The University of Houston, after seriously flirting with some big names such as Lane Kiffin, Les Miles and Lincoln Riley, took the safe route when the school hired Major Applewhite to be the next Cougars head football coach on Friday.
Applewhite is not a flashy name. He won’t bring the national media attention of a Kiffin, the three-time head coaching failure who is seemingly the hot name on the coaching job market. He won’t bring the renown of Miles, a coach who won a national title at LSU and is known for winning eight or nine games a season in the toughest conference in college football. He’s not the flashy offensive coordinator, who like Riley is keeping the Mike Leach offense alive and well.
Instead, what Applewhite brings to UH is continuity. He’s a link to Tom Herman, the departing coach, having been Herman’s offensive coordinator at Houston. He’s liked by the current UH players. He has deep ties to Texas — winning quarterback at UT, and assistant at Rice, UT and Houston — and is connected to high school coaches in the state. He’s also credited as the guy who helped to turn Greg Ward Jr. into a Heisman-caliber quarterback.
“We were not looking for a splash,” Hunter Yurachek, UH's athletic director, told the Houston Chronicle on Friday. “Houston is already nationally relevant, and there's not a bigger name in the state of Texas than Major Applewhite.”
Applewhite has spent 11 of his 13 years as an assistant coach in the state of Texas, and has been an offensive coordinator for seven of those 13 seasons, starting with a one-year stint as Rice’s offensive coordinator in 2007 before he moved on to UT. He also spent a year as the offensive coordinator at Alabama, and was also an assistant for a season at Syracuse.
In his two seasons running the UH offense, the Cougars eclipsed the 500-yards-per-game mark 11 times and accumulated more than 600 yards in offense four times. The Cougars this year were No. 15 in the NCAA in passing yards. The team also averaged 38 points per game. Ward was the only player nationally to average more than 300 yards passing per game and 45 yards rushing per game.
But for all of those qualities, the hiring of Applewhite by Houston seems more the move of a school playing it safe, of a school afraid to hire high-flying names like Kiffin or Riley (the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma) for fears that those coaches will quickly depart for the brighter lights of the power conferences. That’s a valid concern — Kiffin split Tennessee, an SEC school, after just one year to coach USC in the PAC 12.
“[Applewhite] told me: ‘My time has passed. I don't need to be in the spotlight. I don't want to be in the spotlight. I'm here to develop young men and make them better. I'm here for them. They're not here for me, or here to make me money,’” Yurachek told the Chronicle. “I really took that to heart. Everything Major stood for as a person and a coach just resonated with me and all the members of our committee.”
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That’s all good, but that statement, and the things about wanting stability and being popular among the current players, sound just like the language that came out of UH when Tony Levine was hired to replace Kevin Sumlin. Yes, Levine was just the special teams coach as opposed to the offensive coordinator, but it just seems a focus on stability and continuity should be secondary to the goal of winning games.
“When we set out on our search for the new leader of our football program, we wanted a coach with great integrity who believed in our mission and truly believed in our student-athlete experience,” said Yurachek in a press release announcing the hiring. “We had our sights set on a focused competitor who has demonstrated success and possesses a deep connection to college and high school football in the great state of Texas. As this process was completed, it was clearly evident the only individual to offer our position to was Major Applewhite and he was indeed the right man to lead our program.”
But those same things could all be said about Miles, current defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and Riley. Miles has demonstrated success in the SEC and has recruited well from Texas. He’s not a spectacular coach, but he’d delivered nine wins and a bowl game to UH every year. Orlando’s a well-regarded defensive coordinator who in two seasons turned the UH defense into one of the best in the nation, and he’s now expected to follow Herman to Austin. And Riley’s the mastermind behind one of the nation’s top offenses at Oklahoma, and is known for his work with turning QB Baker Mayfield into a Heisman finalist. Riley’s also connected to Texas, having worked many years at Texas Tech under Mike Leach.
Applewhite might turn out to be the perfect hire. But there’s nothing wrong with hiring coaches like Lincoln Riley who might aspire to be more than the head coach at Houston. Because here’s the thing — as long as UH is in the American Athletic Conference, it’s going to be a second-tier job compared to those in the power conferences. And for coaches to get those jobs, they need to come to places like Houston and win, and they have to win big, as Tom Herman, Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin all did.