Culture / Sporting Life

Stealing Dana Holgorsen is Tilman Fertitta’s Boldest UH Move Yet — this Billionaire and Maverick Coach Marriage Changes Everything

Houston Finally is the Destination Job

BY // 01.03.19

Tilman Fertitta does not do timid — and now the University of Houston finally seems to have shaken any such instinct for good, too. The bold poaching of Dana Holgorsen from right under an elite dreaming Power 5 conference school’s nose signals a significant sea change on Cullen Boulevard.

The Major Applewhites of the world — guys who go 15-10, get embarrassed 70-14 by Army in a bowl game and create a ridiculous jacket controversy that threatens to alienate one of the best players in the program’s history — are not worth keeping. Not when a true difference making coach is available.

Fertitta’s friendship with Holgorsen — a bond built on two no bullshit personalities, two guys who’ve never been afraid to go for it — put UH in position to interest a coach it probably never should have been in play for. The billionaire’s massive checkbook and clear-set vision for Houston’s college football program allowed the deal to happen.

Houston isn’t gambling on a hotshot up-and-coming assistant coach using them as a launching pad. It’s not stepping back after a major success and going with a Tony Levine or Major Applewhite type either.

Not this time.

UH has broken firmly from its two most recent molds to go with an eccentric offensive innovator who is smart enough to realize that Houston in the Group of Five with Fertitta and Renu Khator beats West Virginia in the Power 5.

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Choosing Houston over Morgantown for a way of life does not take a rocket scientist. But there are plenty of less daring coaches than Holgorsen who’d still be deathly afraid to make this type of career decision.

Holgorsen seems to understand that he has a real chance to craft his own Florida State — a program built from nowhere to national championship relevance by Bobby Bowden — in Houston.

For once, UH doesn’t get a coach looking to build a career. Instead, it’s found one trying to create a legacy.

That is a huge difference, but it’s not the biggest reason this is brilliant hire. No, that comes from Dana Holgorsen’s offensive mind.

One of the innovators of both the Air Raid and the ever-vogue run-pass option (the RPO that Cris Collinsworth loves to name drop) offenses, the 47-year-old Holgorsen is always tinkering, always creating, always looking for some crazy new play or wrinkle that other coaches are afraid to even propose. The University of Houston needs that offensive innovation to be its identity.

Offensive fireworks are part of what UH is known for — when it’s known — and Holgorsen is the perfect coach to build on that past.

“However smart you think he is, he’s smarter than that,” Washington State coach Mike Leach told ESPN when asked about Holgorsen earlier this season.

No Tom Herman, No Problem

Holgorsen isn’t as hot a name as Tom Herman is once again after that bowl win over Georgia, but he is only four years older than Texas’ savior. The five year $20 million deal that brings Holgorsen to Houston gives the UH football program a real chance at true stability.

Herman clearly never thought of the University of Houston as a destination job. The last two UH coaches who did (Applewhite and Tony Levine) weren’t up for the job.

So Fertitta and Khator went about molding Houston into a true destination job (with the assistant coach money pool to match) and finding a difference maker who’d treat it like one.

Dana Holgorsen is that coach.

For once, UH doesn’t get a coach looking to build a career. Instead, it’s found one trying to create a legacy.

Holgorsen instantly becomes the most lively coach in the city. He speaks his mind and is downright entertaining. But Holgorsen’s more than just the Red Bull chugging caricature. He’s more than the guy who barks, ““Hey, you want to win the game? Let’s win the f****** game” before dialing up a successful two point conversion in a wild 42-41 victory over Texas and Herman.

Holgorsen is a coach who’s been in big-time games. He had West Virginia at 8-1, on the brink of doing something special, before heartbreaking losses to Oklahoma State (45-41) and Oklahoma (59-56) this season.

Dana Holgorsen isn’t going from the Power 5 to the Group of 5 with any intention of disappearing from the big stage. He plans to bring it with him.

This is someone who will always be fighting to have the University of Houston on the map and in the national conversation. Holgorsen is almost guaranteed to annoy UT’s Herman and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher along the way.

That’s a good thing for a UH coach. This is a bold innovator and a bold hire, the kind of catch that can change the entire trajectory of a program. Fertitta and UH went fishing above their supposed weight class and lured in a Power 5 prize.

The easy thing would have been to keep Applewhite and hope he somehow got to nine wins next season without Kendal Briles calling the plays and slowly kept improving. Instead, Fertitta and UH saw the chance for much more — and went for it.

That’s a winning move. University of Houston sports fans should hope this is the school’s new permanent playbook.

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