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Culture / Sporting Life

Major Mistake?

Snubbing Lane Kiffin Looks Like Small-Time Thinking By Houston

BY // 12.09.16

Lane Kiffin would have put a little fear into the University of Texas. And to be fair, probably any University of Houston administrators worried about a potential football controversy. Kiffin would have given Tom Herman reason to pause up in his new palatial Austin football kingdom.

Do you really think Herman is at all worried about his former offensive coordinator out recruiting him?

Major Applewhite is the kind of head coaching hire for the University of Houston that’s quietly celebrated at places such as UT, Texas A&M and Baylor. It’s a signal that UH is chasing yesterday’s success (how well did that work out with Tony Levine?) rather than the next great splash. Applewhite could turn out to be a surprisingly good hire (the possibility’s there), but he comes in as the most unnotable of the finalists.

In many ways, Applewhite comes in branded as the guy who got the job because he was the one willing to accept UH’s buyout demands. Why are UH officials so paranoid about being used as a stepping stone, anyway? It worked wonders in Herman’s case.

If the University of Houston could sign up for having another coach go 22-4 and bolt, they should be jumping at it. UH’s leaders took the high-road publicly with Herman’s departure, but then they turned around and acted like the most bitter jilted lover on Scandal during this search for a new coach.

The contract buyout clause should not be the deciding factor in a major college coaching search. That reeks of small-time thinking.

Hopefully, it wasn’t in this case. Hopefully, Applewhite’s deep ties to Texas is what truly won the day (only the people in the decision room will ever know definitively what’s true — and it’s in their self interest to publicly spin things Applewhite’s way now). Remember, Herman wasn’t ever offered the job at LSU officially either. Yeah right.

No matter the calculus, it seems strange for UH to turn its back to Lane Kiffin. How often does the University of Houston get the chance to land a coach like Kiffin?

Lane Kiffin managed to improve Alabama.
Lane Kiffin managed to improve Alabama.

Kiffin would have instantly brought juice — and plenty of national media — to Cullen Boulevard. The Herman Fascination that served Houston so well would have been replaced by the arguably even more intense Kiffin Fascination. Kiffin would have been the most compelling sports figure in Houston by a wide margin (decoding J.J. Watt’s Christmas stocking choices does not compare to the fun Kiffin would have brought).

Kiffin is a flat-out offensive mastermind as well. He went to Alabama and made college football’s monster program noticeably better. That’s hard to do. The Crimson Tide were always the best under Nick Saban, but they never struck this much fear into opponents. Staying within 30 points of the Tide is an accomplishment for other top-notch programs these days. (Applewhite coached one season at Alabama himself, but didn’t make anything close to a Kiffin impact — and he had his own brush with off-the-field scandal as a Texas assistant).

Alabama no longer just grinds teams down. Kiffin’s offense brings the spread — and plenty of creativity — as a complement to Saban’s relentless intensity. He could have raised UH’s offensive game when freed from Lord Nick’s demands and oversight. What is the pitch for Applewhite? He has a good chance to keep things the same?

The safe choice is usually the best course if you’re driving, shopping for life insurance or swiping for Tinder dates. Picking a football coach? Not so much.

Yes, Kiffin memorably flamed out as the head coach at USC, getting fired on an LAX airport runway. His departure at Tennessee was equally messy. But plenty of great coaches grow into the job — and become much better in their second or third chance (see Bill Belichick post Cleveland or Saban himself — check out his Michigan State record and see if it screams, “Legend.”) Besides, Kiffin never really failed on the field.

Kiffin is 35-21 as a college head coach — and he’s never had a losing season. And he’s still only 41, with all that experience. The boy genius looks like he’s ready to grow into an actual genius.

Instead, Houston goes with 38-year-old Applewhite’s 0-0 record? Applewhite even comes across as something of a strange choice just picking between Houston’s two coordinators. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando — who’s now all but signed, sealed and delivered to rejoin Herman at Texas — at least would have given continuity on the side of the ball where Houston’s one true gameplan wrecker is (wunderkind defensive tackle Ed Oliver).

Forgot those Texas high school ties. Applewhite’s most important recruiting job is keeping Houston-kid Oliver around.

Speaking of recruiting, here’s something to mull over. Herman largely won with Tony Levine’s recruits? You don’t think Lane Kiffin could have won with Tom Herman’s recruits?

The safe choice is usually the best course if you’re driving, shopping for life insurance or swiping for Tinder dates. Picking a football coach? Not so much.

Major Applewhite still almost looks young enough to suit up at quarterback. He once was the youngest offensive coordinator in football. Now, he gets all the win-now pressure of an SEC job without the prestige.

UH board of regents chair Tilman Fertitta — the Cougars’ straight-talking version of T. Boone Pickens or Phil Knight — has already said that Applewhite had better win 9 to 11 games a season. Is Applewhite ready?

The guy who lived through Saban’s blisterings — and helmed two of the most high-profile college programs in America — definitely would be.

UH’s last two head coaches could have been the departing offensive coordinators of national title teams. Instead, they have Major Applewhite. That’s the right choice?

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