Monday, September 10, 2012

Houston’s Early Firing a Bad Omen

By Stephen Kerr

It wasn't so long ago that the University of Houston football team was riding high. They finished the 2011 season 13-1, and fought from behind to beat Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl. Their offense under head coach Kevin Sumlin brought back memories of Andre Ware and David Klingler from 20 years ago. This time, it was led by Case Keenum, and the Cougars twice hit the 73-point mark.

My, how quickly things change. Case Keenum graduated, and Sumlin left for College Station to begin the Aggies' era in the SEC. He was succeeded by Tony Levine, who I'm sure was confident he could continue Sumlin's success. As he told reporters prior to the start of the season, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

After just one game this season, it became painfully clear something was broken after all. The Cougars entered their Sept. 1 season-opener against Texas State as a 36-point underdog, but somebody forgot to inform the Bobcats. Houston didn't just lose; they were embarrassed, 30-13 in the Bobcats' first game as an FBS school. Houston quarterback David Piland looked nothing like his namesake, David Klingler, in his first start since 2010. He completed just 17-of-44 passes for 211 yards, and rushed many of his passes. The Cougars allowed 248 yards on the ground, went 1-for-13 on third-down conversions, and the 13 points was their lowest output since the 2010 UCLA game.

Oh, but it gets worse. Mike Nesbitt, the Cougars' offensive coordinator who was hired by Levine before the season, was out Monday following the Texas State loss. Assistant Coach Travis Bush, who had been coaching the running backs, was named as Nesbitt's replacement. Director of Player Personnel Ken McClintock has assumed Bush's duties.

Publicly, Levine announced Nesbitt resigned, but it was clear the head coach had a hand in the exit. He and Nesbitt did not see eye to eye on the team's offensive scheme during the Bobcat game. When Levine asked for running plays on several occasions, Nesbitt instead chose to pass. Levine wanted the play-caller to give the ball to one player, it was given to another player.

Obviously, the head coach and the offensive coordinator were not on the same page. Odd, since Levine must have felt otherwise when he hired Nesbitt, a graduate of New Mexico considered to have a sharp offensive mind. Levine may have begun to see signs of trouble during two-a-days, but making a move too early may have been considered a knee-jerk reaction. After the Texas State loss, however, Levine had to assert his position as head coach; otherwise, he would run the risk of losing control of the ship.

The Houston offense looked much better against Louisiana Tech the following Saturday, but this time it was the defense that faltered in a 56-49 loss. Louisiana Tech piled up 598 yards and 8 touchdowns, while the Cougar offense looked more like Kevin Sumlin's offense. Piland was 53-of-77 for 580 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also set an NCAA record for pass attempts in a game without an interception.

But a loss is a loss, and Levine's 0-2 start this season is a far cry from whatever visions he may have had of following in Sumlin's shadow. It's a long season, but if things don't turn around soon, changing offensive coordinators after the first week will be the least of his problems.

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