Football Sports

The Dana Era: Looking back at the last five seasons under Holgorsen

Dana Holgorsen’s five seasons as head coach saw an unprecedented level of success and failure at UH. | Anh Le/The Cougar

After 1,791 days, two conferences, a pandemic, 59 games, 31 wins, 28 losses, two bowl wins and three losing seasons, the Dana Holgorsen era at UH has come to a close.

One day after Holgorsen’s fifth season as UH head football coach ended in a listless loss to UCF, and the Cougars finished their first Big 12 season an uninspiring 4-8 (2-7 in conference) Holgorsen was relieved of his duties.

It was a wild, unpredictable five years for Holgorsen at UH; one that saw two straight losing seasons turn around into a 12-win AAC Championship runner-up season in 2021, only for Houston to disappoint in 2022 and fall flat on its face in the Big 12 a year later. The following is a retrospective examining the ups and downs of Hologrsen’s tenure as head coach of the Cougars.

The Background

On Dec. 30, 2018, Houston fired head coach Major Applewhite after just two seasons at the helm. That season, the Cougars started the season 7-1 before crumbling to a 1-4 stretch to end the year capped off by a humiliating 70-14 loss to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl.

After Peach Bowl-winning UH head coach Tom Herman bolted for Texas in 2016, Applewhite failed to maintain the forward momentum achieved by the previous regime. And, after a tumultuous 2018 season, Houston found its football program in disarray following Applewhite’s tenure.

Holgorsen, on the other hand, had just finished his eighth season as head coach of West Virginia with a record of 8-4 ranked 20th in the AP’s postseason poll. Holgorsen took the WVU job in 2011, touted as a wunderkind protégé of the Air Raid offense. The former offensive coordinator and wide receiver’s coach spent decades under Mike Leach, and found immediate success in Morgan Town.

The Mountaineers won 10 games in his first season, clobbering Clemson in the 2011 Orange Bowl for a 70-33 victory. For the next seven years, Holgorsen guided WVU into the Big 12 Conference and established itself as a solid player in the Power 5. However, by 2018, Holgorsen and the Mountaineers had begun to plateau and had lost five of its last six bowl games.

On January 1, 2019, UH ended a very short coaching search and announced the hiring of Holgorsen as its head football coach.

Rocky Start

Holgorsen’s first season at Houston did not go as planned.

After stumbling out of the gates with three losses in four games, including a loss to Oklahoma in Holgorsen’s debut, star quarterback D’Eriq King and several other key UH players sat for the rest of the season as part of a plan to redshirt for the 2019 season with eyes on the future. King would end up transferring after the season and Houston finished the season 4-8, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2012.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed several planned games, and UH only played eight games, including Holgorsen’s first bowl game at UH. The Cougars ultimately fell to Hawaii in the New Mexico Bowl, finishing the season 3-5. It was the first time Houston finished under .500 in consecutive seasons since 2001-2002.

In Week 1 of the 2021 season, things didn’t seem to be getting better for Holgorsen as Houston fell 38-21 to Texas Tech in NRG Stadium after jumping out to a 21-7 first-half lead.

The Step Forward

After that brutal season-opening loss, Holgorsen and the Cougars turned things around all the way to an appearance in the AAC Championship Game.

Led by an explosive offense featuring quarterback Clayton Tune, receiver Tank Dell and freshman running back Alton McCaskill IV, as well as one the conference’s best defenses in “Sack Ave,” Houston rattled off 11 straight wins. After a loss to playoff-bound Cincinnati in the conference title game, the Cougars finished 12-2.

Highlighted by a go-ahead kickoff return by Marcus Jones to beat No. 19 SMU, Holgorsen won the most games in a single season of his career as UH would go 12-2. It seemed that Holgorsen had finally got the program going in the right direction and headed for bigger things.

Early in the 2021 season, Houston was invited to the Big 12 Conference, and Holgorsen would once again lead a team into the conference while also being rewarded with a four-year contract extension through 2027. Before the 2022 season, Holgrosen’s squad was picked as the favorite to win the AAC in its final year there.


The expectations were sky-high for UH in 2022, as the Cougars entered the season with a surplus of key veteran players such as Dell and Tune returning for another season.

Houston seemed on the right track to begin the season when the Cougars beat UTSA on the road in a 37-35 triple-overtime thriller. However, in the next two weeks, Holgorsen and company would fail its pre-Big 12 tests.

UH fell to Texas Tech again in Week 2, this time in Lubbock in another overtime nail biter. In the team’s home opener, the Kansas Jayhawks throttled the Cougars 48-30 to drop the team to 1-2 on the season.

With a chance to salvage an eight-win regular season, the Cougars hit its lowest point under Holgorsen in the final game. Houston blew an 11-point lead to 5-7 Tulsa at home and lost 37-30, who would fire its head coach a day later. UH would win its bowl game against Louisiana and finish the year 8-5.

In April of 2023, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson and o-line coach Brandon Jones left Houston, leaving the offensive play calling in flux. In their place, Eman Naghavi was hired as o-line coach and run game coordinator, while offensive analyst Mike Burchett was promoted to quarterback coach.

Starting offensive linemen Cam’Ron Johnson and Lance Robinson transferred soon after, and star running back Alton McCaskill IV shocked the program when he entered the transfer portal. Johnson, who eventually followed Jones to Missouri, went viral for a tweet seemingly dissing Holgorsen and the program.

“Y’all mad because boys not tryin’ to sink with the ship,” Johnson said in the tweet. “I’ll gladly stay on this side.”

Big 12 Blunder

With 42 new scholarship players on the roster, UH entered its first Big 12 season picked to finish 12th out of 14 teams.

The Cougars looked promising to start the season, beating UTSA 17-14 in the season opener in front of the largest TDECU Stadium crowd since 2016. However, everything fell apart just a week later. UH went down 28-0 to crosstown rival Rice in the first half, eventually losing in double overtime. It was the first time Houston lost the Bayou Bucket since 2010.

The Cougars’ highly-anticipated Big 12 debut a week later did not go much better, as UH failed to score an offensive touchdown en route to a 36-13 loss to TCU.

Holgorsen and UH would earn a dismal 4-8 record in a year that saw some of the worst losses in Houston history. On top of the Rice loss, UH’s offense shut down again in the second half of a 49-28 loss to Texas Tech in Week 5. Three weeks later, following of a Hail Mary win over West Virginia, the Cougars fell painfully short of upsetting No. 8 Texas before getting shut out for the first time since 2000 in 41-0 drubbing at the hands of Kansas State.

Houston picked up its second Big 12 win after beating Baylor on an overtime two-point conversion to keep its bowl hopes alive prior to a Week 10 home matchup against fellow newcomer Cincinnati. Things fell apart once again, however, and the UH handed the Bearcats their only conference win of the year.

The Cougars’ postseason push was killed a week later in a 43-30 loss to Oklahoma State, and a loss to another former AAC team in UCF ended a dull, uninspiring season. After the game, Holgorsen told reporters that he fully expected to remain head coach at UH.

“I’ve got a four-year contract. Contracts mean something,” Holgorsen said. “If they don’t want to be the football coach, they have not expressed that to me. I want to be the football coach here.”

A day later, on Nov. 26, 2023, Holgorsen was fired after five seasons at UH.

[email protected]

Leave a Comment