Return to Houston for former coach Holgorsen the desired next step
Applewhite officially out; Holgorsen is UH's target
"We'll fire coaches at 8-4."
The words said by Renu Khator, chancellor and president of the University of Houston, seemed to be an exaggerated and lighthearted threat two years ago shortly after the University of Houston hired Major Applewhite.
Those words are became reality on Sunday.
SB Nation's Steven Godfrey and The Athletics' Bruce Feldman reported Saturday change is on the horizon for Houston's football program. Football Scoop reports West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen is a desired candidate for the impending opening.
On Sunday, UH made it official, saying they were "separating" from Applewhite.
Tilman Fertitta, the chairman of the UH System Board of Regents and super-booster for Houston, had to be a huge factor in this decision. He spearheaded the hiring of Applewhite two years ago, opting for him over the rumors of Lane Kiffin after his success at Alabama as offensive coordinator.
Two years ago he admitted there was initially desire for "name-brand" coach but the whole picture led him and the search committee to settle on Tom Herman's offensive coordinator. Two seasons later his mind has changed and Houston is chasing one of the most eclectic brands in college football.
Red Bulls and Visors
Dana Holgorsen is 61-41 in eight seasons as the head man of the Mountaineers. He is due almost $12 million over the next three seasons and currently has a buyout of $2.5 million. The buyout, according to the above reports, drops to $1 million in 2019. The money is the initial chief concern, but that's why and how Fertitta is here. The school has plenty of football resources and he can easily help with the financial aspects of luring Holgorsen.
Why would Holgorsen depart from West Virginia and the Big 12 for Houston and it's American Athletic Conference home? Well, the answers could be as complicated as Holgorsen himself. The majority of his career has been spent in the south, especially in Texas or nearby like when he worked at Oklahoma State. He's familiar with Houston's strong ties to the state and his time there recruiting to a much-less impressive program would only be strengthened. He reportedly had the itch to return to Texas Tech where he spent a portion of his career coaching under Mike Leach. Something isn't right in West Virginia and there is a real possibility he's pushed the Mountaineers as far as they can go.
Tony Levine 2.0
As for Applewhite, he didn't clear the incredibly high bar set for him. Not all by his own fault though. This season ruined his chance to stick around. His defensive coordinator wasn't even average and the Cougars defense was extremely leaky. His offensive staff, bolstered by the addition of Kendall Briles, was fantastic turning in a little over a half season of excellence.
November saw the team begin to unravel. A road loss to SMU ended their one week of being ranked. The following week a battered Temple team handed the Cougars their third loss. A victory over Tulane came with a dark shadow over it. Stud quarterback D'Eriq King was lost for the year to injury and Applewhite had a dust-up with highly touted but injured star Ed Oliver. Still, the following week saw a chance at the American Conference championship. Memphis ended those hopes. A month later Army embarrassed the Cougars in their bowl game handing the heavily injured Cougars a 70-14 loss.
He was the second coming of Tony Levine. He was on the staff of the hotshot coach who left, Sumlin for Levine and Herman for Applewhite, and was promoted too soon to the top spot in the program. Usually in unimpressive manner the Cougars hobbled to a record above .500 but didn't instill confidence he was long for the reigns of the program.
Holgorsen or bust?
If Dana Holgorsen is the next head coach at Houston you won't find many people who will disagree he is an upgrade and the Cougars are in a better spot. The Big 12 teams will be more than happy to see him leave and he instantly would be the best coach in the American conference. Firing Applewhite for Holgorsen is a clear upgrade the Cougars can't pass up. Especially considering he would likely be around for more than just a couple of years.
Should the unthinkable happen and Holgorsen fall through where would the Cougars turn? It isn't the best list to choose from but Fertitta's money and Houston's recent success at launching careers is attractive. Most of these candidates have a shorter shelf life than Holgorsen.
Kiffin was in the hunt two years ago but didn't replicate his 2017 success this year at Florida Atlantic. He's a solid coach but if they passed two years ago and he hasn't showed a ton in the time since it is hard to imagine Kiffin can get in the hunt. Especially with his track record of leaving situations poorly.
Neal Brown is the best coaching candidate on the market. He has a 31-8 record the last three years at Troy. Before he got there the program never had won 10 games at the division one level. He runs a vicious spread attack that in 2016 gave Clemson all they wanted and in 2017 beat LSU at Tiger Stadium. He coached three years at Texas Tech so he knows Texas recruiting. Troy has absolutely none of the advantages Houston has as a program. Brown would crush and be the next Sumlin or Herman for the Cougars.
Mike Norvell of Memphis and Seth Littrell of North Texas both rebuffed offers to leave their school earlier in the postseason but Houston is better than a lot of the jobs - maybe all - they were initially targeted to take over. Both of them just got trounced in their respective bowl games however and would be poised to jump to really big jobs with one more successful year at their current job. Past these candidates it would be tough to sell the Cougar faithful they for sure got an upgrade.
Houston's Football Future
The hope, and absolutely achievable goal, is to be one of the best if not the best non-Power 5 school each and every year. This not only makes the school money but continues to raise the profile of Houston football should conference realignment ever occur again. Winning will not be ignored and neither will the eyeballs and dollar signs it brings. This is one of the most crucial hires Houston has ever made, especially if the non-Power 5 schools get a clearer path to a college football playoff spot.
Fertitta and company took a risk on Applewhite hoping the replicate the status quo from Herman. It failed. Moving on from Applewhite now carries little risk but the pressure of nailing this hire can't be understated. Nail it and recapture prominence in the college football landscape. Miss and risk losing far more than a few football games.