It's not hard to see why schools talk themselves into continuity hires, and it's not hard to see why they often fail.
On one hand, if you're aiming for continuity, that means you're doing better than normal. You'd like to keep that going.
On the other, doing better than normal is ... abnormal. Programs tend to regress to a self-defined mean. Plus, if you're making a continuity hire, you just lost the person responsible for your abnormal performance.
Now-former Houston head coach Tom Herman qualified as abnormal. In two years at UH, his Cougars went 22-4 and not only beat power-conference programs, but beat names. They took down 2013 Playoff semifinalist Florida State in 2014. They took down 2014 semifinalist Oklahoma to start 2015. They sacked eventual Heisman winner Lamar Jackson 11 times. Their best performances came in their biggest games.
Herman was also a recruiting dynamo. His 2016 class ranked 36th in the country per the 247Sports Composite. No other Group of 5 school ranked better than 56th, and blue-chipper Ed Oliver played at an All-American level right out of the gates. Houston's 2017 class currently ranks 43rd, again tops in the mid-major universe (though Memphis is six spots behind).
Houston could have aimed for a big-name splash, drawing interest from former USC head coach Lane Kiffin and former LSU head coach Les Miles, among others. Instead, continuity was the name of the game. The Cougars hired Herman's offensive coordinator, Major Applewhite.
Applewhite has lived a few coaching lives already. Remember when he was Todd Graham’s 27-year-old coordinator at Rice? Or when he was Nick Saban’s first OC at Alabama? When he was Mack Brown’s hot young assistant at his alma mater? When he was disciplined at Texas for an “inappropriate relationship?”
I’m generally hesitant to appreciate continuity hires, and being able to continue building what Herman had started was a huge selling point for him. But he’s got the experience. Hires can be both uninspiring and logical.
There’s a catch: Applewhite better win immediately. As school president Renu Khator helpfully noted last week, "The winning is defined at University of Houston as 10-2. We'll fire coaches at 8-4.” At least, that’s what the school did to Tony Levine, letting him go in 2014 near the end of a second straight eight-win season.
(Levine, by the way: a continuity hire. He was a Kevin Sumlin assistant before Sumlin left UH for Texas A&M. At least Applewhite has plenty of coordinator experience; Levine did not.)
The Applewhite era begins on Saturday against a stout, 10-3 San Diego State in Las Vegas, and chances are that the bar will be high from the outset.
Honestly? The bar should be high. Despite losing a couple of games they shouldn’t have, the Cougars might have been even better in 2016 than they were in 2015.
Those duds were retribution for a run of 2015 good luck, and the 2016 squad was dealt a far worse hand of turnovers luck; they went from plus-4 points per game to minus-2. Shift a touchdown’s worth of bounces around, and you’re going to lose a couple of games. Houston improved from 44th to 27th in S&P+ and did so despite an offense that featured only two 12-game starters and a defense that managed only four.
Nine offensive linemen started at least once, and seven of 10 players on the year-end two-deep up front were either freshmen or sophomores. The running back corps was reliant on freshmen, a sophomore, and a converted defensive back. There were only three seniors among the top 13 tacklers. Even the punter was a freshman.
That year-end two-deep featured only three seniors on offense and five on defense. Granted, quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and dynamic outside linebackers Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser are among those seniors. So are cornerback Brandon Wilson and defensive end Cameron Malveaux.
But Applewhite will boast a lineup that includes the following in 2017:
- Oliver. The freshman was truly incredible, ranking ninth in the country with 19 tackles for loss. (He could creep higher on the list with a big bowl game.) He is about the best gift an outgoing coach could leave to his successor.
- Options at quarterback. Ward has been amazing for Applewhite and Herman over the last two years, but Kyle Postma filled in admirably during a stretch in late 2015, freshman D’Eriq King finishes the season as the second stringer, and Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen (a former blue-chipper) and redshirting freshman Bowman Sells wait in the wings.
- A disruptive secondary. Sophomore cornerbacks Howard Wilson and Jeremy Winchester have combined for five interceptions, 17 breakups and four tackles for loss this fall, and safeties Khalil Williams (a junior) and Garrett Davis (sophomore) have 12 TFLs. With Oliver creating havoc up front, the secondary should be free to swarm again in 2017.
- Stalwarts at receiver. Seniors-to-be Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar have combined for 145 catches and a 68 percent catch rate in 2016, and four-star freshman Courtney Lark is being groomed for a 2017 breakthrough.
- 81 career starts (and counting) on the offensive line. The Houston line hasn’t been very effective, amid constant shuffling and inexperience. Those probably won’t be excuses next fall.
In a way, 2016 was a year of disappointment for Houston.
The Cougars managed to lose three times despite beating Oklahoma and Louisville by a combined 36. They didn’t defend their AAC title. They missed out on a Big 12 invitation that seemed to be tantalizingly close. And then, in part because of the failed Big 12 bid, they lost Herman.
But expectations will still be high, both because of what Herman left behind and ... well, because this is Houston. The 2017 pressure begins for Applewhite on Saturday, and that’s the way it should be. Let’s see how he handles it.