It seems fitting that Major Applewhite begins his career as a college football head coach at a university about halfway between Baton Rouge and Austin, the two cities that have forged his path. At both ends of this southern interstate region, where football is a metaphor for life, Applewhite shattered records throughout high school and college.
The winding but purposeful road he has traveled to Houston, which included stops under two of the most iconic names in football—Nick Saban and Mack Brown—has prepared him to command the movement known as the #HTownTakeover in his own conservative yet confident way. Nothing flamboyant. No grills, no frills. Focused and almost flat on the outside. Intensity within.
“I’m really damn competitive,” Applewhite said. “I don’t wear my emotions on my sleeve. I’m not an attention seeker. Maybe that’s a bad thing in this business for some people. Maybe some people think you have to constantly have an entertainment value to you. I don’t think so as a head coach. I think your team needs to have an entertainment value.”
Promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach in December, Applewhite immediately hit the road for much of the next two months. Amidst the scramble to hire almost a full coaching staff was the challenge of securing the 2017 recruiting class late in the game as the clock ran down to the February 1 signing day. It’s an effort he describes as taking over in the middle of the game as a backup quarterback.
“It’s not truly my recruiting class,” Applewhite said. But he’s excited about what he describes as quality players among the 17 selected. He’s eager about the opportunity to establish a culture within the program. At his signing day press conference, he emphasized success recruiting student athletes who will stay on the straight and narrow.
“He’s gonna get his degree. I’m not gonna get a 2:30 a.m. phone call. And, oh, by the way, he’s pretty damn good, too. So we’re gonna be able to win games,” he said in a conversation immediately following.
SUCCESS FROM ADVERSITY
If there was a single defining moment that influenced the way Major Applewhite approaches his responsibilities as a coach, it happened on a Thursday in 1998. Applewhite, a freshman quarterback at The University of Texas, was on the practice field two days before his first matchup with storied rival Oklahoma, and he kept dropping snaps from under center.
“I just remember Coach (Mack) Brown calling me over and him saying, ‘Now Major, you’ve got to get the snap.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, sir, I’ll get it.’”
What Brown told him doesn’t sound remarkable, and that’s the point. It wasn’t until years later that Applewhite realized the significance of a coach’s calm exterior while anxiety and frustration raged within. He later reminisced with Brown about that day and recalls his coach admitted to being on the verge of vomiting as he watched the football continuously hit the ground.
“He knew he was dealing with a 19-year-old redshirt freshman who was 48 hours removed from a huge national rivalry game,” Applewhite said. He then recalled Brown conceded that screaming at him would only have made the situation worse, so he tried to calm himself and his quarterback in the process. Applewhite led his team to a 34-3 victory two days later.
I'm really damn competitive, Applewhite said. I don't wear my emotions on my sleeve. I'm not an attention seeker.
While that event left a memorable mark, it was the controversial benching of Applewhite his senior season in favor of Chris Simms that opened his eyes to his future career. Without the reps on the field, he started paying more attention to the game behind the game. How it unfolded. How the coaches taught. How the players listened. How, sometimes, the message didn’t sink in. And he communicated that to his coaches.
“Coach you’re not pressing the right buttons. I’m just telling you; I’m watching it. I know this guy—say it that way. Teach him that way,” he would advise.
Applewhite has taken his own advice as an offensive coordinator (the last two years leading UH’s high-powered offense), and football throughout Texas has taken notice. During the search to replace Tom Herman, letters of recommendation poured in to UH athletic director Hunter Yurachek from top high school football programs from Katy to Tyler and Dallas to Austin Westlake. They praised him for his intellect and work ethic, leadership, unmatched competitive spirit and his ability to build relationships with his players.
“I just felt like this is a profession that if you’re a good man and you do it the right way, you can impact people the same way these people are impacting you.”
If the ability to connect with players and being a true student of the game are the marks of a successful coach, then #HTownTakeover 2.0 is poised to win.
But the 38-year-old knows that achieving success as a program, similar to winning a game as a quarterback, is a team effort.
He’s banking on the legion of Houston fans that has increased significantly over the last few seasons. More and more red is popping up throughout the city, and NFL stars, including J.J. Watt, are appearing on the Cougars’ sideline.
“We’ve done a great job the last two years in fan support. TDECU Stadium has been a live environment. It’s important for our football players and staff to create that environment,” Applewhite added, perhaps foreshadowing the shape UH football may take under his leadership. “We’re going to be relentless and aggressive in what we do. We’re also going to be innovative and a little unique. We’re going to bring an entertaining brand of football, something you want to sit in the stands, get there early and stay late for, and support our student-athletes.”
Recruits and national pundits have taken note. It’s the same support that elevated the Houston program to national prominence in the 1970s under Hall of Fame coach Bill Yeoman. Sold-out Astrodome crowds provided a backdrop for players who would grow to be local legends while inspiring recruits who would follow in their footsteps.
As the Louisiana native traversed between his high school and college careers on the heels of the Andre Ware run-and-shoot era, he took note of the program from afar. He’s mindful of Houston’s winning tradition and its commitment to national prominence. He sees the University’s commitment to resources and excellence in athletics and academics. He refers to the number of Fortune 500 companies and job opportunities located in Houston like he’s pulled it from his recruiting pitch.
He’s also aware that Cougar football, which has not soared so high in rankings or prestige in a quarter-century, has been a perennial underdog. Reflective of Houston’s blue-collar, can-do spirit, it has to labor harder and smarter to claw its way to the top, to gain respect and achieve success. Applewhite embraces the challenge. “I’ve lived my life a little bit as an underdog. I just feel like the mentality here fits me, and I fit it.”
Though his reserved demeanor favors actions over words, it’s evident that the opportunity to field his team and prove himself can’t come soon enough.