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Whose house? Cougar sports staff share thoughts on future after Holgorsen

Houston now finds itself looking for a new head coach to run the football program after its first season Big 12 saw Dana Holgorsen fired. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

The Cougars’ first season in the Big 12 is finally over, and Dana Holgorsen’s five-year run as Houston’s head coach is over with it. It’s been a wild three months for the Cougars, and there’s a whole lot to talk about moving forward.

Short of predicting the future, The Cougar sports editor Starns Leland and assistant sports editor Riley Moquin shared their thoughts on where the program could be headed in 2024 and beyond.

Now that it’s over, how would you summarize the Dana Holgorsen era at UH?

Starns: Unpredictable, yet predictably underachieving.

For much of Holgorsen’s tenure, I don’t think you ever knew what you were getting from Houston on a week-to-week basis. In one game, they could be beating West Virginia in a miraculous Hail Mary. The next, UH could be a few plays from upsetting No. 8 Texas at home, only to be shut out for the first time in over two decades a week later.

One season, the Cougars could be under .500 without much expectations when all of a sudden they reel off 11 straight wins and make a conference title game, like in 2021. But a year later, when they’re picked to win the AAC, they go a disappointing 8-5 and lose to the likes of Tulsa.

However, even with that roulette-style of results, the team always seemed to do the same things in each game. UH would start slow and fall behind. Then, the offense would wake up finally and make things close or even take the lead, only to go dormant again in the second half while the defense runs out of gas.

Riley:  Erratic and at-times gloomy, but not without its thrills. Holgorsen inherited a program in desperate need of a rebuild, and it got off to an expectedly rough 4-8 start in 2019. That season also had the drama of the D’Eriq King saga. Of course, the turmoil only continued with the COVID-19 pandemic throwing 2020 for a loop.

The 2022 season was rough with some very questionable losses to Kansas, SMU and Tulsa notably. Then of course this season, which was a Twilight Zone of unpredictability and gloom.

The thrills came in bunches. Marcus Jones’ kickoff return to down SMU and make the Top 25 in 2021. Taking down Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl. Triple overtime over UTSA in 2022. The Stephon Johnson Hail Mary for the team’s first Big 12 win. Overtime over Baylor a few weeks later. There were a lot of losses, but the wins sure were memorable.

The Dana Holgorsen era may not be remembered as super successful, but it will never be forgettable.

Who do you think should run this program next? What qualities should the next head coach have?

Starns: The two names that have gotten the most traction are UTSA’s Jeff Traylor and Tulane’s Willie Fritz. Both have displayed what I think are the two most important qualities the next UH head coach needs: the ability to build a program from the ground up, and the ability to recruit in Texas.

Both coaches have led once-downtrodden teams to consecutive 10-win seasons and conference titles (Tulane will play in its second-straight AAC title next week). Jeff Traylor has constructed quality teams in San Antonio and has even guided the team through its own conference transition from the Conference USA to the AAC.

Fritz, on the other hand, shocked the nation when Tulane knocked off USC in the Cotton Bowl just a year behind an explosive rushing offense. Fritz also has years of experience in Texas having coached at Sam Houston State as well as a stint with Blinn.

Either way, UH needs to hire the right guy to help grow the program into the Big 12. If they don’t, Houston could lose even more ground in a conference where the other members already had a 25-year head start.

Riley: The Cougars desperately need a culture-builder. The 2023 team never found momentum or footing, and at no point had it found an identity. Holgorsen said the “ship has sailed” on Class of 2024 recruiting as Houston sits with by far the weakest 2024 class in the conference.

Whatever coach comes in will be working almost from scratch coming off a season with underwhelming offensive and defensive production, but with lots of potential to put their stamp on the program. This is a Power 5 team, one with a $130 million operations center opening in the coming years.

With that in mind, Jeff Traylor is a shoo-in to be at minimum a finalist for UH’s next head coach. Traylor took a UTSA program that was less than a decade old when he took over and turned it into a ranked program by his second year. This season UTSA moved up from C-USA to the American Athletic Conference and went 8-4, with an incredible 7-1 record in the AAC.

While Houston is done for the year in its inaugural Big 12 season, Traylor has a bowl game and finished third in the American in UTSA’s inaugural year in the conference. Traylor has proven he can instantly make a team pull above its weight and can complete a rebuild on a fraction of the timeline the Holgorsen rebuild had been moving.

What do you think should be the first order(s) of business for Houston’s next coach?

Starns: Convince your key players to stay and get on the recruiting trail, and fast.

Holgorsen himself said that big, richer schools in the SEC are attempting to woo star receiver Matthew Golden with lucrative NIL deals. Houston desperately needs to keep him and its other young pieces like Parker Jenkins, Jonah Wilson and Mikal Harrison-Pilot if it wants to stay somewhat stable during the building process.

At the time of this article’s publication, Houston’s 2024 recruiting class has just eight commits and is ranked 102nd in the country, according to 247sports. That’s right in between the likes of, ahem, Georgia Southern and South Alabama. That’s unacceptable for some Group of 5 schools, let alone a Big 12 team. Whoever gets hired is going to need to work overtime to grab some late commits before signing day.

Riley: Hit the transfer portal and make moves in the recruiting department. Holgorsen had given up on 2024 recruiting but UH’s next coach can not have that mentality if the Cougars want to be competitive in the Big 12 at any point in the foreseeable future. Experienced transfers are also needed.

What would you say is the state of this program moving forward, and what are your expectations for this offseason?

Starns: With so much of the team seemingly in flux, UH football’s infrastructure is not in bad shape. The new football operation facility is being built as you read this and will go a long way in catching UH up in the Big 12. Meanwhile, the city of Houston as a recruiting base has always been a plus and can yield massive returns if managed correctly.

There’s going to be a whole lot of change in the next few months in Houston. A bevy of key players are graduating or leaving for the NFL Draft, plenty more will leave for new opportunities elsewhere, and just as many new faces will arrive on Cullen. We won’t know much about what this team looks like until next September.

Riley: The program is in purgatory. It could go in any direction right now. On one hand, you have a bleak recruiting outlook, no identity and a deflated fanbase. On the other hand, Houston has been upgrading facilities, time to recover in recruiting and a head coaching spot to fill with a candidate capable of creating a culture in Houston.

The future entirely hinges on who is hired to move the program forward, but also who stays from the existing coaching staff. Does Brian Early stay? What about Doug Belk? These are all decisions with huge implications.

My expectation is that UH gets moving quickly on hiring a new coach. There is work to be done and I do not think anyone in or around the program wants to wait to begin. The transfer portal opens Dec. 4 and it will be absolute mayhem when it opens. UH will want to have a head coach taking part in the mayhem as soon as possible. After that, I have no idea what to expect.

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