‘Can we play just one game?’ Inside Houston football’s lost month of September


Last week, minutes after news broke of Houston’s fourth false start, linebacker Keith Corbin tapped out two short tweets that summed up the Cougars’ current state of mind.

“Can we just play one game man,” he posted shortly after North Texas announced — like three other teams before it — that it would not be able to play Houston as scheduled.

Seventeen minutes later, Corbin followed with “does anybody wanna play the houston cougars.”

As of now, the Cougars still have no takers.

Nearly a full month into a keep-your-fingers-crossed college football season, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have done plenty to disrupt the sport’s schedule, including conference-only slates, cancellations and even postponed seasons (all of which have been reversed in the FBS), but no team that committed to play from the jump has been left at the altar more than Houston.

The Cougars’ first scheduled game was to be played Sept. 3. As it stands 25 days later, the Cougars — through no fault of their own — have yet to play a single game.

“It’s 2020, and we’re used to this crap,” Houston coach Dana Holgorsen said a week ago.

Here’s a timeline of how Houston’s first four weeks of scheduled games went fruitless:

August

The Cougars’ first lost opponent came early in the summer. On July 10, the Pac-12 announced that it would play a conference-only schedule, which meant that Washington State — Houston’s scheduled opponent for Week 2 (Sept. 12) — would be off the table.

On Aug. 10, Houston’s Week 1 foe — crosstown rival Rice — announced that it would delay the start of its season until at least Sept. 26. Before Houston began fall practice, the first two opponents were off the schedule.

That led Holgorsen to take a measured approach to training camp, eschewing a traditional six-days-a-week, hard-hitting schedule for something much lighter. With Week 3’s conference tilt at Memphis the first game on Houston’s slate, Holgorsen was careful about how hard he pushed his team after it convened for fall practice on Aug. 17.

“We were doing a lot of OTA-type stuff, where they were separated,” said Ryan Dorchester, Holgorsen’s director of football operations. “When we finally brought ’em all together, we were only practicing three days a week.

“The sole purpose in dealing with the unknown was to keep guys fresh.”

In hindsight, the logic was prescient. Holgorsen was concerned about overtaxing players in case the Memphis game was postponed. His intuition was spot-on. If Houston takes the field on Oct. 8, it will have gone 53 days from its first day of practice to its first game. In a normal college football season, that timeline is about 20 days fewer.

“Unfortunately, it’s proved to be pretty prophetic from Dana’s standpoint,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman said. “It was intentional, but it really has worked in our favor so far.”

Sept. 11-12

One week before hosting Houston, Memphis halted all football activities after “a significant number of individuals” were placed in quarantine per coronavirus protocol. Suddenly, Houston’s third game was in jeopardy.

That afternoon, Tyler Pigg — Houston’s associate athletic director for communications — approached Pezman and asked, “Have you heard from Baylor yet?” He hadn’t, but he soon would. Rumor had it that Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades was in search of a game after his team’s Sept. 12 season opener vs. Louisiana Tech was canceled. Rhoades called Pezman the afternoon of Sept. 11, asking if Houston would consider a game if Memphis fell through.

That night, after practice, Holgorsen called Pezman and said, “If they want to do it, we’ll do it.” Pezman called Rhoades back late that Friday, they discussed terms, and they agreed to reconvene the next morning.

As Memphis sorted through its issues to glean whether it could play a game, the Cougars preferred not to wait. After the Tigers retested their roster, a final decision on whether to postpone the game was to be made two days later, which would be too late if Houston wanted to find a new Week 3 opponent. As a result, both school presidents agreed early on the afternoon of Sept. 12 to postpone the game.

A few hours later, Baylor and Houston had a signed term sheet for not only a Sept. 19 contest but also a future home-and-home to be completed by 2030. Games usually take years to get together; this one was finalized seven days before scheduled kickoff.

“Normally, scheduling a game is a total pain in the ass,” Pezman said. “Maybe now we can figure out how to make games that are more timely than 10 years out.”

When Holgorsen informed his team that it would play Baylor, a Big 12 school less than a three-hour drive away, the reaction was one of jubilation.

“That fired our guys up,” Dorchester said. “I wish I had recorded the Zoom meeting when we told our captains, ‘Hey, we’re going to play Baylor.’ They were ecstatic.”

Sept. 18

The Cougars were in their final preparations before hitting the road to Waco. Most players were in position meetings, though some had broken early, and were soon headed to a 45-minute walkthrough before they boarded buses to depart roughly two hours later.

Pezman’s phone rang. It was Rhoades, calling to inform Houston that Baylor would not be able to play the game. Midweek testing results and the ensuing contact tracing left Baylor short at a key position group under Big 12 cancellation thresholds.

The Cougars were crushed. Playing an in-state Power 5 team and an old Southwest Conference foe with a roster filled with guys the Cougars know was strong motivation. Houston believed it would beat Baylor; the chance to start the season with such a win was enticing. “To get that opportunity pulled away from you at essentially the last hour is extreme disappointment,” Dorchester said.

The discussion of the game didn’t end there.

Sept. 19

While North Texas — Houston’s Week 4 opponent — played SMU, Holgorsen watched on TV.

When the Mean Green lost a few players to injury early, he grew concerned. He texted Pezman, “Hey, are you watching this North Texas game?”

Pezman was. Knowing that losing players for any reason impacts depth and, in 2020, whether a team can play a game, they began mulling potential scenarios.

“Who needs a game in case this falls apart?” Holgorsen asked.

North Carolina was looking for a game. Kansas was curious, if for no other reason than the uncertainty of Baylor’s availability, but there were more hurdles to clear, given that the Big 12 was starting conference play. The next week, Florida Atlantic and Marshall were seeking games, too.

But until they knew for sure about North Texas, Holgorsen and Pezman had to sit tight.

Sept. 21-22

Three days later, a frustrated Holgorsen was asked about his team’s handling of the disappointment of losing its third game. He zeroed in on the timing.

“How it gets 22 hours before the game, I don’t know,” Holgorsen said. “I mean, there’s a reason why our conference and the Big 12 tests three times a week. So I would think that our opponent kinda knows where they’re at, just like we kinda knew where we were at.

“We had five buses out there. We got hotels lined up. We got our equipment truck parked [in Waco]. You know, having to tell [the team] that was disappointing.”

The next day, Rhoades took exception, saying in an interview on SicEm365 Radio in Waco that he was “disappointed” by Holgorsen’s “chirping” and that he called Pezman about it.

Houston’s frustration came from the fact that it thought it was transparent about where it was in terms of its testing and roster situation, but that wasn’t reciprocated. The Cougars felt left in the dark.

The morning of Sept. 21, Rhoades and Baylor coach Dave Aranda broke down how things happened from the Baylor end. The previous week’s Wednesday testing, results Baylor received Thursday, was the root of the issue, they said. Rhoades informed Pezman of the test results later that night. It left Baylor one player short of the cancellation threshold in a position group, and though a team can elect to play anyway, Baylor chose not to for safety reasons. Waco mayor Kyle Deaver said later that week that it was Baylor’s offensive line that was the affected position group.

Aranda said they would be getting five guys back there for its next game against Kansas, though not all those who were out for COVID-19-related issues. There was also a suspension involved, something Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt publicized that day, noting that if Aranda had delayed or rescinded the suspension, the Bears would have met the threshold and been able to play.

Houston wondered: If Baylor was short on offensive linemen because of COVID-19 protocols — which include a minimum 10 days of quarantine for those who test positive and 14 days for those designated as close contacts — was it aware of that when it signed the game contract only seven days prior to the game? All indications from the Cougars are that a precarious situation at the position was never communicated until the game was canceled, and that led to their frustration.

Baylor would likely disagree with such a characterization, but school officials declined to comment when reached.

Sept. 23

While the Cougars and Bears traded barbs, North Texas had its own situation to deal with.

Over the weekend, the Mean Green felt good. Pezman and North Texas athletic director Wren Baker texted the previous Sunday, exchanging testing numbers and roster situations. Both teams’ medical staffs stayed in communication and shared testing numbers daily. North Texas coach Seth Littrell, who knows Holgorsen from the pair’s time as Texas Tech assistants under Mike Leach, kept in touch as well.

That changed by Wednesday, when North Texas learned of a positive test result. The ensuing contact tracing would wipe out a position group. As Baker walked to the practice field to talk to his team, he called Pezman to inform him. The game would be canceled.

That’s five scheduled opponents and five postponements or cancellations, all while the Cougars — the first FBS team this summer to pause voluntary workouts because of COVID-19 test results — were relatively clean. Their football testing results prior to the Baylor and North Texas game cancellations yielded zero positives.

“It’s tough on our guys,” Dorchester said. “You tell them, ‘Hey, you got to do this to make sure we can play,’ and they’re doing that, and we still can’t play.”

What’s worse is that Houston has an open date this weekend, so the school has to wait even longer to return to the field. Holgorsen met with his captains, and the stated preference is to stop chasing ghosts and focus on conference games. Pezman inquired with the conference about moving the Oct. 8 Tulane game to Oct. 3 and dropping the Memphis game on Oct. 10 (which is an open date for Memphis), but that never came to fruition.

Now, the Cougars have potentially nine games in nine weeks with no breaks. The Memphis game was pushed to Dec. 5, eating up one of two makeup dates the conference reserved for teams.

“I’m worried that there could have been moves to preserve that makeup date, and we didn’t take advantage of it,” Pezman said. “To presume that we’re going to be able to get through all of those — and our opponents as well — and not need at least one more makeup date because we already burned one is concerning.”

Holgorsen is tired of the back-and-forth and simply focused on getting on the field, whenever that may be.

“We’re ready,” he said. “We’re gonna stay ready.”





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