Saturday, December 30, 2023

An airplane-free 2023

2023 is coming to an end, and it's been a bit of an anomalous year for me in that I went the entire year without stepping foot on an airplane. This is the first time since 1992 - over 30 years ago! - that I did not fly for any purpose.

Sure, it's a bit weird for an aviation geek like me to go an entire calendar year without flying, but that's just how things worked out: the only big, long-distance trip I took this past year was a road trip with my family, and I had no other events, be they personal or work-related, that required me to fly. So I didn't.

And I didn't really miss it, either. Between long security and check-in lines, flight delays, fees for checked baggage and other services that airlines used to provide for free, rude employees both in the terminal and in the skies, small and uncomfortable seats on the plane itself, and unruly, disruptive passengers, commercial air travel has become a real pain in the ass. Unless you have the financial means and/or frequent flier miles to fly business or first class, and can avail yourself to perks like TSA PreCheck, priority boarding, and airline lounges, there's really nothing glamorous or enjoyable about traveling by air.  

This isn't to say I'll never fly again, of course; commercial aviation, for all its headaches, is a necessary form of travel (and in many cases, the only practical one). So I'm sure I'll be flying again at some point. Like I said, 2023 was something of an anomaly; it was just nice to go an entire year without standing in line at the check-in counter, or taking off my shoes to pass through security, or sitting in a cramped seat with no elbow room, or being jostled by turbulence, or fighting through the hordes of people at baggage claim to retrieve my luggage.

Regardless of whether you plan to fly in the coming year or not, I wish anybody who may be reading this a safe, happy and prosperous 2024!

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Ralph Anthony "Tony" Trainello 1950-2023

"Uncle Tony" was Corinne's uncle; I first met him not too long after I began dating her. I only had the pleasure of knowing Tony for a few years, but I will always remember him for his hospitality and generosity. Whenever we went up to "the farm" - Uncle Tony and Aunt Lori's ranch halfway between Teague and Mexia - he would always be waiting for me with a warm hug and a cold beer. 

The last time I saw him was in late July, when Corinne, Kirby and I stopped by there after visiting my aunt in Temple. He was happy and healthy and was proud to show off his new "toy" - a griddle that he used to cook hamburgers for all of us for lunch. I had no way of knowing at the time that, only a matter of weeks later, he would be gone.

Tony's sudden passing cast a pall over the entire autumn; his loss has been especially hard on Corinne. Tony was like a father figure to her, especially after her own father passed away. In fact, Corinne's original plan for our wedding (before the pandemic forced us to change everything) was for Tony to walk her down the aisle.

Tony did not want a formal funeral ceremony and no obituary ran in any newspaper. However, at a remembrance for him on the farm a couple of months ago, a pamphlet containing a testimonial of his life was distributed to attendees. I am reproducing it here, with very minor edits for clarity, and with Aunt Lori's permission:

Ralph Anthony Trainello (Tony or Apaw to us) was born on July 4, 1950 in High Point, North Carolina. Tony never knew his father as his parents divorced shortly after he was born. Tony and his mother, Betty, moved to Dallas where they lived with his beloved grandmother, Elizabeth, in the early '50s. Soon his mom met and married Kenneth Bracey and they became a family. Tony's brother, David, was born a few years later. Tony Graduated from H. Grady Spruce High School in Dallas in 1968. He then moved to Houston where he pursued a degree in Construction Technology while holding full-time jobs in engineering firms and moonlighting at night by drafting for mechanical, electrical and plumbing companies. It was his afterhours drafting job that paid for the 68.5 (and eventually 92.5) acre ranch be bought in 1979 in Freestone County, Texas, naming it Patton Creek Ranch. He became interested in this area while visiting with his best friend, Tony Miller, who owned property in Freestone County. They both dreamed of one day retiring to their ranches and spending time sitting together on their porches. Sadly, both were taken too soon, and they were never able to fulfill their dream together. 

In 1980, Tony married Becky and from that union two beautiful daughters were born, Jennifer and Megan, of whom he couldn't be prouder. 

In the late '80s, Tony was contacted by Maryann Schroder, from New York state, who turned out to be his half-sister, the daughter of his father. Her difficult and vigilant searching resulted in the beginning of a new and loving sibling relationship.

Tony and David built the ranch house during those first few years after he bought the property with the help of the children's uncles and grandfather. It was to be a "deer camp." But it became much more than that. 

Tony's career of 46 years in the engineering and construction business was rewarding and fruitful. His most challenging and satisfying years were those spent at Pollock Electric and Trio Electric. The Pollock family allowed him to manage large projects (the buildings which he never failed to point out as he drove through Houston) and provide for his family and the company. He prided himself on treating the company checkbook like his own and was often found scouring the company warehouse/surplus for parts he needed for a job rather than buying new. He mentored many young men during his career, but sadly, he always said that he didn't think, in the scope of life, his work mattered. It mattered, it mattered...

In 1995, Tony met Lori and the love story blossomed into marriage in 1998. They raised the two girls into beautiful, educated and successful women with families of their own. Tony wasn't a "sleep in the bed dog person," but Lori came up with one, so he became a dog person... Gretel, then Brooke and now Maddie... He loved them all, his faithful companions...

Tony loved fishing with his brother David and grandson, Brody. Kid fish tournaments at Fairfield Lake State Park were a favorite of both Brody and his granddaughter Bryleigh. He was a patient teacher to his grandchildren and, well, to all of us... He would tell Brody that all the things he was teaching him, together they would have to teach Mason, his third grandchild, once he was old enough. He loved the time with his grandchildren and, no doubt, they went home with stories... So many stories. Camping became a passion after retirement and he loved exploring Texas State Parks. In May, a trip to the Devis Mountains to celebrate 25 years of marriage, with a day trip to Big Bend National Park, was a special blessing and a long-time dream realized.

Many, many weekends at the ranch that became his final early home brought joy to so many friends and family celebrations... Everyone was welcome there and he was in his glory hosting. But equally as joyous was the time spent there in quiet, peaceful reflection. As much as he loved camping, coming home to the ranch never got old... It was his absolute happy place, closest to heaven as could be. He loved the Lord and no doubt he is with Jesus.

Tony's Graduation to Glory was on September 3, 2023. He considered family Lori Trainello, his wife of 25 years, daughter Jennifer Fulcher and husband Joel, daughter Megan Morfin and husband Mike, and grandchildren Jae, Hanna, Keila, Bryleigh, Brody and Mason. Also his brother, David, and sister in law, Debbie, nieces Emmy (Dave) and Natalie (Barry) and nephew Nathan and their families, sister Maryann and husband Roger and their family, sister in law Cheryl and niece, Corinne (Thomas) and nephew Aug (Val) and their families along with so many great nieces and nephews. And so many friends and neighbors he considered family. 

Tony always said the three tall oaks at the south end of the yard reminded him of the three crosses on Calvary. He would often do his morning devotional looking out on those trees. Tony's wish was to be cremated. As a place of remembrance, a marker will be placed near the grove of his oaks. Bryliegh and Brody, with the help of their parents. lovingly built the beautiful white cross where the marker will go eventually; probably something very simple, like the cross, as he was a very simple, humble man. We believe he would like that. 

"Well done, good and faithful servant!"

From Matthew 25:21

Hyperloop shuts down

It was a dumb idea, championed by a guy who thinks he's a lot smarter than he really is:

HYPERLOOP ONE, A futuristic transportation startup highly touted by Elon Musk, is shuttering its airless tubes.

The company is laying off employees, selling remaining assets (which include a test track and machinery), and closing its offices, Bloomberg reports. After hiring more than 200 people in 2022, remaining workers — who are tasked with supervising the asset sale — were told their employment ends Dec. 31. All of Hyperlooop One’s intellectual property will be handed over to majority stakeholder, Dubai-based DP World.

The billionaire estimated in a 2013 proposal that a pod would be able to whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just 35 minutes and “feel a lot like being on an airplane.” After its founding in 2014, the buzzy startup raised around $450 million in venture capital funds and other investments, and even constructed a test track near Las Vegas to develop its technology.

For a moment, things looked promising for the company that vowed to end traffic once and for all. Originally founded as Hyperloop Technologies, the business changed its name to Hyperloop One in 2016, and then rebranded to Virgin Hyperloop One after Richard Branson invested in the company and joined its board of directors. After an exodus of top execs, Virgin dropped its name from Hyperloop One after opting to focus on cargo rather than passengers.

The Hyperloop - a vacuum-sealed tube through which magnetically-propelled pods are theoretically able to travel at high speeds due to low air resistance - is little more than a gadgetbahn: an unproven technology in search of a need. Riding on the Hyperloop would not "feel a lot like being on an airplane:" the passenger pods would be a lot smaller than an airplane and have no windows (because they would be traveling inside an either elevated or subterranean sealed steel tube), and passengers would be subject to intense G-forces and vibration as the pods accelerated. Any sort of damage to the hundreds-of-miles-long steel tubes - a crack or a small hole - would allow air into the vacuum and render the technology useless. Equipment malfunctions or power outages would leave passengers trapped in their sealed pods until they were somehow rescued. A Hyperloop journey would be claustrophobia-inducing and perhaps even terrifying.

The Hyperloop is not financially or politically feasible and it offers no advantage over existing and proven forms of transportation technology, such as commercial aviation or high-speed rail systems in use in Europe or Asia. (Perhaps, in fact, Hyperloop was little more than a ploy to stop construction of California's [admittedly controversial] high speed rail project.) A decade after Elon Musk first trumpeted its prospective benefits, it remains little more than a (vacuum-sealed) pipe dream. 

It's time to consign this dumb idea to the trashbin of history. And it's also time for credulous media and "tech-savvy" influencers to stop hyping impractical, pie-in-the-sky ideas like Hyperloop just because they're championed by a blowhard asshole like Elon Musk.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Top Ten Worst Christmas Songs

Christmas is just a few days away, which means that by now Christmas music is pretty much the ambient musical norm wherever you go: on the radio, in the store, at the restaurant, Christmas tunes are ubiquitous. While most of these holiday-oriented songs are perfectly fine, some are truly awful. 

When it comes to lists of horrible Christmas songs, there is no shortage of opinions as to which songs are the worst. I, of course, have my own list of hated holiday tunes, which may or may not look different than other people's lists. For example, there are a lot of Christmas songs that other people can't stand but I tolerate: I can't get too worked up about either Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," or Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas I you," even though a lot of people utterly detest both songs. And there are probably some songs I hate that other people absolutely adore. 

The following is my countdown of the worst ten Christmas songs that need to be canceled immediately. Note that I make no distinction between "novelty" Christmas songs and "serious" ones, because they all seem to get played this time of year regardless. (Besides, aren't all Christmas songs essentially "novelty" songs?)

10. Do They Know It's Christmas? (Band Aid)

A "feed the world" song performed by some of the biggest names in British pop music might have made sense in 1984, when countries like Ethiopia were being wracked by starvation and death caused by famine (and exacerbated by the brutal incompetence of the Soviet-aligned Derg regime in Addis Ababa). But this condescending, neo-colonialist dreck has not aged well and should be retired from the annual holiday rotation. Bono's sneering "well tonight thank God it's them instead of you" stanza is probably the most cringy Christmas lyric ever recored.
9. I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas (Gayla Peevey)

This marching band-like tune from the early 50s, sung by a girl with an irritating nasally voice who thinks she's entitled to a wild animal for Christmas, was just a bad idea all around. No, you don't want a hippopotamus for Christmas: the animal is one of the most dangerous to humans, and it also does this:

A lot of people still think this song is "cute." But when I hear this girl prattle on about how she only likes "hippopotamuseses," I get the urge to smack someone.  

8. The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late) (Alvin and the Chipmunks) 

The vocal tracks were sped up to create the high-pitched "chipmunk" voices in the song, which might have been cutting-edge technology when the song was recorded in 1958 but has not aged well. Put it this way: if I had to choose between listening to the grating, shrill, barely-intelligible vocals in this song or listening to fingernails on a blackboard, I'd probably opt for the latter. The song also features "bandleader" Ross Bagdasarian screaming at Alvin twice during the course of the two minute, twenty-second song, which is jarring as well.

It's hard to believe that this song went to #1 on the Billboard chart and won three Grammys in 1958. It's even harder to believe that this all-around unpleasant song is still played during the holidays today.

7. Jingle Bell Rock (originally by Bobby Helms)

I might be the only person the world who hates this song. But I hate it for the same reason that a lot of people hate Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" - it's a crass, obnoxious earworm. What the hell is a "jingle hop" or a "jingle horse" or a "jingle bell square?" How many times can you use the word "jingle" in a single song, anyway?

This is a 1950s-era "rock and roll is here, and it's really cool and hip, so let's make a Christmas song about it!" tune that should have been left in the fifties.

I'm sorry, but a song about a kid who witnesses his mom low-level cheating on his dad with Jolly Ol' Saint Nick isn't exactly one that brings me Christmas joy. In fact, it's sort of creepy. And, yes, I know the song's "inside joke" is that Santa is actually the kid's dad. But that only makes it even creepier because now it sounds like the kid is witnessing his parents' cosplay sex fetish.  
But what's creepiest about this song is that Michael Jackson sang it, and then later would go on to (allegedly) sexually assault young boys. 

(A side note: if Santa were real, can you imagine all the sex he would get? Bored and frazzled housewives all over the world would be throwing themselves at him to simultaneously thank him for bringing presents to their bratty kids and live out some weird daddy sex fantasy. Santa would be so busy banging moms that he wouldn't have time to deliver presents.) 

5. Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree (originally by Brenda Lee)

If "Jingle Bell Rock" is a dated, 1950's "rock and roll is new and cool" earworm, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"is exponentially worse. The rockabilly guitar, the bleating saxophone, the nonsensical lyrics (seriously, what does "dancing merrily / in the new old-fashioned way" actually mean, anyway?) all combine to create a catchy-yet-repetitive tune that gets stuck in your head and won't leave you in peace. It's a song that can drive one to insanity, which is why I hate it.

Part of the problem with this song - both the Lee original and its multitude of covers - is that it's ridiculously overplayed. So much so that as of last week it became the #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100, 65 years after it was originally recorded. This is why America can't have nice things.

4. Merry Christmas With Love (Clay Aiken)

A friend of mine believes that this overproduced, maudlin piece of mush is "not only the worst Christmas song, it's probably one of the worst songs ever recorded." Having only been casually exposed to it before writing this blog entry, I decided to give it a close listen. 

I couldn't even make it to the end.

To be fair to Aiken, his was not the song's original recording. But he chose to breathe new life into this auditory atrocity by covering it, so he deserves blame.

3. Santa Baby (originally by Eartha Kitt)

Speaking of sex and Santa... Here's a song about a woman with a ridiculously long wish list of lavish and expensive things she wants for Christmas, with a suggestive vibe that implies the singer is willing to trade sexual favors with Santa for said gifts. "Hurry down the chimney for me," indeed.

This sex-and-greed song has been covered countless times since the Eartha Kitt original, but it doesn't matter if it's Madonna's extra-raunchy version, or Michael BublĂ©'s bizarre "bro" version: it's a fundamentally awful song. No wonder a couple of years ago a survey determined that it was America's most disliked Christmas song.

2. The Christmas Shoes (New Song)

A lot of people place this truly disturbing tune at the very top of their worst Christmas songs list, and for good reason: it is a horrible song that should never have been written or recorded. I personally give thanks to the fact that I don't hear this one very often, because I think most decent people are horrified by it and don't want to listen to it. Needless to say, if you think a song about a kid trying to buy shoes for his cancer-stricken, dying mother is somehow a "good" Christmas song, you really need to re-think what Christmas is all about.

But don't take it from me; here's Patton Oswald to explain just how depraved and ridiculous this musical monstrosity actually is:

1. Baby, It's Cold Outside (Frank Loesser; originally performed in the film Neptune's Daughter

I've already written about how much I hate this song, and not just because of the coercive, date-rapey creepiness implied by its annoying, call-and-response lyrics: 
The song is melodically repetitive, monotonous and uninteresting; it lacks the most basic elements of songcraft, such as a bridge or a chorus. What's more, it's not even a song about Christmas; there's no mention of anything holiday-related in the lyrics. "It's cold outside" in January, February and even March, too, depending on where you live, so why is this piece of acoustic crap assumed to be a holiday song?
So while various artists can attempt to rehab this song's problematic image by changing the lyrics - see Me and Him reversing its gender roles, or John Legend and Kelly Clarkson creating a "consent" version - it's still just an all around shitty tune.

Please, quit playing this tiresome and repugnant not-a-Christmas song. It sucks.

In fact, please make the holiday season better for everyone by no longer playing any of the songs on this list.

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

UH football: Attendance for 2023 and a New Head Coach for 2024

The Cougars averaged 36,020 fans per game this season, which is 11,227 fans/game higher than last season and the program's highest average attendance since the 2016 season. It is the second-highest year-over-year increase in average attendance since my attendance tracker begins in 1965 (Houston's first year in the Astrodome) and is a direct result of excitement surrounding Houston joining the Big XII*. The season's marquee home matchup against the Texas Longhorns produced the second-highest attendance in TDECU Stadium history. 

However, a percipitous decline in attendance is likely in 2024. The initial novelty of joining the Big XII is wearing off and the Cougars only won four games in 2023, both of which will damper excitement for 2024. Furthermore, 2024's home slate consisting of UNLV, Rice, Utah, Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State provides for some interesting matchups but has no marquee opponent along the lines of Texas. 

Had Dana Hologrsen been retained, attendance in 2024 would certainly be even worse; the clear differential between butts in seats and announced attendance as the season wore on, as well as the number of fans on UH message boards who indicated that they would not renew season tickets were Dana to be retained, showed that the UH fanbase's faith in the Red Bull-swilling, excuse-making swindler who has only made one second half adjustment in his entire career had come to an end.

The UH administration - specifically, Board of Regents Chairman Tilman Fertitta, President Renu Khator, and Athletics Director Chris Pezman - did the right thing by giving Holgorsen the boot, in spite of his ridiculously high buyout. Keeping him around for even one more season would only have worsened a football program that was already heading downward under his leadership.

This past Sunday, the Cougars officially announced their next head football coach: Willie Fritz, who had spent the last eight seasons as head coach of the Tulane Green Wave. He was formally introduced at a press conference on Monday (that my son, for some weird reason, attended): 

From left to right: Tilman Fertitta, Dr. Renu Khator, Willie Fritz, his wife Susan, Chris Pezman. photo: Kirby Gray

Fritz brings a great deal of experience with him to Houston, having coached at just about every level of college football. He coached at Blinn College in Brenham and won two consecutive junior college national championships there. He then spent many years at Division II Central Missouri, were he compiled a 97-47 record. He coached at Sam Houston State and took the Bearkats to two consecutive FCS Championship games. He coached for two years at Georgia Southern, leading that program's transition from FCS to FBS. Last year he led Tulane to a win over USC in the Cotton Bowl; the Green Wave ended the 2022 season ranked #9. All in all, Fritz has 31 seasons of head coaching experience under his belt and an all-time record of 247-121.

Now, at 63 years old, he steps up to the final level at Houston: the Power 5.

Fritz, for his part, seems to be excited to take on the challenge: "It's a dream for me to be here at the University of Houston." He has his work cut out for him, however: he has to assemble a staff, he has to salvage Houston's woeful 2024 recruiting class, and he has to impose a new culture and identity upon the program and its players. This is a lot to do a relatively short amount of time and I'm not going to expect a miracle turnaround in 2024. But if I see good, fundamental football (tackling, discipline, clock management), the ability to make adjustments, and improvement over the course of the season from the Coogs next fall, I will be happy.

Brad Towns approves of the hire, describing Fritz as "a leader, a winner, and a program builder and has achieved at every coaching stop," while Tilman Fertitta proclaims that the Coogs "got the person we wanted." Ryan is excited about Fritz's coaching philosophy:

Recruit, Retain, Develop – the three words Willie used to describe his philosophy. How can you not be excited about that? Recruiting became an afterthought this fall. Dana has basically given up on it by October. Retain is the name of the game right now in CFB – retaining your own players. Willie was proud of the number of guys they’d been able to retain because of the culture they had built.

And develop….hoo boy. This is the area that UH has needed the most and where we’ve seen the least. If you develop okay or good players into contributors, starters, and stars, you’re doing something. Willie’s done that at every stop.

All in all, it's hard not to be optimistic right now. But I have to remind myself that I was also optimistic five years ago when Houston plucked Holgorsen away from West Virginia. Let's hope things turn out differently this time; the Houston football program cannot afford another bad coaching hire.

The Cougars' next game - and Willie Fritz's debut - will be against the UNLV Rebels on Saturday, August 31, 2024 at TDECU Stadium.

*The highest year-over-year increase in attendance occurred in 1976, when Houston joined the Southwest Conference.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Dana Holgorsen fired after Cougars lose to UCF, 13-27

The Houston Cougars ended their 2023 campaign with a trip to Orlando to face the University of Central Florida Knights. The Coogs scored a touchdown on their opening possession and led 10-6 at the end of the first quarter, but were outscored 3-21 the rest of the way by a UCF team fighting for bowl eligibility. I'm not going to waste keystrokes on the good, bad or ugly of this loss; Ryan does a good job describing the game (and the Coogs' dismal second half of the season) for anybody who wants to read the gory details.

The Cougars end the 2023 season with a miserable 4-8 record, which matches my preseason prediction (I thought they'd beat Rice but lose to Baylor). One of those four wins was a comfortable victory over FBS newcomer Sam Houston State; the other three came by a combined total of 6 points. Despite having an "offensive guru" at their helm, the Cougars' 23.7 points per game is the fewest the Cougar offense has averaged since the 2004 season. The defense was atrocious as well; the 31.5 points per game the Coogs surrendered this season ranked them 105th out of 130 FBS teams.

The morning after the game, the University of Houston administration bit the bullet on head coach Dana Holgorsen's "fucking impossible buyout" and relieved him of coaching duties after five seasons and a very mediocre 31-28 record. 

The University of Houston took a gamble on Dana Holgorsen: they hired him away from a West Virginia program that was about to dismiss him, made him the highest-paid coach in the Group of Five at the time, and fired Major Applewhite after only two (winning) seasons in order to make room for him. It was a gamble that, unfortunately, did not pay off. The exciting offense fans expected to see from him never materialized, the program was trending downward, attendance at TDECU Stadium was dwindling, and there was no hope that things would get better next year (especially given Holgorsen's excuses regarding his poorly-rated 2024 high school recruiting class). It was simply time for the University to cut its losses and move on.

Ryan believes that Holgorsen "was his own worst enemy" as Houston's head coach:

One of the biggest problems with Dana Holgorsen was the way he negatively recruited against UH. Opposing coaches did not even have to do it; they just had to keep a folder full of Dana’s quotes about his own program. By constantly shirking blame, by saying how hard it is at Houston, by saying facilities were not up to par, that he could not compete until he had upgraded facilities, by pushing players out, by losing starters like Alton McCaskill (NIL) and Cam’Ron Johnson (loyalty to Brandon Jones and NIL), by flailing in the transfer portal when UH had specific and immediate needs, and by not grinding in recruiting like those he was competing with.

The public perception of Dana was a whiner who was constantly focused on what UH could not do and what UH did not have. Some of what he said was 100% true, but when the only message that gets out is negative, that’s your public perception.

That's the way I see it was well: Dana gave us plenty of whining and plenty of excuses. He gave us bizarre playcalling and clock management decisions and poor team discipline. What he didn't give us was an explosive offense that attracts fans, teams that continually showed improvement over the course of the season, or signature victories. Of his 31 wins at Houston, only nine of them came against FBS programs that ended their season with a winning record. His only win over a Power 5 program with a winning season was this year's hail-mary fluke victory over West Virginia. Ryan continues:

You can’t point to one thing that pushed UH to make the change. But the totality of poor on-field performance, no optimism for the future, poor recruiting and efforts in the transfer portal, no serious commitment to NIL, his public persona, and fan and season ticket holder apathy forced UH decision-makers to fire him.

The University of Houston administration now begins the search for the program's sixteenth head coach. Chris Baldwin and Josh Criswell have more.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Houston 30, #23 Oklahoma State 43

The Cougars led this game 23-9 at one point in the second quarter. Could they hold on for the win?

Of course they couldn't.

The Good: Houston QB Donovan Smith had a touchdown trifecta: passing, receiving, and rushing for scores. In the first quarter, Isiah Hamilton picked off a pass from OSU QB Alan Bowman and ran it back 57 yards for a touchdown - Houston's first pick six of the year.  The Houston defense also stuffed Bowman in the endzone for a safety.

The Bad: After falling behind 23-9, Oklahoma State scored 27 unanswered points to take the lead and eventually win the game. Oklahoma State's run began late in the second half, when Smith threw an interception right to a Cowboy receiver. OSU would later score.

The Ugly: Early in the game, the Cougars stopped the Cowboys on 3rd and 19... And then were flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave OSU a first and ten. The Cowboys would go on to score on that possession. Stupid, undisciplined football. 

What It Means: with seven losses on the season, the Cougars are officially eliminated from bowl contention.

The Coogs end the season against Central Florida in Orlando.

If Dana Holgorsen is retained as head coach after the end of this season, I am going to have to think long and hard about whether I want to renew my season tickets for 2024. This unprepared, undisciplined, uninspired version of college football he's coaching is simply unwatchable.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Three former UH football players perish in downtown car crash

Shocking and sad.

Six people, including three former University of Houston football players, were killed in a violent crash in downtown Houston early Saturday morning, officials confirmed.

The former UH football players were identified as D.J. Hayden, who went on to play eight seasons in the NFL, Zachary McMillian and Ralph Oragwu. Family members confirmed another one of the victims was Lauren Robinson-Holliday. They, along with two other people, were all in the same vehicle that was hit by a speeding Chrysler, Robinson-Holliday's family said. 

These deaths occurred only a few hours before Homecoming at the University of Houston, casting a pall over the planned festivities. Although these players finished their careers over a decade ago, they were still well-known to fans and football staff alike.

A product of Elkins High School in Missouri City, D. J. Hayden played for the Cougars and was  a standout cornerback until he suffered a life-threatening injury in practice during the 2012 season. (The Cougars even wore special uniforms to honor him after the incident.) Hayden miraculously recovered from the injury, and was chosen in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. He played eight seasons in the NFL with the Raiders, the Detroit Lions and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Since retiring from the NFL, he was serving as the defensive backs coach for Second Baptist School. 

Zachary McMillian, who attended Dulles High School in Fort Bend County, followed in his father's footsteps as a football player for the University of Houston from 2010 to 2013, where he was a defensive back. In his senior season, he was third in the American Athletic Conference with five interceptions. 

Ralph Oragwu attended Fort Bend ISD's Marshall High School before going on to play football for the University of Houston. He was an offensive lineman and played from 2009 through 2013.

Robinson-Holliday was also originally from Fort Bend County and was apparently friends with the football players. She attended East Texas Baptist University and Lamar University.   

The University of Houston has since announced that former player Jeffery Lewis, who played from 2009 through 2012, was also involved in the crash and is recovering at the hospital.

This accident occurred at the intersection of Pierce and Fannin, less than a mile away from my house:

Shortly after 2 a.m., police said a black Acura SUV was traveling southbound on Fannin Street. That vehicle had a green light at the intersection with Pierce Street. At the same time, police said a black Chrysler 300 was going eastbound on Pierce Street at a high rate of speed and went through a red light at Fannin, hitting the Acura. Police said people in both vehicles were ejected, including the driver of the Chrysler and three people in the Acura. The Chrysler also hit and killed a man on the sidewalk, who police believe was homeless. 

The Chrysler driver and three others were pronounced dead at the scene.  Four people were taken to the hospital. Two of them were declared dead there. A third person at the hospital has life-threatening injuries. 

At this point, we don't know the identity of the Chrysler driver or the man on the sidewalk who was killed.  (Update: the at-fault driver's name was Christian Herrera; the homeless person's name was Frank Robinson.)

According to family members, Hayden, McMillian, Oragwu and Robinson-Holliday were all in the black Acura.

Way too many motorists use the wide, one-way streets of downtown and Midtown as their personal speedways, especially at night, and don't pay attention to traffic signals. I've seen this happen too many times; in fact, I was smacked by a careless driver in Midtown just a few weeks ago (I'm fine, but the 2010 Altima is no longer; I'll have more to say about this later). Fortunately, neither myself or the other driver was injured in my crash. The same unfortunately cannot be said for the three UH football players and three others who died in this crash.

Just senseless and heartbreaking.

ESPN, Ryan and Chris Baldwin have more.

Houston 14, Cincinnati 24

You'd think that the Cougars, coming off a dramatic road win against a former Southwest Conference rival the week before, would be amped up to come back to TDECU for Homecoming and flex on a 2-7 team they haven't beaten since 2016. 

You'd be wrong.

The Ugly: The entire game. The UH offense could only manage 12 first downs and a meager 241 yards of total offense for the entire game. Of the Coogs' 11 offensive possessions, 9 ended in either punts, turnovers (QB Donovan Smith was intercepted three times) or failed fourth down conversion attempts. The defense surrendered 368 total yards to the Bearcats; Cincinnati RB Corey Kiner carved through the UH run defense like a warm knife through soft butter, with 129 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The Cougars simply weren't prepared for this game.

Brad Towns expresses his frustration at Holgorsen's inability to have his team mentally focused to take on beatable opponents, such as Rice and Cincinnati:

Back in September, I had a hard time believing players could take an opponent for granted. Especially a local rival. I am having an even harder time believing that this team would overlook a Cincinnati team that had pounded UH each time they played under this coaching staff.

The Bearcats were on a 7-game losing streak, and UH was coming off a bounce-back road win against Baylor. A bowl game was on the line and within reach, and it was Homecoming, too. This was the perfect setting to get things right and prove this team was improving.

And then they went out and got rolled. Don’t let the score fool you, UH was completely dominated by a 2-7 team. It is one thing to lose, it is another to get outworked and outfought on the field. Especially at home. Houston is now 14-12 at home under Holgorsen, 12-12 vs. FBS teams.

A loss Saturday against Oklahoma State and Holgorsen would be sub-.500 vs. FBS teams at home. His predecessor Major Applewhite – fired after two years because the program was in shambles – was 9-3 at home (8-3 vs. FBS teams).

Sometimes teams are just more talented, and there is not much you can do to beat them. But no UH team should overlook anyone, and they should never have an opponent play harder or want it more.

That is wholly unacceptable by players and it is unacceptable that this continued lack of wanting and effort can be accepted by the coaching staff.

The Homecoming "crowd" at TDECU was pretty ugly as well. Most of the 34,312 tickets sold for this game clearly went unused. The University's fair-weather, front-runner fanbase has given up on Holgorsen and the Cougars.

What It Means: The Cougars need to win their final two games (at home, against Oklahoma State, and on the road, against Central Florida) to become bowl eligible. The chances of that happening are somewhere between slim and none.

On Sunday, Texas A&M fired head coach Jumbo Fisher after six seasons and a 45-25 record. His buyout will be around $77 million. You'd think that if the Aggies can admit they made a mistake and move on in spite of the cost, the UH athletics administration could bite the bullet and do the same for somebody who has been 31-26 over almost five seasons, has essentially given up on recruiting his 2024 class, routinely misjudges his team's gameday readiness, and has clearly lost the interest of the school's fanbase. At this point, it may cost Houston more (in lost ticket sales and other gameday revenues) to keep Holgorsen than to let him go.

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

The Last Three Games

Things have been happening in my life over the past several weeks that have taken attention away from this blog. So I'll just provide a quick recap of the most recent three games of the 2023 University of Houston Cougar football season. 

Houston 24, #8 Texas 31: The overlap between the schools entering the Big 12 and the schools leaving it meant that the Houston Cougars and the Texas Longhorns got to face each other for the first time since 2002 and only the fourth time since the Southwest Conference broke up. After yet another slow start - the Cougars were behind 0-21 at one point - Houston rallied to put a scare into the #8 Texas Longhorns at TDECU Stadium.

Houston QB Donovan Smith completed 32 of 46 passes for 378 yards and three touchdowns. Matthew Golden caught two of those touchdown passes, while Joseph Manjack IV had one score (both receivers had 88 receiving yards on the day). The ability of Houston receivers to get open against the Texas secondary was refreshingly surprising. After giving up 21 unanswered points, the UH defense made adjustments that limited the Longhorns to just 10 points for the rest of the game; Texas was held to a dismal 3 of 12 on third down conversion attempts. (They also bizarrely attempted a fake field goal that UH special teams snuffed out.)

With the good came the bad, however. Smith turned the ball over twice; once on a sack-and-fumble and once on an interception. The Cougar rushing game could only manage a paltry 14 yards for the entire game. That said, the Cougars had a chance in this game up until the very end, when the Longhorns might have caught a break from the refs. Houston had third-and-1 at the Texas 10-yard line with just over a minute left in the game. The Cougars handed off RB Stacy Sneed, who appeared to gain enough for a first down at the Texas 9-yard line. However, the referees marked the ball closer to the 10-yard line. The Cougars then failed to convert on the ensuing fourth-and-inches play, securing the win for the Horns.

Things that make you go hmmm. 

The announced crowd of 42,812 is the second-largest crowd in TDECU Stadium history. Yes, a lot of them were wearing burnt orange. But the game was a lot of fun and I hope another 21 years don't go by before the Longhorns and Cougars play each other again.

The Chron's James Mueller writes that the Cougars, "which almost nobody gave a chance of beating Texas, had the No. 8 team in the country on the ropes." Ryan points out that the Cougars squandered chances to win this game even before the questionable spot occurred.

Houston 0, Kansas State 41: Not much to say about this one. The Cougars, having to go on the road to chilly Manhattan, Kansas after the emotional letdown of the Texas game, were clearly unprepared and unmotivated. The embarrassing result was Houston's first shutout since 2000. The Cougars couldn't do anything right on either side of the ball; even when they were gifted a Wildcat fumble on the KSU 26-yard line early in the second quarter, they couldn't convert it into any points. 

Ryan calls the game "disorganized and pitiful" and points out that UH's 208 yards of total offense "is the lowest output of the Dana Holgorsen era." Yet some people in the national media still think he is an "offensive guru."

Houston 25, Baylor 24 (OT): The "Pillow Fight on the Brazos" pitted two 3-5 teams against each other. And it was about as ugly as one would expect. Neither team could score in the first quarter, but a 26-yard touchdown pass from Donovan Smith to Samuel Brown in the second half gave the Cougars a seven-point halftime lead. Baylor would tie things up in the fourth quarter, but another Donovan Smith touchdown - this time a 24-yard pass to Tony Mathis, Jr. - gave the Coogs the lead again.

On the very next possession, the Bears threw an interception deep in their own territory, giving the Cougars a chance to pad their lead. Instead, the Coogs failed to make a first down and missed a field goal attempt. Baylor got the ball back, and - aided by Houston's failure to prevent the Bears from converting 4th and 17 (!) - marched right down the field to score a touchdown with 30 seconds left and force the game into overtime, where they got the ball first and promptly scored again. The Cougars responded with a touchdown of their own on a Donovan Smith one-yard run into the endzone, and then decided attempt a two-point conversion to either win or go home. 

The resulting play, christened "Horns Down," worked. After lining up in a five-wide set, Smith scrambled into the endzone to give the Coogs the one-point victory. A gutsy decision, yes, but given the state of the Cougars defense at that point it was also probably the right call. 

The one-point overtime victory over Baylor was Houston's first over the Bears since 1993 and their first win on the road over an established Big 12 school. It also gave a measure of revenge for UH fans still bitter that Baylor was included in the Big 12, at Houston's expense, when the Southwest Conference broke up. 

What All of This Means: The Cougars are now 4-5 and can still make a bowl if they win at least two of their last three games. Which is somewhat miraculous, considering how rough this season has been.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Hail Mary! Houston 41, West Virginia 39

 Several days later, and I still don't believe that the Cougars actually won this game.

The Good: Houston's first score of the game was a Matthew Golden 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. QB Donavan Smith had a breakout game, going 21 of 27 for 253 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions; he also rushed for 34 yards and a score. He completed 16 straight passes to end the game, including the hail mary that won the game for the Coogs. Stephon Johnson caught four passes for 96 yards and two scores, including the game winner, while Stacy Sneed rushed for 78 yards on seven carries. On the defensive side of the ball, Isaiah Hamilton robbed West Virginia of a touchdown by intercepting a tipped pass in the endzone.

The Bad: The UH defense gave up a whopping 546 yards to the Mountaineers and allowed West Virginia to convert 13 of 19 third down attempts. The Cougars were up by 11 points midway through the fourth quarter, but lapses on defense and overly-conservative play on offense allowed West Virginia to score two touchdowns in the span of 2 minutes and 41 seconds, including what should have been the game winner for West Virginia: a 50-yard pass from QB Garrett Greene to Hudson Clement on 4th and 10. However...

The Stupid: Following the touchdown, Garrett Green took off his helmet (while he was still on the field) and started waving "goodbye" to the UH student section. That drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that was enforced on the following kickoff. That put Houston in field position for...

The Miraculous: Like I said, I still don't believe this happened:

Credit to Joseph Manjack IV (who had a great game himself) for tipping the ball up so that Stephon Johnson could snag it for the game-winning score.

What It Means: This is Houston's first conference win in the Big XII; Houston also becomes the first incoming school to beat an "original" Big XII team and Dana Holgorsen gets a win over his former employer. The Cougars find themselves with a 3-3 record at the season's halfway point.

Next up for the Coogs is the one we've all been waiting for: the Texas Longhorns, at TDECU Stadium, on Saturday October 21st.

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Imagining a Manhattan-like Galveston

I came across this post on The Social Media Platform Former Known as Twitter last week, and it suggests an interesting thought experiment: 

Galveston was the largest city in Texas prior to the Great Hurricane of 1900. What if that storm had had never hit Galveston, and the city continued to grow? What if the Galveston Seawall was a proactive, rather than reactive, project to harden the island against natural disasters? Would the region's urban geography look completely different? Would Galveston have eventually developed into a dense, Manhattan-like urban core from which everything radiated out, leaving Houston as little more than a suburb on the northwestern edge of a hypothetical Greater Galveston Urbanized Area?

Of course, as Christof's response indicates, there were factors working against Galveston that favored Houston, even before the 1900 hurricane hit. Transportation truly is destiny, and it did not favor Galveston Island.

Also, in the real (not "what if") world, the Hurricane of 1900 (and its almost-as-devastating counterpart in 1915) *did* happen, and completely devastated the city. This is because barrier islands like Galveston Island aren't well-suited for cities.  They are the first line of defense against hurricanes so they bear the brunt of their fury. While there are cities on barrier islands - Miami Beach, Atlantic City and Hilton Head all being examples besides Galveston - none of them have ever developed into being the anchor city of their respective metropolitan region. They're simply too vulnerable to hurricane-related devastation, so the core of urban development is inland. 

It's fun to think about an alternate universe in which Galveston developed into a dense island full of skyscrapers and subways that became the region's urban core, in which high-density development extended to Bolivar Peninsula, Texas City and San Luis Pass, in which development grew around the bay, in which Houston was an outlying industrial town. How different would everything be? Would the University of Galveston be a member of the Big XII or SEC? Would the Galveston Rockets play in an arena behind UTMB's campus? Would Scholes Field be a hub for United Airlines?

Of course, that's not what happened. I enjoy Galveston and I'm glad the city exists. But the city, especially before 1900, was in many ways a bet against nature. And in the end, nature always wins. 

Houston 28, Texas Tech 49

Before last Saturday, Houston was 1-10 against Texas Tech in their last eleven meetings (the amazing 2009 game being the Cougars' lone win). After last Saturday, the record is 1-11.

The Good: The UH offense in the first half, which scored four touchdowns.

The Bad: The UH's offense in the second half, which didn't score anything.

The Worse: The UH defense, which surrendered a total of 400 yards to the Texas Tech offense.

The Ugly: UH special teams, which allowed Texas Tech scores on a kickoff return and a blocked punt. Houston K Jack Martin also missed a field goal.

What It Means: The Cougars are now 0-2 in Big XII play with no hopes of a win coming anytime soon. The talent, the depth and the coaching simply aren't there for this program to be competitive in this conference. And that falls on the shoulders of not just Dana Holgorsen, but the people who hired him (e.g. UH President Renu Khator, UH AD Chris Pezman, local mob boss restauranteur Tillman Fertitta).

Ryan says this team deserves better. He's right.

The Cougars get next weekend off, before they lose to West Virginia on the evening of Thursday October 12 at TDECU Stadium.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Houston 38, Sam Houston State 7

The Sam Houston State Bearkats are playing their first season as a member of the FBS. After putting up tough fights against BYU and Air Force, they certainly had plans for a big upset on their minds as they made the short trip from Huntsville to face the struggling Cougars. Alas, it didn't happen for them.

The Good: Freshman RB Parker Jenkins rushed for 105 yards and three touchdowns, which was good enough for Big XII Newcomer of the Week honors. WR Matthew Golden caught nine receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown. On his first snap under center as a UH Cougar, second-string QB Ui Ale threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Stacy Sneed. The offense did not turn the ball over, and the defense held the Bearkats to 178 total yards of offense.

The Bad: The Cougars were flagged 11 times for 95 yards. Kicker Jack Martin missed a field goal. Houston was 0 for 1 on 4th down conversion attempts.

The Ugly: The Cougar defense recovered two Bearkat turnovers, but could not convert either of them into scores. Through four games, UH has only managed to score 14 points off of nine turnovers. That's... not good.

What It Means: This was a much-needed "get right" game against a lesser opponent that allowed second-stringers to get some playing time and (hopefully) gave the team some confidence. But now the Cougars begin their Big XII schedule in earnest.  

After spending the entire first third of the season within the City of Houston, the Cougars next face Texas Tech in Lubbock.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Robotaxi gridlock!

Coming to a city near you:

Over the weekend, photos and videos of yet another Cruise-induced robotaxi traffic jam spread across X (formerly Twitter). However, unlike the past incidents that have occurred largely in San Francisco, this one wasn't in California. Instead, it was in another of the country's tech hubs and in Tesla's backyard: Austin, Texas.

About 20 Cruise-operated Chevrolet Bolts were seen stuck up and down San Gabriel Street late Saturday night. Some had shifted into the oncoming side of the two-lane street, even forcing a pair of Cruise cars to face one another in some sort of autonomous stand-off, blocking traffic even further.

The actual cause of the jam remains unknown, though it's not uncommon for Cruise vehicles to become stuck and require human intervention—also known as a Vehicle Recovery Event. The individual who posted the photos and videos said they observed the Cruise workers trying to operate the cars via remote control to remediate the situation. A spokesperson hinted that the problem may have been related to pedestrian traffic, though the footage circulating social media does not show an abundance of people nearby during the gridlock.

The self-driving cars are currently in their testing phase in Austin, but it seems like the patience of local residents is also being tested:

The cars have also gotten stuck in crosswalks, at green lights, in intersections, and even played chicken with other Cruise vehicles. In fact, just have a look at the r/Austin subreddit and you'll quickly see how the self-driving experiment has tested the patience of locals.

"There's no city or county anything that is regulating them or overseeing what they are doing," said Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who once hailed a robotaxi and noted in that earlier KXAN report that his car pulled over and stopped in the street midway through the journey. "And the fact that it's in a testing phase but there's not the safeguard of a human in the front concerns me."

City council members are powerless, and the Austin Transportation and Public Works Department can't really do anything to stop Cruise from operating on its streets. Earlier this month, the department issued a memo noting that "Texas cities cannot regulate autonomous vehicles" as their authority is preempted by state law.

But that hasn't stopped residents from complaining about blocked intersections and interference with emergency services. The department has since reached out to equivalent bodies in Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. for advice.

We may be in for similar experiences here in Houston. Cruise has begun operating autonomous vehicles out of a large lot at the corner of West Alabama and Stanford, and I've seen the vehicles circulating on the streets of Midtown.

I've been following along as autonomous vehicles are being deployed and tested in real-world environments, and while I'm not aware of any more fatalities caused by their testing, the intermittent problems places like San Francisco and Austin are experiencing while these cars are being tested indicates that these cars are only as safe and as functional as their programming allows. So-called "Level 5" autonomy - which allows self-driving cars to operate in any environment and under any condition - is truly a very difficult thing to achieve and there's debate as to whether it's even possible at all

Which is why this technology is only now coming to Houston, and why malfunctions like those being experienced in other cities are likely to occur here as well as the slow process of testing and reprogramming these vehicles continues.

Houston 13, TCU 36

The Cougars' first conference game in the Big XII was entertaining for little while; Houston only trailed by a touchdown at halftime (and it could have been closer if head coach Dana Hologrsen had elected to kick some field goals instead of going for it and failing on fourth downs). But TCU, aided by an inept UH offense, put things away in the second half.

The Good: Matthew Golden returned a TCU kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. It turned out to be the Coogs' only touchdown of the game. 

The Bad: Pretty much everything else. The Cougars were outplayed on both sides of the ball. The offense had by far its worst game of the year, gaining a paltry 266 total yards and a pathetic 41 yards rushing. QB Donavan Smith was intercepted twice and sacked six times. The defense didn't play much better, allowing the Horned Frogs to amass 564 total yards (even as they held TCU to field goal attempts on five of their drives and came up with two turnovers of their own).

The Ugly: This post is brought to you by the number zero. As in ZERO offensive touchdowns, ZERO points scored in the second half, ZERO points off turnovers, and ZERO for four on fourth down conversion attempts.

What It Means: How bad is the Houston offense right now? Ryan Monceaux explains:

UH is averaging 19.33 ppg in regulation. That would put the team 112th nationally (out of 130 teams). Thanks to the two overtimes at Rice Stadium, UH is 94th in scoring. But the fact remains that the offense has scored just 51 points in regulation in the three games. That’s six offensive touchdowns (and three field goals) in three games.

UH has scored over 10 offensive points in only two of six halves this year. In seven of 12 quarters, UH has scored three or fewer points.

Next up for Houston is FBS newcomer Sam Houston State at TDECU Stadium. They better win that one, because I don't see any more wins for the Coogs this season unless something dramatically changes. 

Andy Yanez and Chris Baldwin have more. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Houston 41, Rice 43 (2 OT)

I guess it can't be a rivalry if one team wins all the time, so congratulations to Rice for winning the Bayou Bucket for the first time since 2010. But honestly: the Owls were greatly helped by the fact that the Cougars didn't even bother to show up.

The Good: To the extent that coming back from a 28-point deficit to tie a game with fifteen seconds left - and scoring the first touchdown of overtime to string together 35 unanswered points - is "good," then I guess that's a positive. But obviously it never should have come to that. The comeback was actually triggered late in the first half when Rice QB JT Daniels was intercepted in the end zone by Cougar CB Isaiah Hamilton to keep Rice from going into the locker room up 35-7. 

On a night where most of the Cougar players might has well have stayed on the bus, DE Nelson Ceasar (two sacks and three tackles for loss) and WR Samuel Brown (9 receptions for 138 yards) both played notably well.

The Bad: The Cougars' slow start. Rice scored touchdowns on their first four possessions, while the anemic Cougar offense went interception, punt and punt on their first three. Rice racked up 341 yards of total offense in the first half, while the Coogs could only manage 94. The Owls were clearly more motivated and played a faster and more physical game than the Cougars did: one team came out of the locker room prepared to play, while the other did not. 

On their first possession of the second half, the Cougars elected to go for it on 4th and goal from the Rice 8 rather than kick an easy field goal. As it turned out, had the Cougars taken those points the game never would have gone into overtime. And in the second overtime, needing a two-point conversion to extend the game, Houston opted to attempt a fade route to the corner of the endzone: a low-percentage play that failed and gave Rice the win. Hindsight being 20-20 and all, these were both bad decisions.

As bad as the Cougars were in the first half, Rice was pretty awful in the second half. They were trying to play conservative, run-out-the-clock football but didn't do it very well; one Rice series was a three-and-out that only took 49 seconds off the clock! It didn't help that a Rice fumble late in the third quarter led to an easy Houston touchdown to bring the Coogs within two scores.

The Problematic: After the game, Nelson Caesar admitted that the team "took Rice for granted." But how do you take for granted a crosstown rival? How do you overlook a team that nearly beat you a year ago? Head coach Dana Holgorsen, for his part, offered up a stream of "maybes" as for why the Cougars didn't play well: maybe the team overexerted themselves in practice, or maybe they didn't take Rice seriously enough, or maybe they were looking forward to TCU the following week, or maybe whatever. While he did admit that he is ultimately responsible for his team's performance, these "maybes" simply speak to a team culture and identity that he's never been able to cultivate during his four-plus years (at four-plus million dollars per year) at Houston. I don't expect that's ever going to change as long as he's here, either.

What It Means: When the Cougars begin the season (first or second game of the year) with a win over Rice, they average eight wins per season. When they lose to Rice at the beginning of the season, they average 2.8 wins. 

Up next for Houston is their Big XII Conference opener against 2022 CFP runner-up TCU at TDECU Stadium. 

Ryan scratches his head at a "bizarre" game, while Chris Baldwin thinks the TCU matchup is a "near must win" for Houston. I'm not going to hold my breath.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Houston 17, Texas-San Antonio 14

The Cougars opened the season - their first in the Big 12 Conference - with a win at home against the Texas - San Antonio Roadrunners.  It was low-scoring affair; the Roadrunners pulled within three with 5:42 left in the fourth quarter but the Coogs sealed the victory with a clock-chewing, game-ending drive (that may have been aided by a favorable after-review spot from the refs). 

The Good: The UH defense intercepted veteran UTSA quarterback Frank Harris three times. Cornerback (and East Carolina transfer) Malik Fleming accounted for two of those interceptions, along with a 48-yard punt return. That return led to one of Houston's touchdowns; one of Fleming's interceptions led to the other.

Quarterback (and Texas Tech transfer) Donavan Smith was serviceable but not spectacular in his Houston debut, completing 22 or 34 passes for 233 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. However, his receivers looked good. Samuel Brown, Joseph Manjack IV and Matthew Golden combined for 16 receptions and 209 yards; Manjack and Golden both had touchdowns.

The Cougars did not turn the ball over and were only flagged for three penalties. That's right: only three penalties.

The Bad: The UH offense was plodding and predictable. The offensive line clearly struggled to establish the run game - the Cougars managed only 101 rushing yards for 2.7 yards per carry - and had problems protecting Smith as well: he was hurried on multiple occasions and sacked three times. The offense was inefficient, converting only 5 of 15 third downs and zero of 2 fourth downs. Finally, the offense struggled to score points off turnovers; the three interceptions only resulted in seven UH points. 

Post game, head coach Dana Hologrsen called the cougar offernse "a work in progress." Here's to hoping that things comes together sooner rather than later.

The Ugly: UTSA did not help themselves with stupid penalties. Late in the first half, UTSA hit Smith out of bounds to move the ball into field goal range and allow the Coogs go into the locker room with a 10-7 lead. And in the second half, the Roadrunners were flagged on a UH field goal attempt because they lined up over the long snapper. That gave the Cougars a fresh set of downs and led to their second toucchdown of the day. 

The Uniforms: Were the Oilers-inspired, Columbia blue uniforms gimmicky and polarizing among UH fans? Sure. But the players loved them, and social media ate them up. Unfortunately UH athletics missed a great marketing opportunity by not having merchandise in the colors available for sale.

What It Means: It wasn't pretty, but it was a season-opening win over a school that won eleven games last year and actually slightly favored by Vegas to win. Ryan thinks that Saturday's game was one that the Cougars would have lost in previous years. Heartland College Sports, Underdog Dynasty and PaperCity's Chris Baldwin have more.

The Cougars now make the short trip up Brays Bayou to face the Rice Owls.

Friday, September 01, 2023

2023 Houston Cougar Football Preview

The 2023 college football season begins in the shadow of ongoing conference realignment madness. Just today it was confirmed that Stanford, Cal and SMU will be joining the ACC next season. So yes, next year there will be California schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It doesn't make much sense, but that's where the sport is today, for better or for worse.

The churn of conference realignment means that the Cougars will be playing in a new home this season: the Big 12. It's a step upward for the program, but it will probably come with some growing pains.

Looking Back: A season that began with promise (the Cougars began the season in the top 25) ended in mediocrity, with a 7-5 record (two games worse than my prediction of a nine-win regular season) and a victory over Louisiana-Lafayette in the Independence Bowl. 

While I'll take the winning season and bowl trophy, the 2022 campaign was nevertheless a disappointment. The defense struggled (the Cougars ended the season 104th out of 130 FBS teams in total defense and 111th in scoring defense), the offense was plagued with sluggish starts (the Coogs were held scoreless in the first quarter 7 times in 13 games), and the team as a whole was undisciplined (124th in penalty yards per game). 

The Big Story for 2023: The Cougars have spent the better part of three decades wandering in the wilderness since the Southwest Conference broke up in 1995. Now, they rejoin the premier ranks of college football as a member of a (now) "Power Four" conference. Gone are conference mates with little regional appeal like Temple, East Carolina and Tulsa. In their stead are old SWC foes such as Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech and (for one season, at least) Texas, an even older Missouri Valley Conference foe in Oklahoma State, and interesting new opponents like West Virginia and Kansas State.

With this step up in prestige comes a step up in competition, and the Cougars need to prove that they belong. 

Reasons for Optimism: There's been a lot of roster turnover but there's definitely some talent on this team. Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith will take over as quarterback; he is already well-known to UH fans since he converted a 4th-and-20 against the Cougars last season. He'll have a strong wide receiving corps to work with, as Matthew Golden (38 catches for 584 yards and 7 TDs a year ago) and Joseph Manchack return; they will be joined by a couple of transfers. Stacy Sneed and Brandon Campbell, who combined for almost 1000 rushing yards last season, return in the backfield and are joined by West Virginia transfer Tony Mathis, Jr. The offensive line returns NFL-caliber talent in OT Patrick Paul, as well as a new coach in Eman Naghavi, who spent last season at Tulane.

The defensive line is going to be formidable. DE Nelson Ceaser may be best defensive player on the team; he'll be joined by DE David Ugwoegbu and DT Chidozie Nwankwo. Linebackers will be anchored by senior leader Hasaan Hypolite (31 tackles at safety last year) and Jamal Morris (42 tackles). Alex Hogan returns at DB.

There's also a bit of an advantage in the schedule, as Houston plays eight games in the City of Houston and only leaves the State of Texas twice.

Reasons for Pessimism: Where to begin? To start with, the schedule is much tougher than anything the Cougars have faced in recent memory. With an upgrade in conferences comes an upgrade in opponents; three of Houston's opponents are ranked in the preseason AP poll (and four in the coaches' poll).

There's also that issue of roster turnover. Major contributors to last year's team are gone: QB Clayton Tune, WR Tank Dell (who led the nation in receiving yards and receiving TDs last season), LB Donavan Mutin and DL Derek Parish have all moved on to the NFL, while RB Alton McCaskill, who sat out the 2022 season with an injury but was expected to return as the team's offensive workhorse this season, transferred to Colorado. There are over 40 new players on the roster this season, and it's going to take time for them to gel.

Finally, there's head coach Dana Holgorsen, whose performance up to this point has been underwhelming. Yeah, there was that 12-2 season two years ago against a butter-soft schedule, but last year his team underachieved. Why should he be expected to do better this season against better competition?

What the Computers Think: Massey gives the Cougars a greater than 50% chance of winning only three games. Jeff Sagarin's starting ratings for the 2023 season imply a 5-7 record for the Cougars with home field advantage taken into account (and three of those wins are marginal). ESPN's Football Power Index, likewise, foresees a 5-7 season for the Coogs. Congrove is a bit more bullish on Houston, predicting a 7-5 campaign.

What the Humans Think: Houston was picked to finish 12th (out of 14 teams) in the Big 12 Media Preseason Poll, ahead of only Cincinnati and West Virginia. USA Today's Erick Smith has the Cougars finishing 13th in the conference, while the writers at CBS Sports see the Coogs finishing anywhere from 9th to 14th. CollegeFootballNews foresees a 5-7 season record for Houston.

What I Think: While I'm happy that the Cougars finally find themselves among the "haves" of the college football world and look forward to new and rekindled rivalries in the Big 12, I just don't think that their first season among the big boys will be a particularly good one: the Cougars need to pay their dues.

I'm am predicting a 4-8 season record for the Cougars, with wins against UTSA, Rice and Sam Houston, and a single conference win over Holgorsen's former employer, West Virginia, on a nationally-televised Thursday night. But even then I'm not all that confident about those games; quite frankly. there isn't a game on the schedule that the Cougars can't lose. 

Dana Holgorsen and his players know that expectations for the program are low, and they relish being the underdog. Which is great. But after watching his overall underperformance during his four years at Houston, I'm skeptical of his ability to get these players to reach their potential. This fall would be as good a time as any to prove me wrong.

Houston begins the season tomorrow at home against Texas-San Antonio. Vegas actually has the Roadrunners slightly favored in this one, and we all remember what happened the last time UTSA came to TDECU Stadium.

Houston's 1923 transit network

If you've ever wondered what Houston's transit network looked like exactly 100 years ago, Christof Spieler has you covered. He created a fascinating map of Houston's streetcar and interurban system a century ago, using the same style and color scheme as METRO's current system map (where red routes run at least every 15 minutes, blue routes run every 16-30 minutes, and green routes run every 31-60 minutes):

Christof explains that the streetcar routes he shows "were the equivalent of buses today, largely running in mixed traffic and stopping every block or two; the only major line like today’s light rail was the interurban to Galveston." This is why the Galveston-Houston Electric Railway is denoted with a thick purple line (like today's Purple Line LRT). This rail line, of course, has long since been replaced by the Gulf Freeway.

In subsequent posts, Christof also compares Houston's 1923 transit network with its 2023 network. Frequencies were better back then; most routes ran at eight to twelve minute headways. Furthermore, routes were closer together than they are today, meaning shorter walking distances for riders. However, the 1923 system covered a much smaller area than today's network because Houston was obviously a much smaller city back then. It was also much more walkable; in 1923 the United States still hadn't begun redesigning its cities to accommodate the automobile so the urban environment was denser. 

Finally, Christof observes that many neighborhoods served by "red" streetcar routes (with headways of 15 minutes or shorter) generally enjoy "red" bus service today as well, for example Midtown, Montrose, the Near Northside or the Washington Avenue Corridor. He explains that "the dense, walkable neighborhoods the streetcars created survived them." This is emphasized by the fact that some of today's light rail lines follow the same routes as the streetcars of a century ago: the Green Line follows the Harrisburg streetcar route, while the Red Line follows the Heights - South End and Institute Shuttle routes south of downtown and the North Main - Leeland route north of downtown.

1923 is significant because it was the last year that Houston's public transportation system consisted entirely of streetcars; the first buses would begin operating along the city's streets in 1924. Houston's last streetcar routes ceased operating in June of 1940.

The definitive history of Houston's streetcar network was written by Steven M. Baron in his 1996 book Houston Electric: The Street Railways of Houston, Texas

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Realignment time again

Remember during the last round of college sports conference realignment, when I told you not to worry if you didn't like where your favorite school ended up "because we'll probably be doing this again in a few years?" Well, it hasn't even been two years, and here we are again. 

Two weeks ago, the most radical - and sudden - realignment in college football history occurred, wherein a “Power 5” conference with over 100 years of history was essentially dismantled over the course of a couple of days. The Pac-12, which was already facing the losses of USC and UCLA following the 2023 season, saw five of its schools depart for other conferences after a meeting to sign a conference media rights deal fell apart at the last moment. The 2023-24 sports year will be the venerable Pac-12's last in its current configuration, and likely for good.

The Pac-12: disappearing in 2024
As sudden as this was, it was not entirely unexpected. Rumors that Washington and Oregon would join the Big 10 and that the “Four Corners” schools of Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah would join the Big 12 had been floating around the online college sports world for months. Once it became clear that Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff could not land a media rights deal that would satisfy his conference's members, the inevitable happened and the rumors became reality. These departures - reluctant as they might have been - left the Pac-12 with only four schools: California, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State. 

The waters churned in the Pac-12 breakup's wake. Last week, it appeared that Cal, Stanford and even SMU were headed to the ACC, even as schools already in that conference like Florida State were looking for a way out. The ACC seems to be standing pat for now, but that could change at any moment (especially since their television contract isn't as advantageous as those of the SEC and Big Ten). Meanwhile, the fate of Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Wazzou remains unresolved and will likely involve adding or joining schools in the Mountain West or American Athletic Conferences. That in turn, will cause more dominoes to fall. Things are still in flux, and even as the 2023 football season gets underway we have no idea what the conference lineup for 2024 is going to look like.

There's plenty of blame for the demise of the Pac-12, starting with the folks who run the Pac-12 itself, as the San Francisco Chronicle's Connor Letournau explains:

A complete failure of leadership pushed the Pac-12 to this point. By overvaluing their product, showing a stunning lack of urgency and refusing to adapt with the times, league decision-makers reduced the West Coast’s premier conference to four castoffs. The eight teams that departed over the past 13 months weren’t merely opportunists; they identified the problem.

Though Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff has made his share of costly blunders since taking the job three years ago, his predecessor, Larry Scott, deserves much of the blame for the league’s predicament. Before he signed a historic 12-year, $3 billion TV deal with Fox and ESPN in spring 2011, he failed to add an escape clause.

That locked in the Pac-12 until 2024, which left it vulnerable to having its teams poached by Power 5 conferences with bigger subsequent annual media-rights payouts. By inking a TV deal in spring 2016 that lasted just six years, the Big Ten positioned itself to beat the Pac-12 back to negotiations and, ultimately, convince UCLA and USC to come aboard. Those two defections last summer set the Pac-12 on its current trajectory.

Scott’s biggest misstep was the Pac-12 Networks, which didn’t come close to realizing their billing as a cutting-edge enterprise that would serve as an industry standard-bearer. Instead of partnering with a proven media company like ESPN, Scott launched a network fully owned by the schools in summer 2012, complete with an odd seven-channel model that confused consumers.

The Pac-12 Networks struggled to find distribution. Without ever approaching the revenue Scott had projected, it is now considered an albatross that weighs down the remaining league members’ bottom lines.

More recently, the conference apparently turned down a television rights deal worth $30 million per school, because they thought they deserved more. The media disagreed, leaving the Pac-12 to scramble, ultimately unsuccessfully, for another media rights deal. 

In that regard, blame also needs to be laid at the feet of the television networks, who are willing to destroy college football's regional tradition as long as it means new conferences with more marquee matchups that attract more viewers. The conference commissioners and university presidents chasing after those television dollars are also culpable. Everybody will try to avoid blame for the Pac-12's demise, but everybody is responsible. (A great Twitter X thread by a University of Michigan regent slams the NCAA for failing to do its job as the supposed oversight body for college sports.)

As a college football fan, I find this latest round of realignment to be rather bizarre. In what world does it make sense for a school in Eugene, Oregon to be in the same conference as one from Piscataway, New Jersey? How are student-athletes, especially those playing non-revenue sports such as volleyball or soccer, supposed to balance their studies with the cross-country travel (and attendant jetlag) that these mega-conferences will entail? 

Furthermore, having been a student at the University of Houston when the Southwest Conference disintegrated and Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor went to join the Big XII while the Cougars, along with Rice, TCU and SMU, got shunted off to “mid-major” leagues like C-USA and the WAC, I can't help but feel bad for the folks at Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State who are almost certainly looking at a future in the "Group of 5" world. I know what this feels like: a gut-punch; a betrayal. (It should also strike fear in the hearts of administrators at "second-tier" Power 5 schools like Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Indiana and Wake Forest. Next time, it could be them.)

With that said, I'm selfishly grateful that Houston was able to make the jump from the Group of 5 "have-nots" to the (now) Power 4 "haves." In being admitted to the Big 12 right before this latest round of realignment occurred, Houston may have gotten on the "last chopper out," so to speak. 

The new Big 12: appearing in 2024
I'm also excited about the new Big XII, which will actually be a collection of 16 teams in the summer of 2024, when Texas and Oklahoma depart for the SEC and the "Four Corners" schools come aboard. (Confused? ESPN's College Football Realignment Tracker can help you follow along.) It's going to be a fairly evenly-matched conference, lacking a "big dog" school like Alabama or Georgia or Michigan or Ohio State that will win it more often than not. It will feature traditional rivalries like the Holy War and the Territorial Cup. And it will be, hands down, the best mens basketball conference in the NCAA.

Until, of course, the next round of realignment occurs and the conference's lineup changes again.

In that regard, it truly isn't difficult to argue that realignment is killing college sports. Add it to NIL and the transfer portal, and it also isn't difficult to argue that college football is truly becoming professionalized. The Washington Post's Kevin Blackistone thinks that, since college football is now "virtually indistinguishable from the NFL," it's time for colleges and their football programs to go their separate ways:

There are now too many irreconcilable differences between the not-for-profit college mission and for-profit football. It's time to get on with the divorce.

I don't believe college football has attained the NFL's level just yet. But that may, sadly, be where the sport is headed.

I'll have my preview of the 2023 UH football season up in another week or so.