Culture / Sporting Life

Clayton Tune Deserves More Love From UH Fans — This Late Run and Still Improving QB Shouldn’t Be Dismissed as Meaningless

Checking Out on This Houston Football Season Doesn't Hurt Dana Holgorsen, It Just Stings Players Who Truly Care Like Tune

BY // 11.13.22

The stadium is more than half empty and sometimes even seems more asleep. It is cool day, downright chilly by Texas standards, and parts of TDECU Stadium don’t ever seem to get graced by the sun. The University of Houston football players would be justified in thinking that most of the city has moved on from them, having traded those expectations of a Cougar super season for resigned shrugs and more Astros afterglow. But Clayton Tune is still slinging it, still giving it his best, still busting his butt to improve and give his guys the best chance they have to win.

That should mean something. That should mean plenty to UH fans who saw their school doubted, dismissed and often dissed for so many years. In a college football world where it’s easier than ever to give up, Clayton Tune is still fighting the good fight, still doing everything he can to make a season that so many UH fans seem to have tossed away as a lost season long ago a little better.

No, it’s not the stuff that books are written about. And it doesn’t make for a good topic on a sports debate show. But it should earn Clayton Tune a little more of the love and respect he sometimes too seldom seems to get from UH fans. These last few weeks of UH’s star-crossed regular season — and the now-guaranteed bowl game — should be about celebrating one of most productive and determined quarterbacks in school history.

It’s time to appreciate Clayton Tune and what he is doing rather than dwelling on what could or should have been. All those UH fans declaring that they’ve tuned out on this season aren’t hurting Dana Holgorsen. His big checks still get deposited like clockwork all the same. He’ll still be stalking the sidelines well into UH’s transition into the Big 12, for seasons to come. But by checking out, giving up and not showing up, Houston fans are effectively turning their back on a guy like Clayton Tune, who’s only ever tried to win games for the university they profess to love.

Those departed UH fans also happen to be missing something of a show. For Clayton Tune is playing quarterback at an awfully high level as his long run as a Cougar winds down. Even with UH’s defense continuing to disintegrate all around him like a paper airplane caught in a tsunami.

On this day, Tune throws a 44 yard touchdown pass to true freshman receiver Matthew Golden with 40 seconds left to rescue that battered defense (which blew a 35-26 fourth quarter lead) and make sure UH does not lose to a bad Temple team. Instead, Tune’s Cougars move to 6-4 with a 43-36 win that makes them bowl eligible no matter what happens in the last two games of the regular season.

That is not close to what Clayton Tune expected for his last season at Houston. But it’s still better than being 5-5. It still means something, everything actually, to Tune.

“I just kind of had to block out all the noise and remind myself that I’ve been through too much, worked too hard and seen too much to not go out here and enjoy this last year,” Tune says when I ask if there’s a point where his mindset switched this season. “And make the most of it.

“It was probably going into that Memphis game where I just kind of  told myself, ‘You know what? Screw it.’ Let it all hang out there and play free and see where the chips fall.”

Clayton Tune has been balling ever since, throwing for 1,823 yards, 22 touchdowns and five interceptions over the last five games. He’s thrown it more than 43 times per game in this stretch on average, in many ways turning what could have been an utterly horrific season for UH into something of a mediocre one on the strength of his right arm and sheer will.

If you don’t think there’s something at least a little bit noble in that, than why exactly are you a college football fan?

It can’t just be about the school colors, the fight song, the marching band and high-priced coaches you absolutely hate or love can it? A guy like Clayton Tune has to matter. He should matter. Plenty.

“Tune is playing at a very high level,” Holgorsen says after Houston 43, Temple 36. “And I’m very proud of how he just — with all the criticism that came his way from a lot of different people over the course of the year — hung in there. He believed in himself. He worked hard. He’s improved.

“And you’re looking at an all-conference type player.”

Whatever you think of Dana Holgorsen — and UH fans are more than justified in having their serious doubts — there is no question that this coach appreciates Clayton Tune. There’s real love there, respect for a quarterback who always just keeps coming back for more. No matter how bad things look or how much he’s dumped on.

University of Houston Cougars beat Rice University to win the Bayou Bucket, Saturday at TDECU Stadium
University of Houston quarterback Clayton Tune has had success when throwing the ball downfield. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Clayton Tune is not close to the perfect quarterback. But he’s always willing to shoulder more. To take on even more of the burden. The fact that this fifth year college quarterback who will turn 24 in March managed to improve himself during this season shouldn’t be overlooked.

A lot of quarterbacks in Tune’s position would think they’ve already learned everything they can in college. But Tune drilled down in the midst of UH’s struggles, worked on his pocket presence and awareness and made himself better. That bodes well for his football future.

It also reinforces just how much this all means to him.

“It’s just a competitive focus I would say,” Tune says. “Really in anything I do, I want to be as good as I can at it. Especially in a sport like football where it’s a team game and you’ve got so many people counting on you.

“Not only am I doing it for me. But I’m doing it for a bunch of other guys and coaches and fans. So that’s where that comes in. I just want to be the best player I can be.”

Clayton Tune and the Drive to Get Better

Tune is still turning himself into a better quarterback, even 10,000 plus yards into his Houston career. There are few athletes in all of Houston sports — pro or college — who’ve been more questioned, criticized and doubted than Clayton Tune over the past several years.

Tune’s handled it all with remarkable grace and a calm nature. I’ve never him raise his voice off the field or be anything but polite to questioners and the people he encounters.

“Not only am I doing it for me. But I’m doing it for a bunch of other guys and coaches and fans. So that’s where that comes in.” — UH quarterback Clayton Tune

Yes, Tune is not Case Keenum. But few college quarterbacks ever have been Case Keenum. It’s probably past time for UH fans to stop dwelling on what Clayton Tune is not and embrace what he has given them.

Tune deserves a good crowd and resounding sendoff in Houston’s last home against Tulsa on November 26. If you’re a University of Houston fan who’s not out of town visiting family during that Thanksgiving week, and you think you’re proving anything to Holgorsen, UH president Renu Khator or anyone else by not showing up at the stadium, you’re not dealing with reality. And you might as well be just rooting for laundry.

Clayton Tune is a college football story worth pulling for. Even at 6-4. Or 6-5. Maybe even more then.

The hype of those magazine covers and preseason projections are long gone. Most of the city has moved on. There’s not a single on-air sports person from any of the Houston TV stations at this postgame press conference. Even on a relatively quiet sports Saturday where little is going on besides the Houston Open and the PGA Tour’s annual Bayou City stop has already long finished play for the day by the time Tune finds Golden for the game winner.

TDECU Stadium isn’t a ghost town, but you can sure pick a nice seat of your choosing. But Clayton Tune is still slinging it. Still doing his best to help make UH better when he’s gone too.

For Tune’s stayed in the ear of Matthew Golden, the super talented 19-year-old receiver who is one of the highest-rated recruits to ever sign with UH, all season. Encouraging Golden. Reassuring Golden. Telling Golden to not let the injury that cost him two games get him down. Building up the future No. 1 receiver whose best days will come when the quarterback has left the university.

“I talk to Tune on and off the field,” Golden says. “He trusts me. He’s always — he’s going to make me get better in my game. Just being around him and talking to him is going to help me.”

Clayton Tune will not be part of UH’s first Big 12 football season next fall. But that doesn’t mean he will not have played a part in it. He is giving the guys who will return something with this late season run in the shadows. Something that goes beyond the extra practices that qualifying for a bowl game brings.

“I’m very proud of how he just — with all the criticism that came his way from a lot of different people over the course of the year — hung in there. He believed in himself. He worked hard. He’s improved.” — UH coach Dana Holgorsen on Clayton Tune

No one’s saying that Clayton Tune deserves a medal. College football quarterbacks get plenty of perks. Always have, always will. Monetary in NILs now and otherwise. There are way worse gigs, even quarterbacking on a team performing below expectations.

But that doesn’t mean Tune does not deserve some love and appreciation. A decent crowd. A nice ovation. UH’s fifth year quarterback is the best kind of college football story in many ways. Because of how his season threatened to go off the rails. Because of what he’s doing now with so many of his own school’s fans professing they don’t care. Or have checked out on the season.

If it’s only about the teams that win 10 games or more, if it’s only about players’ whose seasons have been uninterrupted rides to the top, what are you really rooting for anyways? What kind of fan is that?

Clayton Tune hasn’t checked out. He’s still spinning that football, still slinging it, still making things a little better and much less worse than they could have been. There’s real honor in that. It’s worth looking at and noticing.