And just like that it’s all over. Less than two years after it began, the Tom Herman era at the University of Houston comes to a quick, anticlimactic end with Herman quietly bailing on the Cougars and taking half of his coaching staff to the University of Texas.
The ending was as expected, and has, for the most part, been anticipated since the middle of last season. The former UT graduate assistant abandoning the Cougars to rescue the Longhorns, a big boy school with its own television network that has forgotten how to win football games. And winning football games is one thing that Herman knows how to do (most of the time), having gone 22-4 in his two seasons as the Houston head coach.
While Herman may have used Houston to speed his arrival in his Austin, the truth is that the Cougars should be very thankful to him. The Cougars are now considered by many observers to be the prime Group Five school in the country, and with good reason. The Cougars went to a New Years Six bowl game last season and destroyed higher-ranked Florida State for Houston’s first win over a AP top-10 ranked team since 1979.
This season started with the Cougars in the college football playoff hunt following an upset of Oklahoma in the opening game of the season. The Cougars sprinted out to a 6-0 start and a ranking in the top 10 before the wheels fell off the wagon. There was the upset loss to Navy that saw the Cougars seemingly unprepared to face a Navy team running a triple option offense. Two weeks later came the loss to SMU, an upset that destroyed not only the Cougars's chances for the playoffs, but also the team’s hopes of wining the conference title and playing in a New Years Six bowl.
The last half of the season was played with the specter of UT's stealing Herman looming large over the Cougars. Did this affect the Cougars and help lead to the losses to Navy and SMU? Some will point to an offensive line that was banged up, and the loss of several key defenders for multiple games. None of this seemed to matter when the Cougars ended the playoff chances of Louisville two weeks ago (UH’s second win this season over a top-five ranked opponent). but then came Friday’s Memphis game — following a flurry of stories, rumors, and denials that Herman had accepted the head coaching job at LSU — when the Cougars were outright embarrassed on national television.
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So now what for the Cougars? First there’s still a game to played at a yet-to-be-specified lower-tier bowl. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has been named the interim head coach, and he’ll work to get the team ready to play that game, though it’s not yet known just how many assistants he’ll have to help since Herman has set about bringing numerous deputies along with him to Texas. This is a familiar situation for UH fans, however, as the Cougars have played bowl games with interim coaches after the departures of Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin and after the firing of Tony Levine.
While this process is ongoing, the university will be seeking a new head coach. Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, along with Orlando, is already under consideration for the job. But there have been a lot of names since linked to the job, including former LSU head coach Les Miles and disgraced Baylor coach Art Briles — though it's unlikely either man will get the job. Some think West Virginia head coach (and former UH offensive coordinator) Dana Holgorsen is interested in the job, and the names of Sonny Dykes, Dino Babers, Mike Leach and Phillip Montgomery have also been mentioned. One name that has not been mentioned, but maybe should be, is that of Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck. And do not be surprised when the names of a lot of assistant coaches start to pop up from the ether.
The Cougars have hired a search firm to handle the search for Herman’s replacement. This pretty much ensures there will be a lot of noise, nonsense and misinformation distributed before some enterprising reporter announces the hiring in advance of the school.
This is your normal, UH fans. As long as the Cougars play in a non-power conference, the head coaching position will always be a stepping-stone job on the way to the UTs and Texas A&Ms of the college football world. The good news, though, is that for coaches to take that next step, the Cougars have to keep on winning football games.