After just two seasons on the job, Houston has let Major Applewhite go as head coach of the Cougar football program. If the move seems rash, and for most it does, it’s not out of context for Houston athletic department. Remember Tony Levine, who had three seasons in charge of the Coogs before Houston made a change, even after back to back winning seasons and bowl trips. Levine’s last two seasons ended in a combined 15-10 record, just like Applewhite’s.
Two years ago Houston president Renu Khator said that nine wins were the benchmark Applewhite and any coach at Houston must hit, most scoffed, but Khator is a force of nature. She’s overseen over a billion dollar construction campaign on campus and recently oversaw approval of a medical school for the university. You’ll be well served not to doubt her ambitions for the 3rd Ward school.
For the record, we hoped Houston would pursue Todd Orlando rather than Applewhite after Tom Herman left for Austin. Our thought was that finding an offensive head coach or coordinator equal to or better than Applewhite could be more easily accomplished, but finding someone with Orlando’s ability to coach and scheme defense is rare.
In the end, Applewhite couldn’t elevate the program beyond Herman’s influence and oversaw its regression instead. The biggest issue was his selection of Mark D’Onofrio to run the Cougar defense. In spite of immense talent on the defensive side, Houston couldn’t find its footing and had to rely on possessing more bullets in shootouts. This season Applewhite attracted former FAU and Baylor assistant Kendal Briles to coach his offense and Houston put together a vaunted attacked, but still couldn’t get beyond eight wins.
Houston shelled out for resources, including upping Briles and O-line coach Randy Clements pay early in December when other schools started sniffing around. Again Houston demonstrated its willingness to spend, on a level at or near the P5 level, but they want a return on that investment.
When Army beat the Coogs 70-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl in late December, and Briles left for Florida State a day later, Cougar fans had every right to wonder about the direction of the program. The administration held similar concerns. AD Chris Pezman, Tillman Fertitta, and Khator made the move to sever ties with Applewhite earlier today (December 30th).
We highly suspect that Houston has a plan or a couple of names that they feel very comfortable will be coming to take over if beckoned. Two of those names are Kliff Kingsbury and Dana Holgorsen. Either would be a solid choice.
The Cougar brass is taking a chance with the move if Holgorsen uses Houston to enhance his deal at West Virginia, if Kingsbury stays at USC or bolts to the NFL, or if Houston’s plan A doesn’t pan out, then plan B had better.
You doubt Houston’s movers and shakers at your peril. Fertitta, who will no doubt be heavily invested in the hiring process, and Khator are impressive and seem to have a singular focus on making Houston as competitive as possible and as attractive as possible to potential conferences.
Whomever Houston chooses, that coach will understand now more than ever that the standard at Houston is high.