Talk about a rough start. The Coogs were manhandled by the San Diego State Aztecs last Saturday at the Las Vegas Bowl 34-10 and it wasn’t even close. Most of the Coogs coaching staff had already joined Tom Herman in Austin before the game and most of the remaining assistants had already announced they would join Herman after the bowl game. Several graduate assistant coaches had to fill in as position coaches for the game. I’m not surprised the Cougars face-planted as hard as they did: The Aztecs have long been a solid program and the Coogs lacked offensive line and runnings backs depth. The Coogs were also still shell-shocked that Herman left. Much like Lil’ Wayne and Baby, the Coogs learned a valuable life lesson: If a grown man who isn’t blood family gives you a kiss, he’s either going to stab you in the back or marking you for death. Trust no one.
I was a bit surprised initially at the Applewhite hire to be blunt. Khator’s public comments after the hiring that 8-4 is grounds for dismissal makes the Applewhite hire look all the more strange at first glance. If Khator and her partner in bellicosity Tilman Fertitta aren’t satisfied with 8-4 then why wouldn’t they hire someone like Lane Kiffin? Khator and Fertitta have been talking a big game but then apparently were not willing to hire the biggest name candidate and were rumored to demand large buyouts from candidates in hopes of avoiding another Herman “two and done” situation on Cullen. The Herman era went so well for the Coogs and for some reason they’re working hard to avoid duplicating that success. Several top candidates reportedly balked at Houston’s demands during the interview process.
Here’s the stone-cold truth: The University of Houston is not a destination job. I’m sorry if that hurts your fragile self-esteem but it’s true. In fact, few universities are destination jobs (maybe 15-20 tops), and even those who are would be hard pressed to keep their coach if the NFL comes calling with a fat enough contract. Most universities deal with this by hiring the best possible coaching prospect with the hopes that they win as many games as possible before leaving. When a school is afraid of hiring the best coach because they might leverage the program for a better gig they end up losing to Texas State who was playing in their first FBS football game and to UTSA when opening their brand new stadium.
I’m not saying that Lane wasn’t without controversy, but sometimes that’s the price of success when you’re in the Group of Five. The biggest criticism people have of Lane Kiffin? He’s a jerk or at least looks like one. You know who else had baggage when UH hired them? Kelvin Sampson who’s turning around our once comatose basketball program. Now it’s possible that Lane isn’t that good of a coach, that he’s coasted off of his father’s reputation, riding off of Pete Carroll’s coattails to secure an NFL coaching job a decade before he was ready, then suckered Tennessee, USC, and Alabama all into giving him jobs. Maybe that’s all true. But tell me exactly what has Major Applewhite done in his coaching career? I could also equally make the argument that Applewhite has been coasting off his reputation as a good college quarterback fifteen years ago and hasn’t done anything to deserve his coaching reputation since then. I mean, Longhorn fans weren’t exactly upset about losing him as a coordinator when he and Mack Brown were let go three years ago. Herman threw Applewhite a lifeline and the chance of a lifetime to salvage his reputation by joining the Htowntakeover hypetrain on Cullen Blvd. And don’t tell me Les Miles would’ve been a better hire: Miles reportedly bombed his interview with the UH administration and thought he could coast and get hired on his name alone. The University of Houston doesn’t have the luxury to be in cruise control and rest on our laurels. We need people who are hungry, scrappy, have a chip on their shoulder, and are ready to punch above their weight class. Miles is the inverse of what we need in Houston: He recruits well but teams always seem to underachieve. Sounds like Miles would’ve been Levine 2.0.
In spite of my initial surprise at the hire and my skepticism, let me look at it from the reverse angle
When the Coogs’ offense was rocking and rolling Herman got all of the credit. When the team looked overmatched and the offense sputtered everyone spared Herman the criticism and blamed Applewhite. Perhaps some of the criticism is justified but it seems unfair to have not blamed Herman when the Coogs struggled and given Applewhite credit for turning Greg Ward Jr. from pure, raw athleticism into one of the best quarterbacks in Houston history and good enough to upstage the eventual Heisman Trophy winner. You can’t have it both ways. I’m interested to see if the majority opinion on Applewhite’s offensive coordinating abilities is completely wrong. There’s a part of me that wonders if Applewhite is actually a very good quarterbacks coach and will be able to turn Kyle Allen, Kyle Postma, D’Eriq King, or Bowman Sells into the next great Coogs quarterback.
Regardless of how well Applewhite did as a coordinator the position of head coach is an entirely different beast. Many excellent coordinators fail miserably in the top seat: From Norv Turner to Mark Helfrich, the coaching profession is littered with the corpses of top coordinators who couldn’t cut it as the head man in charge. The reverse can also be true: Applewhite may, in fact, thrive as the head coach at UH by hiring excellent assistants, recruiting well, and being the quiet, methodical CEO coach the Coogs need. He’s apprenticed under Mack Brown, Nick Saban, and Tom Herman who’ve won a combined six national titles and 475 games between them. There are certainly candidates with far worse resumes out there and our best coaches all had extensive Power Five experience prior to taking over. Briles, Sumlin, Herman, and now Applewhite all spent extensive time as assistants in the major conferences, which seems to help as we have goals of playing at that level and eventually joining a major conference. Applewhite is also extremely well respected in the Texas coaching community which is huge. High school coaches will spend a lot of time helping their kids choose a college and having someone who’s respected and visible in the community will be very helpful in recruiting.
It’s possible that Applewhite was simply the best candidate and blew the hiring committee away with his knowledge of the game, command of the room, and leadership potential. It’s also possible this is a Peter Principle situation (that Applewhite is being promoted to his level of his incompetence) and everything comes crashing down, but I’m optimistic for our new coach. We’ve had the loud, self-promoting carnival barker in the top seat which was necessary to gain the attention and respect of the college football universe. Now that we have everyone’s attention we simply need to shut-up and win, lest we wear out our welcome. Applewhite doesn’t need a grill, he’s already got the respect of the coaching community and the college football world. All he needs now is the wins.