Updated 5 p.m. 1/5/2015: UH announced this morning that David Gibbs has stepped down from his post as interim head coach and defensive coordinator.
"I have thoroughly enjoyed my two seasons at Houston and appreciate the efforts of our student-athletes, especially that of the Third Ward Defense," Gibbs said in a statement provided by the university. "While we've had positive discussions with Tom Herman and a great opportunity at UH, my family and I feel as it is time for a new challenge and are looking forward to the next steps in our journey. I'd like to thank Mack Rhoades for his trust in naming me interim head coach during my time at Houston."
Houston sports fans are used to stunning second half comebacks and miracle last second wins. What they're not used to is a Houston team being on the winning end of that comeback. But on Friday, on a cold, wet, miserable day fit for no one, the Houston Cougars (8-5) scored 22 points in the final 3:41 of the Armed Forces Bowl to defeat the Pittsburgh Panthers (6-7) 35-34.
The Cougars trailed 31-6 heading into the fourth quarter, and had accumulated just 37 passing yards for the entire game. But the team's anemic offense suddenly sprang to life, gaining 292 yards in the quarter as Greg Ward, Jr. threw three TD passes. The Cougars also recovered two onside kicks, and converted a two-point conversion with 59 seconds on the clock to gain the team's first and only lead of the game.
It was unlike any game the Cougars have played in years. There were multiple games this season that saw the Cougars overcome deficits only to lose on the last possession -- three of the team's five losses came down to the very last play of the game. So no person who watched the Cougars play this season expected a last minute score, and definitely no one expected the Cougars to overcome a 25-point deficit to win a game.
"But to these guys' credit, they kept grinding and kept us in the football game," interim head coach David Gibbs said. "And obviously it was -- it was a miracle. But we will gladly accept a miracle."
The Cougars won in the end by getting into a high-tempo passing offense, an offense that Gibbs said Pitt was not physically conditioned to defense and which left the Panthers fatigued and just unable to combat the Cougars. And the Cougars resorted to an offense that former head coach Tony Levine was trying to dump. Levine wanted the Cougars to play a more physical, run-type offense that relied less on speed and the spread offense and more on bulk. But what that offense, which Houston was never quite able to settle into during Levine's tenure at Houston, was not was an offense built for overcoming 25-point deficits in the fourth quarter. While the status of Gibbs, who served as the team's defensive coordinator the past two seasons before accepting the interim head coach duties for this bowl game, is still in the air -- as is the status of many of the remaining coaches -- what is not in question is that Houston should be returning many of the players who keyed this comeback, including Ward, running back Kenneth Farrow (game MVP with 2 TD, 107 rush yards, recovered the second onside kick), and possibly wide receiver Deontay Greenberry (there were some discredited reports on New Year's Day that Greenberry was going to turn pro).
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"Greg [Ward] is dynamic," Gibbs said. "He's gotten better and better as a quarterback. [Newly hired head coach Tom] Herman has got a lot of tools to work with him because the truth is with Greg, he's never really had a true quarterback coach here at Houston. We've had offensive coordinators with the quarterback coach title, but they really aren't quarterback guys. Once Coach Herman gets in here and works with him, unlimited potential with him."
As for the two-point conversion that put Houston in the lead, Gibbs said that was planned from the very first practice after he took over for Levine. If the game went down to very end, the team was going for two points, no matter what, and he said the play was practiced 25-30 times during the weeks before the game.
"So I want to give them confidence and take the pressure off of them and let them know, hey, we're going to go for two," he said. "And if we don't get it, it's on me because I'd be sitting here having to answer all these questions of why only an idiot would have gone for [the two] after coming back from 21 points down."
Nobody will call David Gibbs an idiot, not after coaching the Cougars to the largest fourth quarter comeback in FBS bowl history. His may not be on the Cougar staff next season -- he's meeting with new coach Herman about his status this week. Gibbs has bought a new attitude to the UH defense, but he'll surely have his pick of jobs should Herman decided on someone to head up the defense. And no matter what happens, Gibbs can lay claim to a perfect record as a head coach.