Houston football: Cougars betting long-term future of program on Dana Holgorsen

When Houston football fired head coach Major Applewhite on Sunday, it came as a shock to many.

Applewhite didn’t continue the momentum of the Tom Herman era, and compiled a 15-11 record in two seasons. But still, every FBS coach in the state since 1998 was awarded at least a third season to try and right the ship.

On Wednesday afternoon, the decision made a little more sense. Houston officially hired West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen as the 15th head coach in program history.

The Cougars signed him to a five-year, $20 million contract, which is the richest contract in Group of Five history – by far. Holgorsen will make $3.7 million in his first season, which is more than a million more than any other Group of Five coach.

Holgorsen is the first sitting Power Five coach since Tommy Tuberville to leave for a Group of FIve job. With the move, Houston is pushing all its chips to the middle of the table.

After the Southwest Conference broke up, Houston went 10 years without winning more than seven games. Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin helped turn the tide. In just two seasons, Tom Herman showed the program what it could be with a little bit of investment.

Houston megabooster Tilman Fertitta helped lead a group that invested millions in new facilities. The program did a phenomenal job of branding as the officially college football team of the city of Houston. It all culminated with a Peach Bowl win and the No. 36 recruiting class. For comparison, no Group of Five team has even a top 55 class in 2019.

A tepid Applewhite era put a dent in that momentum. The Cougars went just 15-11 under Applewhite. But still, al the pieces are there to be an elite Group of Five program. Houston believes Holgorsen can be the guy to capitalize.

In many ways the hire makes sense. Holgorsen consistently had success at the Power Five level with a West Virginia team that faced many structural disadvantages to the rest of the Big 12. The Mountaineers went to seven bowl games in eight years and won 10 games twice under Holgorsen.

On the other hand, Houston president Renu Khator famously said that coaches get fired at the University of Houston for going 8-4. Holgorsen only exceeded that record twice in eight seasons in Morgantown. After eight seasons in Morgantown, West Virginia fans aren’t that upset to see him move on.

But still, everywhere Holgorsen has gone, he’s had success. Holgorsen was part of Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech, including as offensive coordinator for three seasons. He later came to Houston under Sumlin for two seasons and helped turn Case Keenum into a historic quarterback.

A year later, he spent a year at Oklahoma State and helped develop Brandon Weeden. At West Virginia, he helped turn Geno Smith and Will Grier into nationally relevant quarterbacks.

Holgorsen’s contract is insane for the Group of Five level. Holgorsen’s $4 million average salary would have ranked him among the top 25 coaches in college football last season, not including private schools. The $3.7 million base number for next season is still right around the top 30.

For comparison, North Texas coach Seth Littrell was paid $1.4 to lead the Mean Green to nine wins. UCF coach Josh Heupel received $1.7 million. Twenty Power Five coaches made below $3 million. Applewhite received just $1.75 million in base compensation.

Holgorsen’s contract is fully guaranteed through the first three seasons, per ESPN’s Sam Khan. The final two seasons are guaranteed 60 percent, but become fully guaranteed if Holgorsen leads the Cougars to a conference title and New Year’s Six game.

In many ways, there are parallels to Texas A&M’s hiring of Jimbo Fisher. The Aggies threw a boatload of guaranteed cash at an established coach to take the program to new heights.

Holgorsen isn’t getting paid $75 million. But regardless, his future and Houston’s are now irreversibly intertwined.

Holgorsen expressed that he doesn’t view Houston as a stepping stone. He loved his time in Houston a decade ago. The Cougars are on their fifth head coach since 2011; the program obviously wants him to be around for a long time too. The buyout numbers are astronomical, on both sides. The assistant salary pool is huge. Everything is there.

Houston football wants to be nationally relevant. Tom Herman laid the groundwork. Ed Oliver brought attention. Dana Holgorsen is the crown jewel. 

This hire has to work. There's no other choice. 

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