Update December 8 at 1 p.m.: UH announced this morning that it has fired head coach Tony Levine. Defensive coordinator David Gibbs will take over as interim head coach until the university hires a replacement.
"Coach Levine and I met several times throughout the season, and again late last night, to discuss the state of the program. Last night I informed him we will be moving in a different direction with our football program," university athletics director Mack Rhoades said in a statement. "Coach Levine is an outstanding leader and over the last three years he has demonstrated great commitment to our student-athletes and has been an outstanding role model for our young men. He has left the program in a better situation than it was when he inherited it."
Two local college teams go 7-5 on the season. Both teams get a bowl invite on the same day. People associated with one school are happy, ecstatic that its team is going to another bowl, rewarding the players, and growing as a program. The other program is quiet as rumors swirl that the head coach has been fired despite leading his team to a second straight bowl game.
Such is life for the Rice Owls and the Houston Cougars. The Owls, who started the season 0-3, are headed to Hawaii for the Christmas Eve Hawaii Bowl against Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. It's the third bowl in three seasons for Rice, a school that had gone nearly 40 years between bowl appearances heading into 2006. While Hawaii wasn't the school's first choice, Rice is happy for the trip, seeing it as a great way to reward its players.
The Cougars have been quiet since losing to Cincinnati 38-31 Saturday afternoon. It was the third time this season that UH had a chance to win or tie the game inside the closing minute, and the second time the Cougars found a way to lose despite having a first and goal on the final drive. But it was the perfect cap on a disappointing season that will end with the Cougars facing Pitt in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth on January 2.
But the question for the Cougars, which may be decided this afternoon, is who will be coaching the team against Pitt. Rumors were rampant yesterday that head coach Tony Levine was being fired and that an announcement from the school was imminent. The only response from UH has been that Levine is to meet with AD Mack Rhoades this afternoon to discuss the future of the program, which is usually code for negotiating the buy-out of a contract.
Levine's departure from the Cougars, if it happens, will probably throw into further chaos a program that has appeared to be rudderless since the departure of former head coach Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M. The team was without a home stadium last season while TDECU Stadium was being constructed. There's been the departure from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference. Quarterbacks have come and gone, just as offensive coordinators have come and gone as the team's identity has changed from pass-happy to rush-heavy. It's obviously not the best way to get a team bowl-ready, of course, but it has really seemed at times that UH has been more about ending this season than anything else. The mood is much, much better over at Rice with the Owls. This makes the third season in a row that the Owls have made a bowl game, something that's never before been accomplished at Rice. The Owls weren't sure until receiving the official phone call yesterday afternoon that Hawaii was the bowl designation, and the coaching staff had even been preparing for a match-up against Louisiana-Lafayette at the New Orleans Bowl.
"How great is this?" Head coach David Bailiff asked yesterday. "Get a bowl invitation for the third year in a row, going to go to the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl with it. It doesn't get any better than this. When this senior class set their goals back in January, this was one of the things we wanted to achieve."
And Bailiff made it clear that while he, the staff and the players are excited about the opportunity of playing in Hawaii, this trip is about winning a football game. Making the bowl game itself is not the goal. The goal is to win the game, and he noted that the players (especially the seniors) had told him they were going to Hawaii to end the season with a victory.
The Owls should be able to handle a 6-7 Fresno State team, even though Fresno State has a 6-0 all-time record versus the Owls. The Cougars have the talent to match up with Pitt (6-6), who put in a mediocre season in the ACC. But Levine's job is partly in jeopardy because of his team's inability to win the games it should easily win.
For those who want to watch the games but aren't much up for traveling to Hawaii or Fort Worth, both games will air on ESPN, the Rice game at 7 pm on Christmas Eve and the UH game at 11 on the day after New Year's Day. And if the rumors are to be believed, the status of Tony Levine's job should be settled this afternoon.