We’d been standing there for an hour or so, wondering what we were doing with our lives. We were all waiting to watch. Waiting to watch a guy we’d never met pull into a parking lot and walk from his car to the front door.
It’s a funny business, sometimes, but the people who are serious about it show up and do it. They wait to watch.
the daily #126 | 12/4/2023 | Archives
When I showed up 30 minutes before the expected arrival, a single reporter – Josh Criswell from Chron.com – stood there. Then I walked over, and a little while later, Joseph Duarte did the same. Then, there was a TV cameraman and another, and then Starns Leland and a few staffers appeared. The waiting-to-watch crowd was picking up steam.
Football players started trickling in as we continued our vigil. They were there to actually meet with the man that we were there to watch. One of the first was Chidozie Nwankwo, who was using a foot scooter (knee walker?) after surgery on his ankle. Most players walked by us, smiled, and nodded, but Chidozie fist-bumped Duarte and me.
Part of waiting to watch is the understanding that you don’t bombard the players with questions about a man they have yet to meet officially. They’ve followed this process like fans do: morsels of info from social media here and there. So it was quick hellos, and they moved on. They were nervous – unsure of how their lives were changing. Uncertain of how expectations were changing.
Finally, at 7:57, we hear, “Here they come.” A black SUV turns into the parking lot and rolls to the front of the Athletics/Alumni Center. Phones pop out, and TV camera lights flick on. The waiting to watch is over; now it’s time to watch. We’re filming the dramatic introduction of the man of the hour. All lenses focus on the back right door of this SUV, the door closest to us. Instead, the guy pops out of the other side of the car and walks around. He eyes Chris Pezman and smiles a toothy grin.
“Hi, I’m Willie,” the affable man in his sixties says as he and his wife, Susan, approach UH supporters Ron and Carolyn Yokubaitis. It was all very polite small talk. They quickly hit different topics from Willie’s life, jumping from the Split Veer, Willis High School (where he spent a season in the mid-80s as an assistant coach) to Drew Brees.
We stood back, the watchers, and took photos and video from a slight distance. Someone mentioned he was the 16th head coach of the University of Houston. Is that right? I stopped for a minute and did the quick math. Willie is my 9th head coach since 1998.
That can’t be right, can it? Nine in 25 years? But it’s Helton / Dimel / Briles / Sumlin / Levine / Herman / Applewhite / Holgorsen / Fritz. Whoa.
I walked to the front door, mainly to lean on it to support my back but also knowing Willie would walk in next to me. So, at least, my watching would get me a little better video. Not a moment later, he disengaged from his chat, nodded to a few folks, and walked through the door.
That was it: waiting to watch, watching, and walking by. In total, it was six minutes, and Willie didn’t say a word to us. We knew he wouldn’t – that’s just an accepted part of the watching – but you could already get a sense of the man from observing. It was a total departure from the guy who left this building a week ago. Willie smiled the entire time and was calm, secure, folksy, caring, friendly, but serious.
Sometimes, you don’t take anything from it when you wait to watch. But on this slightly chilly Sunday evening, I observed the opposite of Dana’s “Hey, let’s go win some games” introductory video. I saw and heard a man who seems to take building a winning program seriously.
UH football players are getting a head coach who will love and hold them accountable. There will be discipline and consequences. It may sound weird, but players crave that structure and accountability. They tell me their assistant coaches care for them, but in five years, I never got the sense that many thought the same of the head coach.
In a video released exactly one hour after he walked into the building, Willie said something that confirmed my instincts while observing him earlier.
“The other part that is so important for me is to get to know the young men that are in our program right now. I’ve had, I don’t know, 5-600 text messages over the last day and a lot of them are from my former student-athletes. I want to develop those kinds of relationships with the guys that play for the Cougars.”
He talked about process, fundamentals, discipline, and building relationships with players. He talked like a football coach. He talked like a winner. He talked like a guy who loves the arduous work of building something.
Most of all, he talked with sincerity. And he never stopped talking like a guy named Willie.