Major Applewhite's job limbo reveals administrative clown show at Houston

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Pete Thamel
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Houston head coach Major Applewhite watches as his team warms up before they play Army in the of Armed Forces Bowl NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP)
Houston head coach Major Applewhite watches as his team warms up before they play Army in the of Armed Forces Bowl NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP)

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Take a bow Renu Khator. The Houston president is officially the emptiest suit in all of collegiate administration, the college president that has her fellow presidents rolling their eyes at cocktail parties.

Take a bow Chris Pezman. The Houston athletic director is the puppet for a volatile billionaire, as much in charge of his own department as the school mascot.

Take a bow, Tillman Fertitta. The University of Houston chairman of the board of regents and generous athletic department benefactor is living proof that you can buy a university and run the athletic department like a fantasy team. Fertitta is rich enough to own the Houston Rockets and vain enough to call into talk radio and give the hosts the low-down on how a coaching search went. (Yes, he actually did that.)

Houston’s clown triumvirate is being cackled at around college sports today as they clumsily attempt to fire Major Applewhite as Houston’s coach. In their attempt to woo an invite from the Big 12, Houston did the reputational equivalent of dropping a load of manure on commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s doorstep, ringing the doorbell and then running.

Applewhite went 15-10 (60 percent) in his two seasons as head coach, which is five percent higher than the school’s historical winning percentage (55 percent). But that’s clearly not good enough for new money, blind ambition and big dollars that string the puppets at Houston.

The decision at Houston will likely and hilariously be spun as a nod to grander ambition, that the school needs a higher-profile coach to climb back from the netherworld of the Group of Five and into the Big 12. But here’s what this Houston football Christmas Coup failed to take into account – everyone around college athletics is laughing at you.

The biggest guffaws are coming from the Big 12, which has never held a strong institutional view of Houston in the first place.

“The actions Houston is taking will not help in any way position Houston for the future,” said a Big 12 source. “In fact, just the opposite. Today and the way this was handled only reeks of desperation. Obviously there was no studying of those who built programs for the future the right way.”

The decision to fire Applewhite hasn’t been announced yet, as Houston has penthouse aspirations and Section 8 execution. Only Houston can dream about a run for the Big 12 but leave its coach sinking in quicksand for a week to save $1.5 million on the new coach’s buyout.

Houston’s target has long been expected to be West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. His cronies have been burning up the lines for more than a week, whispering the move was inevitable. Holgorsen has long wanted out of West Virginia and, quite frankly, there won’t be a lot of institutional tears if he decides to follow Will Grier out of town.

Holgorsen has run his course there, so he’ll head back to a school that will hail him as a savior, where he’d worked as a coordinator in 2008 and 2009 and considers a recruiting comfort zone.

Hiring Holgorsen will mean Fertitta can tell the country club set that he helped finance a coup of luring a Big 12 coach to an AAC school. But in classic amateur Houston fashion, they’d long decided this was the course of action but wanted to wait for Holgorsen’s buyout to decrease on Dec. 31 from $2.5 million to $1 million. They’re basically trying to buy their way into the Big 12, but may occasionally need a GroupOn.

WVU administrators have heard nothing from Holgorsen or his agent as of Saturday afternoon. It will be interesting how this unfolds, as his contracts stipulates that he inform his superiors there of any conversations about other jobs. Holgorsen did not return to campus after the bowl game, as he’d long planned to spend time in Orlando. (That’s typical, as he’s hung around bowl sites in the past for a few extra days in past years.) But it’s hard to believe he hadn’t been clued in on Houston’s plans.

It will also be interesting how much Houston can pay him, as Holgorsen made about $3.8 million last season. In the cash-strapped AAC, that means Fertitta will have to float more money to help pay his salary, further cementing his general manager role.

Holgorsen is a good coach, as he’s shown at West Virginia. Here’s to hoping at his introductory presser, Khator dusts off her notes from the night she hired Applewhite and doubles down on the most baffling line from a collegiate administrator in the past few years. “Winning is defined at University of Houston as 10-2,” according to the Houston Chronicle. “We’ll fire coaches at 8-4.”

That chestnut was greeted with mockery among her peers. And it should make Holgorsen sweat, as six of his eight seasons at WVU were 8-4 or below.

The only thing more unbelievable than Khator saying that 8-4 line out loud was that it turned out to be true. Houston was having a solid season in 2018, starting 7-1 and entered the final regular season game 8-3 with a chance to win the AAC West.

But the Cougars got derailed late after an injury to star quarterback D’Eriq King in the second-to-last regular season game. Houston lost its regular-season finale to Memphis and Applewhite emerged in the crosshairs. Houston’s 70-14 bowl loss to Army doused gasoline on the sparks of unrest. (Fertitta leaked out the night of the bowl game that Applewhite was in trouble, and his future has been fait accompli since.)

That left Houston 8-4, which allowed Khator and the rest of the administrators operating under Houston’s circus tent to live up to their word and down to their reputations.

You can’t buy class. You can’t buy respect. And as Houston sputters through the most awkward of coach transitions, they will slog through the next few days knowing that they are the definitive embarrassment of college sports. They’ve mixed Big 12 ambition with Pop Warner professionalism, and everyone in college athletics is laughing at Houston officials for not realizing how awful this all looks.

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