Is Houston's opener against Oklahoma an audition for a berth in the Big 12? Conference expansion is all anyone can talk about as the Cougars begin what could be a dream season.
HOUSTON — Tilman Fertitta wasn't surprised when the University of Texas threw its considerable weight behind the University of Houston's bid to join the Big 12. And no, Fertitta— restaurateur, hotelier, casino magnate, reality TV star and chair of Houston's board of regents—doesn't believe he pushed any burnt orange buttons when he accused Texas of being afraid of Houston and said, with regard to the Longhorns, that "men need to be men" during a May interview with Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com.
"I don't know that I can push any buttons," Fertitta told Campus Rush last week following an announcement that his $20 million seed gift for Houston's new basketball arena would produce a building called the Fertitta Center. "I don't even remember what I said. I've said so many things in interviews over the years." Reminded of the interview and the context, Fertitta smiled. "Ah," he said. "I did say that."
Without missing a beat and (mostly) keeping a straight face, he added this: "The University of Texas is truly one of the great universities in America. We would love to compete against them every year in every sport."
That notion seemed a pipe dream to almost everyone except Fertitta until last month, when Big 12 presidents authorized commissioner Bob Bowlsby to evaluate expansion candidates. This doesn't mean Houston is getting in, and it doesn't even mean the Big 12 will necessarily expand. (We'll explain why shortly.) But the possibility has Houston's campus buzzing. In the new football stadium, in the new basketball practice facility, in the arena that will bear Fertitta's name, in the indoor football practice facility project the regents approved Thursday, Houston is building like a power conference school. Now it just needs the power conference.
Around here, they contend that had the governor been a Houston grad instead of a Baylor grad when the Southwest Conference broke up, the school that gave us
Bill Yeoman's Houston Veer, Andre Ware in the the Run 'N' Shoot and Phi Slama Jama would have been in the Big 12 all along.
Now, with defending Big 12 champ Oklahoma heading to the city to play the Cougars on Saturday, Houston has one more chance to state its case. The result of one football game won't make or break the bid. It might make no difference whatsoever. But Houston's leadership will take all the evidence it can get.
During a press conference Thursday to announce plans for the arena, Houston president Renu Khator was asked about the progress of the Big 12 bid. "We have just continued our pursuit for excellence," said Khator, who also has presided over a marked boost in the school's research capabilities. "Whatever name you give it, it doesn't matter." Fertitta chuckled and then stepped to the mic. "That," he said, "was a good political answer." Then he gave a more specific one. "We think within the next 60 or 90 days it'll all be over. And hopefully the University of Houston will be in the Big 12."
A few hours later on another side of campus, Tori Magers explained the absence of her boss from his office. "He's busy saving the world," Houston football's assistant director of operations deadpanned. "He's a superhero." When Tom Herman arrived moments later, it became apparent that "saving the world" is code for "getting a salad," but Herman is every bit a superhero on Houston's campus.
Predecessors Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin had the Cougars playing excellent football, but it was Herman's success last year after taking over for the fired Tony Levine that made the possibility of a Big 12 berth seem less like fantasy and more like a possibility. Khator and Fertitta had laid the foundation on the university side and authorized the expenditures on the athletics side. Herman had arrived fresh off running Ohio State's offense in a national championship season and then went 13–1 with an American Athletic Conference title and a Peach Bowl win against Florida State.
Roll in the Big 12's decision to consider expansion and endorsements for Houston in the same week from Texas and Texas Tech, and the confluence of all of this seems almost like fate. Beating the Sooners at NRG Stadium on Saturday would only further reinforce the notion that Houston could step into the Big 12 and compete immediately.
Herman doesn't care about that. Even though he may wind up coaching in the Big 12 next year—one way or another—he isn't interested in discussing any conference but the American. And he isn't worried about the American right now. He's worried about Bob Stoops and Baker Mayfield and Ahmad Thomas.
The Cougars might be the only team in the Group of Five conferences with an actual chance to compete for the national title. It would require going undefeated and would also require Oklahoma and Nov. 17 opponent Louisville to have excellent seasons (other than being beaten by the Cougars), but it's a possibility the other schools in the American, the Mountain West, Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference and the Sun Belt Conference probably can't even consider.
But here's the problem. If Herman lets anything distract his team from focusing on the Sooners, that dream could be dead by 2:30 p.m. local time on Saturday. So there is no talk of the Big 12 in Houston's football offices and meeting rooms. There is only talk of "spreading the culture," which is what assistant Craig Naivar calls it when the members of Houston's kickoff coverage team splatter opposing blockers.
"To be frank, it's none of my concern," Herman said of the conference realignment sweepstakes. "My concern is I'm going to keep pushing our administrators to get the best for our players and the best resources for us to recruit to and to treat our players as first class as possible. At the end of the day, they can always say no and they don't have the money. But I haven't been told that yet. I don't anticipate being told that in the near future."
Herman wants that indoor facility, which would replace the 50-yard indoor field that may have the world's last known rug of AstroTurf. And even though the Cougars have a year-old stadium and just updated their locker room—including the addition of a massive TV wall and a 50-foot long string of comfy chairs courtesy of donor Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale—Herman also wants a dedicated football building. "The stadium is for the fans and the alumni and the student body. To be honest with you, we're in the stadium six times a year," Herman said. "The recruits want to know: 'Where am I going to live every day?' And not dorms. It's from sun-up to sundown. 'Where's my locker room? Where's my players' lounge? Where's my weight room? Where's my academic center? Where's the training room?' All of these things. We're just so far behind in that area."
If Herman sticks around, he'll probably get all that. But that's a huge if. It's possible one, two or all of the following jobs will open following this season.
- Texas A&M
Barring disaster this season, Herman likely would be a candidate for any of those jobs. And even if the Cougars get into the Big 12, Herman's current job still wouldn't be as desirable as any of these. "This is a business," Fertitta said of the constant speculation about Herman's next job. "I think Tom is a smart man. Tom's not looking for that intermediate jump. I might jump, too, if they offered me chairman of Harvard or Yale."
But Charlie Strong has upgraded the talent at Texas. Kevin Sumlin may have his best team at Texas A&M. Les Miles survived a coup attempt at LSU last year and has a stacked roster this year. It's possible none of these jobs opens. That's when things could get really interesting in the Third Ward.
According to an interoffice memo sent from Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek to Herman on Nov. 30, Herman would receive a $5 million bonus—payable over two years—if Houston joins "a conference with television of $20 million or more per member." The Big 12 fits that description. Should none of those super premium jobs open and Houston win a golden ticket into the Power 5, that extra $2.5 million a year combined with his $3 million salary would pay Herman what many of the best Power 5 coaches make. The memo also promises that upon entry to such a conference, the school would immediately renegotiate a contract that would put Herman's compensation among the top half of the league's head coaches.
Herman already has proven he can bring five-star recruits to Houston. Freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver, from Houston's Westfield High, is currently destroying double teams with the Cougars' first-team defense. But Herman had an in with Oliver; Oliver's brother Marcus is a Houston offensive tackle. Get into the Big 12, and every recruit's door opens to the Cougars. Sure, they'd still have to beat Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, LSU, Alabama and everyone else to sign those recruits, but they'd be in the mix. Herman or another coach could ask a player why he'd want to move to Norman when he could compete for a Big 12 title a short drive from home. Herman, who spent only two nights away from home during the last contact period, or the new coach would have all he needs nearby.
Will Houston get into the Big 12? That's what everyone here wants to know. And there is no definitive answer. Anyone who claims to know is either lying or has never dealt with the Big 12, a dysfunctional group of schools that came together in a mid-90s shotgun wedding between the Big Eight and the remainder of the SWC. The Big 12 is that family where every reunion ends with someone breaking a beer bottle and screaming "Come get some!" It does not always act rationally.
When Bowlsby and Oklahoma president David Boren announced that the league would consider expansion, the choices of adding two or four schools were on the table. The league has a deal with Fox and ESPN that requires the networks to kick in a pro rata share (about $20 million per school per year) for every school the league adds. Upon hearing of the Big 12's intention to use that clause in a way the TV execs hadn't imagined, Fox and ESPN immediately launched a behind-the-scenes salvo that essentially declared the Big 12 would have to take them to court to get the extra money if it expanded by four.
Expanding by two was more workable, but the networks preferred the league stay at 10 and may be willing to chip in some cash to make that happen. This probably would be less cash than the networks would pay if the Big 12 added two, but it probably would be equal to what each current school would get from expansion after taking a percentage of the new members' shares. The idea of getting hard cash for expending zero effort might be too tough for the Big 12 to pass up.
But the Big 12 schools aren't considering expansion purely as a cash grab. Consultants have convinced them that a 12- or 14-team league has a better chance of reaching the College Football Playoff even though there are only two available seasons of CFP data—which isn't nearly enough to predict anything accurately. The Big 12 agreed to hear presentations from a reported 20 schools, most of which have no chance. BYU, Cincinnati and Houston seem to have the best shot—this is the Big 12, so take that with a grain of salt—and any two of that group would improve the Big 12's overall football product.
One popular theory was proposed by the Austin American-Statesman's Brian Davis, who posited that the
Longhorns may be trading their endorsement in return for Houston dropping its resistance to an expansion into the city by the University of Texas system, which recently purchased 332 acres in Houston. Another possibility is that Houston doesn't have the required eight votes from existing Big 12 members—many of which do not want a conference member smack in the middle of the conference footprint's most fertile recruiting territory. If Texas and Texas Tech, which also would face tougher recruiting should the Cougars get into the Big 12, know Houston can't get in, they can offer their support and then say "Hey, we tried to help our fellow Texas public school" to members of the Texas legislature after the Big 12 members decide.
Further muddling the matter is the lack of a guiding principle for Big 12 expansion. When the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC expanded, their moves had easily discerned purposes. The ACC raided the Big East to defend itself; the leagues were once peers and the expansion allowed the ACC to survive. The Pac-12 and SEC were creating conference cable networks and the Big Ten hoped to bolster its already existing network. Those leagues took schools that expanded the conference footprints, allowing leagues to charge more cable and satellite customers a monthly fee for their channels. With the Longhorn Network at Texas, there is no Big 12 Network to create. Territory acquisition becomes less important than taking strong brands.
Fertitta believes Houston has improved its academic and athletic brand dramatically in the past five years. He also surmises we might be overthinking this a bit. Why would the Big 12 want Houston? It's a Texas-centric league, so why wouldn't it want a member in the Lone Star State's largest city?
"People love rivalries," Fertitta said. "Do you want to come play in Houston, Texas, where you know people—whether you're the athletic director, the coach or whatever? Or do you want to go play in south Florida? Or north Florida? Or wherever?"
A random ranking
I was struggling to come up with a topic for this week, but Dan Rubenstein of SB Nation and The Solid Verbal podcast came to the rescue with a request to rank the best dance crazes. And no, the Macarena never stood a chance of making this list.
1. The Twist
2. The Humpty Dance
3. The Running Man
4. The Cabbage Patch
5. The Electric Slide
6. Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)
7. Walk Like An Egyptian
8. The Stanky Leg
9. Single Ladies
10. The Carlton
1. The preparation for the Oklahoma-Houston game will be influenced by a pair of former Texas A&M quarterbacks—and former five-star recruits—who aren't eligible to play in the game. Playing the part of Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield is Kyle Allen, who started nine games and threw for 2,210 yards for the Aggies. Playing the part of Houston's Greg Ward Jr. is Kyler Murray, who started three games and threw for 686 yards while also averaging 6.6 yards a carry. Meanwhile, the Aggies will be starting graduate transfer and former Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight when they face UCLA on Saturday. What a twisted quarterback web we weave.
2. Ahead of a meeting last week of the Big 12's athletic directors, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione hinted at how he'd like the league to decide who plays in the championship game that will resume after next season. "I'm open-minded about being the first conference to have the two best teams play each other," Castiglione said. In other words, the teams with the two best records would face off instead of division champions.
Castiglione admitted any decisions about the title game would have to wait until Big 12 presidents decide on expansion, but he would like to discuss a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the championship game. Castiglione wonders if that sort of matchup could help the Big 12 champ bolster its case for the College Football Playoff. The other leagues may sometimes match their two best teams—think the Alabama-Florida SEC title games after the 2008 and '09 seasons—but they frequently have championship games pitting the best team against the third- or fourth-best team because one division may be more stacked than the other.
The flip side is that that the team with the second-best record may have a better chance of beating the team with the best record and knocking that team out of the playoff. Still, who wouldn't have watched a second round of TCU-Baylor in 2014? If the Big 12 opts against expansion, the idea makes sense. Any title game would involve a rematch, so why not make it the best matchup?
3. There is only one 1–0 team in the FBS today, and that team is Cal. The Bears beat Hawaii 51–31 in Sydney on Saturday (there) and Friday (here).
4. It's time to update the starting quarterback tracker.
- Auburn: Coach Gus Malzahn named Sean White the starter on Thursday.
- Florida State: Coach Jimbo Fisher officially named Deondre Francois the starter for the Labor Day opener against Ole Miss in Orlando, but you already knew that was going to happen.
- Indiana: Junior college transfer Richard Lagow was listed as the starter when the depth chart was released Friday, but coach Kevin Wilson said Lagow has been doing most of the work with the first team for weeks.
- Michigan State: Senior Tyler O'Connor was named the Spartans' starter on Aug. 22. Later last week, he was elected captain.
- Penn State: Trace McSorley was named the starter on Wednesday.
- Purdue: David Blough was named the starter on Aug. 22. He'll be the fourth opening day starter in four seasons for Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell.
- TCU: Speaking of former Texas A&M quarterbacks, Kenny Hill makes his return to the starting lineup two years after we anointed him Kenny Trill following an opening night win against a South Carolina team that turned out to be allergic to playing defense.
- UCF: Justin Holman will keep the starting job under coach Scott Frost. Holman beat out Boise State transfer Nick Patti.
- Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers will start Mike White, who transferred from South Florida.
5. Florida State strength coach Vic Viloria was arrested on suspicion of DUI after officers found him asleep at the wheel at a traffic light on an interstate off-ramp.
6. Alabama doesn't bring in Sylvester Stallone to tell walk-ons they've earned scholarships. That doesn't make the moment any less special.
7. Here's the Memphis Commercial-Appeal's Geoff Calkins on Riley Ferguson, who left Tennessee, made fences and wound up back in football as the starting quarterback at Memphis.
8. Want to know what me and the other SI college football writers think of college football television? Read Richard Deitsch's annual college football media roundtable.
9. T. Boone, do you even lift? Yes. Yes, you do.
10. Malik Johnson, a sophomore at Tampa's Alonso High, made the play of the weekend.
What's eating Andy?
Can it just be Thursday now?
What's Andy eating?
You'd better be confident in your food—and your beer—to open a restaurant in Houston with no indoor seating. The summer heat index ranges between 90 degrees and boiling split pea soup, so the offerings had better be special to entice people to brave the heat and inevitable flies under the covered patio. The URL for Moon Tower Inn's website ( damngoodfoodcoldassbeer.com) proves the people behind this brew pub/purveyor of sandwiches and tube meats do not lack for confidence.
This bravado comes from an honest place. Just an order of the pimento cheese—with pretzel sausage buns for spreading—appetizer would convince me to sweat through lunch and my shirt. But that was only the beginning. Everything I tried during a visit last week lived up to lofty expectations inspired by that web address.
Let's start with the pimento cheese. This southern tailgate staple is clearly the hot appetizer of the moment. Since it's tough to make bad pimento cheese, what separates these dishes typically is the carbohydrate vessel upon which the cheese is delivered to the mouth. Some places use crackers, which aren't as good as the white bread used for pimento cheese sandwiches before your favorite team's football game. Some places use toast, which is better than crackers but not exactly transcendent. As noted above, Moon Tower Inn uses halves of toasted pretzel sausage buns. These carb tubes dipped in plain mustard would make a near-perfect appetizer, but spreading hot pimento cheese on them takes away the "near-" part. I could have left happy after only this.
But I had ordered more, and I'm glad I did. The elk, bacon and cheddar wiener came in one of those glorious pretzel buns, and it was slathered with Moon Tower Inn's own spicy stone-ground mustard. The mustard is touted as coming "from hell," but it isn't that spicy. If it is indeed from the underworld, it's one of those outer circles reserved for mild sinners such as the people who think their backpack is far too important to put under an airplane seat and insist on taking up valuable overhead bin space. Does elk taste significantly different from cow or pig? Not in wiener form, but the snap of the sausage, the zip of the mustard and the chew of the pretzel bun blended wonderfully.
I also ordered a sandwich called the Orgasmatron, which features pancetta, bacon, goat cheese and something called hotberry compote. The sweet mix of warm berries cut the tang of the goat cheese perfectly. A milder cheese would have been overpowered by the same compote, but this combination worked. The thick bacon and hunks of pancetta provided the salty counterbalance, and the toasted sourdough soaked it all in.
My only regret is that after that lunch, I still had more work to do. Otherwise, I'd have partaken in the offerings pouring from the formidable wall of taps behind the counter. Those pretzel buns cried out for beer. Sadly, I had to leave them wanting. But on my next visit to Houston, I'll make sure to clear my schedule and wear fibers that breathe. I can't imagine a better way to sweat.