In his latest The Read Option email, Banner Society’s Steven Godfrey delves into the thought process that led to Houston’s D’Eriq King’s unusual (at least for now) decision to redshirt the remainder of this season and return for 2020.
Houston wants to win big, as often as possible, and not because the school and its fans and boosters covet American Athletic Conference titles. Houston has been engaged in a years-long effort to regain its Southwest Conference glory by joining a Power 5 conference. For a while it looked like it would be the Big 12. Now maybe it’s the Pac 12, if there’s ever another round of aggressive realignment. Honestly, they’d join any of them.
They already schedule like a P5 for maximum exposure (a Sunday night opener at Oklahoma, a Friday night game vs. Washington State in the local NFL stadium), they built a brand new football stadium specifically capable of adding additional seating to meet P5 standards, and they lured Dana Holgorsen away from West Virginia with a $20 million contract.
Winning is the only currency that buys relevancy, and Houston is rightly convinced the price to become a Power 5 program is nothing less than being the most talked-about G5 team, year in and year out.
I assure you, Holgorsen took the job fully aware of these expectations. Back in the Spring, I visited him in Houston. During our conversation, he mentioned some anxiety about his new roster, specifically for the 2020 season and beyond. After Tom Herman parlayed a 12-1 Peach Bowl season into the AAC’s best recruiting class in 2016, Applewhite’s staff couldn’t keep pace. 2017 and ‘18 produced the #4 and #5 classes in the league and no top-line, Ed Oliver-type coups.
Houston has (had?) talent in quarterback D’Eriq King, who thrived in former OC Kendall Briles’ system last season (63 percent completion rate, a 36/6 TD/INT ratio, 14 rushing TDs). He is now out for the season, along with senior receiver Keith Corbin; both players announced they would redshirt after UH’s 1-3 start. In theory, the pair will return in 2020 to what Holgorsen plans on being a better, deeper roster (five Power 5 transfers are currently sitting out 2019 to become eligible at UH for the ‘20 season).
This move is a manipulation of the new NCAA redshirt rule, which was intended to give coaches more flexibility and let more incoming freshmen see playing time (in up to four games) and still redshirt. West Virginia AD Shane Lyons, Holgorsen’s old boss and the chair of the NCAA Oversight Committee, told CBS Houston’s move was “not how the rule was intended.”
In short, this isn’t about a player’s selfishness. It’s about a program’s plan to return to relevancy and more as quickly as possible. What’s even more interesting about this is that Godfrey is convinced tanking wasn’t part of the plan when the season started.
It’s worth mentioning that had Holgorsen intended to bomb the 2019 season from the get-go (I believe he did not) he wouldn’t have signed Murphy, a veteran lineman with a known injury history and only one year to play, at all.
Houston isn’t tanking in the traditional sense. While redshirting your best players is selling the present to pay for the future, trying to lose games offers no reward in a sport without a draft. If anything, Houston wants to win as much as they can with this thinner 2019 team to backstop their redshirts with as strong an incoming recruiting class (and transfer class) as possible.
How the Cougars got to this point is arguably more the program’s doing than the first-year coaching staff’s, plus a little bit of college football circumstance: Saturday’s 38-23 loss to Cincinnati was Houston’s fourth. The first two were to those two very good P5 opponents, Oklahoma and Washington State, scheduled years before as an attempt to keep the Cougars nationally relevant.
The third loss, the back-breaker that turned a manageable 2-2 into the alleged fire sale at 1-3, was thanks to a single trick play by division rival Tulane. It’s entirely possible we’re not talking about any of this if the Green Wave didn’t fake a kneel-down. That’s how thin the margins are in this sport, especially for any program with aspirations as outsized as Houston’s.
In terms of bigger picture consequences, though, that’s not particularly relevant.
But it doesn’t really matter if Holgorsen planned to tank and backfill his roster all along, or if a tough schedule just got away from a first-year staff. Because the second thing you have to know is that Khator and Fertita don’t give a shit what anyone thinks. They’re all in, and increasingly mindful of how fast the momentum they built with Herman in two seasons can disappear. When the next chance comes, they have to look as appealing as possible.
And that’s when you get into the troublesome aspects of college football’s latest roster management innovation.
That players like Murphy can sign away their remaining eligibility under false pretenses is yet another reason why NCAA athletes need more agency in this process. But what would that agency even be: if you can show proof that your coach is overly focused on roster-building, you receive a free year of eligibility?
Nothing in college football is proprietary. If Holgorsen’s gimmick works — keeping newly redshirted players around, keeping the rest of the 2019 roster engaged, and adding great recruiting and transfers to end up 11-1 — it will undoubtedly be copied by other programs. And especially with first-year head coaches, at least until the NCAA attempts to close the loophole with new language. There aren’t any potential NCAA violations here. Yet.
It’s hard to be surprised the Cougars have done this, either as a premeditated plan or a hasty reaction. This is Houston, a school that is determined to break back onto the biggest stage possible. What separates UH, Khator, Fertitta (and now Holgorsen) from the rest of college football is their transparency about that desire, and their transparency about what it takes to achieve it. The rest is not unique to Houston. The machine is ugly.
It’s a good thing college football hasn’t been professionalized, amirite?