HOUSTON -- Major Applewhite wants your attention.
When he's speaking to you, he expects you to listen. If not, you might as well be absent. One Houston walk-on learned this the hard way recently.
Applewhite, the Cougars' first-year head coach, addressed his team after a recent scrimmage. In the middle of his speech, he stopped mid-sentence when he noticed a player's eyes were aimed toward the ground instead of on the coach.
"Eyes up!" Applewhite yelled. "Who are you? Get out....I don't even know who you are. Get out. GET OUT!"
The player reluctantly rose and exited the practice field. As he walked away, Applewhite emphasized the basic attention he expects.
"It's real simple, you come sit in my office, I'm going to look you dead in the eyes, show you respect," Applewhite told the team. "I'm going to listen to you. Make sense? It goes both f---ing ways. Get your eyes up."
Few things get past Applewhite, the former University of Texas quarterback and longtime college assistant. Letting details slide is a no-no. This is life for the rookie head coach trying to keep his Group of 5 program nationally relevant.
His task? Succeed one of the hottest coaches in college football the last two years, Tom Herman, who went 22-4 and brought the Cougars into the national consciousness. Satisfy an administration that expects regular double-digit win seasons, regardless of Houston's place in the college football landscape. Juggle the emotions of a fan base that feels snake-bitten after being jilted by another winning coach who left for an in-state Power 5 program (three have made the move in the last 10 years) and left at the altar by the Big 12 non-expansion, forcing the Cougars to continue making lemonade with fewer lemons than the sport's privileged programs.
Did we mention win?
Publicly and privately, Houston's leadership made no secret of its expectations. In an e-mail response to a former faculty member during Houston's coaching search obtained by ESPN.com via an open records request, school president Renu Khator said "in order to be relevant we need to have a 10-2 season every year." Board of regents chairman and Houston megabooster Tilman Fertitta told the Houston Chronicle in December that Applewhite "better win nine, 10, 11 games a year."
So far, none of it fazes the 38-year-old Applewhite. Ask him about the demands and he has the same expectations.
"I said it in the interview," Applewhite said. "I think 8-4, 9-3, 10-2, 11-1 should be a minimum every year. I think that's what we need to hold ourselves to. ... I don't think that's unrealistic, I don't think that's a pie-in-the-sky thought."
So far, Applewhite appears up to the challenge. He's an intelligent, organized, driven, demanding leader who is keeping a culture consistent to the one developed under Herman the last two years, while strategically putting his own touch on the program. He has been groomed for this role from the time his playing career concluded.
While maintaining a big-picture approach, Applewhite also sweats the small stuff. Whether it's something as simple as ensuring nobody is slouching during a team meeting or as important as how quickly players line up during no-huddle, he's locked in. Applewhite keeps a pen and paper handy at all times to jot down notes and reminders that he later enters into a file on his computer.
His personality is different from his predecessors' and it shows in various ways. While Herman routinely started practices with long, emotional speeches about the importance of that particular practice, Applewhite favors efficiency, briefly giving out instructions and quickly getting things started. Those in the program notice that practices, while still intense and similar in format, aren't necessarily an emotional roller coaster. Applewhite is passionate and will raise his voice occasionally, but doesn't yell 24/7.
"It's probably because the way I've been coached and the coaches I've been around," Applewhite said. "When Greg Davis raised his voice, it meant something. When Mack [Brown] raised his voice, it meant something. Believe it or not, when you watch Nick Saban on the sideline, he's not constantly raising his voice. I just think that there's a reason, a time and a place to do that."
Said cornerback Isaiah Johnson, who played receiver the last two years while Applewhite was the offensive coordinator: "Coach Applewhite has done a great job of stepping back and letting the coaches coach."
Applewhite's coaching apprenticeship was diverse and extensive. It included time at traditional powers flush with funds (Texas, Alabama). A stop at Syracuse exposed him to a drastic geographic change and new recruiting base. He worked at a Group of 5 school with minimal resources (Rice). The head coaches whom he worked for -- Brown, Todd Graham, Herman, Saban and Greg Robinson -- have a combined career record of 568-274-2.
Davis, the former Texas offensive coordinator who both coached Applewhite as a player and coached with him, said Applewhite's experience prepared him for this opportunity.
"He had seen other organizational ways of doing things," Davis said. "The way he attacks recruiting and understood the importance of it, I think you would have to be blind not to think [he would be a head coach] ... I thought it was just a matter of time."
After his six-season stint at Texas coincided with the end of the Mack Brown era, Applewhite took a year off from football. He spent more time with his wife, Julie, and took his daughter, Lila, to school. He visited various programs to stay involved in the game and prepare for his next move. When Herman was hired at Houston, he tabbed Applewhite as the offensive coordinator.
In his bedroom closet, there was a sheet of paper with a list of goals he jotted down during his year off. It had a starting point ("be a position coach, because that's probably how you're going to have to get back into it") and timelines for when he wanted to be an offensive coordinator and head coach. All of it happened faster than anticipated. After two years running Houston's offense, he succeeded Herman in December.
"Very rarely does it go the way you plan it," Applewhite said.
While Applewhite had a solid resume -- his only blemish being an inappropriate relationship that he acknowleged in 2013 -- he was hardly considered the favorite to land the Houston job. Lane Kiffin and Lincoln Riley were among the top candidates and former Baylor coach Art Briles lobbied for the job. Applewhite didn't even appear to be the favorite of the in-house candidates (former defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who is now at Texas with Herman, was named interim coach when Herman left).
But Houston's desire to secure a coach for the long haul (via a sizable buyout clause at the insistence of Fertitta and other alumni who were tired of being a stepping-stone for Power 5 programs) eventually created an opportunity for Applewhite. He also had the backing of several Texas high school coaches, who wield significant influence considering how fertile a recruiting ground Texas is. Several reached out to athletic director Hunter Yurachek to endorse Applewhite.
The players he currently recruits must cue up his highlights on YouTube since they're too young to have seen him play, but his name still carries heft in the Lone Star State. What he accomplished as a quarterback at Texas -- setting eight school records, going to four consecutive bowls and going 22-8 as a starter -- is still remembered well enough within the state's borders that his moniker means something.
"When you go in those homes and you sit in those living rooms, you have to win momma and daddy over, and momma and daddy know who he is," said longtime Houston-area high school coach Richard Carson. "They're starting to figure out who he is as a coach."
So far, Applewhite appears to be juggling his new duties well. He makes sure to glad-hand boosters when they show up and if he happens to miss one or two before they leave, he makes sure to call them after practice to thank them for coming out. He preaches his desire for action rather than talk ("Love is spelled T-I-M-E," he told his staff at a recent meeting. "Spending time with your guys, that's what other staffs don't do.").
Whether that translates into the win totals alumni and administration desire is unknown. This spring brought its challenges, with the Cougars fielding only 44 healthy scholarship players. Injuries impact that number but roster attrition -- in the form of 25 scholarship players from the 2015-16 rosters who would still have eligibility now that are gone for myriad reasons -- left Applewhite with less than a full deck.
Still, he has a bonafide star on one side of the ball with Oliver, a freshman All-American in 2016, and a potential one in quarterback Kyle Allen, the transfer from Texas A&M who is the favorite to start. Regardless, Houston is betting on Applewhite as its long-term answer, hoping to follow what Yurachek calls "the Boise State model." In short: Find a winning culture that works (check). If a coach leaves, hire from within that staff to maintain the culture (check). Continue to win (we'll see).
Applewhite's buyout is prohibitive (If he leaves for another program, he'll owe Houston the entirety of his remaining deal -- he's being paid $1.5 million per season through the 2021 season -- plus the cover the school's buyouts of any assistant coaches that he doesn't take with him and aren't retained by his successor; if he leaves for a school in the state of Texas, the buyout increases by 50 percent), so he should probably get comfortable.
He says that's the plan.
"I want to be here," Applewhite said. "There's a commitment level here. You love to win. It's a great city. Just win. Just stay here and win. You've moved around enough, you have young children, let's just win and let's keep the same zip code and win and make sure your family has a stable place to thrive."
"I think this place is a gold mine. If you do it right, you recruit well, you get the right guys to recruit this state the way it can and should be recruited then you can build a great program in this city."