Culture / Sporting Life

Captain Cool — How Clayton Tune Refused to Let UH Lose, Keeping the Super Season Visions Alive Amid the Chaos of a Wild San Antonio Opener

A Huge Deficit, a Clamoring Dome, Even an Athletic Director Leveled — What Didn't Happen in That UTSA Game?

BY // 09.04.22

SAN ANTONIO — When it’s over, when the opener that always seemed to be slipping away is finally won, University of Houston quarterback Clayton Tune takes off running. Again. Only, this time he’s celebrating with his teammates, looking for more people to hug. In a few minutes, with UH 37, UTSA 35 frozen up there on the Alamodome scoreboard, UH’s billionaire believer Tilman Fertitta will call over Houston president Renu Khator and her husband Suresh to take a picture with him in the middle of the field.

Hey, some souvenirs are truly priceless. And as UH’s leadership team poses for the photo, athletic director Chris Pezman comes running up from behind, jumping up into the frame in one giddy photobomb.

Some games just make you want to get a little bit silly. This 37-35 triple overtime Houston win over UTSA surely qualifies.

“The way the Cougars kept their composure, the way they came back, it was awesome,” Renu Khator tells PaperCity. “It shows everybody what we’re made of.”

“Big fourth quarter,” Fertitta tells PaperCity, wearing a huge grin, “Dana (Holgorsen) had them coming. Great coaching in the fourth quarter. And our guys had a lot of guts.”

Down 21-7 in the fourth quarter, with the weight of an entire offseason of super expectations seemingly bearing down on them, with the chorus of ever-ready UH critics ready to gleefully bray “Same Old Cougars,” Clayton Tune, Nathaniel Dell, Derick Parish and Co. (and there’s plenty of company on this day turned night of a game) find a way.

They create their own way out of the chaos. They take back this battle between two programs that both won 12 games last year, seize a game that UH coach Dana Holgorsen likens to a Week One “bowl game” right before it can slip out the door.

With the Alamodome going crazy with noise (including one UTSA college-aged staffer leaning on a golf cart’s horn on the sideline at times), with UH’s revamped offensive line struggling to hold their blocks at times, with the Cougars retooled secondary springing several leaks, with an electric Nathaniel Dell punt return touchdown getting called back in what Holgorsen calls “one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen in my life,” doubt definitely comes knocking at the door.

But Tune and the Cougars refuse to let it in.

“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” Tune says afterwards. “I just wanted to win more than they did. I was going to do anything possible to make that happen.”

Tune takes over this game’s biggest moments, reminding everyone that this fifth-year quarterback who’s trained himself to sneer at chaos may be biggest edge UH has in this season of giant dreams. There’s Tune orchestrating a dominant fourth quarter that sees the Cougars rip off a 17-0 run, forcing UTSA to tie it with a field goal at the fourth quarter horn. There’s Tune making big plays in all three overtimes, finally putting UTSA to bed with a leaping semi somersault into the end zone as would-be tacklers converge on him. That’s two! And one giant win. With Tune ending up flat on his back, and bouncing right back up, happy as can be.

(Starting in the third overtime, teams trade two-point conversion attempts rather than starting regular drives from the 25-yard-line, a change that was made before last season.)

Clayton Tune Saves a Hot Mess

UH could have lost this game at least a half dozen times. Maybe they should have even lost it. But Tune just wouldn’t let them. Take the two-point conversion strike to Dell that pushes UH’s lead to 35-27 in the second overtime. USC transfer Joseph Manjack IV (who made a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch earlier in the game that earns him the No. 1 play on SportsCenter’s Top 10) runs the wrong route, turning the timing and designed spacing of the play into a jumbled mush.

So Tune improvises on the fly — and turns that hot mess into a thing of Cougars beauty. He finds Dell in the side of the end zone, giving his lifeline receiver just enough toe space to keep his feet inbounds. The officials can’t even see it in real time, but replay does.

“That ball was not thrown where it was supposed to,” an admiring Holgorsen says. “It was thrown where it had to be. So that’s just stuff that we’re getting out of a fifth-year senior that just makes things happen.”

It’s the kind of throw, the kind of clutch takeover, that should make all those who got on Clayton Tune after that Texas Tech loss in last year’s opener, all those who openly wondered if he was the right quarterback for this big thinking Houston program, feel a little embarrassed.

For Tune has almost made himself Joe Montana Cool. He’s not Captain Chaos. He’s the captain of overcoming chaos, of treating it like Britney Spears treats anyone who dislikes one of her Instagram posts. He just blocks it all out. This game could have fallen apart for UH at least a half dozen times. The biggest reason it didn’t is Clayton Tune.

Tune is the guy whistling as everything catches on fire around him, the guy humming to himself when everybody else thinks the plane is going down.

This game could have fallen apart for UH at least a half dozen times. The biggest reason it didn’t is Clayton Tune.

The Houston pocket often collapses around Tune, but he just keeps stepping up and running. Giving himself more time to make a play. He even does it seemingly nonchalantly out of his own end zone in a few cases, doing a little mini jump over a would-be tackler’s extended arm to escape one end zone jam.

There are heart surgeons who wish they were this calm.

“That’s something that’s essential at the quarterback position,” Tune says when I ask him about staying calm amid the madness. “So much chaos. So much going on outside of your control. But worrying about it or freaking out doesn’t do anybody any good. And it actually has the opposite effect.

“That’s something that I’ve learned. Something that I’ve hung my hat on. Staying calm and being the eye of the storm.”

Doubt can knock all it wants. It’s still not getting in. Not on Clayton Tune’s watch.

Winning On Belief

In this epic game, Tune finds he has company in never wavering. Manjack stalks the sideline, telling his teammates that only the next play matters after his own highlight catch, making Dell marvel that the new guy is already acting like a leader. Dell himself accounts for two touchdowns, has a third taken away on that dubious holding call on his punt return, and pulls off sideline magic on that crucial two-point conversion. On a night when Holgorsen notes, “Tank’s Tank, man. I think he probably played average at best.”

If two touchdowns is average, defensive coordinators just might want to give up now.

Nathaniel Dell UH
Nathaniel Dell is a game breaker for the University of Houston and Dana Holgorsen’s offense. (Courtesy UH Athletics)

Then there’s Derek Parish, UH’s freak of a defensive end, who plays two days after having surgery on a broken bone in his hand. And not just plays, but arguably makes the play that turns everything around while wearing a bulky black cast that completely covers the lower half of his right arm. Parish breaks in on UTSA quarterback Frank Harris (400 total yards and four touchdowns) and hits him as he throws to create the lame duck of a floating pass that Nelson Caesar plucks out of the air for a game-shifting interception.

It’s belief all around. Even at 21-7. Even after Harris somehow gets the Roadrunners down the field for that game tying field goal in less than 23 seconds. Even as the pressure mounts and mounts in each overtime.

“We never felt like we were out of the game at any point,” Casear says. “Just due to the fact that we hadn’t played our best football. So all we had to do to come back and win was play the way we know we’re capable of doing.”

“We’ve got a saying,” Dell says. “When we down, we don’t panic. . . We just kept fighting. My teammates know how to fight for one another.”

Some victories are more about dogged grit than artistic merit. To have a special season in the wild, unpredictable world of college football, you need to win some games where it looks like you’re going to lose.

“Worrying about it or freaking out doesn’t do anybody any good. And it actually has the opposite effect. That’s something that I’ve learned. Something that I’ve hung my hat on. Staying calm and being the eye of the storm.” — Clayton Tune on staying cool.

Clayton Tune and the Coogs get one of those on a wild roller coaster of a crazy Saturday in San Antonio. How wild and crazy? Even University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman takes a big hit on the sideline when Tune is driven out of bounds and right into Pezman after a successful third down run. Pezman goes down hard (helping keep Patrick Fertitta, Tilman’s son and a key Houston Rockets front office voice, out of harm’s way in the process). But Pezman pops right back up. Quick. Almost as quick as Tune after that end zone somersault. Just like the former UH football player the school’s athletic director is.

Just like these current Coogs, who you get the idea someone like Pezman would have loved to have had the chance to play with. Now. . . Well, now the push for that special super season can go on.

“Texas Tech will be fun next week,” Tilman Fertitta volunteers, still grinning.

The Alamodome is still loud, only now it’s all the University of Houston fans near the end zone where Fertitta is standing that are making all the noise. The billionaire, the president, the (maybe wobbly) athletic director, Clayton Tune and all those players who gave so much without ever giving up are all just enjoying the moment.

The moment that makes the next big one possible.