Culture / Sporting Life

Deion Sanders Makes Dana Holgorsen’s Houston Life Even Tougher — It Feels Like UH Is Falling Far Behind Just One Big 12 Game In

Calling For More Time Will Fall On Deaf Ears — Maybe Rightly So After This Prime Time Impact

BY // 09.18.23

It is one of the biggest nights in the University of Houston’s athletic history — arguably one of the most important moments in the university’s entire 96-year run. It represents a bold step forward, a major validation of what’s been achieved and so much more. So why does it feel like UH is already falling far behind by the end of the night?

TCU 36, Houston 13 is the score in the Cougars’ first ever Big 12 game, but zero offensive touchdowns and all the fun of a tax audit are the real indictments. At its best, college football is a joyful blast of delights, 0ver-the-top emotions and rollercoaster rides. But at times — far too many times — it seems like Dana Holgorsen is coaching the least fun program in America. And it doesn’t help that after UH’s most devoted fans get home Saturday night, they turn on ESPN and see the personification of college football’s new fun instant turnaround era — Deion Sanders’ University of Colorado Buffaloes — pulling off the kind of overtime comeback that Holgorsen’s team couldn’t finish last week against Rice.

Deion Sanders is making life even more difficult for coaches like Dana Holgorsen. There is Sanders, now 3-0 after that win over Colorado State, getting featured on 60 Minutes, an appearance that gets endlessly promoted throughout CBS’ NFL games, arguably the most valuable window in TV today. When asked who the best coach is in college football, Sanders immediately shoots back “Let me see a mirror, so I can look at him.”

Now if Holgorsen ever said such a thing — even during the upper heights of that 12-2 2021 season — he’d be crucified. And maybe rightly so. Just like the rules are different for Charles Barkley and other announcers, the rules are different for Deion and other coaches. But like Barkley, Sanders is earning it.

Deion Sanders
Deion Sanders is changing the equation for college football coaches like Houston’s Dana Holgorsen.

Holgorsen laments the difference in depth between TCU, a longtime Big 12 team that made a surprise run to the national championship game last season, and his Cougars, five seasons into his run in The Third Ward. Sanders urges the returning players from Colorado’s 1-11 2022 team to leave, gets 57 of them to do so, brings in 49 transfers of his own and. . . instantly builds a transformative winner.

Then there’s Holgorsen openly talking about the idea of needing to make major offensive personnel changes after that offensive disaster against TCU. Which presumably includes considering making a quarterback switch and replacing Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith, Holgorsen’s biggest offseason coup, with Lucas Coley, a former Arkansas transfer and three star prospect. Whether that analysis will include considering whether to no longer have quarterbacks coach Mike Burchett be the primary play caller is another matter.

Three games into any season that’d be a tough look. Three games into this New World Deion season, it’s absolutely devastating.

It seems like Dana Holgorsen is coaching the least fun program in America. And it doesn’t help that after UH’s most devoted fans get home Saturday night, they turn on ESPN and see the personification of college football’s new fun instant turnaround era — Deion Sanders’ University of Colorado Buffaloes.

Deion Sanders Envy Gone Wild

College presidents and college football boosters everywhere are looking to Boulder, Colorado and wondering why they can’t be Prime Time too. It makes anything but winning feel like falling far behind. Especially when you’re a school like Houston that’s seemingly had such a head start on the often floundering Buffaloes.

That may not really be true with Colorado having been in the Big 12 or Pac 12 since 1996. This is a longtime Power 5 program. But there is little doubt that the University of Houston football program is building up a recent history of squandering big moments the schools’ worked for, sending prime opportunities down the drain.

The downer of a Big 12 opener is reminiscent of UH opening up TDECU Stadium, in front of an even larger crowd, back in 2014. . . and getting spanked by UTSA. Overmatched good guy Tony Levine was the coach back then. Holgorsen is the chosen coach now, the man who produced a Big 12 winner at West Virginia who Tilman Fertitta recruited back to H-Town.

The more things change. . .

“I don’t really see it as a lost opportunity,” Smith, the quarterback, says of Houston football failing to grab another moment. “We had an opportunity obviously. We just didn’t get the job done like we needed to. The atmosphere was great. The fans were great. And we have a whole season left.

“We’re not going to hang our hats and hang our heads down on the third game of the year. We’re good.”

It is easy to see that Donovan Smith is professionally schooled, His dad DeAndre Smith is the Indianapolis Colts’ running backs coach and with the Colts in town to play the Texans, dad gets to watch UH’s Big 12 opener from the TDECU stands. Donovan Smith already talks like a pro quarterback, knowing not to fuel any fires and project a calm demeanor.

Donovan Smith is easy to root for — and it’s a big stretch to put UH’s offensive troubles on him. In fact, Smith is often the most effective runner the Cougars have too. (TCU’s defensive scheme is clearly designed to help neutralize that.) But the quarterback is wrong on Houston being good.

Teams like Colorado are good. Holgorsen’s UH squad is facing another week of pure frustration. Another week of uncertainty. A week where even beating first year FBS school Sam Houston State on Saturday will only bring relief rather than real joy. With everyone around the program understanding that type of victory is anything but guaranteed.

College presidents and college football boosters everywhere are looking to Boulder, Colorado and wondering why they can’t be Prime Time too. It makes anything but winning feel like falling far behind.

UH Dana Holgorsen
Things are definitely not looking up for University of Houston football coach Dana Holgorsen. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Meanwhile Holgorsen continues to preach patience, the idea that building something worthwhile for the long run takes time. Deion Sanders’ instant turnaround example be damned.

“We started wearing down man,” Holgorsen says of that 16-0 TCU second half. “We don’t have the depth. We don’t. You can say why not? Well, we don’t. . .

“It’s more depth. And I’ve been saying this for two years. The biggest difference in group of five and Power 5 is the second team. And the third team. Look, we all know this is going to take some time. Nobody wants to hear it. And I’m disappointed with how we played offensively. We have to get better and it’s unacceptable. And we expect to line up and play better and win every game.

“But for the depth and the recruiting, it’s going to take time.”

Holgorsen taps on the table he’s sitting at for emphasis, as into this point as anything he’ll say all day. UH’s coach does not seem to understand how increasingly hollow this type of argument is coming across to college presidents and long-waiting fans in this Prime Time year.

Nobody demanded an instant turnaround from Dana Holgorsen. But now in season five. . .

One could argue that this UH team is doing exactly what many expected. After all, the Cougars got pegged as the 12th best team in the 14 team Big 12 in the preseason. But sometimes being boring and nondescript is even worse than being bad. Many college coaches may not like it, but Deion Sanders is reminding everyone that they are in the entertainment business too.

Holgorsen now has UH playing a style that entertains no one.

“It’s not the play calls,” Holgorsen says. “It’s just not. We watch a lot of video.  We come out with play calls. We come up with schemes. It’s the same thing that other people are doing. We’re just not executing.”

UH’s offensive play calling does prove to be ineffective in several key moments against TCU.

After calling a timeout before a critical third-and-four in the first quarter, Cougars QB Donovan Smith is promptly sacked almost as soon as Houston does snap the ball. So much for having the time to dial up the play you want.

Then facing a fourth-and-inches later in the first quarter, after an impressive Jamaree  Caldwell strip sack set them up in TCU territory, the call includes misdirection with a tight end coming up to the line like he could take a direct snap. . . and then a simple quarterback handoff to running back Brandon Campbell deep in the backfield. Campbell has as much chance of picking up the first down as a poodle does of out wrestling a pit bull for a tennis ball.

Another lost moment for UH football.

“Honestly I live by the saying that when we do our job, we win,” East Carolina transfer cornerback Malik Fleming, who’s been something a revelation for Doug Belk’s UH defense with three interceptions, says. “Believe it or not. So do our job. To me, it’s frustrating, it’s tough.

“But at the end of the day, I can only do my job.”

Dana Holgorsen is the one entrusted with doing the big job for UH football, of making the program matter again. Explanations and rationalizations for why his team is losing — or overmatched against the likes of TCU —  will not get anyone on his side. No matter how true they are or not.

In the age of Deion Sanders instant turnarounds, calling for more time is futile. The coach in the mirror? He’d better be worried about what he can do today.

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