HOUSTON — The Cougars could have had their pick of a lot of deserving candidates, some of whom would have been big-splash hires.
But Les Miles was too old, too offensively challenged, too set in his ways. And Lane Kiffin had more baggage than an airline loses in a year and didn’t have a super track record as a head coach. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley was turned off by the school’s unorthodox buyout strategy and might be waiting to succeed Bob Stoops. And Houston defensive coordinator Todd Orlando didn’t have the same experience or connections as his colleague.
Major Applewhite had it all. Or at least a lot of it.
Including the “it” factor, which is what Major’s former coach and boss, Mack Brown, told Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek. The fair-haired, freckle-faced boy from Louisiana always had it in the eyes of Texas fans, but if he is to follow Tom Herman with Hermanesque success, Applewhite had better have all of it together.
Like organization. Like cool-headed smarts. Like recruiting pizzazz. Like some good luck, too. He’s certainly busy enough because he didn’t have time for an interview.
“He’s a good leader at a difficult time,” junior center Will Noble of Leander said. “He’s been dynamic with our offense. He wants to lead the program somewhere even coach Herman couldn’t take it.”
Those would be some incredible heights because Houston arose to a 22-5 record the last two seasons. Applewhite’s charge is to at least keep it there because the bar has been set.
“Two head coaches ago, Tony Levine got fired at 8-5. A lot of people don’t realize that other schools go 8-5 and keep their coach,” Noble said, not mentioning Texas A&M by name. “We’re definitely up and coming. We’re not looking to let down.”
The Cougars still have some swagger, even after the 34-10 Las Vegas Bowl loss to San Diego State. “We had a bunch of GAs coaching us,” Noble said, “but we don’t make excuses.”
Neither will Applewhite. The former Texas quarterback and offensive coordinator offers the total package.
Terrific tutelage under Nick Saban, Mack Brown, Todd Graham and Herman.
An extensive network of coaching colleagues.
Tremendous recruiting savvy and contacts around the nation and state.
Youthful enthusiasm at 38.
But he won’t be Tom Herman. Both are very intense coaches and work with an edge, but the Cougars say Applewhite has a more playful style with the players and may not subscribe to the same grueling philosophy for spring and August training that zapped the players of some of their freshness. Some suggest Herman’s approach may have worn down his team.
Oh, and Major won’t be kissing the players as his predecessor did. “I don’t think that’s a tradition that passes on,” Noble said.
But one quality stood out more than any other. His competitiveness.
That drive should keep Houston on its mission.
Yurachek did thorough research on a Boise State program he’s wanted Houston to model and noted that the Broncos had stayed within their program for their head coaches with much success.
“When Tom Herman came in, he established a great culture with our football program, and Major was a big part in establishing that culture of toughness, hard work, attacking each day,” Yurachek said. “That really resonated with the kids. We beat Florida State, OU and Louisville with that culture.
“There wasn’t anything broken with our football program.”
Applewhite offered stability even though Herman did take six UH assistants and four staffers with him, including Orlando. Kiffin might well have been the Cougars’ choice if Houston hadn’t decided on Applewhite or Orlando.
Riley was scared off by unique buyout terms that binds Applewhite to repaying the rest of his contract, should he take another job during his five-year deal. Those numbers rise by 50 percent if an in-state school comes calling again as it has for Herman, Kevin Sumlin and Art Briles because Yurachek said, “We wanted to make it hard for them to continue to make us be a training ground for them.”
Applewhite was more than comfortable signing for a $1.5 million annual salary that grows by $100,000 per every win over eight victories.
“We thought it was important that we wanted somebody who wanted to be at Houston,” Yurachek said. “Major was very emphatic he wanted to be here. The buyout was not an issue for him. It was nothing more than a security blanket for our student-athletes.”
And Yurachek loves Major’s unrivaled competitiveness, part of the reason he won his first head coaching opportunity in the same state where he made his name popular with everyone except Chris Simms.
“I’m very happy with the decision,” Yurachek said. “He’s going to do a great job, and I think our players were ecstatic when they learned of it.”
Never mind that he’s 0-1 after a disastrous bowl performance in the Las Vegas Bowl. There were more than a few mitigating factors. For one, the Cougars had only four full-time coaches on hand, two of whom (Orlando and safeties coach Craig Naivar) were emotionally headed to Austin already. Houston didn’t have a single full-time coach in the press box, a crippling setback in this day and age of adjustments on the fly.
Houston will suffer tremendous losses, including gifted quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and starting linebackers Tyus Bowser and Steven Taylor, but returns the entire offensive line and secondary, several top receivers, Kyle Allen and D’Eriq King to fight over the quarterback spot and, of course, All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver. As for him, Applewhite hired his Westfield High School defensive coordinator, A.J. Blum, who said, “If you think Ed’s good now, just wait.”
The city won’t have to wait long to see what Houston has in store for Applewhite’s first season; the Cougars open with back-to-back road games against Texas-San Antonio and Arizona and face high-scoring Texas Tech at home.
“There won’t be another person on campus at UH who holds us to a higher standard than Major,” Yurachek said. “He’s not going to let us take a downturn.”