In the weeks leading up to Houston's blowout loss to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl, word percolated in the coaching community that Major Applewhite might not be safe to return for his third season as head coach of the Cougars. The way the team played in that game seems to have fueled that fire...
At a school where the president famously bragged about firing Tony Levine for the sin of going 8-4, Applewhite has gone 7-5 and 8-5 in two full seasons at the helm. The 2018 campaign started with promise, as D'Eriq King and the Houston offense averaged 50 points in their first eight games, seven of them wins, while rocketing up to No. 17 in the polls. But King injured his knee, Houston dropped four of its final five games and now the program is coming off the worst bowl loss in FBS history with no coordinators -- defensive coordinator Mark D'Onfrio was fired after the regular season, and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles left for the same job Florida State earlier this week.
Rather than rebuild after two unsatisfactory seasons (by the school's stated standard), sources said U of H boosters are evaluating all options, including considering bringing in West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen to replace Applewhite.
Holgorsen was Houston's offensive coordinator in the 2008-09 seasons, working under head coach Kevin Sumlin, before moving on to Oklahoma State and later WVU, but he kept two important assets behind in Houston -- his home, and friendship with U of H superbooster Tilman Fertitta.
The self-made billionaire has been unapologetic about his desire to build Houston into a major college football program, and luring away a sitting Big 12 head coach would be a shiny notch on that belt. Fertitta's $20 million gift got The Fertitta Center done for example.
At the same time, the timing is ripe for Houston to snare Holgorsen: he's been in Morgantown for eight years now, and his 2018 Mountaineers team, led by senior quarterback Will Grier and senior wideout David Sills V, was viewed by many as a "now or never" run at the program's first Big 12 championship, a run that ultimately came up short. Rather than regroup heading into Year 9, Holgorsen might be motivated to start anew elsewhere. He reportedly previously considered the Texas Tech job that ultimately went to Utah State head coach Matt Wells.
Furthermore, Holgorsen's buyout should he leave West Virginia drops from $2.5 million to only $1 million upon the New Year. Applewhite's contract, slanted heavily in favor toward the school, would require only $1.95 million to buy him out, allowing Houston to swipe a sitting Big 12 head coach for less than $3 million. Holgorsen makes over $3.5 million per year at West Virginia (whereas Applewhite makes $1.5 million). Will UH, Fertitta and crew be willing to step up to that level to get a deal done? That remains to be seen; but given his prior moves, few would put it past Fertitta to get the deal done if he believes in in.
All that said, there's no incentive for anyone involved to make a move until the calendar flips to 2019, just a few days away....
Update:SB Nation has reported that Houston does indeed plan to fire Applewhite, and that Holgorsen is the most notable candidate among those the school is considering as Applewhite's replacement.
From the report:
Sources confirmed to SB Nation that no deal is currently in place for Applewhite’s replacement and that the school planned to contact multiple coaches, not just Holgorsen.
As always, stay tuned to The Scoop for the latest.