UH & Levine Face Doubts
Whose nightmare? Tony Levine needs to reassert UH's identity after house of horrors new stadium opener
The first real "Whose house? Coogs' house!" rings out at 7 p.m. The familiar chant seems to take on special meaning as it travels around the University of Houston's nifty new $120 million home.
It's still an hour till kickoff and there is real excitement in the building.
UH finally has a house to be proud of. This is no small milestone, one worthy of all the pomp, circumstance, fireworks and giant red ribbon cutting Houston brings out on this night.
Who thought the monumental moment would arrive with the football program seemingly at such a crossroads though?
For that's where a nightmare of a new stadium opener leaves Tony Levine and the Cougars. There's shooting blanks and then there's a complete offensively-inept 27-7 loss to UTSA, a Conference USA team playing its fourth season of college football ever. It's not just the fact that Houston loses. UTSA has a big-time coach in former University of Miami head man Larry Coker and it will scare more than a few teams this season.
One night after Texas A&M rings up 680 total yards and 39 first down using the Air Raid offense employed at UH, the Cougars wheeze their way to 208 total yards.
No, this is more about allowing the air to be completely sucked out of your new stadium because your offense looks like it has training wheels on. By the start of the fourth quarter, more than half of the Houston fans are gone. Suddenly, there seems to be a lot more of that Roadrunners orange visible in the TDECU stands.
Whose house again?
"This was a great atmosphere until the game started," Levine says in his postgame press conference. "I shouldn't say that."
No, he really should say that. Levine's honesty is one of his biggest strengths — and it's necessary more than ever now. Levine's right to recognize all the UH fans that this performance lets down. He can't let anyone in his program hide from the fact that they completely laid an egg.
As Levine sits there on dais in a surprisingly small interview room, his eyes are often bathed in the shadows cast by the red UH hat firmly on his head. He's calm and composed and it's hard to read much emotion into his expressions. But you can bet that Levine's already churning over ideas on how to fix this even as answers in the aftermath.
The third-year head coach has already shown a willingness to be cold blooded with staff and personnel decisions when he needs to be. That's a trait many coaches take years to develop. Levine's attacked problems immediately though — and he has some that need to be tackled now.
Consider that one night after Texas A&M University rings up 680 total yards and 39 first downs at No. 9 South Carolina using the Air Raid offense that Kevin Sumlin successfully employed at UH, the Cougars wheeze their way to 208 total yards and 18 first downs while averaging a measly 2.8 yards per play.
Houston's made huge defensive strides under Levine and coordinator David Gibbs. And the defense keeps the Cougars in this game for most of the first half. But starting to lose the program's offensive identity would be a huge mistake. Not to mention a waste of the future pro catching passes for UH now in Deontay Greenberry, the kid who turned down Notre Dame for Levine.
The University of Houston doesn't have a College Station or another little college town to give itself a sports spectator monopoly. UH is smack in the middle of a pro sports city landscape filled with options. The Cougars need to be entertaining. They need to grab the nights when they have the attention of the city — the one so well framed in that TDECU Stadium opening.
This stadium opener is one of those nights. And the Coogs don't entertain or grab anyone.
Not once the game starts.
UH's New Stadium Wows
TDECU isn't Baylor University's new $250 million palace on the Brazos River. It's not up to the over-the-top nature of Kyle Field's $450 million face lift. And that might be a good thing. Sometimes smaller — and saner — is better.
Steve and Paulette Tuggle sit in the second row, marveling at their new date night spot.
"This is night and day from Robertson," Steve says. "It's so different."
"It's bright!" Paulette beams. Which is a nice way of saying Robertson was a dungeon.
"This was a great atmosphere until the game started. I shouldn't say that."
While many of the fans wait to see John O'Korn in his second season running the offense, hoping UH's attack looks more like what Sumlin is running with Kenny Hill at Texas A&M this season, the Tuggles are most excited about catching the marching band. They played in Houston's band as students back in the 1970s. Their son Jordan Tuggle — a recent UH graduate — also played in the band.
It's a family love — and a reminder that more than football teams benefit from a new college stadium.
All around the open-air concourse, there's love for the new place. In the second deck, a woman coos over the "nice breeze" that the TDECU's exterior skin is designed to provide. The souped up red football helmet golf cart driving the cheerleaders around the edge of the field in the pregame is another hit.
Others are taken with the patty melts and grilled cheese sandwiches on sale at the concession stands and the Chick-fil-A shops on both sides of the stadium. This is the type of food you decidedly could not get at Robertson.
Then again, I'll miss those very old school handmade tacos from the old place a little.
There's not much charm to miss from Robertson overall though. In this case, moving on is awfully easy to do.
College Football Disappearing Act
Levine's team comes out like it's shaking in the moment though.
A shotgun snap clunks cleanly off the side of O'Korn's helmet for a first quarter turnover. The quarterback's not even looking when the ball is sent his way. There's a dropped punt snap that gives UTSA possession at Houston's three-yard line, gifting the Roadrunners the first points ever scored at TDECU — and a 7-0 lead. There are interceptions — two of them from O'Korn in the first quarter and a half, four for the game. There is a failed fourth down try.
The only thing that's missing is a cartoon laugh track.
The Cougars need to be entertaining. They need to grab the nights when they have the attention of the city.
At halftime, Houston trails 14-0. So much for the new stadium fun. The only team that's broken into those end zones with the cool Houston skyline silhouettes is UTSA. Even former Coog Wade Phillips — one of the most optimistic men in coaching — is grumbling a little on Twitter as he watches in the stadium.
The unease in TDECU turns to downright panic when UTSA ups its lead to 21-0 midway through the third quarter.
UH dropped 59 points on this team last September. It takes the Cougars 59 minutes to score any points against UTSA on this night.
Whose nightmare? Well, no one has to tell Levine how that refrain would go. The coach isn't hiding from it either. He'll take this head on. Without complaints or excuses. That's his way. It makes him one of the easier coaches to root for in college football, the right coach for this type of moment.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat things," Levine says.
That's a start. Levine and the Cougars will never get a second chance at the new stadium opener. But they'll get a second chance at making things right.