Culture / Sporting Life

Tilman Fertitta Looks Forward to Dana Holgorsen’s 2nd Season in Big 12 — UH’s Billionaire Believer Says Expectations Will Be Higher Next Year For Houston’s Still Chosen Coach

There's No Hot Seat — A PaperCity Exclusive

BY // 11.18.23

With a bright sun shining down on TDECU Stadium, ceremonial red shovels in the ground (or at least in a long tray of fresh dirt) and a crowd of enthusiastic University of Houston football backers milling about, it’s a day for believers. And Tilman Fertitta, the billion dollar buyer and agenda-deciding UH Board of Regents chairman, sure sounds like he still believes in football coach Dana Holgorsen.

“Of course,” Fertitta tells PaperCity in a one-on-one interview when I ask if he’s looking forward to Holgorsen’s second season in the Big 12 next year. “And Dana and I talked before the season started and you know it’s tough. It’s tough to compete when you haven’t been competing when you step up on on any level. We won a couple of games. It’d be nice to win a couple of more games.

“And it’s definitely possible to go 6 and 6 and I think that would be great. And probably exceed our expectations.”

Fertitta talks to PaperCity after the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Memorial Hermann Football Operations Center, the $140 million-plus new football-only building that should give the program a crucial boost. Fertitta calls the high-tech building “the last step to make us successful in the Big 12,” the final piece of the puzzle. Of course, Holgorsen’s current team is 4-6 (2-5 in conference) with two games remaining in its first Big 12 season.

That has many wondering if Holgorsen should be the coach given the chance to complete the football puzzle at UH. National commentators have loved putting Dana Holgorsen on various Coaching Hot Seat lists. But don’t count Fertitta and the rest of UH’s high-level decision makers — university-changing president Renu Khator and athletic director Chris Pezman — among that crowd.

Fertitta includes Holgorsen among the coaching hires he’s proud of.

“We went out and I was part when we got (Kelvin) Sampson from the Rockets with the other AD,” Fertitta tells PaperCity. “I was part of bringing Dana here. He’s been here. And like I said, we won a couple of Big 12 games.

“Next year we’ll expect a lot more.”

Yes, Holgorsen mentions Holgorsen’s next season twice in a six minute interview with PaperCity. If you think the University of Houston will be looking for a new football coach after this season — no matter how it ends in these last two games — you’re residing in a world divorced from reality.

In a college football landscape where Texas A&M fires Jimbo Fisher after a blowout win with a record 20 games over .500 at the school overall (and 27-21 in the SEC), this UH approach may seem unfathomable to some. But it is what is happening.

The focus is on building up the football program and providing Holgorsen with every opportunity to succeed. Pezman, the athletic director who’s never been one to say things just to say things, swears that he is even more confident in UH’s ability to compete and win in football after this first run through the league.

“It’s coming,” Pezman says of UH winning in football. “One thing I’m positive of having been a lot of places now in the Big 12, we’re a lot closer to being really good than the other. There’s nothing out there, seeing teams compete, seeing their physicality, seeing the way they play, that makes me say, ‘Oh my God. What are we going to do?’ We’re OK.

“We’ve got a chance to compete and win. I’m more convinced now than I ever have been, having been through the league now kind of once, that we can compete on a really high level.”

“We went out and I was part when we got (Kelvin) Sampson from the Rockets with the other AD. I was part of bringing Dana here. He’s been here. And like I said, we won a couple of Big 12 games. Next year we’ll expect a lot more.” — Tilman Fertitta on Dana Holgorsen

University of Houston football operations center groundbreaking
Athletic director Chris Pezman, president Renu Khator, board of regents chairman Tilman Fertitta and football coach Dana Holgorsen stood side by side at the Memorial Hermann Football Operations Center groundbreaking. (@UHCougarFB)

This new football operations center will help put Houston on a more level playing field with other Big 12 schools. UH and Holgorsen could use a boost. The Cougars’ 2024 football recruiting class is currently ranked last in the Big 12.

“I can’t say just as far as how important it is to move the needle in recruiting, even the playing field when it comes to recruiting,” Holgorsen says of the new football building, which will begin construction almost as soon as Saturday’s 3 pm home game against Oklahoma State ends. “Being able to go head to head with each and everybody.

“. . . I’ve said a lot that our practice situation is as good as anywhere in the country. This facility will now make our day to day as good as anybody in the country. So it will enhance our student athletes. It will help when it comes to recruiting student athletes. And therefore it should help with our wins and losses.

“That’s coming. We are constantly building every single day. With program development. With young men. With recruiting. With how we’re playing. It is coming every single day.”

Dana Holgorsen’s Big 12 Statement?

Beating Baylor, which is struggling under its fourth year football coach Dave Aranda, and West Virginia — and pushing 9-1 Texas to a last possession game that included a controversial spot that went against the Cougars — in this inaugural Big 12 season seems to be enough to give UH’s decision makers the confidence to give Holgorsen a sixth season in The Third Ward.

“I haven’t gotten a lot of questions about his status if you want to know the truth,” Fertitta tells PaperCity. “This is the first year in the Big 12. We’re 4 and 6. Would we prefer to be 6 and 4? Yeah.

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

Khator, the most publicly demanding of UH’s leaders, also strikes a hopeful tone, one that looks to the future rather than dwells on this season. With new updated renderings of the new football center on display and UH’s highest level athletic contributors mingling and taking in the scene, the energy is good.

Of course, there is no game being played on this groundbreaking Friday.

“I am forever optimistic,” Khator tells PaperCity when asked about the football program. “I’m optimistic on the University of Houston. Our academics. Our athletics. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be putting my energy and passion in here. So yes, I’m very optimistic.

“This is Houston. And this is Houston Cougars. Come on, we’ve got to be optimistic.”

Holgorsen mentions Holgorsen’s next season twice in a six minute interview with PaperCity. If you think the University of Houston will be looking for a new football coach after this season — no matter how it ends in these last two games — you’re residing in a world divorced from reality.

Ron and Carolyn Yokubaitis, the founders of Data Foundry who have contributed major mega gifts to UH, its athletic programs and football improvements in particular, are among the folks taking in the sunny scene and the new renderings. With his signature cowboy hat and bushy white mustache, Ron Yokubaitis tends to stick out in any crowd and Carolyn Yokubaitis brings even more energy.

“I was a night student and then I put him through law school here,” Carolyn Yokubaitis shares.

“Football scholarship got me my undergraduate,” Ron Yokubaitis, who lettered for legendary coach Bill Yeoman in 1962 and 1963, says. “She’s my girlfriend from undergrad.”

Carolyn and Ron Yokubaitis love UH and making a difference for their school.
Carolyn and Ron Yokubaitis love UH and making a difference for their school. (Data Foundry photo)

The Yokubaitises actually first met in high school in Houston. All these years later, they’re still together, still working to help make things better at their beloved University of Houston. Not really trying to be center stage, just doing what they can. This is the village that just may give UH football the chance to reach the heights Fertitta still expects it to under Holgorsen.

“We haven’t won two games in the Big 12 (before this season),” Fertitta says. “We hadn’t beaten a Power 5 team in the regular season in a few years (before this season). There’s good things to measure. And there’s things that, you know, we wish measured differently.

“But it is what it is.”

Fertitta is one of the busiest guys you’ll ever met. Even by typical tycoon standards. Even compared to ordinary NBA owner standards. Still, he comes out for this event on the Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving week (hardly prime time for such happenings) and spends a significant amount of time visiting with people afterwards. When we finish talking he’s getting into his black SUV with his lone driver/security guy already having turned the car on. Fertitta hops into the front passenger seat, right next to his guy. This billionaire doesn’t need to be ensconced away in some backseat.

He’ll be upfront. Just like he still is when to comes to the University of Houston, the hometown school he adopted and made sure it got into the Big 12 this time. Do you really think Tilman Fertitta is taking the time to do all this if he doesn’t still believe?

He’s got Holgorsen. More importantly, he still thinks Holgorsen has got what it takes to make UH football matter.

“We are in the South,” Fertitta says earlier in his public remarks. “And I love that Coogs basketball. But if you want to be a successful university on the map in Texas, you better have a successful football team. And you better have the right tools to be successful.”

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