 33 percent population increase between January 2010 and July 2020. More than six percent of its population reported having lived somewhere other than Austin prior to 2019, the country's second-highest rate of recent transplants, per the Austin Chamber.

That growth, unfortunately, has also made Austin one of the least affordable cities for the middle class in the nation, and I doubt the high-end residences planned for this mixed-use tower (it will also have a hotel and office space) are going to make things any more affordable. But that's a topic for another day.

Houston's not likely to wrest back the distinction of being home to Texas' tallest tower. Construction of any building over 200 feet in Houston requires consultation from the Federal Aviation Administration, which has previously raised concerns with downtown building plans in excess of 75 stories, citing the importance of safeguarding air space for flights in and out of nearby William P. Hobby Airport. The Chase Tower, originally known as the Texas Commerce Tower, was initially intended to stand 80 stories tall before an FAA analysis prompted the City of Houston to ask for its design to be shaved down to 75 stories. The city has not approved any design exceeding this benchmark.

Downtown's proximity to the approach path to Hobby Airport is, in fact, one of the reasons why another tower planned for Houston in the early 1980s - a 1,400-foot, 82-story, Helmut Jahn-designed project that would have been the second tallest building in the United States at the time (see rendering here) - was never built, either. Of course, the oil bust had a role to play in its cancelation as well.

College Football Playoff Expansion

Last summer I wondered if the College Football Playoff might expand from its current four-team format. At the time, it seemed almost inevitable. Then, earlier this year, the brakes got pumped on the concept when the powers that control the sport couldn't come to a unanimous agreement about what an expanded playoff would look like. Last Friday, however, an agreement about playoff expansion was finally reached:

The College Football Playoff's board of managers unanimously voted Friday to expand the CFP to 12 teams in 2026 but is encouraging the sport's commissioners to try to implement it as soon as 2024.

In what was described as "an historic day for college football," the board's 11 presidents and chancellors approved the original 12-team model, which was first made public last summer and includes the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large teams, the board announced.

That fact that the six highest-ranked conference champions will be included in the format guarantees that at least one team from the so-called "Group of Five" schools will participate in the playoff every season. Teams will continue to be ranked by the CFP selection committee, which itself probably needs reform, but at least under this model the greatest injustice of the the college football playoff - the exclusion of deserving Group of Five schools - is mitigated. 

The four highest-ranked conference champions will be seeded one through four with each receiving a first-round bye. Teams seeded five through 12 will play each other in the first round on either the second or third weekend of December. The quarterfinals and semifinals will be played in bowl games on a rotating basis, and the championship game will be at a neutral site, as under the current four-team format.

"This is an exciting day for the future of college football," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. "As originally proposed, the 12-team playoff creates more access for teams and conferences across the country to compete in college football's championship event. There is work to be done to make this format a reality, but I am pleased we are all moving in the same direction with a common purpose."

While there are still details to be worked out (and discussions on potentially implementing the format as early as 2024 are set to begin this week), playoff expansion will be good for the sport. It will make the playoff more interesting by virtue of the fact that three times as many teams are participating, and it will hopefully reduce the trend of NFL-bound players "opting out" of inconsequential bowl games as well. Of course, it will also produce a lot of new revenue for the sport.

Granted, most of that revenue is going to be hoovered up by the Power Five conferences; in fact, Power Five schools (and Notre Dame if it is ranked high enough) are likely to occupy 11 of the 12 postseason berths during most seasons. The dominance of programs like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State is unlikely to abate, either. But the fact that at least one Group of Five school will have a seat at the postseason table means that any school playing FBS football will now - at least in theory - have a shot at the national title. That makes the sport more equitable than it has been in the past, and reduces the disparity between the "haves" and "have nots" of the sport.

As a fan of one of those schools that was on the "outside looking in" of the College Football Playoff (and its predecessor, the Bowl Championship Series) for so long, I'm glad we've finally reached this point (even if Houston will be a member of a Power Five conference by the time this expansion occurs). It honestly should have happened a long time ago.

The Houston Press's Sean Pendergast thinks playoff expansion will stabilize conference realignment and prevent conferences like the SEC and Big Ten from creating their own league. CFN's Pete Fiutak says expansion will be good for the sport, while ESPN staffers try to answer some lingering questions about expansion. SI's Ross Dellenger inventories the issues that still need to be resolved before expansion occurs.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

2022 Houston Cougar Football Preview

Before I go into the preview, I want to say a word about the summer's bombshell news about UCLA and USC joining the Big Ten in 2024. The fact that this move makes no geographic sense is beside the point; today, conference realignment is all about money (as evidenced by the Big Ten's new TV deal). 

This quest for ever-greater revenue streams has reached the point that the sport is cannibalizing itself:

Inequity has always existed in college athletics, particularly in football, the highest-profile sport. But this latest transfer of power widens the divide between the haves and have-nots. The Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) already stand apart as the two most lucrative leagues in college sports. They will continue their not-so-secret arms race. Eventually, the rest of the college conferences—even the once-mighty Pac-12—may either go extinct or just end up competing for scraps.

When Texas and Oklahoma, now with the Big 12, join the SEC in either 2024 or 2025, the SEC and the Big Ten will each have 16 universities. Nine of the 10 schools with the highest athletic revenue in the 2019–20 fiscal year will be members of either the SEC or the Big Ten. The two conferences include the most dominant brands in college football: Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, and Georgia, to name a few.

Over a decade ago, I wrote about the lamentable trend towards an elite "superconference" of 64 schools that would break off from the rest of college football. Now, it looks like this superconference might only consist of the schools of the Big Ten and the SEC, plus a lucky few extras (e.g. Clemson, Notre Dame, etc.) that are eventually invited into the exclusive club.

Houston, of course, is one of four schools joining the Big 12 next season; it remains to be seen how USC and UCLA's move will affect the Big 12 in general or the Cougars in particular. There was initially some talk about a quartet of Pac-12 schools - Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah - leaving the now-crippled Pac-12 for the Big 12, but no movement has occurred as of yet. It's only a matter of time, however, before the next round of conference realignment begins (remember when I told everybody that they wouldn't have to wait very long for it?) 

Between this, NIL money, the transfer portal, and other recent changes, the sport of college football is definitely changing, and not in a direction I as a fan like to see it go. The sport is suffering from a lack of leadership: the NCAA has effectively been emasculated, and college football is now essentially controlled by TV networks, conference commissioners and university presidents who are more concerned with money grabs than they are the long-term greater good of the sport or its student-athletes. 

With that said, it's time to focus on the 2022 season at hand, and worry about the future of college football later.

Looking Back: after the Cougars' season-opening loss to Texas Tech at NRG Stadium, I was ready for head coach Dana Holgorsen to be fired. However, the $4 million coach redeemed himself from there, as his team rattled off eleven straight wins before falling to Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. Houston then went on to defeat Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl and end the season with a #17 final ranking in both the AP and Coaches polls.

The Big Story for 2022: this is Houston's final year in the American Athletic Conference. They'd like to go out with a conference title; furthermore, they'd like to enter the Big XII in 2023 with some swagger. Can the Coogs build on last season's success and generate momentum moving forward?

Reasons for Optimism: Quarterback Clayton Tune had a breakout season in 2021, and he and WR Nathaniel "Tank" Dell are probably the best pass-and-catch combo in the conference. In addition to Dell, Tune will have his choice of targets, including experienced tight end Christian Trahan and a slew of wide receiver transfers with experience from Power five schools. Ta'Zhawn Henry, who was the Coogs' second-leading rusher last season with 524 yards and seven touchdowns, will start at running back. 

Houston returns several starters from a defense that ranked sixth in the nation in total defense last season, including defensive linemen D’Anthony Jones and Derek Parish who combined for 12 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss last year. The linebacking corps is anchored by Donavan Mutin, who led the team with 77 tackles a year ago. Veteran cornerbacks Gervarrius Owens and Hasaan Hypolite return to lead the secondary. The defense's most important returnee, however, is Defensive Coordinator Doug Belk, whose success leading the Houston defense is causing his name to be mentioned as a future head coaching candidate.

There's also the schedule, which Ryan Monceaux calls "as soft as squeeze butter." The Coogs' opponents went a combined 64-84 last season, and Houston avoids Central Florida and Cincinnati for the second straight year.

Reasons for Pessimism: The Cougars have to replace a lot of talent from last year's team that has been lost to injury or the NFL draft. RB Alton McCaskill, who ran for almost 1,000 yards last season, suffered a torn ACL during offseason practice and is out for the season. On defense, the Cougars have to replace key players who are now playing on Sundays, including Logan Hall and David Anenih on the defensive line, and Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams in the secondary. Jones, of course, was also a game changer for the Cougars as kick returner. 

An offensive line that wasn't all that great last season - they allowed 38 sacks - has to replace three starters as well. 

While these losses bother Brad Towns, his biggest concern is that the schedule, while weak, is still stronger than last year's (which is something I noted as well):

As bad as this year’s schedule is, and it’s plenty bad, last season was even worse. UH trades Grambling for UTSA, Tech on the road vs. in Houston, and Kansas for UConn. Kansas is not good, but they aren’t UConn bad. And that leads me to my biggest concern.

Despite the lousy schedule, several games in 2021 were way too close for comfort. There was an 8-point home win over 4-8 Navy, when UH didn’t take the go-ahead lead in the 4th qtr. A two-win Tulane team was within 4 points going into the 4th quarter before UH pulled away. It took overtime to beat ECU at home. UH needed a walk-off kick return to beat SMU at home. USF, a two-win team, cut UH’s lead to five with 4 minutes to go. Memphis was within a score in the 4th qtr at TDECU Stadium before UH sealed the win with less than 4 minutes to go.

Navy, ECU, SMU, and Memphis are on the road this year (along with Texas Tech and UTSA). None of those teams are great, and I expect the Coogs to beat them all. But funny things can happen on the road.

While Brad still expects a 10-2 season, he "wouldn’t be shocked if the outcome was 8-4 and a Whocares Bowl appearance."

What the Computers Think: Congrove's preseason algorithm predicts an 11-1 season for the Cougars, Massey gives the Cougars a greater than 50% chance of winning ten games, and ESPN's FPI gives the Coogs a 50% or greater chance to win nine games. When the home-field advantage is taken into account, Sagarin's preseason ratings imply an undefeated season for UH.

What the Humans Think: Houston is ranked #24 in both the preseason AP and Coaches polls. The Cougars were also picked to be conference champions in the AAC preseason media poll, just edging out Cincinnati (who actually received more first-place votes). Athlon, who ranks Houston in their top 25, opines that the "Cougars aren't done" building on last season's success and, given their manageable schedule, "could challenge for the AAC title and New Year’s Six bowl." ESPN puts Houston 24th in its preseason power rankings, while CBS Sports puts Houston 22nd in its beginning-of-season poll (four out of seven CBS Sports writers also predict the Cougars to win the conference). College Football News foresees a ten-win regular season for Houston (read their full preview), while fansided's John Buhler predicts a 12-0 regular season, an AAC conference championship and a Cotton Bowl appearance for UH. 

What I think: While I think the Cougars are poised to have a good season, I fear that there might be a bit of a step back in 2022. The schedule, while still easy, is incrementally harder than last year, and the team has to replace some key talent from last year's team (Marcus Jones, of course, is irreplaceable). The injury to Alton McCaskill is a huge setback, and I'm still worried about the offensive line. 

While an undefeated, conference championship-winning season is certainly possible, it is more likely that the Cougars experience a few road bumps along the way, as up-and-comers and transfers grow into their roles and as opposing AAC programs give the exiting Coogs their last, best shot. 

I am predicting a 9-3 record, with losses coming against any three of Texas-San Antonio, Texas Tech, Memphis or SMU on the road. That record probably won't be good enough for a conference title, but a bowl win on that gets them to ten wins and puts them on respectable footing going into the Big XII.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

The mystery of SAETA flight 232

A civilian airliner crashed in Ecuador in 1976. It took 26 years to find the wreckage:

Aviation’s history books are full of mysteries, some of which are solved and others yet to be figured out. Sometimes, we hear of those cases where aircraft have disappeared and were only found many years later. Such is the case with SAETA Flight 232, which involved a 26-year search and frustrated stakeholders. 

SAETA was a privately-owned Ecuadorian airline which competed on a handful of domestic and international routes with government-owned carriers Ecuatoriana and TAME. I flew SAETA from Miami to Quito and back during my summer 1990 stay in Ecuador. The airline's selling point was that all passengers "flew first class." It wasn't completely true - nobody got nice first-class seats, for example - but the service was attentive and the multi-course meals, which were served with real (i.e. not plastic) silverware and dishware, were definitely an upgrade from normal economy-class fare. SAETA actually underwent a significant expansion in the 1990s, at one point becoming Ecuador's dominant airline. It met its end as a result of Ecuador's financial crisis at the end of the decade.

On August 15, 1976, a Viscount operating as SAETA Flight 232 departed Quito at 08:06 hours bound for Cuenca. There were 55 passengers and four crew onboard the turboprop with a planned flight route over mountainous terrain. All seemed normal until air traffic control lost radio contact with the flight at 08:27 when the crew reported flying over the city of Ambato at 18,000 feet.

Ambato is located in the central Andean valley of Ecuador and sits beneath several tall mountains. It is the capital of the province of Tungurahua, at an elevation of 8,455 feet (2,577 meters) above sea level.

Realizing that the aircraft failed to arrive at Cuenca, emergency search operations began. One more plausible suspicion was that the plane had crashed somewhere in a nearby mountain range. So, a massive search was conducted by air and land throughout the Amazon and all along the flight-planned route. Despite an intensive search, the wreckage was not found for several years. Twenty-six long years to be precise.

It turned out that the wreckage had become embedded within a glacier over 17 thousand feet above sea level on the side of Chimborazo, which is Ecuador's highest mountain* and which is 20 miles southwest of Ambato.

In October 2002, Pablo Chíquiza and Flavio Armas, two members of the Nuevos Horizontes mountaineering club, helped mark the exact crash site after fellow mountaineer Miguel Cazar had previously come across it. The rest of the story involves accusations of government officials dragging their feet and overlooking the location during previous searches. Several parties pointed fingers at each other, while the families of those lost in the crash experienced a bittersweet moment of reliving the pain of a tragic loss while also receiving some closure after the discovery of their loved ones’ remains.

If anything, stories like SAETA 232's might give the loved ones of victims of other unsolved plane disappearances (Malaysian Airlines 370 easily comes to mind) some hope that, eventually, the mystery will be solved and they will at least experience closure. 

This accident would be eerily similar to another SAETA crash involving a Vickers Viscount only a few years later.

Another SAETA Viscount crashed while flying between Quito and Cuenca. On April 23, 1979, an aircraft registered as HC-AVP crashed in the Pastaza Province, killing all 57 people onboard. The wreckage of this aircraft also took several years to locate. The flight was considered missing until 1984, when the debris was discovered.

Due at least in part to to its mountainous terrain, SAETA 232 is just one of several commercial aviation tragedies Ecuador has unfortunately experienced. 

*In addition to being Ecuador's highest peak, Chimborazo's peak is also the furthest from the center of the earth. the Mount Everest is the world's tallest mountain as measured from mean sea level, but because the earth is not perfectly round (i.e. it is slightly fatter at its equator), there is more distance from the earth's center to Chimborazo than to Everest.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Kirby comes of age

If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you've gotten to see my son Kirby celebrate several birthdays.

Here's one more: today he turns 18 years old. 

Tomorrow he also begins his final year of high school. 

Hard to believe.