HOUSTON — When the Houston Cougars loaded a fleet of buses and departed their campus three weeks ago, Major Applewhite didn’t figure they’d be gone long.
The rookie head coach and his team were headed to Austin as a precaution, with Hurricane Harvey rapidly approaching the Texas coastline. The Cougars had a game, after all, the following Saturday and they needed to be able to practice, weather be damned.
As the half-dozen motor coaches wheeled onto Cullen Boulevard and toward the interstate for the almost three-hour drive to the University of Texas, Applewhite was optimistic.
“I really thought the storm was going to go inland,” Applewhite said Wednesday. “And I thought we were going to be coming back Monday night and we were going to practice Tuesday in Houston.”
What actually happened the following days — catastrophic flooding, record rainfall, lost lives and damage that will take years to recover from and billions of dollars to repair — forever changed the city and its residents. When Houston and Rice renew their cross-town rivalry on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN3), it won’t fix anything, but will be another sign of resilient life returning.
“It’s the calm before the storm,” Houston safety Garrett Davis said. “I don’t think the emotion has risen to what it’s going to be Saturday, but it’s for sure getting there.”
It will also be a welcome homecoming for both teams, neither of which has played a game in the Bayou City since the storm hit.
When Rice players unloaded team buses upon returning on Sept. 1, they hadn’t been home in nearly two weeks. After leaving for Australia on Aug. 20 to play Stanford in the Sydney Cup, the team couldn’t return to Houston and stayed in Fort Worth for a week following the game.
When they arrived in Houston, they were met with snacks and cleaning supplies.
The latter items were necessary because several Owls were rudely welcomed by water in their cars (or the residual smell of it if it had already dried up). Athletic director Joe Karlgaard, defensive quality control coach Joe Foteh and director of business strategy Paul Lockhart-Korris were outside scooping water out of Lockhart-Korris’ sedan shortly after the team arrived home.
Several players and coaches learned of the damage from friends and family ahead of time. Trey Martin, the team’s senior center, got a picture from a friend who lives on the same street he does.
“The water was almost up to the stop sign,” Martin recalls.
Martin’s apartment had flooded. Virtually everything in the living room, dining room and kitchen were ruined. Clothes and school books were lost. His car was flooded, too, so he’s getting a ride from friends and teammates in the meantime.
“We were able to save some things, so we’re blessed for the things we could save,” Martin said.
When the team returned, Rice coach David Bailiff divided his team into groups of eight to 10 players. Each group would team up and help their affected teammates clean up their homes.
Houston tight ends coach James Casey had water in his Bellaire home, too. The street he lives on is filled with debris and most of the homes suffered flood damage. While the former NFL tight end is settling in as a first-time position coach, he’s got the ongoing construction project at his home.
The house is still livable — they stay upstairs most of the time now while repairs are ongoing on the first floor — but it’s going to be awhile before things become back to normal.
“Me personally, and some of our players who have issues they’re dealing with,” Casey said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on still.”
Like the Owls, the Cougars have worked to pick each other up. After returning to Houston, a group of defensive backs went to Dickinson, where freshman defensive back D.J. Small‘s grandmother’s home was flooded, to clean up.
When the Cougars arrived in Austin, there was much uncertainty. When the storm hit Houston and images of the flooding emerged, anxiety grew.
When Applewhite arrived at the team breakfast on Aug. 26 and saw his players glued to their phones, he knew the focus wasn’t there. He canceled practice. The Cougars practiced the next day, using the University of Texas’ facilities while staying in Austin hotels, for nearly a week. It became like a bowl trip without the bowl game, the fun activities and the swag. The game they were preparing for — a Sept. 2 opener vs. UTSA — was ultimately canceled.
As devastation swept their hometown, the Cougars were determined not to come home empty-handed. So Applewhite organized a donation drive in Austin and with the help of six other Texas college football programs that lent their equipment trucks, they returned home to Houston with much-needed supplies.
When the fleet of 18-wheelers, adorned with striking graphics for each respective team, pulled into Saint Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in north Houston, it was a welcome scene.
“It’s hard not to get emotional about it,” said Armando Walle, a state representative who is a member of the church and helped organize the arrival. “Some of these people lost everything. It’s devastating. You work so hard for the little that you have and in a matter of two, three days, boom, it’s gone.”
After all the trucks were unloaded, and players addressed their personal matters, the business of football still awaited. There were still games to be played. Rice and Houston both went on the road and scored victories, over UTEP and Arizona, respectfully, last week.
Take a stroll around the University of Houston and things now look largely normal. Students mill about between classroom buildings, the student center and the library. The campus survived major damage, with a few exceptions. Residents in the Bayou Oaks apartments on campus had to be relocated because it flooded.
Agnes Arnold Hall a multistory classroom building, which has a floor below street level, also sustained damage on the bottom floor and repair is ongoing, though students are still able to attend classes. The biggest difference is exposed ceilings and tarp-covered chain link fences surrounding the work areas, in addition to occasional signs like “DANGER: Construction area. Keep out.” and “Sorry for the inconvenience, minor ceiling work in progress.”
The city itself is, of course, still feeling the effects of the storm. Some roads are still impassable. Traffic, which was already bad, has increased as a result of that. Families are dealing with damage to their homes. Businesses are feeling the effects of that, too.
When Applewhite’s weekly radio show took place on Wednesday at Ragin’ Cajun, a popular seafood restaurant that has long hosted UH coaches’ shows, there was a little more foot traffic than the week before. Business is slowly, but surely, coming back.
“It’s not there yet,” said Luke Mandola, the restaurant’s owner. “People couldn’t get here because they couldn’t get out of their houses. Everybody was in distress. We were lucky we were open.”
Marilyn Winniford, a longtime Cougars fan who was in attendance for the show on Wednesday and lives near the UH campus, said she’s looking forward to this game because of everything the city has been through recently.
“With what has happened the last few weeks and everybody’s mind was somewhere else, we need to try to get back to being as normal as possible,” she said. “This game gives all of us something to get excited about and bring everybody together and reunite with all of our friends. There’s a lot of people who have had water in the house and lost everything and they’re just starting to try to move on with their life.
“It’s exciting in that. It’s the third game of the season, but it’s the first home game.”
This rivalry might never be one that garners the nation’s attention. The fan bases are quite smaller for this game than they are for the signature rivalry games like Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, Oklahoma-Texas — and it’s unlikely to ever have College Football Playoff implications.
Instead, it is a meeting of underdogs in their own way. Rice, renowned for its academics, is far from a football powerhouse, with only a handful of memorable seasons in its history. Houston, which has a colorful football history and seems to make national waves sporadically, is in a seemingly interminable journey to find a spot at college football’s big boy table. Last year it went through a public, but ultimately futile, effort to join the Big 12.
In some ways, it’s reflective of the city of Houston now, post-Harvey: an ambitious place with much to offer, but also with steep challenges ahead.
The city is recovering, working to get back to whatever “normal” is. In the meantime, these schools will spend Saturday night representing their hometown — and the Cougars will do it to a significant degree, putting the word “HOUSTON” on the back of their jerseys in place of their nameplates, a way to remind the city — and the team itself — who they are playing for.
“I think we all have to be grateful to play this game,” Davis said. “Grateful that we can even play it hear in the stadium. Grateful that Houston is still up and running in a sense.
“We should thank God and we should all be happy to even be in the positions we’re in now.”