Houston played like a dead team walking in the Armed Forces Bowl. The Cougars began last season 7-1, before quarterback D’Eriq King got hurt and before dropping two straight early November games to SMU and Temple, but they still entered their regular season finale at Memphis with a chance to win the American West Division championship and play UCF for the conference title. Houston dropped that games, 52-31, and by the time their Dec. 22 date with Army in the Armed Forces Bowl rolled around, it seemed Houston hadn’t spent any time preparing for the Black Knights’ triple option offense.
Army scored touchdowns on nine of 10 possessions, rolled up 507 rushing yards on a mind-numbing 8.7 yards per carry and just flat out drubbed the Coogs, 70-14.
Again, it was the kind of result that only happens when one team has quit and it turns out Houston had — or, at least, Houston’s administration had quit on the Major Applewhite regime.
In a profile of new U of H head coach Dana Holgorsen, Sports Illustrated‘s Ross Dellenger reveals Holgorsen and Houston had come to an agreement before Applewhite and company took the field for the Armed Forces Bowl.
Few want to speak about it extensively, but this deal was done weeks before it was announced on Jan. 2, with Fertitta and Holgorsen verbally agreeing to terms before the Cougars played in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 22 while coached by Major Applewhite, an oblivious lame duck who presided over a 70–14 loss to Army. Welcome to college football.
“Major [Applewhite] did a very good job, but we weren’t getting the excitement from the alumni and students,” U of H super-booster Tillman Fertitta said later in the article. “We wanted to bring somebody in on a different level.”
Applewhite was officially fired on Dec. 30. Holgorsen was announced at Houston’s next head coach on Jan. 2.
Holgorsen had served as Houston’s offensive coordinator from 2008-09 and always planned to return — in fact, Houston would have loved to skipped over Applewhite altogether and bring him back to the Space City after Tom Herman left for Texas in November of 2016, but Holgorsen had just signed a new contract at West Virginia.
Holgorsen’s tenure at WVU hit something of a breaking point two years later, when the Mountaineers lost out at a long-awaited Big 12 championship in a 59-56 loss to Oklahoma on Nov. 23 of last season — the same day Houston lost a shot of its own conference championship in losing to Memphis.
Houston’s season wouldn’t end for another month (West Virginia concluded six days after Houston, in the Dec. 28 Camping World Bowl) but neither side wanted to wait around to get a deal done, whether or not the Cougars technically had a head coach on staff.