Culture / Sporting Life

$14.8 Million Dana Holgorsen Firing Puts Houston AD Chris Pezman On the Clock — UH Cannot Get Another Football Head Coaching Hire Wrong

The Cougars Are Safely In the Big 12, But Facing a Different Very Real Big Time Crossroads

BY // 11.27.23

Dana Holgorsen never got anyone excited about University of Houston football. Certainly not the fans. Not recruits. Not even his own players seemingly a number of times. This is as damning as his 31-28 record, what ultimately convinced the decision makers that paying Holgorsen $14.8 million to walk away is the only way to go forward.

One of the most glaring indictments of Holgorsen’s tenure is how few are stepping forward to try and defend him. Even Pat Fitzgerald, the Northwestern coach whose program allowed a horrific and shameful hazing and assault culture to thrive, had a number of high-profile defenders rushing in when he was fired. Holgorsen has loyal good dude Tank Dell in the wake of his Sunday tanking and little else so far.

There is a sense of giddiness among the UH fan base that Holgorsen has been sent packing, the belief that better days are guaranteed now. In truth, this needed firing now puts Houston athletic director Chris Pezman on the clock. The University of Houston cannot afford to miss on another football coach hiring — as it clearly did on its last two (Major Applewhite and Holgorsen) — and it will be on Pezman this time to make sure they don’t.

UH billionaire believer Tilman Fertitta played the leading role in bringing Holgorsen in from West Virginia, which was considered a major coup at the time for the yet-to-be Power 5 Coogs. And while Fertitta and hard driving Houston president Renu Khator will play significant roles in this search too, it will be more of Pezman’s show.

UH must get this one right. Holgorsen managed to turn the football program at the biggest city in Texas into a complete national afterthought. Or never thought. ESPN deemed Houston’s Big 12 university jettisoning its football coach and searching for another worthy of eight small paragraphs. The 90-minute showcase Sunday night SportsCenter didn’t even mention it once. It was not even included on the bottom-of-the-screen scroll. Meanwhile, any Texas A&M coaching waffle is talked about endlessly on all the shows.

Even with UH now safely in the Big 12 thanks to Fertitta’s refusal to see his adopted university denied again, it can sometime still feel like a million miles from the big time.

Houston’s next football must change that. The early leading candidates — Tulane coach Willie Fritz (who embarrassed Holgorsen with his third-string quarterback last season), UTSA coach Jeff Traylor and former TCU coach Gary Patterson — are promising. Even with the legitimate concern that Patterson could turn out to be an older version of the grumpy, defiant (often cluelessly) Holgorsen. But you have to hope more wildcard candidates like wunderkind Oregon offensive coordinator Will Stein and former Arizona Cardinals and Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn and even UNLV coach Barry Odom are given serious consideration.

You’re not going to find a Kelvin Sampson for football. There is one Kelvin Sampson period. One of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time who never would have been available to Houston if the NCAA hadn’t hit him with an absurdly harsh penalty for violating its antiquated phone call rules.

Pezman must identify his own man, one who can lead UH football into a new big time future. That means bringing back some excitement, some belief that the guy in charge has a coherent consistent plan that does not change as frequently as the tides. Someone who can communicate solutions rather than churn out excuses.

The University of Houston Cougars beat the University of Central Florida Knights with a 71-65 victory at Fertitta Center
UH athletic director Chris Pezman needs to get the next UH football coaching hire right after the Dana Holgorsen firing. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Dana Holgorsen found himself unable to grab moment after possible moment during his five seasons in the Third Ward. Pezman captured some of that frustration on the day UH held the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new Memorial Hermann Football Operations Center, which almost fittingly came off another disappointing UH football loss.

“That’s the magic we’re trying to solve to be honest with you,” Pezman said then. “Momentum is such a fickle entity. . . When you have it, you’ve got it. You’ve got to nurture and foster it and keep it going. When you don’t have it, it’s hard to get it going. That’s why we use basketball as the analogy all the time with the momentum they have.

“We’ve had moments to get the inertia gone — we’ve had the inertia with football. But we’ve got to push through. I’ll use the Rice game as an example. The next week we get our first Big 12 game here with TCU, the Hall of Honor and (football center) naming rights announcement with Memorial Hermann and you stub your toe.

“But those are the moments where you’ve got to break through and win. Frankly, it was unfortunate with Cincinnati (another loss) coming up to today. If we win, it’s a different vibe. But it’s coming.”

There is a sense of giddiness among the UH fan base that Holgorsen has been sent packing, the belief that better days are guaranteed now. In truth, this needed firing now puts Houston athletic director Chris Pezman on the clock.

Pezman needs to get his next hire right. For UH football to actually grab that next big moment. And for himself. Athletic directors don’t usually get to stay around after two unsuccessful football coaching hires. Pezman’s been part of one big miss, no matter how much or little credit you think he deserves in landing Holgorsen.

This AD about to enter his seventh year has done plenty of good, but there have been misses as well. The needlessly long contract extension given to Holgorsen after that 12-2 2021 season will continue to hurt. Pezman also almost botched a should-have-been completely drama-less contract renegotiation with Sampson last offseason, letting it nearly become contentious.

The end result of Kelvin Sampson locked-in to end his storied career at UH and having his son Kellen Sampson, one of the top young coaches in the country, set up to take over for him when he does walk away, means much more in the end. But the process and the trust matters.

To that end, Pezman and his team deserve plenty of credit for making the TDECU Stadium experience much much better and largely issue free this first Big 12 season. Those long line concerns became a thing of the past and having local vendors like Hugo’s in UH’s stadium mark a huge improvement. Houston raised its stadium game to a Big 12 level.

The volleyball head coach hire of David Rehr also stands out as home run that continues to pay dividends. Pezman has largely credited others on his staff for identifying Rehr as a potential difference maker, but hiring good people and being willing to give them credit is a huge part of running any business. Including an athletic department.

It’s hard not to like the personable Pezman, but this is when his worth will be shown. The former scrappy UH football player’s legacy as the school’s athletic director largely will be determined by how this next football coaching hire turns out.

Fair or not, that’s the unmistakable reality.

Dana Holgorsen and Self-Inflicted Wounds

The 52-year-old Holgorsen finishes 31-28 in five seasons at University of Houston, with only a 12-2 2021 season living up to the potential of what was expected when Fertitta lured him away from West Virginia. Three of Holgorsen’s five seasons resulted in losing records, including UH’s 4-8 mark in this Big 12 debut season that included a loss to Rice, a blowout defeat to TCU in the long-awaited Big 12 opener and a home loss to a Cincinnati team on a seven game losing streak.

UH must get this one right. Holgorsen managed to turn the football program at the biggest city in Texas into a complete national afterthought.

Holgorsen struggled to build momentum in the program. Or belief that things would change.

Still Fertitta took a supportive approach with just two games left in the regular season.

“If we’re behind expectations, I don’t think we’re hugely behind expectations,” he told PaperCity in a one-on-one interview. “So it’s not like we’re 2 and 10. We’re 2 and 8. We have won two games in the Big 12.”

University of Houston Cougars beat Rice University to win the Bayou Bucket, Saturday at TDECU Stadium
University of Houston coach Dana Holgorsen spent large parts of his tenure seemingly blaming others. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Holgorsen talked about UH playing “competitive football” late in the season, perhaps ignoring the reality that making a bowl game was the real goal (from his bosses) from the beginning for this first Big 12 season. Perhaps even more damaging is the fact that Holgorsen’s offense — what is supposed to be his specialty — never really scared anyone.

Houston got shutout for the first time in 23 years in a 41-0 loss at Kansas State. The Cougars had only 165 passing yards and three second half points in the season-ending 27-13 loss to UCF. UH didn’t score an offensive touchdown against TCU, a team that Colorado scored 45 points against and Oklahoma just dropped 69 on.

You can go on and on, but the bottom line is the difference-making offensive mind that Fertitta became buddies with when Holgorsen served as a UH assistant never showed up in the big head coach’s office.

That does not mean that Dana Holgorsen did not immensely care or bleed for UH. He wanted this to be this last head coaching stop, envisioned become a beloved Houston figure, truly loved the city. But he never could communicate that in way that didn’t come across as entitled or borderline patronizing either.

Of course, trying to impress a reporter by spouting off about his “fucking impossible buyout” does not help there.

Dana Holgorsen never made anyone believe. Now it’s on Chris Pezman to find someone who truly does.

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