As flood ravages city, UH struggles to prepare for football season
AUSTIN - Around 7:30 a.m. Sunday, Major Applewhite walked into the hotel lobby of the University of Houston’s temporary headquarters and immediately realized today was not a day for football.
He saw concern on his players’ faces. He saw them anxiously texting and making phone calls, searching for any word from family members in the path of catastrophic flooding in Houston and the Texas coastal region.
So Applewhite scrapped plans to practice.
“I just knew their minds weren’t there,” Applewhite said Monday after UH concluded a two-hour practice on the University of Texas campus. “It was not a good day to practice. That’s the thing: forget football. (We’re talking about) lives and family and people. That’s where our emphasis needed to be. It did everybody good, because everybody needed it.”
On Thursday night, UH officials began to consider the possibility of relocating their football operations with Hurricane Harvey making landfall along the southeast Texas coastline. Baylor, SMU and TCU all offered use of facilities. Ultimately, UH decided on Austin because of its three-hour proximity, available hotel rooms and UT’s indoor practice facility. The school also has a relationship with UT athletic director Mike Perrin, who is from Houston, and former coach Tom Herman.
″(Thursday) as it became apparent that Harvey was going to have a significant impact throughout the weekend and into (this) week,” said UH vice president for intercollegiate athletics Hunter Yurachek, “we reached out to schools within the state of Texas that we have great relationships with, and inquired about the opportunity for our football program to practice and use their facilities as we are relocating outside Houston.”
At 2 p.m. Friday, UH loaded six charter buses with 180 players, coaches and support staff, and left the UH campus for Austin, beginning an odyssey that is going on four days and offers no hints when the team will return home.
“Obviously, folks were upset and didn’t want to leave families,” UH athletic spokesman David Bassity said. “Our coaching staff and administration made a promise that we were going to take care of their sons and get them to safety.”
At a team meeting upon arriving in Austin, Applewhite had a message for the team.
“Just told them to trust us,” he said. “We’re going to do what’s in their best interest. There are no ulterior motives here. It’s all about human beings and not football games at this point.”
Applewhite added: “Obviously, football is important to all of us, but the first thing is Houston. It’s our city. We constantly talk to our guys about representing the city of Houston because it’s across our chest.”
Players were not available to reporters Monday.
Lightening the mood
In between meetings, UH has attempted to keep the routine as normal as possible while preparing for Saturday’s season opener at UTSA. Players spent Saturday night in a hotel ballroom watching the Floyd Mayweather-Connor McGregor fight. They play cards, Ping-Pong and board games.
“Different activities to keep their minds off things,” Bassity said. “The more they sit, the more they think about it.”
Mostly, Bassity said, there had been “a lot of angst and concern.” The mood was considerably more upbeat when players were finally able to make contact with family Saturday afternoon.
Through a coordinated effort between Yurachek and the Houston Police Department and first responders, UH provided a list of player’s families that were believed to be in the immediate path of the storm.
That was at 10:30 a.m.
By 4:30 p.m., all the family members had been accounted for.
“That was a big-time move by our AD and HPD,” Applewhite said. “In about six hours, we were able to check on those that were in immediate harm.”
Damage to homes
Like his players, Applewhite’s thoughts are with family back in Houston, where his wife, Julie, and two small children remained at their Bellaire rental home.
“It’s hard,” Applewhite said. “My wife is strong as all get-out. I know that everything is going to be fine.”
No flood damage has occurred to his house, but Applewhite said the electricity has gone out a couple of times and his family is unable to leave.
“If that’s the worst thing that happens, we’re going to be all right,” Applewhite said.
Bassity, who is UH’s senior associate athletics director for strategic communication, was not as fortunate. He watched on webcam as his Westbury area home flooded.
“It was a punch in the gut,” he said.
Bassity’s wife, Alison, and dogs Kirby, an 80-pound chocolate Labrador, and Morgi, a 25-pound Corgi, accompanied him to Austin.
He saved what he could.
“My wife’s wedding dress is in the backseat of the car,” he said.
Growing up in Baton Rouge, La., Applewhite is no stranger to bad weather.
“Several of them,” Applewhite said. “Even when we moved all the way to Charlotte (N.C.), (Hurricane) Hugo hit us. I’ve been through several hurricanes, and you just never know. Sometimes it’s just nothing but heavy winds and a few branches fall down, and other times levies bust and it floods.”
‘A tighter brotherhood’
On the trip, Applewhite said it has been important to balance football while being mindful of everything going on back home.
“When it’s time to do football these three hours, we do football for these three hours,” Applewhite said. “But as soon as it’s over, get back on the phone and call mom and make sure everybody is OK.”
Staying at a hotel for an extended time, Applewhite said, has allowed the team to develop “a tighter brotherhood and bond.”
For now, the rest of the week remains uncertain. Bassity said the focus is on “four-hour blocks.” Classes at UH have been cancelled through at least Wednesday.
“It’s touch and go right now,” Applewhite said. “We’re going to do what’s safe before we make any decisions.”