Sean Pendergast

University of Houston Football: The Post Cougar Head Coach Curse

As it turned out, Tom Herman peaked as a head coach in the two seasons in Houston before leaving for the Texas Longhorns.
As it turned out, Tom Herman peaked as a head coach in the two seasons in Houston before leaving for the Texas Longhorns. Photo by Jack Gorman
It remains to be seen if 2021 will provide the safe refuge for Houston sports fans from the damn near apocalyptic 2020, but if college football is any sort of harbinger, we are off to a good start. Texas A&M fans got a win in a major bowl game on January 2, and Texas Longhorn fans are getting a new head coach with the firing of Tom Herman.

Perhaps happiest of all from the latter course of events are the University of Houston fans and alums, as it was Herman who bailed after two seasons coaching the Coogs, scooting off to Austin just hours after blatantly lying on camera about entertaining job offers from other schools. The dude didn't even have the common decency to return his car that was provided by a program sponsor.

So Coog fans get a little satisfaction to start 2021, knowing that the man who jilted them failed miserably in his next relationship. That's actually been a pattern for coaches in the UH program for almost this entire century, thus far. When it comes to head football coaches, is there a Coog Curse? You be the judge:

ART BRILES (2003-2007, 34-28 overall record)
Briles had the most on field success of any former Cougar head coaches, going 65-37 in eight seasons at Baylor, while winning two Big XII titles and mentoring a Heisman Trophy winner in Robert Griffin III. Unfortunately, Briles had, by far, the worst flame out of any coach on this list, resigning amidst a sea of scandal surrounding the cover up of various sexual assault cases involving players in his program.

KEVIN SUMLIN (2008-2011, 35-17 overall record)
Sumlin got off to a fantastic start in his first season at Texas A&M, going 11-2, beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and coaching Johnny Manziel to a Heisman. However, the remainder of his tenure in College Station would be five seasons of constant 4-4 records in conference, and eventually, his termination in 2017. From there, Sumlin went to Arizona and was a disaster, fired after going 9-20 in three seasons.

TONY LEVINE (2012-2014, 21-17 overall record)
At a  time where the University of Houston was feeling jilted by Sumlin's departure to College Station, Levine was an impulse hire, with the school citing Levine's viewing the UH position as a "destination job" as a reason for promoting him from special teams coach to head coach. Levine, a sweetheart of a man, was a decent recruiter, but not the most inspiring leader, and he was fired after three nondescript seasons. After stops on the staff at Western Kentucky and Purdue, he retired from coaching and now owns a Chick-fil-A in Missouri City.

TOM HERMAN (2015-2016, 22-4 overall record)
Herman's calling card in his two seasons at Houston was his ability to win games against powerhouse programs as an underdog, with wins over teams like Oklahoma, Florida State, and Louisville (twice). Ironically, it was the bizarro performance of that trend that got him fired in Austin, with seven losses to unranked teams as the Longhorns themselves were ranked.

MAJOR APPLEWHITE (2017-2018, 15-11 overall record)
In an almost identical reaction to the Sumlin departure, where Levine was hired because he professed his undying love for the school, the UH decision makers did not want to have their next coach skip town like Herman did for Austin. Unfortunately, this is a quick path to getting a mediocre head coach. Applewhite was fired after two seasons, and returned to Alabama as an analyst. He recently signed up to be the offensive coordinator at South Alabama.

DANA HOLGORSEN (2019-present, 7-13 overall record)
After Applewhite, Holgorsen returned to Houston, where he was the OC back in the early Sumlin years. After a decade of solid results in West Virginia, Holgorsen was viewed as a solid signing by the Coogs, but his first two seasons have been marked by transfers, COVID postponements, and most importantly, losses. With a salary of $4 million per year, Holgorsen is probably safe from getting fired for at least another year or two, but he needs to get it going next season.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast