Culture / Sporting Life

The Turnaround Meetings — How Dana Holgorsen Reevaluated UH Football and Set the Stage for Major Recruiting Wins

Houston's Coach and AD Chris Pezman Focused on a Better Future, Used Basketball Program as an Example


They met in the days after Christmas when everything was quiet and many were taking a break. University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman would come to football coach Dana Holgorsen’s house and the two men would break down the state of the program. Piece by piece.

“Dana and I talked several times over Christmas (break),” Pezman tells PaperCity. “After the (bowl) game. We met at his house and went over everything. From every aspect of the program. Where we were. Where we are. Where we’re going.

“We’re on track. I know it’s hard the way the season ended — it’s hard to accept that. But his vision is going to play out the way we want.”

Just weeks after those Christmas meetings, Holgorsen secured the commitment of one of the best high school running backs in America, Alton McCaskill. McCaskill spurned defending national champion Alabama, USC and Michigan to stay home and play for Holgorsen.

Having already convinced elite quarterback prospect Maddox Kopp to go with UH, Holgorsen was winning the type of recruiting battles that even casual fans notice. Both the coach and the AD know that matters, too.

Perception means plenty in the win-now world of college football. And some things move the needle more than others.

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“You get high level recruits like the running back and the quarterback, it just affirms the vision that he had,” Pezman says of Holgorsen. “I know he’s more than capable and the staff is more than capable of delivering that. But I think it helps our shareholders know that it’s happening.

“It’s not just talk.”

Alton McCaskill Houston
Alton McCaskill gives the University of Houston and Dana Holgorsen a top running back recruit.

Holgorsen heads into his third season as Houston’s $20 Million Man with a 7-13 record. Taking over a program in serious distress, Holgorsen went 4-8 in his first season and 3-5 in a beyond bizarre 2020 coronavirus season.

“You ask Dana,” Pezman says. “You ask anybody in our program. No one’s satisfied with the last two seasons with football by any means. But with Dana, when we talked about this job he had a real vision for the type of recruiting he was going to do here.”

Pezman and the University of Houston administration now see that vision playing out as Holgorsen described. The coach is getting some top level high school talent and supplementing that with impact transfers who have multi years of eligibility left.

There is now light at the end of the tunnel left by the no buzz Major Applewhite years.

Lost Season?

Holgorsen’s frustration at how the oft interrupted 2020 season played out — or often didn’t play out — was palpable at times. UH could not even start its season until October 8 and then went nearly a month between games between mid November and mid December.

There are two star Uber drivers who are more dependable than this stop-start-stop-start season.

“With the impact of COVID, as dissatisfying as it was, you almost have to set it aside,” Pezman says of the 2020 season. “Every time we started to feel like we were getting in a rhythm, either us or somebody other than us — for reasons we couldn’t control — everything had to go on pause.

“Let’s say we started the year the way we wanted playing Rice and North Texas. Provided the outcomes were what we would have expected, maybe you’re looking up at the end of the year, where it’s still not where you want, but you can see the progress.

“You almost have to set (the season) aside from a normal evaluation and say OK.”

“We’re on track. I know it’s hard the way the season ended — it’s hard to accept that. But his vision is going to play out the way we want.” — Houston AD Chris Pezman on Dana Holgorsen

Pezman is a former captain of the University of Houston football team (1992) who played with Andre Ware. No one has to tell him how important a high profile football program can be for the university.

Take the publicity Houston’s Top 10 basketball program has brought the university and multiply it by 10. A nationally ranked college football program is just bigger, drawing in more people and attention.

Pezman sometimes uses what Kelvin Sampson has accomplished in his great resurrection of UH basketball as a shining example of what can be done in his talks with Holgorsen.

“I joke with him,” Pezman says. “And I’m halfway serious. Whatever that basketball team looks like that’s what we want our football team to look like. Just hard-nosed kids that just play relentlessly. It’s funny like that, with programs like that, how one program can lift another up.

“I think you’re going to see that.”

The athletic director is sure a football breakout beckons. One that will fit right in with and help complement Kelvin Sampson’s Final Four pushing basketball program. And even UH baseball’s drive to make the College World Series. Pezman is still all in on the coach he and Houston billionaire backer Tilman Fertitta lured from Power 5 West Virginia. Pezman believed before those Christmas meetings, but the sessions helped reinforce that conviction.

In those quiet days at the coach’s house, the AD saw a Dana Holgorsen who still holds a clear plan, a focused vision and a fire to get it done.

This is the second part in a series on University of Houston’s athletic program. Read part one, here.

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