The billionaire and the bold move behind Houston's Dana Holgorsen hire

Herbstreit: Holgorsen to Houston 'a huge coup for the AAC' (0:52)

Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso break down what it means for Houston to hire Dana Holgorsen away from West Virginia. (0:52)

HOUSTON -- The University of Houston's pursuit of Dana Holgorsen began with a call to Jake Spavital.

When the newly minted Texas State coach's phone rang on a mid-December day, Houston athletic director Chris Pezman -- whom he crossed paths with at Cal -- was on the other end. Then-Cougars coach Major Applewhite was considering offensive coordinator candidates to possibly succeed Kendal Briles -- who was about to leave for the same position at Florida State -- and Pezman polled Spavital on several of them, interested in his friend's opinion.

Soon thereafter, Holgorsen's name came up in the conversation. Houston's power brokers were evaluating the possibility of making a head-coaching change but were uncertain.

"He kinda was like, 'Would Dana be interested?'" recalled Spavital, Holgorsen's longtime friend and former offensive coordinator with the Mountaineers. "I told [Pezman], 'With the things I've heard from West Virginia, possibly, yeah.'"

A few weeks later -- after Houston lost to Army in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in record fashion (the 70-14 defeat was the largest in FBS bowl history) -- Applewhite was fired and Holgorsen was hired. The Cougars pulled off a coup few thought possible.

After eight seasons at West Virginia, Holgorsen made a rare choice, voluntarily going from a winning Big 12 program to a Group of 5 squad that's still trying to crash the Power 5 party. The reasons? The Bayou City, a billionaire and some big bucks Houston was willing to pay made it an enticing move at an opportune time for the former Mountaineer coach.

Here's how it happened:

When Applewhite took over the Houston program in December 2016, the Cougars were coming off one of their most successful two-year stretches in school history.

Tom Herman had departed for Texas. He had led the team to a 22-4 mark during his tenure -- which included a conference championship and a Peach Bowl win over Florida State -- and engineered significant interest in the program.

The promotion of Applewhite, Herman's offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016, was intended to bring continuity. Houston felt it had captured something and wanted to hang onto it, building on the success by keeping a key piece to lead the program.

That task came with immediate pressure, as Houston president and chancellor Renu Khator said at a holiday party, shortly after Applewhite's hiring, that "winning is defined at the University of Houston as 10-2. ... We'll fire coaches at 8-4."

Applewhite's teams went 7-5 and 8-5. More important, Pezman said, was the butts in the seats at TDECU Stadium, or rather, lack thereof.

"It wasn't 8-4; that didn't make a difference," Pezman said. "It was the energy and the trajectory of the program.

"We're down 7,000 season tickets since Herman left. It's not Major's fault, but that's almost $3 million a year, just in tickets. So everybody's like, 'How can you afford this?' I'm like, 'How can I not?'" (Holgorsen's deal will pay him an average annual salary of $4 million, a difference of $2.25 million from the $1.75 million per year Houston was paying Applewhite, according to USA Today.)

Things were going well this season at one point -- the Cougars reached No. 17 in the Associated Press poll and started 7-1. But a rash of injuries hit the team, including to its two best players: quarterback D'Eriq King and defensive tackle Ed Oliver. The Cougars lost four of their final five, Applewhite fired his defensive coordinator, and though UH began contemplating a change before the bowl game, the embarrassing loss was what sealed Applewhite's fate.

On Dec. 30, 2018, Houston made its move. But it was in the works even before that.

Dana Holgorsen's love for Houston is no secret, at least not to those in town. After spending two seasons there as an offensive coordinator in 2008 and 2009 -- where he and quarterback Case Keenum racked up more than 10,000 passing yards together and led the nation in scoring for a year -- he grew an affinity for the city.

Even though he moved on to Oklahoma State for a year and then to West Virginia, Houston held a special place in his heart.

"When I left here 10 years ago, I left here with a frown," Holgorsen said. "Because one, I was going to Oklahoma, but two, I love this city and this university so much. Obviously, things worked out OK, but I always came back. I came back two, three, four, five times a year and enjoyed what this wonderful city has to offer."

He stayed in touch with numerous friends in the city even though he was 1,300 miles away. He even did a weekly radio show appearance every fall, despite the fact that West Virginia football isn't a hot topic in southeast Texas.

"I thought all the time that he was gone that he always wanted to be back here," said John Granato, a local sports radio host and longtime friend of Holgorsen's. "Ever since I've known him, every chance he could, he's come back to Houston."

Houston offers something that Morgantown -- or most college towns, where the school is the highest-profile part of the place -- doesn't: a chance to blend in. Holgorsen won't be the most recognizable face in town when he's out socially; James Harden and J.J. Watt have higher Q ratings among the local sports figures. There are more than 6 million people in the city's metro area.

The recruiting advantages that come with the area are a plus, too. Holgorsen long recruited the area as an assistant and even in his early years at West Virginia before deciding to focus on areas closer geographically. Houston is one of the biggest hotbeds of high school football talent nationally, and Texas is a fertile recruiting state.

"He's been there recruiting for many years, long before he came to Houston," said Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin, who hired Holgorsen to Houston in 2008. "From high school coaches, to the network, the Houston Touchdown Club, he knows everybody. They all know him. I think it's a great fit for everybody."

If Houston was going to make a big move, Tilman Fertitta had to be on board.

The Houston Rockets owner has a lot of titles: CEO of Landry's Inc., a Texas-based restaurant and entertainment company; owner of Golden Nugget Casinos; star of "Billion Dollar Buyer," a CNBC reality TV show, among them. But for UH, it's his role as the school's board of regents chairman and benefactor that is most impactful. And his role in landing Holgorsen was invaluable.

"I've probably known Dana for 10 years," Fertitta said. "I've had cocktails with him many times."

He, too, knew Holgorsen had a desire to return south ("Always, in conversations, he would tell me he missed Houston," Fertitta said). When Herman left in 2016, UH considered Holgorsen, but Fertitta had intermediaries reach out.

This time around, he made a personal call to Holgorsen, and it made a difference.

"They've got a relationship, and that helps, because what it does, at this point, it eliminates the bulls---," Pezman said. "'This is real, this is happening and I'm helping make it happen.'"

When Spavital told Pezman what he knew about Holgorsen's situation at West Virginia, Pezman relayed that information to Fertitta. Sources told ESPN that Holgorsen had come to a stalemate in negotiations with the school over a contract extension. The point of contention was Holgorsen's desire for additional guaranteed years on his contract and a larger buyout. West Virginia, having just given him a five-year extension following 2016, wasn't willing to meet all of Holgorsen's demands.

Fertitta, who's worth $4.6 billion, according to Forbes (which also calls him "the world's richest restaurateur"), aimed to find out what it would take, financially, to lure Holgorsen.

After the Cougars were embarrassed on national television by Army and the school's power brokers reflected on the state of the program, they decided the sizable investment it would take to make a change and land a sitting Big 12 coach was worth the risk.

"What was really cool with Tilman, I said 'Look we can fix this, as in, prop it up, or we can [really] fix it,'" Pezman said.

They called it their "Roy Munson plan," a reference to Woody Harrelson's character in the 1996 movie "Kingpin," to which Holgorsen strikes a facial resemblance.

If it means wins, Fertitta is willing to spend. He donated $20 million to the school for naming rights to the school's pristine basketball arena, the Fertitta Center. It is a dramatically renovated version of Hofheinz Pavilion, the building where Phi Slama Jama rose to prominence in the 1980s.

Before Herman left for Texas in 2016, Fertitta made it clear the school would do "whatever it takes" to keep him and told KRIV-TV in Houston that "He's not going to leave because of money."

With Fertitta, Khator and Pezman leading the way, the Cougars were able to pull off the improbable.

In the news release announcing Holgorsen's hire, Fertitta was the first person the new coach thanked. When Holgorsen was introduced as the new head coach Thursday, it was Fertitta who made the first public remarks.

"If you want to win, there's a cost of winning," he told the crowd. "I challenge myself and everybody in this room to help step up and let's do the right thing, because there is nothing like winning, and we all know that."

A colorful character, Fertitta cracked jokes about the expectations, referencing Khator's 8-4 comment ("You can push repeat on that"). He interjected in the middle of Holgorsen's Q&A session with the media to thank a pair of UH dignitaries. He also thanked the media in the middle of the conference "for no fake news when all of this was going on."

He has served on the board of regents for nine years. He attended UH's school of hotel and restaurant management and his passion -- and his willingness to financially support that passion -- makes him a major player at the school.

"He is enormously valuable," Khator said. "He expands our horizons, and makes us think strategically and take chances and take risks."

Added Pezman: "Schools that have had that person, like T. Boone Pickens [at Oklahoma State]... or Drayton McLane at Baylor, when you have those people, that's when you have a chance to separate yourself from everybody else. I'm not naïve in understanding the significance of that for us."

If nothing else, Holgorsen arrived in Houston on Monday thanks to Fertitta. After spending time in the Bahamas, Fertitta boarded his private G5 jet, flew to Orlando to pick up Holgorsen where he had remained after the Mountaineers' Camping World Bowl loss to Syracuse, and brought him to Houston.

"We just talked football," Fertitta said. "No different than what we've done before."

When they landed in Fertitta's private hangar at Hobby Airport, Khator and Dona Cornell, UH's general counsel, were there to meet them. After the meeting, rather than endure the 16-mile drive in Houston traffic, Holgorsen and Fertitta took his helicopter to the Post Oak Hotel, a lavish facility in uptown Houston owned by, of course, Fertitta.

"It was like a scene out of Ocean's Eleven," Pezman said.

Like most significant coaching moves, the contract was critical.

After talks stalled between Holgorsen and West Virginia, there was an opportunity for him to move. Holgorsen had spent eight years in Morgantown and was losing most of the key players from what was his most talented team. Star quarterback Will Grier and receiver David Sills V, among others, won't be around.

The Mountaineers' climb in the Big 12 isn't getting easier with Oklahoma having made three consecutive College Football Playoff appearances, Texas on the rise and Iowa State suddenly becoming a factor. If Holgorsen was going to make a move, this seemed as good a time as any.

Houston's own ambitions include eventual membership in a Power 5 conference. The school made a public play two years ago for Big 12 membership but the league ultimately decided not to expand. The Cougars haven't lost hope of joining one of the Power 5 leagues and this move is evidence of their desire to position themselves for one.

Holgorsen's average salary puts him in the top 25 nationally among head coaches. His salary pool for assistant coaches ($4.5 million) is by far the highest in the Group of 5, higher than numerous Power 5 programs, and more than double what Applewhite's staff made ($2.14 million, according to USA Today). The school gave him the extra years he desired and a favorable buyout if he's fired without cause. But the buyout if he chooses to leave is also high in the first three years.

"We are stuck with him for a few years and he's stuck with us for a few years," Fertitta said. "Hopefully he's here for the next 20 years and we build a statue of him."

In the past five years, the school has built a new football stadium, an indoor practice facility, a new basketball practice facility and the Fertitta Center. Khator said, regardless of conference affiliation, she wants UH in the spotlight.

"We've got to have an excellent athletics program, because that's what is an asset to the university," she said. "A mediocre program is not an asset, it's a liability. Our goal has always remained exactly the same... and that is we're building a nationally relevant program."

Pezman has studied the finances of Power 5 programs and noticed that the average annual revenue for the teams in the bottom half of the Pac 12 and Big 12 is approximately $83 million. Houston's budget is currently a tad more than $60 million.

"In the next three to five years, our job, my job, is to find a way to figure out how to close that gap," he said. "There's a lot of different ways to go about it, but right now, it starts with Dana and this hire."

For now, they'll continue aiming for success in the American and aspiring to reach the type of place UCF is in the football landscape (the Knights won consecutive conference championships and have lost just one game in the past two seasons). The Cougars have the man they believe can get them there. And they can thank, at least in small in part, Spavital -- a former Houston graduate assistant and one-time roommate of Holgorsen's -- for an assist.

"Jake, I owe him a case of something," Pezman said with a smile.