SB Nation

Spencer Hall | December 20, 2016

Houston football is trying to fit a city that's too big for a belt

Cougars football is trying to fit the city that's too big for a belt

by Spencer Hall


The University of Houston Cougars are playing Tulsa and I can’t hear it. It’s October 16 and the windows are closed in the press box even though it’s warm enough to sit outside. They could be opened, if you were willing to open them slowly, and with a firm hand. Someone decided to make the hydraulic hinges of the windows strong enough to throw an adult-sized person clean out the window. This is an evidence-based statement: A radio guy from an opposing team tried it once, holding onto the rope at the bottom of the frame.

Only his toes catching on the edge of a desk saved him.

What I came here for was to watch the Houston Cougars play brilliant football … that is not what is happening.

This is supposed to be a story about America’s hottest football program, and I’m watching Houston play football and … they are not good right now, here, on October 16. What I came here for was to watch the Houston Cougars play brilliant football, the kind of football that has won 22 games to this point in two years, beaten Florida State and Oklahoma, and made their coach, Tom Herman, the first name on the shopping lists of the Texas Longhorns and other major programs looking for new management.

That is not what is happening and I can’t hear any of it.

This is fine: There’s probably not much to hear. In the first game back home after their first loss of the season — a 46-40 giveaway to Navy — Houston is struggling with Tulsa. The Cougars turn the ball over three times. They miss basic tackles, blow assignments. A loud anxious silence you can almost hear as its own distinct noise creeps into the corners of TDECU Stadium.

With eight seconds on the clock, Tulsa has a first-and-goal with one timeout to spare in a one-score game.

What happens next is a nightmarish ending. Houston fails to substitute properly, and has 12 men on the field for the penultimate play of the game — which the officials miss. Tulsa runs for no gain on third down and calls timeout. Tulsa comes out in a heavy goal-line formation, with 6’4, 260-pound tight end Jesse Brubaker lined up in the backfield.

Quarterback Dane Evans fakes a handoff to the tailback, turns right, and throws to Brubaker, who is open. He just has to take what might be a step of eight inches to get into the end zone. He’s so close to doing this when he’s met by safety Khalil Williams, who instead smears into Brubaker. The safety kind of tangoes him along the plane of the goal line until safety Austin Robinson barrels in and pushes the whole mass backward.

It is so close — after the game, Tulsa coach Phil Montgomery would say that it was as close as you could get to being in without being in. There is no air between the plane of the goal line and the ball. Tulsa fails to score, and Houston wins by the thinnest of margins.

Tulsa’s players wander off to the locker room, stunned. Houston charges the field, which is really the only way you would know they’d won. The crowd does not respond until the referee completes the official review. Even then they seem to be fear-laughing, the kind of giggle you make when you just avoided getting hit by a car crossing the street. Houston avoided a loss and stays alive for the moment in all the big senses: the American Athletic Conference title hopes, the Playoff, a high national ranking, and increasing the profile of the program.

All that is true, and yet none of that feels right.

After the game, I sit for a while at Cream Burger, a Third Ward burger stand. It’s half-lit at 1:30 a.m. I get a banana shake and drink it slowly while the parents of Cougars football players and locals come and go and leave me sitting there alone. Eventually, even the guy pushing the grocery cart full of his possessions down Elgin Street stops staring at me and decides I can eat Frito pie in peace.

There’s all these people around me, and then there’s not. Driving around Houston during the day is your standard exercise in Sun Belt transit frustration, all blinding sunshine off car hoods, missing and nearly missing exits to one node of the city’s web of nerve cells or another. At night, it blazes in patches of half-lit buildings and brutally illuminated gas stations. When it goes to sleep, it flickers like the EKG of a brain in between dream cycles.


Houston is America’s fourth-largest city and you have no idea what’s there. Most other cities have something to put on your postcard, some instantly memorable symbol to pin the entire city around. San Francisco is smaller but has a giant red bridge. Philadelphia has a bell, Los Angeles has the Hollywood sign.

Houston has humidity and that doesn’t look like much on camera. There are roads — so many roads, with roads next to the roads next to the access road. The highest points in the city are not located inside shiny glass-walled skyscrapers but instead sit on highway overpasses, from which you get a quick peek at Houston’s 360 carpeting of apartment complexes, industrial yards dotted with cars and cranes and construction equipment, patches of cedar elm and loblolly pine trees, rail lines, drainage ditches, and the occasional glimmer of water.

Those are bayous, and not waterfalls or cascades. The city happened in the first place thanks to two of America’s greatest traditions: real estate speculation and fraud. Houston underwhelmed investors who were told about gently flowing waters.

Instead they got the tea-brown wallows of Buffalo Bayou and yellow fever outbreaks. The town was psychotically hot and humid, but barbarity economies of cotton and slavery kept it alive. Railroads followed. The hurricane of 1900 erased the Port of Galveston and forced Houston into the role of shipping hub, via a shipping channel that the business leaders of Houston got the United States government to help dig for them.

Oil was found at Spindletop in Beaumont in 1901. Low taxes, Sun Belt migration, and the placement of NASA’s Manned Spaceflight Center in town did much of the rest.

The city that was the first word spoken on the moon grew and grew and grew like a fast-expanding mold in the humidity, and it’s still growing.

Against all physical logic — the kind that says you shouldn’t be able to knock mosquitoes out of the air with a golf club, or that in an era of global warming you might not want to move to a city with an average high of 94 and 300 percent humidity — Houston is the largest city in Texas. It grew at 2.4 percent from July 2014 to 2015. it continued to grow despite falling oil prices, traditionally the bellwether of Houston’s economic health.

Houston grew and it grows and it grows. It got a perimeter road. Then Houston got fatter and got another belt. Then it got still fatter and built a third cinching road around its bloated self. The city that was the first word spoken on the moon grew and grew and grew like a fast-expanding mold in the humidity, and it’s still growing, and it’s just everywhere all at once: roads lined with stucco-faced early-90s modern apartment blocks and squatty palm trees, vast gulches of commercial signage — hi, Whataburger — lining highways, immaculately manicured lawns of River Oaks, the row homes of the Third Ward, suburbs spilling out in all directions, and the curlicued paths past and through rail yards.

I drove down a four-lane, one-way road on the way to one interview. I didn’t realize it was one-way, not because I wasn’t paying attention, but because a driver had decided to avoid turning all the way around the block by popping left into the spacious right lane and going the wrong way. He didn’t even wave when he went past. I didn’t feel threatened or worried: No matter what the road signs say, there are no one-way roads in Houston.

There is a public university, the University of Houston. That university has a football team. That football program, historically speaking, really only has one gear: excess.


Case in point: The University of Houston football team once scored 95 points in a single football game.

In 1989, the SMU Mustangs played the Cougars in their first year back from the death penalty. Fourteen of SMU’s 22 starters were freshmen. On the other sideline, Houston had the eventual Heisman Trophy winner for 1989 at quarterback in Andre Ware and the nation’s most merciless offense in the run-and-shoot. Jack Pardee was the coach, and he brought the offense to Houston from the USFL, where his quarterback Jim Kelly racked up insane numbers as the QB for the Houston Gamblers.

Like a lot of things in the city, Houston football can go from zero to 100 in sixty minutes.

SMU was going to lose and lose badly, but the run-and-shoot did not slow down. It did not run clock well, and would certainly not run clock well against the decimated shell of what had been SMU, the high-octane athletic corruption machine that finally imploded in 1987 with the NCAA’s complete suspension of the program.

The Cougars opened as 59 12 point favorites. They covered that total by the third quarter on the way toward 1,021 yards of offense and 10 touchdown passes. Shasta, the Cougars’ mascot, would do as many pushups as were points on the scoreboard for Houston. Shasta ended up doing 682 pushups on the day.

Jack Pardee admitted after the game that Houston could have easily gotten to 100, but simply declined to out of respect for the damage they’d already done to SMU.

Not that Houston hadn’t scored 100 points before — they had. Against Tulsa in 1968 in the Astrodome, the Cougars under Bill Yeoman made one final extra point to top the century mark. One of the linemen in that game for Tulsa was Phil McGraw, better known as Dr. Phil. If he says he’s known trauma, he speaks honestly and from experience.

I mention this to get you to see few general patterns about Houston football, and maybe Houston as a whole.

First of all, Houston has floated around a bit. Houston football was all too familiar with booms and busts and booms and back to bust again, often achieving these in spectacular fashion. In 1955 — and this should sound familiar at this point —Houston attempted to get membership in the SEC, and was denied a year later when Houston lost both games to SEC opponents. Houston played as an independent until joining the Southwest Conference in 1976 — which then imploded under a wave of exciting corruption scandals, eventually folding and sending Houston through Conference USA, and now to its current home in the AAC.

It’s not that Houston football is just now in the year 2016 deciding to be upwardly mobile and seek a bigger conference. It’s that Houston has always been on the come-up, and never totally secure in where it was.

Houston also innovates. The Bill Yeoman era generated record-setting offensive numbers with the groundbreaking veer offense. Jack Pardee’s run-and-shoot enjoyed a short but successful run as an offense adopted not just at the college level, but in the NFL, as well. The system Art Briles used at Houston is now in place to some degree at Syracuse, Texas, and Tulsa. Kevin Sumlin’s Air Raid staff at Houston included current West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, and Sumlin’s eventual successor at Houston, Tony Levine.

Houston has a history of being good at football, and good in pioneering, innovative kinds of ways. It also has a history of suffering from brain drain. Pardee was pulled away by the NFL. Briles took the Baylor job. Kevin Sumlin was hired away by Texas A&M, and now Tom Herman, a former grad assistant for the University of Texas, is the lead candidate to replace Charlie Strong as the head coach of the Longhorns.

This is the program that can and has scored 100 points in a football game. It is also the program that suffers from the downside of success as much or more than any team in college football. Like a lot of things in the city, Houston football can go from zero to 100 in sixty minutes. It can also stop just as quickly as it started.


Houston coach Tom Herman sits in his office the day after the Tulsa game on Sunday. He’s wearing a University of Houston sweatshirt and athletic shorts and a Houston ballcap, i.e. churchwear if the church you’re going to is a chapel service for football players. Herman is 41, but ages out anywhere between 30 and 45 depending on the light, how much sleep he got the night before (likely not a lot), and what he’s wearing. Right now he looks to be a comfortable 37 or so.

That applies to this Tom Herman. It’s hard to find more than two or three photos where he looks the same week to week, or month to month. Maybe it’s fluctuating weight — coaches can sometimes gain a whole toddler between the end of the regular season and signing day — or maybe it’s the baseball caps, or maybe it’s just Herman’s face, but he’s mutable, one of those people pictures don’t really capture at all.

He is better described in terms of staccato bursts of language and information. He does not say fuck a lot in interviews, but seems like the kind of person who would love to say the word fuck a lot in interviews if that were cool.

Herman is less a fast talker than an extremely focused, concise one. Ask him about Houston and he disgorges his pitch for the city in whole well-rehearsed, rapidly delivered blocks of information. Herman reels off that Houston is the Number One Job Creating City in America; is nearly recession-proof (though he knocks on the glass of the table between us as he says this); is the most diverse city in America, and that the University of Houston reflects that.

I ask him if he thinks people generally don’t understand Houston as a city.

"No, that’s something you have to explain. Houston is unique in that most everyone is from here. There’s a genuine pride in the city of Houston I haven’t seen in any other city I’ve been to. I think we try to tap into that pride. There’s a lot of oil and gas money floating around, but there’s still a lot of blue-collar plant workers, harbor workers. That’s the one thing that’s always endeared me to Houston. The generational pride that’s in this city because so many people’s family are from a hundred-mile radius."

He would know. This is Herman’s sixth job in the state of Texas: first at Texas Lutheran, then as a grad assistant at the University of Texas, then to Sam Houston State, Texas State, Rice University, and finally back to Houston. Houston is different in a state that, for a lot of reasons but, yes, including football, is different from other places. Katy High in suburban Harris County has a staff of fourteen coaches. There are three different offensive line coaches alone. As a recruiter, Tom Herman has to know all their names because Texas high school football is a Thing, but Houston high school football is a THING.

And in the largest, most football-obsessed city in a gigantic state already obsessed with football, the University of Houston plays strange odds. Once a commuter school nicknamed "Cougar High," the University of Houston now trails only Texas A&M for the number of on-campus residents. Cougars football will almost always be second in a city mostly loyal to the Houston Texans, but it’s gaining, and more than any other team makes an effort to embrace the cultural iconography of Houston. It is still a recruiting stunt for a 40-year-old white college football coach to get a bejeweled gold grill as a result of a bet he made with his players, sure. But Herman did that in the city that made grills a thing, got it made by Paul Wall and Johnny Dang, and extends sideline invites to rappers who would never be welcome on the sidelines in College Station or Austin. It’s not without strategy, but more so than any other college football program does to its hometown, Houston markets itself back to Houston’s ample recruiting pool to try and keep them close.

"There’s a genuine pride in the city of Houston I haven’t seen in any other city I’ve been to. I think we try to tap into that pride."Tom Herman

Yet even with that proximity to talent, the margins Houston has to succeed by are thin in more than one sense of the word. The Cougars’ operating budget is smaller than the smallest in the Big 12. We talk on a Sunday. The next day Big 12 leadership is scheduled to meet to decide whether to expand. That expansion, in theory, could include Houston, bringing the Cougars into a Power 5 conference.

I ask Herman about beating Tulsa on the last play of the game.

"The teams that we were in that stratosphere with in the top five, and even now in the top ten? Ohio State didn’t score an offensive touchdown against Tulsa until the middle of the third quarter. They beat them 41-3.

"I’m sure Alabama could play their second-string offense and defense against Vanderbilt and win. That’s not a knock on Vanderbilt, I’m just saying that these teams in the top five and top ten have a tremendous amount of depth. And every few weeks they can get away with rolling out their C game and still being good enough to win.

"But when you saw those three teams in the top ten you saw Houston next to them. Can we play with any of them? I think the answer is yes. But the margin for error is so slim between winning and losing, and between eight or nine wins and eleven or twelve wins."

I ask him where the program could be in five years.

"Well, if Houston’s in the Big 12, then there’s going to be some growing pains early. Just from a resource perspective alone. Our operating budget right now is tens of millions of dollars lower than the lowest budget in the Big 12. I think realistically we can be the next TCU in the Big 12 if we get commitments in resources, which will help in recruiting."

And if that doesn’t happen?

"And then I think if that doesn’t happen — and that’s okay — then you’re in the best non-Power Five conference in the country, and you’ll have better players than most teams that you play in that league. You have a chance to be the next Boise, win your conference, and go to a New Year’s Six bowl game. Not every year, but consistently."

We don’t talk about other jobs, mostly because we don’t have to, because you know that thing where someone says things in response to one question, and yet feels like they’re answering another one? The one you want to ask in the first place, but don’t need to after the other person moves three steps ahead by answering it for you indirectly?

That’s Herman when he talks about Houston without the Big 12. He’s saying the words and behind it you can hear him saying It probably won’t be me here. It’ll be Houston, but not me.

Herman excuses himself to go to chapel with the team.

The next day, the Big 12 announces that they will not expand.

The next week Houston loses, 38-16, on the road to a 2-4 SMU team. Herman’s press conference is a study in stunned misery, with one note of dark comic relief running behind it: The sounds of SMU’s players and coaches celebrating behind Herman, whooping and yeehawing like it’s Texas or something.


The hotel I stay at looks out at 1400 Smith Street. This is the building formerly known as Enron Complex, a shiny semi-cylindrical fifty-floor office building that resembles the battery-powered, chrome-plated pepper grinder of the gods. Enron moved to Houston in 1985, and transformed itself from two small natural gas utilities into an international behemoth posting unreal profits. Fortune named them the most innovative company in America for six years running.

They were innovative, in one sense. Enron ran on a brilliant, serpentine system of accounting frauds created at the highest levels of the company, and passed on as legitimate business to shareholders, employees, and the public. Execs like Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, and Kenneth Lay sold stock, hid corporate losses, and diverted hundreds of millions of dollars of company funds into the pockets of management and their families. At one point, during the time when executives were jettisoning company stock while encouraging employees and others to buy it, Enron was defrauding the newly deregulated energy market in California for billions of dollars, price-gouging the state into rolling blackouts in 2001.

By December of that year, the company was bankrupt, its executives were on the way to a long trip through the court system, and the giant chromed-out pepper shaker downtown was emptying out under liquidation.

I don’t bring this up to suggest that Enron had anything to do with Houston besides geography and the proximity to other petrochemical companies. I don’t bring it up to compare it to Houston football directly — though it is worth pointing out that in the year when Enron, Houston’s most visible company at the time, disintegrated into a pile of bad spreadsheets, Houston Cougar football suffered through an 0-11 season, including a home loss to cross-town rival Rice.

That’s fun and coincidental. The tangible point is that Enron nuking itself in a hundred-billion fireball of fraud would dent most cities’ economies and put a mean limp in their stride for a decade. I have to tell you this, because that is not what happened here. With the aftermath included, Houston’s population still grew by a quarter in the decade following Enron’s implosion.

(Note: the Astros did have to play at Enron Field until June of 2002, when Minute Maid bought the rights to the stadium name.)

You could be huge in Houston, and no one outside the city might ever know.

The point is that if you read the Pimp C biography Sweet Jones: Pimp C’s Trill Life Story, you would know that all of this is so vast and huge and misunderstood by the rest of the United States that rappers could spend their entire life cycles in Houston, selling less than one hundred thousand copies of their records, and still make a living. Even Destiny’s Child could have been happy with that: per Mathew Knowles, the initial goal was to be big in Houston, and then maybe Texas. Anything beyond that was a happy bonus.

You could be huge in Houston, and no one outside the city might ever know.

That’s the frightening thing: Houston shook Enron off like a massive accounting error. The economy kept on pumping along through a time when most of the country was in a jobless recovery and/or recession. When you think about the skyscrapers of Houston’s skyline it is hard to not think of them as oddly shaped barnacles riding the back of an enormous, sweaty beast so big you don’t even realize you’re standing on it.

Not that it’s connected either, but: since 2001 the Houston Cougars have had three coaches hired away by Power 5 programs, all in the state of Texas: Texas A&M, Baylor, and one to be named later. Since 2001, despite being outspent by all three, only one of those programs has more wins than the Houston Cougars.


Houston will host Louisville on a Thursday night.

The weather will be clear and finally, in mid-November, something besides sauna-cauldron hot. The spread will be 17 12 points.

The quarterback for the Louisville Cardinals is Lamar Jackson, the leading Heisman candidate responsible for 46 total touchdowns and at least five moments of jaw-dropping highlight reel material per game. Lamar Jackson’s worst games in 2016 involve scoring only three TDs, and merely accounting for 300 yards of offense by himself.

The quarterback for Houston will be Greg Ward Jr., the talented dual-threat quarterback who will play the game with a bad shoulder, a bad knee, and who knows what else in terms of nagging injuries. With starting running back Duke Catalon missing playing time early in the season, Ward took on even more of the offensive workload. Against Tulsa, under pressure and scrambling all night, Ward Jr. didn’t look tired, but more like "well-worn," or "approaching mileage beyond that recommended by the manufacturer."

The outlook for Houston is grim.

No one is here to watch Lamar Jackson lose.

Most of the non-regulars in the press box are here to watch Jackson secure a Heisman, or at least to shield their eyes from the blast while Jackson blows up the Cougars defense. Before the game, Louisville staffers pass out Heisman promotional material for Jackson. They’re flipbooks that in one direction show Jackson lacing a TD pass into the end zone against Charlotte. Turn it over, and Jackson leaps over a Syracuse defender for a touchdown — clear over him, paused in the air like he’s squatting on a stepstool five feet off the ground, marveling at the tiny humans below running around and diving after him.

Louisville staffers are passing out Heisman promo material for their guy at a road game in a hostile stadium. No one, including them, is here to watch Lamar Jackson lose.

Houston takes the field running between twin pylons equipped with gas jets pulsing twenty-foot stripes of flame into the air, and on this extremely beautiful night, with the setting sun lighting up the ozone and trapped petrochemical fumes and swamp gas and whatever else fires the sky into red-purple streaks in Texas, Lamar Jackson loses.

Oh, man, does he lose.

It starts early and in small shakes: he throws high and misses, his receivers drop balls, his line gets called for holding repeatedly. Jackson’s dazzling scrambles evaporate because Houston’s defensive line is not only setting the edge and containing him, but sometimes throwing Louisville’s poor guards into Jackson’s lap. For most of the season, running has been an elective thing for Jackson, but Houston is forcing Jackson to actually run, though not for long. Again and again, he’s brought down before he does much damage.

More specifically, on the night that Lamar Jackson was supposed to hold a coronation ceremony on the turf at TDECU Stadium, a kaiju showed up and put on Ed Oliver’s jersey. The five-star defensive tackle recruit forces a fumble, which Houston converts into a field goal. Louisville’s guards flail against him, and the creeping panic sets off a plague of false starts and other procedural penalties for Louisville.

It’s 7-0, then 10-0, and then Houston begins rolling through the checklist of things that happen when one team plays the full upset card script all the way through. Is there a fake kick of some sort? (Yes.) Is there a gameplan built exclusively to annoy the other team, and exploit their weaknesses in the most obnoxious manner possible? (Oh yes.) Is there a trick play? (Absolutely.)

At the half, it’s 31-0, Houston.

A second half happens, and when it ends Houston has sacked Lamar Jackson 11 times on the night. Houston fans rush the field, a floating island of red on green turf. Tom Herman stands on the sideline with Greg Ward Jr., both of their shoulders square to an ESPN camera. There is no scrambling for the coach like you usually see postgame, no negotiations or back and forth. He’s ready, right down to the blockers deployed in two lines along the line of sight to give studio a clean shot of the coach and his quarterback.

It’s like they planned it before any of this ever happened, as if they stood a chance at all.


Houston is a massive concrete archipelago. It floats on a bed of bayous and pine barrens and grassy washes in between, and was built as wide as that palette. It’s not totally true that there’s no zoning — there are plenty of usage laws on the books that come close to traditional zoning — but in a state and region full of them, Houston is the biggest sprawl-beast of all.

It’s sprawling in more than one sense of the word. Houston can be super-Texas-country: the requisite pickup trucks, gun shops (oh my god the gun shops), churches, the giant lawns in all the easy marks. There’s also the biggest Hindu temple I’ve seen outside of India because of a booming South Asian population, and a slew of Spanish language radio presets in the rental car thanks to a huge Hispanic community. The banh mi game is extremely real thanks to the Vietnamese and other immigrants that settled in Harris County after 1975. The Chinese community is large enough that you can fly EVA Air direct to IAH from Taipei. One in four Houstonians is foreign-born, including the University of Houston’s President, Renu Khator, who hails from India.

The Big Bubble is the single greatest piece of public art I have ever seen, because it involves making a city fart at you.

It’s diverse, and not just in terms of ethnicity. In the midst of what former mayor Annise Parker called "a toxic sea of red," Houston is a stalwart blue dot that hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since the 1970s. Parker, who left office in January, was the first openly gay mayor of an American city with a population over a million. There’s all that sprawl, but there’s also light rail, and greenways, and art installations, including the Big Bubble, which consists of a single red button nestled in a brick column on Preston Street by Buffalo Bayou. Press it and you’re not really sure what will happen, which is kind of the point: you idiot, you just pressed a red button for no reason, and might have blown something up far away. You didn’t, as far as you know. Instead, there’s a rush of compressed air, a rumble, and then a giant burp out of the yellow-brown water of the bayou.

The Big Bubble is the single greatest piece of public art I have ever seen, because it involves making a city fart at you.

It’s not pretty or scenic or anything other than a swampy, soupy, overheated, traffic-ridden amoeba of a city, the kind that at its worst moments resembles an overgrown fungus capable of dying from a serious congestive heart condition.

But this

Houston is a cruel, crazy town on a filthy river in east Texas with no zoning laws and a culture of sex, money and violence. It’s a shabby, sprawling metropolis ruled by brazen women, crooked cops and super-rich pansexual cowboys who live by the code of the west—which can mean just about anything you need it to mean, in a pinch

—it ain’t accurate. It’s not close. If there are pansexual cowboys, I didn’t meet them. If there is a culture of sex, money, and violence, it’s average at best for the American standard. Ditto for the crooked cops and brazen women. It can be shabby, but you try keeping a suit pressed in that heat for longer than six minutes. I don’t know what the code of the west is, but in Texas I assume it doesn’t kick in until somewhere just west of San Antonio.

When he wrote that for The Independent in 2004, Hunter S. Thompson needed every place to feel like that, I guess, but that’s not what I saw in Houston. Houston is best experienced mouth-first, and the enemy is not an army of malevolent cowboy conmen, but a much more mundane one: gout. Trying to eat everything you are supposed to eat — the Korean braised goat dumplings at Underbelly, the barbecue at Killen’s, the Frito pie I had as a side dish at Cream Burger, the Vietnamese pho, the Indian at Himalaya— will level you. That none of this is mentioned by Thompson is proof he did not eat solid food for the last thirty years of his life.

Houston is disordered, diverse, hot, constantly fighting its own bulk, nearly ungovernable, prone to flooding, traffic jams, and occasionally susceptible to the cruel whims of global oil and gas prices. It sometimes follows currents contrary to what the rest of the country does, or thinks, or buys or reads or listens to or eats. In the 2016 elections, Houston chose Kim Ogg as District Attorney after the openly gay candidate ran on a platform of diverting non-violent drug offenders away from jail and properly prosecuting rape cases. In the midst of the most savage, reactionary election season in recent memory, that happened.

It’s a lot of things floating along at once, is what I’m saying — some above the water, some listing below it, and some in the process of heading one way or the other. All that uncertainty and flux doesn’t stop. It’s ceaseless. It can’t be stopped. It is what your city is, or will be: diverse, messy, probably hot and unplanned in the way all thriving organisms are. You could not contain Houston, not with three belts strapped tightly around it. It’s the messy, hot, live present and future, as certain and unstoppable as heartburn from trying to digest all of it.


On Nov. 25, the Houston Cougars gave up a late TD to lose their final game of the 2016 regular season to Memphis, 48-44.

On Nov. 26, Tom Herman resigned as head coach of the Houston Cougars and accepted the head coaching position at the University of Texas.


In the Special Collections Department of the University of Houston’s M.D. Anderson Library, past the main entrance and up to the second floor behind a couple of locked doors, is the entire record collection and personal effects of Robert Earl Davis, Jr., aka DJ Screw.

DJ Screw was one of the founding figures of Houston hip-hop, the DJ who popularized a lot of what most people associate with early Houston hip-hop. Like a lot of Houston rappers and producers, Screw was almost entirely self-invented, a vinyl obsessive who slowed down everything and anything he wanted into sludgy beats. He worked, for the most part, out of his house and away from the label system, recording his sessions off vinyl and onto tape and selling them out of his home. The system was simple: if you wanted a Screw tape, you went to his house and bought one, or simply waited until someone dubbed one for you.

No one is really sure how many Screw tapes there are: definitely hundreds, possibly thousands. The ones in the archives are Maxell XLII tapes kept in a glorified shoebox, each bearing the title written in Screw’s handwriting on the side.




You can’t listen to these without special permission, but if they sound like every other Screw tape, then they sound like the blueprint of early Houston hip-hop. They’re glacially slow, talk a lot about driving giant cars, and talk obsessively about smoking weed and drinking lean, aka purple drank, aka syrup, aka cough syrup usually thrown in a two-cup stack. They creep by in the weirdest way, compulsively listenable, one track collapsing into another. They’re hard to turn off. Get 10 minutes into a Screw tape, and you’ll get 50 minutes into a Screw tape.

The record collection is so big the archivists just bring me two or three boxes at random. Everything you think is in here is in here, along with tons of surprises: The random DJ Quik record, the soundtrack for Doctor Dolittle, Botany Boyz records, a well-worn copy of Doggystyle, a slew of promo cuts from forgotten or near-forgotten Dirty South rappers.

The list of personal effects is small. There are a few greeting cards, signed in his scrawl, simply: "SCREW." There are unopened promos — tons from record companies and possibly imaginary record companies asking Screw to listen to this demo, or play this record on a tape. A photograph of Screw as a kid with his Little League team, looking kind of lost like most kids in Little League do.

The wave of artists Screw’s beats floated and influenced and pushed into life now all do so many different things. Bun B is the unofficial mayor of Houston, and performs with the Houston Symphony in between helping make wine pairings at Underbelly and lecturing at Rice University. Paul Wall still records and makes grills, but branched out into acting for a while. His partner in the grill business, Johnny Dang, the one who helped with Tom Herman’s custom grill, just opened a new showroom for his jewelry shop. It’s gleaming white marble in all directions, with an AR-15 hanging on the back wall clearly visible through a window into the custom shop. Even Lil Ikes, the custom auto shop famous for candy paint jobs, moved to a new location. Slabs are strictly an elective high-end business for them now, and will cost you over eight grand if they decide it’s something they want to do.

Chamillionaire is a successful tech investor, and in 2015 served as the "entrepreneur-in-residence" at venture capital firm Upfront Ventures.

Screw died in 2000. He was found in his home, dead from what the coroner called a codeine overdose. His father donated Screw’s effects to the University of Houston library, where you can look at it if you show an ID, state your purpose, and behave nicely about the whole thing. He’s in there with the maps, the blurry photos, the accounts of storm damage, the University of Houston football programs from the 1989 season with a dashing-looking Jack Pardee on the cover.

There is one more box. The archivists want to know if I want to look at it. I say sure without asking what it is, and look around the room. The library has all these black-and-white photos on the wall of historical Houston. None of them are pretty, just photos of endless human activity and hustling and sweat and the maps people used to guide all that movement.

Let your brain float on it and it seems loud, and hot, and busy, like one long hustle from one day to the next. A library is supposed to be quiet and this one is, with only the hum of the air-conditioning in the background. But looking around for a minute your brain picks up all that noise whether you want to or not — and that’s before you remember you just held a whole shoebox of Screw tapes. They’re loud just sitting there in your hand.

The archivists hand the box over. It’s a flat, long box, the kind you might keep a kid’s christening gown in for memory’s sake. I open it. It’s a purple sack with gold piping.

I’m holding DJ Screw’s Crown Royal bag.


Major Applewhite is on a bus, riding with his team as they shuttle around Sin City for Las Vegas Bowl festivities. He was anointed the head coach of the Houston Cougars after a search that featured a full-blown moment of panic when disgraced former Baylor and Houston coach Art Briles’s name surfaced as a rumored candidate, plus a flirtation with Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin (who since accepted the FAU head coaching gig).

Ultimately, Houston promoted from within, and in doing so got a UT legend to replace the coach they just sent north to a new job in Austin. Applewhite had finished his first full weekend of recruiting. The pitch for Houston sounds the same. You might play football, but after you play your four or five years, or after you play in the league, where do you want to live? Where will you get a job? He mentions the indomitable job market, the proximity to home. It sounds a lot like Tom Herman’s pitch for the program, and it should: Applewhite has been on the Houston staff for two years.

For now, there will be stability, though a lot of the usual questions remain. What changes now that he’s coach?

"We won’t change a lot right now. We’re just trying to get through our game here. As for my role, I’m the one asking questions now, asking what the defense or the offense needs to succeed."

How does not getting into the Big 12 affect the program?

"Like Tilman Fertitta says, ‘just win, baby.’ Everything else will take care of itself."

That’s Tilman Fertitta, the billionaire Houston booster, he of the reality television series Billion Dollar Buyer, the guy who publicly said he would do everything he could to get Houston into the Big 12. In case you didn’t think a Texan billionaire would be involved here, you missed the part about this being a story about a program in Texas. Some swaggering billionaire, inevitably, will make an appearance.

I don’t ask him what he thinks of a few things. The first is about how his new boss, University President Renu Khator, said that Houston was a place where 10-2 was the standard, and that they would fire you for 8-4. Applewhite had been on the job for four days when we talked, and it seemed pointless to ask. After all, it’s par for the course with everything else in Houston: to start with an empty, boggy lot, and then build Mission Control on the same spot, and then eventually send things into the stratosphere from that completely unremarkable bit of earth. That happened. This could happen. It seemed very hard, at any point, to suggest this could not be real, or that anyone was being unreasonable.

I also did not ask him about WWE legend Booker T announcing his run for mayor of Houston, which was also something that happened in real life.

I did ask: will he get a grill, like Herman did? He paused, and seemed to put real thought into it before answering.

"I was thinking of getting one of those chalices. I think that’s more suited to my personality."

About the Author

Spencer Hall is the editor of and a contributor to He focuses on college football and participatory pieces involving trying new sports. He does not excel in the latter and is trying really hard in the former. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with a big dog and a gun.

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