Gary Kubiak pulled the Texans out of the NFL basement and remains the only coach to take them to the playoffs.
That wasn't enough to save his job, not with the Texans mired in an 11-game skid that has dropped them back to the bottom of the league.
Houston fired Kubiak on Friday, one day after the Texans lost 27-20 at Jacksonville and continued their stunning fall for a team that expected to make a Super Bowl run. Houston (2-11) was flagged 14 times for a franchise-record 177 yards.
The 52-year-old Kubiak was hired in 2006 and led the team to AFC South titles in 2011-2012, the highlights of his eight-year tenure as coach of his hometown NFL team.
The Texans said they couldn't wait any longer to start turning things around, not with the losses and undisciplined play piling up.
"What's taken place with this organization is unacceptable," general manager Rick Smith said. "We've got three weeks of an evaluation process left and we've got to right the ship."
Kubiak thanked the team for giving him his first head coaching job in the NFL.
"Though we came up short this season, the work, effort and sacrifice they gave me and this organization over the last eight seasons is not to be taken for granted," he said in a statement provided by the Texans. "We had a great run here and we will never forget our back-to-back AFC South championships. Coming back home was a dream come true for all of us. This will always be our home."
Kubiak's overall record is 61-64, with a 2-2 mark in the playoffs. Owner Bob McNair said the decision to let him go was a hard one.
"It was difficult for me because I think so much of Gary," McNair said. "We've been evaluating it every game and asking the question, `What's in the best interest of the organization?' We're at the point now where we need to go ahead and make some changes because losing like this is unacceptable."
He added: "We're here to have a winning culture and this year has not contributed to that."
The Texans said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips would serve as interim coach for the rest of what has been a miserable season. McNair said NFL and head coaching experience were important factors in filling the job, and that the 66-year-old Phillips will be considered.
Kubiak suffered a mini-stroke Nov. 3 in a frightening scene, collapsing at halftime during a game against the Colts and being rushed to a Houston hospital. He suffered a transient ischemic attack, which occurs when blood flow to the brain is briefly interrupted, typically by a blood clot or narrowed blood vessels. Experts say they are often a warning sign for a future stroke, particularly within three months of a TIA.
Kubiak returned to coach, but the Texans have been unable to rebound from injuries to top players including quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and linebacker Brian Cushing, who was lost for the second straight season.
McNair pointed to messy play and the handling of second-year quarterback Case Keenum as reasons for the move before the end of the season.
"I think the last straw was losing," McNair said. "We've got a lot better talent than Jacksonville and to lose to them twice, to their credit they played harder, played smarter and to have them beat us on that is not acceptable. If a team's going to beat us because they're better than we are, or have better ability that's fine, but we expect to go out and play hard and play smart, and we didn't play smart."
Kubiak, a former NFL quarterback who calls the team's plays, has long been known as a top offensive coach, mentoring quarterbacks in Denver under Mike Shanahan and then Schaub and Keenum in Houston.
He was hired in 2006, along with Smith, after the Texans finished a franchise-worst 2-14. Smith spent 10 years with Kubiak while the coach was offensive coordinator of the Broncos. Smith was Denver's defensive assistant for four seasons before moving into the front office for his last six years with the Broncos.
The pair helped transform the Texans, which began play in 2002, from league laughingstock to contender. The team went 6-10 in their first year and 8-8 in each of the next two seasons. Expectations were high in 2010 after Houston finished at 9-7 for its first winning record in 2009. The Texans instead fell to 6-10, which led to many fans calling for Kubiak's firing.
His original contract was due to expire after the 2010 season, but McNair defended him several times amid the bumps.
Last year, the Texans announced contract extensions for both Smith and Kubiak, rewarding them for taking the team to the playoffs last year for the first time. Kubiak's three-year agreement has him under contract through 2014.
McNair said at the time he offered Kubiak a four-year deal, but the coach preferred to make it for three.
Kubiak made his mark as Denver's offensive coordinator under Shanahan, winning two Super Bowls. An eighth-round pick out of Texas A&M, he spent nine years as John Elway's backup. He finished his career 4-1 as a starter, all in emergency relief of Elway.
"You always hate to see guys fired," Broncos coach John Fox said. "It happens, it's tough. But you never like to see that. He's a good friend and a heck of a coach, a guy I have a lot of respect for and it's unfortunate."
The Texans also fired special teams coordinator Joe Marciano and replaced him with assistant Bob Ligashesky, who is in his 10th NFL season and first full year with Houston. Other recent departures from the Texans include assistant head coach Alex Gibbs (for Seattle) and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan went to join his father in Washington.
Keenum, Phillips and the rest of the Texans will get three weeks to show what they have to McNair and company. With Kubiak out, it is clear that the evaluation process could have stiff consequences as the team tries to rebuild.
"We have a young quarterback in Case Keenum and we need to find out if he's capable of being a starter or capable of being the backup," McNair said. "The way you find out about that is by playing him."