Cheaters, Chaplains, and Strip Clubs: A look back at the many bizarre moments of Houston sports in 2020

Houston sports garnered negative attention throughout the calendar year

Jim Crane, Jack Easterby, and James Harden.
Jim Crane, Jack Easterby, and James Harden. (Getting Images/KPRC)

When professional sports franchises made headlines in 2020, it often had to do with COVID issues and canceled games. But the teams here in Houston repeatedly garnered national attention for reasons that were just… odd.

I’m not focused on the really good moments or even the terrible ones. Let’s dive into the timeline of the outright weird situations and decisions that rocked Houston sports.

January 13, 2020 – Chiefs and Cheaters

“I feel like we did a lot of good this year relative to some of those decisions, but there’s some things that we need to improve upon.”

How could we have known this year would be so weird? It started out in such typical fashion, as I listened to Bill O’Brien utter those words at his morning-after press conference at NRG Stadium. The night before, the Texans had blown a 24-point lead to the Kansas City Chiefs. Now, it was time to put a bow on the season.

As we were getting ready to go live for our afternoon show, the photographer I was working with said “your day just changed,” and it had nothing to do with the Texans.

He had just gotten a notification that A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year by MLB. We know what happened a few hours later as they were fired by the Astros. Many Houston sports fans felt it was extreme to outright fire the two, but that was Jim Crane’s decision.

That day, January 13, set off a strange year in Houston sports involving a chaplain, a mass exodus of coaches, and allegations of a possible magic carpet ride at Disney World.

January 28, 2020- The Promotion

Strange day #2 in Houston sports brought an unexpected promotion. Just weeks after that disastrous loss in Kansas City, Cal McNair handed the keys to franchise to Bill O’Brien as he was officially promoted to general manager. It was a puzzling decision, but O’Brien seemed to finally have the power he wanted.

February 13, 2020 – A press conference gone bad

At least the Astros were going to apologize for cheating, right? In a spring training press conference that was awkward at best, the public’s perception of the Astros somehow became even more tainted.

“It took the fire started in October by Brandon Taubman and dumped a vat of gasoline on it,” said Sean Pendergast, co-host of ‘Payne and Pendergast’ on Sports Radio 610. “The most ironic part of that whole ‘apology day’ is that the best apologies were the organic, unplanned, media scrum clubhouse apologies. The worst ones were the ones that the PR staff meticulously planned and scripted. Bad look for the Astros PR team.”

March 16, 2020- The trade heard ‘round the world

For Houston sports fans, this might have been the worst day of 2020. Deandre Hopkins was traded to Arizona in return for…. David Johnson and a second-round draft pick? This can’t be real, right?

Look, trades of popular players happen all the time. That’s not odd. The anger and shock from around the country came from the fact that Hopkins was traded for, as Cowboys legend Michael Irvin said, “a ham sandwich.”

How bad was that trade?

“That deal happened right as the world was shutting down from COVID, and amazingly, it managed to supersede COVID as a topic on our show for the next two weeks,” said Pendergast. “So credit Bill O’Brien — while the trade was awful, it was SO awful that it was all anybody could talk about and it did give us a distraction from COVID.”

Reporters did their usual research, and found out that it wasn’t just Bill O’Brien behind the trade, it was a chaplain named Jack Easterby, who had previously just kind of blended in. His reputation was as a character coach who impressed Belichick. His brand was positivity. The curtain was being pulled back.

April 2020- Questions about the chaplain

We’ve all heard people say the virus exposed things; our need for human interaction, just how essential healthcare workers are, just how underpaid teachers are.

The virus also helped expose a sneaky, almost reality-show situation at NRG. Who was backstabbing who? Who was making what decisions?

It was now the age of COVID. Media sessions were happening over Zoom. The questions on Jack Easterby started heating up, as every word Bill O’Brien said during those virtual meetings was dissected. Jack was helping with the cap? Personnel decisions? Cafeteria? Why? Wasn’t this the guy who stuck post-it notes with positive messages on players’ lockers?

As folks stayed home and boredom struck, fans and media members alike wanted answers on the mystery man. Pendergast points to Cal McNair’s conference call with season ticket holders as a turning point.

“That’s when the whole ‘dependable, tough, smart’ mantra began to emerge, and O’Brien lined the roster with a bunch of try hard guys who were not good at football,” said Pendergast. “Easterby became a topic then, and to this point, I’ve never covered a behind the scenes employee who generates more reaction than Easterby.”

July 2020 - Joe Kelly vs the Astros.

Why? Who knows. I mean, we all know the history between the Dodgers and the Astros. But Kelly didn’t even play for the Dodgers in 2017 when the Astros allegedly cheated. Between hitting Alex Bregman and sticking his tongue out towards Carlos Correa and causing a fight, Kelly was on a mission to be an instigator. There’s even a mural for him in Los Angeles. As much as Astros fans rolled their eyes at his actions, many MLB players and fans openly rejoiced, looking at it as revenge. And let’s face it, we were just all happy to have baseball back.

September 2020 – Cheaters Part II

You thought the word “cheaters” in this article’s headline only referred to the Astros fallout? Think again. A truly 2020 love story developed in the wonderful world of Disney, as a Covid tester and a (married) Rockets player just couldn’t stay in their bubbles. Danuel House was forced to exit the bubble, apologizing to his teammates and fans. Can you feel the love tonight?

October 5, 2020 – King Bill leaves, the chaplain stays

To be clear, it wasn’t an enigma that O’Brien was fired. The Texans were 0-4. It was baffling that Jack Easterby was not. If the two made every decision together, as O’Brien had said so many times in press conferences, why only let one of them go? Once again, fans had questions.

October 15 : Daryl Morey completes the mass exodus of coaches and GMs

Daryl Morey’s exit doesn’t exactly fit the category of “strange,” but it’s included because it capped off quite the year for Houston’s head coaches and general managers.

Mike D’Antoni had opted not to return the month before (again, not exactly unexpected.) But when Morey announced he would exit Houston after 13 years, it completed the mass exodus.

It meant the Astros, Rockets, and Texans had all watched their head coaches and GMs leave in 2020, be it by their own choice or due to being fired. (This lead to many national, cliche “Houston we have a problem” graphics and headlines. *Sigh.*)

”We started the year with three teams who were among the top eight in their respective sports, and by October, all three had changed head coaches and GMs. That’s crazy,” Pendergast noted.

November 11, 2020: Texans fire Amy Palcic

She was the first woman in the NFL to serve as the head of public relations for a team. One morning, the Texans unexpectedly fired their VP of Communications, Amy Palcic.

Palcic balanced the needs of the media with the tight, private franchise Bill O’Brien was known to prefer. Her firing led to outrage and questions among national media. It also led to continued frustration among Houston sports fans, who winced at yet another negative headline coming from Houston.

What could have happened that was *so bad* that the woman who put out so many fires had to go during the season? A season where the Texans desperately need all the PR help they can get? We still don’t know.

December 2020: Strip Clubs

And we ended the year with strip club drama. James Harden was late to Rockets training camp and missed the first two preseason games due to COVID-19 protocols. Why?

The sight of sweaty women dancing to “Pour some Sugar on Me” was apparently too appealing. Harden was seen on videos partying in strip clubs, which he claimed were private events. It put the team at risk, and once again threw Houston sports into national headlines.

2021, be better.

“Sign stealing fallout, rampant firings, PED suspensions, COVID issues galore, drastic underachieving.....from a radio host’s perspective, it was an amazing year for content,” said Pendergast. “Our ratings were great!”

There wasn’t a shortage of content for radio or television, that’s for sure.

Cheers to a better 2021, H-town.

About the Author:

Small town Indiana native obsessed with basketball, live music, Mexican food, and telling a good story.