Strong opinions, weakly held

Learning to love an upwardly mobile coach

So the big news for me this weekend was that the University of Houston football team beat Oklahama State (then the number 5 team in the country) 45-35 on the road. It was their first win on the road against a top 5 team since 1984. For one weekend, my team was the toast of college football and the subject of widespread discussion. It’s not every day that UH leads the highlight real on the college football scoreboard show. Unfortunately, in the wake of the win, some people are saying unhelpful things that need to be addressed.

Houston Chronicle sports columnist Richard Justice wrote a column on Saturday congratulating the team on its big win, and in the process gave the school and its alumni some really, really bad advice. The context here is that UH has a second year coach, Kevin Sumlin, who’s doing a great job. The team went 8-5 last year and won its first bowl game in 27 years, and just won its biggest game in 25 years this weekend. Things are going well. So his advice is to do whatever is necessary to keep Sumlin around:

UH has found one of those special coaches in Kevin Sumlin, and now it’s a matter of holding onto him. UH should be aggressive, not reaction. Sign him. Now. Offer him 10 years or 15 years or whatever he wants. UH president Renu Khator wants a Tier One university. She wants money for research and facilities and all the rest. She knows a winning football team can do wonders for a school in terms of enrollment, donations and exposure. At the moment, Kevin Sumlin is about the best ambassador UH could have.

Let me say that I would love for Sumlin to stay at UH forever. When UH was looking for a coach, I came up with a set of criteria for the kind of coach I’d like to see them hire, and Sumlin fit every one of those criteria. But UH cannot put all of its eggs in the Sumlin basket. I think Sumlin has a real chance to take the UH program as far as it can go, but Sumlin is an ambitious young coach, and I’m sure that once he’s taken UH as far as he can, he’ll want to pursue opportunities to take his own career further.

What I worry about with Justice’s column is that it risks convincing UH fans that things won’t be OK if Sumlin does move on. It’s the UH program, not the Kevin Sumlin Program. It wasn’t the Art Briles program either. Briles, the coach before Sumlin, came to UH, took the team to four bowl games, and was hired by Baylor at twice his old salary. Of course he took the job. And that was OK, Briles did a great job for UH for four years, and put the program in position to hire an even better coach. Thanks, Art! Things are working out well for him and for UH.

For a program like UH, this is an approach that will work. Every program in college football with a coach under the age of 65 is subject to having their coach hired away, either by a bigger, richer program or by the NFL. So counting on building around a particular coach for the next 15 or 20 years is not a realistic strategy. What UH needs to focus on is hiring well and getting the most out of the coaches that they do hire in the time that they have them.

This is the thing that worries me most about UH’s having lost athletic director Dave Maggard earlier in the year. He was great at hiring football coaches. Art Briles was a high school football coach who had spent a couple of years as running back coach at a school that never runs the football. Kevin Sumlin was co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, a great program with a great head coach, but he wasn’t at the top of anyone’s list of head coaching prospects. And yet Maggard saw something in both of them, and UH has gone from the dregs of Division I football to being the country’s media darling, at least for a week.

That’s the strategy UH has to pursue. Remaining a place where coaches can make their bones and advance their own careers is the most a school in a non-BCS conference can hope for. At one time, Nick Saban was head coach at Toledo. Rich Rodriguez was head coach at Glenville State. Urban Meyer was head coach at Bowling Green. Those guys are all making many millions of dollars now but they started out somewhere. UH needs to focus on being the very best stepping stone it can be.

And UH supporters have to learn to be the kind of fans who don’t get their feelings hurt when coaches take a better offer. Many UH alumni were so depressed by losing Art Briles that they wanted to hire former coach Jack Pardee, who is 73 years old and has been out of coaching for 13 years, because they knew he’d be loyal. Loyalty is an elusive commodity in college football — Pardee himself left in 1990 after only three years for a job in the NFL.

UH fans, enjoy the team’s success, and worry about the coaching situation if and when Coach Sumlin gets that offer he can’t refuse. And when he’s coaching UCLA in the Rose Bowl or OU in the Fiesta Bowl, you’ll be able to say, “I remember when …”


  1. Very pragmatic and applicable to jobs everywhere. A job is part of a career, but rarely the whole thing.

    I suspect there are two groups of fans, with some overlap: – Fans who believe their university is at the level of an LSU, USC, Texas or similar. – Fans who believe their university is the gem no one should ever leave, regardless of opportunity.

    I suspect Skip Holtz will face some of this if and when he chooses to move up from ECU to a BCS school. But, Holtz has given ECU everything he can and represented the Pirates well. Compare to Jeff Jagodzinski at Boston College.

  2. I liked your post and I loved the game. I’m an LSU fan in Houston, but I was rooting for them against the Cowboys of OSU. It’s a great win for the program and the fans should enjoy it. My real worry now is they have 2 weeks for their heads to get big before another Big 12 opponent (Texas Tech) rolls into town. I would love to see them win that game too, but you know how momentum without action can be.

    At any rate, congratulations on the win and go Cougars!

  3. I think a fundamental idea applies to hiring any employee not just coaches. You want an employee that will leave your organization in better shape than when they got there.

    If you keep that up long enough, your organization can become a destination instead of a waypoint for the top talent 🙂

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