HOUSTON -- It's mid-May in south Houston and Dana Holgorsen is holding court.
He's perched on a barstool next to two friends, TCU coach Gary Patterson and former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. They agreed to host a roundtable discussion for the Houston Touchdown Club (the organization usually hosts luncheons for the region's power programs with one coach as speaker). Holgorsen, dressed in a red Nike polo with "UH" on his left breast and black jeans, is the star of the show.
Immediately after swiping the microphone, he turns it into a comedy hour, reminding Patterson that TCU lost not once, but twice, in Morgantown, West Virginia, and ruing the day he endorsed Lincoln Riley to Stoops when the latter was looking for an offensive coordinator.
"He said, 'Don't set me up,'" Holgorsen recalls Stoops telling him. "In hindsight, I should've set his ass up, because we couldn't beat [Riley]."
As utensils clang on plates and attendees dig into chicken breasts and cornbread, the new Houston Cougars coach lets the crowd in on a little bit of truth:
"I left [West Virginia] for a whole bunch of different reasons," Holgorsen says. "Houston is home, the University of Houston is a great place, it's got tons of potential and we're going to make it as great as we can possibly make it, but the other side of it is I could never beat Oklahoma.
"That's the only school in the Big 12 where we could never get over that hump. We lost 59-56 this year, and I'm like, 'I'm outta here.'
"Then I look at the schedule, and the first game on the schedule at the University of Houston is at Oklahoma." The crowd laughs. "I can't catch a break!"
Holgorsen's welcome to Houston comes via a familiar foe: the No. 4 Sooners, who will host the Cougars on Sunday night (7:30 ET, ABC). This will serve as a barometer for Houston, evidence of how close -- or how far -- Holgorsen's new squad is from national relevance.
"Dana came back to Houston because he loves the place and understands the potential of the city and the university," Patterson says.
"I always tell people, when you take a job, you don't worry about money or title, you worry about fit. And to be honest with you, Houston probably fits Dana better than West Virginia did."
Power 5 hopes
It's late June and Dana Holgorsen is smiling.
It's the coaching staff's last day in the office before summer vacation, one of his favorite pastimes. ("When it's offseason, it's offseason," tight ends coach Shannon Dawson says. "That line of distinction isn't made with every staff, I can promise you.") Holgorsen is brimming with positive energy.
Sporting a black UH visor, a white polo and black shorts, he looks ready to hit the golf course. He may have squeezed in nine holes before strolling into the office this morning. He speaks glowingly of Orange Beach, Alabama, an enclave for Gulf Coast beachgoers near the Florida border that serves as an annual vacation spot for Holgorsen and his crew.
"It's relaxing," says Ryan Dorchester, Holgorsen's director of football operations. "It's not a spoken rule, but the goal is not to sit there and talk about football all day. And 90% of the conversation is about football."
Holgorsen's happy. He feels at home. Though he's from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, Houston supplanted it as his personal headquarters after he fell for the city a decade ago. In 2008, he left Mike Leach's Texas Tech staff to call the plays for Kevin Sumlin's Cougars and it was love at first snap.
At the time, Holgorsen was still obscure enough to be a relative unknown to the school's president, Renu Khator.
"You don't remember meeting me, but I did meet you 10 or 11 years ago," Holgorsen told her at his introduction in January. "I was just this little young offensive coordinator that didn't care about a whole lot other than trying to score points." (Khator later confirmed as much: "I had just gotten here and I barely knew my head coaches, forget about the other coaches.")
Returning to UH, Holgorsen marvels at what he has at his disposal. During his last stint here, none of the toys in his current sandbox -- a $130 million football stadium, a $20 million indoor practice facility, a staff salary pool analogous to that of solid Power 5 programs -- were available. Holgorsen's current salary ($3.7 million) is five times what Sumlin's was then and more than the entire staff combined -- head coach included -- made in 2008.
"I can't imagine where [the program is] gonna be 10 years from now," Holgorsen says.
His hope is that by that time, he's still at Houston and the Cougars are in the Power 5.
In many ways, Houston already runs like a Power 5 program. The staff salary pool -- $4.2 million -- is in line with those of ACC and Big 12 programs. Holgorsen augmented the support staff upon arrival; for example, the recruiting department had six to eight people in 2015 with two full-time staffers. Now the department has a dozen, with four full-timers.
He beefed up the strength staff as well, with five football-only strength coaches compared to less than half that five years ago.
"It's a big difference," junior safety Deontay Anderson says. "It's more specific [focus] for each position."
Perhaps most important to Holgorsen, they're closer to winning a conference championship here. He believed West Virginia's place in the Big 12 meant the Mountaineers needed to overachieve annually. Nobody will confuse WVU's facilities with the pristine Switzer Center at Oklahoma. Ultimately, Holgorsen grew weary of having to punch consistently above his weight class.
The Cougars are regular contenders for the American Athletic Conference championship; they won it in 2015 and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl. They beat two top-five teams, Oklahoma and Louisville, the following year. The Mountaineers' best finish in the Big 12 since joining the league came in 2016, when they finished tied for second. One could argue that the Cougars have comparable, if not better access to a New Year's Six bowl than the Mountaineers because the AAC champ usually receives the bowl's Group of 5 slot.
"If you have well-coached, disciplined, reckless players ... but you don't have the best players, you're going to be second or third, which is what we were at West Virginia," Holgorsen says. "Here, I think we have the best players ... [and] you got a chance to win a championship."
More than anything, that speaks to why he made the uncommon move of leaving a Power 5 program, willingly, for a Group of 5 school.
Sure, it makes it almost impossible for him to win a national championship, but without beating Oklahoma (he was 0-7 against the Sooners in his tenure, including last year's wild 59-56 defeat that kept WVU out of the Big 12 title game), it wasn't in the cards for the Mountaineers, either. West Virginia has the most wins of any FBS program without a national championship.
West Virginia has a better shot at a title just by access to the playoff via the Big 12, but without equal resources, it's a perpetual uphill battle.
"If you look around and made a list of every school that won its conference in the Power 5 from 2012-2018, I don't think you're going to find one that -- in terms of facilities and how good they are -- is going to be ninth or 10th [in their conference]," Dorchester says. "I don't think you're going to find one that's as big of an outlier as West Virginia was in that league.
"You want us to beat Oklahoma, I mean, go look at the difference. It's tough."
Dawson, who has been at both West Virginia and Kentucky -- another place that fights uphill in its league -- can relate.
"You can argue their chances of winning the league they play is not very good," Dawson says. "[Houston's] chances of winning, we should be mentioned in that every year. That's a huge benefit."
Building for the future
That's not to say Houston is giving up on a ticket to the playoff. The school still has lofty ambitions of joining college football's big boys. It was a driving force in the Cougars' decision to change coaches after just two seasons despite a winning record (Major Applewhite went 15-11). Momentum, to them, is precious and can't afford to be lost.
It's why athletic director Chris Pezman and super booster Tilman Fertitta led the charge to hire Holgorsen and keep men's basketball coach Kelvin Sampson (six years, $18 million), committing nearly $40 million guaranteed to the two coaches. The hope is to stabilize those programs ahead of any potential realignment shifts in the next decade. If the Cougars are going to have even a chance of moving to a Power 5 league, those two programs must lead the way.
"If you have well-coached, disciplined, reckless players ... but you don't have the best players, you're going to be second or third, which is what we were at West Virginia. Here, I think we have the best players....[and] you got a chance to win a championship."Dana Holgorsen
"Nobody's gonna say, 'We're gonna give you this money, go spend it.' We have to act as if [we're in a Power 5 conference]," Pezman says. "That's a $4 million [per year] coach for football, a $3 million dollar coach for basketball."
The commitment to facilities is evident. TDECU Stadium is just five years old, and the indoor practice facility draws raves from NFL coaches ("Bill O'Brien came over here and spoke at our clinic and he's like, 'S---, this is really nice,'" Holgorsen says). UH spent $85 million on basketball facilities, built an indoor track, a $6 million baseball player development center and renovated academic and dining areas for UH's athletes.
Holgorsen already has eyes on a football-only operations building -- the final piece to the football puzzle in Houston's efforts to level the playing field with Power 5 programs. Administrators have already met with designers for that project, which Pezman needs to raise money for and is likely three or four years away. Projected cost? Between $50-70 million.
Pezman also aims to increase the department's budget to align more closely with the Power 5. UH's current athletic budget is less than $60 million; Pezman projects $75 million by 2022. The average operating budget for bottom-half spenders in the Big 12 is $87 million.
While department leadership focuses on that, Holgorsen will aim to get the Cougars back into national prominence.
There's solid talent on the roster -- led by quarterback D'Eriq King, the returning national leader in touchdowns responsible for -- but the depth isn't quite where Holgorsen and his staff want it. And the challenging schedule -- in addition to Oklahoma, they play Washington State, UCF, Memphis, Cincinnati and North Texas -- makes being a New Year's Six team this season a tough ask.
The future, however, is bright.
'So we're functional'
It seems fitting that Holgorsen's reintroduction to Houston came with him holding a can of Red Bull. Few things have been as synonymous with him as the energy drink, of which he now consumes the sugar-free version, but still guzzles. He has a fridge full of Red Bulls in his office and King says Holgorsen makes a staffer keep them on hand during practice in case he needs another.
While his personality, laid-back image and social life will cause nobody to confuse him with Nick Saban, that overshadows some of his other qualities. He's organized, efficient and candid.
Upon his arrival, he made significant changes throughout the football offices. He removed half the chairs from the main staff meeting room ("This thing was a s---show," he says, lamenting how cramped the quarters were) and cleaned up the locker room and other staff meeting rooms. He went without an office for four months. "We got rid of a lot of desks and a lot of bulls--- that was laying around," he says. "So we're functional."
His current staff lauds his efficiency and the trust he puts in them. "He hires people and lets them do their jobs," Dawson says. "Our staff meeting is at this time, practice at this time, all the time in between, you get your job done. Some people thrive under that and some people don't."
Cornerbacks coach Doug Belk, who spent two seasons as a graduate assistant for Saban at Alabama before joining Holgorsen at West Virginia and then Houston, says going from Saban to Holgorsen was a "culture shock."
Saban has a 7:30 a.m. staff meeting every day. Holgorsen comes from the Leach and Hal Mumme school of football coaching ("We've always been a more-production, less-hours outfit," Mumme jokes). "Our staff meetings...fluctuate," Belk says.
Coaches and players don't have to guess where they stand with Holgorsen. At a recent interview session, while commenting on the Cougars' tight ends, he pointed out the blocking ability of one of them but quipped, "I hope to God that we never, ever throw it to him because he can't catch."
"He's gonna be black-and-white and tell you the truth," strength coach Darl Bauer says.
Dorchester, who has been in every staff meeting of Holgorsen's head-coaching career, has had a front row seat for it.
"I've gone to him with countless thoughts and ideas," Dorchester says. "Some he likes and says, 'That's really good.' And others he says, 'That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of.' There's no one who's given him more bad ideas than me. Sometimes he'll look at me and say, 'Is something wrong with you? Why would you say that?'
What he lacks in warm-and-fuzzy, Holgorsen makes up for in open ears.
"He allows you to question him," Dorchester says. "If he hires you, he's gonna respect your opinion until you give him a reason not to."
His friendships are placed on pause when they're on the schedule. All six years that he and Kliff Kingsbury were in the Big 12, their interaction dwindled. As soon as Kingsbury went to the NFL, Holgorsen visited him for three days in the spring. Conversely, he declined an invitation from Leach for a trip to the Bahamas this year because the Cougars play Washington State in Week 3.
"When you play each other, you just don't really hang out," Holgorsen says.
That goes for Lincoln Riley, too, who -- like Holgorsen -- is from the Leach tree. The two were on staff together for six years at Texas Tech and were quite close. "My kids were in Lincoln's wedding," Holgorsen says. "His wife, Caitlin, was my nanny."
When Stoops called Holgorsen in 2014 to ask if Riley could run the OU offense at a high level, Holgorsen didn't hesitate. "Hell, yeah, he can do it. Hire him."
As he told the story in May at the Touchdown Club, he joked that at least the Sooners' Heisman Trophy quarterbacks were gone.
"Then they go out and get a guy [Jalen Hurts] who's like 30-2 as a starter," Holgorsen says. "So I'm like, 'Geez.'"
Three of Holgorsen's first five opponents are former Tech assistants -- Riley, Leach and North Texas' Seth Littrell. He'll see another, SMU's Sonny Dykes, in October. It'll be like old times when they see each other. They'll crack jokes and share stories before returning to opposite sidelines.
"There's a lot of friendships," Holgorsen says. "Those friendships kinda go by the wayside there on game day. You kinda slap each other on the back pregame and then try to kick their ass."