In a new series, we're taking a look at the teams that came out of nowhere to win their conference and shock the world. Or the ones that read too many of their press clippings and crapped the bed. Hope springs eternal in August, dream your dreams and let this series feed them or keep you up at night. Let's start with those Houston Cougars from 1976, their first year in the Southwest Conference and spoiler alert; they won the whole damn thing.
Bill Yeoman built his war machine for a decade before the call came in that the school in the shadow of downtown Houston would join the Southwest Conference starting in 1976. In preparation, Houston put together nine straight winning seasons from 1966 to 1974. They won nineteen games in 1973 and 1974. After back-to-back Bluebonnet Bowl appearances, the Cougars were flying high heading into the '75 season. 1975 wasn't kind. Houston finished 2-8, losing eight straight at one point and prompting Yeoman chalk up the failure as a long, hard lesson learned in humility.
Most writers predicted the Cougars would finish near the middle of the SWC pack. The upper half of the league was stacked. Texas, Arkansas, and Texas A&M were coming off ten win seasons and top fifteen finishes. The Longhorns returned their usual cadre of All-Americans and All-League performers including a young back from Tyler named Earl Campbell.
A&M rose to #2 in the nation in the final week of the regular season before a crushing loss at Arkansas derailed their national title hopes. Texas Tech returned Rodney Allison at quarterback, and the rest of Steve Sloan's roster was better than any in Tech's history. Baylor welcomed back fourteen starters, including 1,000 yard rusher Cleveland Franklin from Brenham. After winning the league in '74, injuries decimated the Bear in 1975. Grant Teaff believed his team was ready for a resurgence.
As for Houston, the Cougars were built for speed. Bubba McGallion returned at quarterback, but Yeoman leaned towards sophomore Danny Davis from Dallas Carter. At running back Alois Blackwell, John Housman, Dyral Thomas, and Randy Love all returned to man the Cougar veer attack. Housman started 1976 within eight yards of legend Warren McVea's school rushing record.
The offensive line anchored by 245-pound senior tackle Van Belcher who started every game of his career leading into '76. They boasted Wilson Whitley, Franklin's teammate at Brenham, and an All-American candidate at defensive tackle.
The schedule makers schemed to welcome Houston to the league early. They opened their season and first-ever Southwest Conference game at contender Baylor. The Bears opened as four-point favorites even without Franklin in the lineup due to injury. 1,000 Cougar fans made the trek to Waco, including the 250 member Houston marching band. Most expected Houston to act as accommodating guests and grateful newbies, take their loss and drive back south. In a foreshadowing of the season, Houston crashed the party and turned it on its ear.
After a jittery first half for Davis, the Coogs trailed 5-0. Davis settled in in the second half and guided Houston's veer offense to 23 unanswered points. For Davis the first two quarters were enough to flush the butterflies out. Yeoman and Houston simplified its offense and the Cougars displayed a level of efficiency that Baylor couldn't account for. Six Houston backs carried the ball as Houston ground out yards. Defensive back Anthony Francis and linebacker David Hodge both intercepted Baylor passes. Francis would average just under an interception a week in 1976. Yeoman announced the Cougar's presence with authority, calling a timeout with three seconds to play to secure a final score as a shocked 37,500 fans watched, 23-5.
A week after what Yeoman called a historic win, Florida brought Houston back to earth in Gainesville 49-14. Florida quarterback Jimmy Fisher led the Gators on three straight 80 plus yard scoring drives to start the game and Houston never recovered.
The Cougars surrendered 615 yards and prompted Yeoman to say "[i]t should be considered a national disgrace if Florida loses another football game." National disgrace or not, the Gators finished the year 8-4 and lost the A&M in the Sun Bowl.
In one of the more bizarre stipulations in football, the member schools required that to join the SWC, Houston allow opponents to choose whether to play the Cougars in the Astrodome or at Rice Stadium. Texas A&M, Arkansas, and TCU elected to play Houston at Rice Stadium. Houston would play five of its eight conference games on the road and its only three home games away from home. Houston became road warriors in an unforgiving college football landscape.
If Houston wanted to make a statement, beating the ninth-ranked Aggies would be loud and clear. A&M and Houston shared a tenuous history. Aggie fans took to calling Houston "Cougar High," and Houston responded with "Poor Aggies" chants to counter. Adding to the dislike, Aggie coach Emory Bellard poached longtime Houston defensive coordinator Melvin Robertson. Yeoman didn't forget.
After a blowout loss at Florida, the ninth-ranked Aggies entered as fourteen point favorites. They also boasted college football's second-rated defense.
Yeoman didn't care.
70,000 fans filled Rice Stadium and watched Mark Mohr intercept Aggie quarterback David Shipman late in the first quarter. Danny Davis found 5-11, 180-pound tight end Eddie Foster for a score plays later. Davis hit Robert Lavergne on the next Cougar series for another score to stagger A&M. After an Aggie field goal, Davis found Foster again, this time for an 18-yard score to seal A&M's fate in a 21-10 Cougar win.
The rest of the league sat up and took notice as Houston stood 2-0 in conference play having knocked off two title contenders in three weeks. After a bye week, Houston inserted backup quarter Bubba McGallion in against West Texas State, and Houston cruised to a 50-7 win. Blackwell rushed for 200 yards in the route.
By now the eyes of the nation started to turn to 3rd Ward, and the AP saw fit to vote Houston 19th in it's October 11th poll.
Danny Davis and SMU starting quarterback Ricky Wesson attended the same Dallas area junior high, starting at quarterback in subsequent years. The two met at the Cotton Bowl, a preview of January destinations for the Cougars.
Davis dominated the Mustangs and his former schoolmate, rushing for 101 yards on nineteen carries. He also guided the Cougars on a 99-yard scoring drive.
A usually ecstatic locker room was however somber. The tragic deaths of Houston split end Art Briles' parents as they traveled to watch their son earlier that morning marred the victory. School officials informed Briles after the contest.
Houston welcomed #15 Arkansas to Rice stadium a week later.
The Razorbacks, playing one last season for legendary coach Frank Broyles, harassed Davis into five turnovers and jumped out to a fourteen point lead in the first half. Davis fumbled three times, all in Arkansas territory including one at the Razorback eight and another at the eleven-yard line.
In the loss, Broyles recognized Wilson Whitley's greatness. He correctly tabbed Whitley as an All-American after a dominant individual effort. Whitley made fourteen tackles from his defensive tackle position in the 14-7 loss.
A week later Houston cruised past SWC cellar-dweller TCU, 49-21. The usual ground and pound Cougars erupted for 443 passing yards between Davis and McGallion. The effort set a league single-game mark.
If you wanted to win the SWC title, for two decades, you had to go through perennial power Texas. For Bill Yeoman and so many other conference coaches, and even those around the nation for that matter, the Longhorns were the gold standard. Winning in Austin was nearly inconceivable as Texas fans hadn't seen a Longhorn defeat at home 42 games. Even with Texas banged up and losing Earl Campbell due to a muscle strain, the Horns were dangerous in Austin.
In Yeoman's wildest dreams, he couldn't imagine his charges dominating Texas as they did on November 6, 1976. Texas couldn't believe it either. The Cougars outclassed the Longhorns and silenced 77,000 at Memorial Stadium. Whitley and the Cougar defense mauled Texas' vaunted wishbone, holding the Horns to a historic low 24 rushing yards and winning 30-0.
Whitley may have been the only man in the stadium who saw it coming. "We felt we could beat them this badly. Their winning streak didn't scare us. We wanted to be the ones to break it."
As often happens, the Austin media asked Whitley whether he's undoubtedly ever considered attending Texas and why in heaven's name he hadn't. Whitley's answer should be mounted on a wall on TDECU Stadium: "I never even considered coming to Texas. I made a wise decision to go to Houston, and I've waited to show these people at Texas that I'm as good as any defensive tackle in this league. My only year to get to play in the Southwest Conference and I'm glad to be part of a great team like we have."
Mic drops weren't a thing in 1976, but Wilson Whitley may have invented it.
If winning at Texas was historic, the job was only part way done. Fifth-ranked Texas Tech awaited in Lubbock.
For all the fans of recency bias who want to say the Southwest Conference was a dumpster fire, they ignore a rich 60-year period when the league was one of the best in college football. From 1936 to 1994 and with the exceptions of 1944 and 1967 the league placed at least one and often as many as three teams in the Final AP Top 15. 1976 was no exception. Over the course of the season four teams ranked in the Top 10 at different times, and six teams made the Top 20 at some point.
At the beginning of the season most predicted Texas Tech would play a significant role in the outcome of the league race. If you asked newspaper men in August whether the league would come down to two top ten facing off in Lubbock, they would've said those two teams would the Longhorns and Red Raiders on October 30th. No one predicted that the top ten matchup to decide the league race feature a ninth ranked Houston.
After a bye week, Houston traveled west to take on Tech who sat atop the league, undefeated. Tech borrowed Houston's veer, and Rodney Allison was every bit as dangerous running it. The Red Raiders got the scoring going early with a safety and added a field goal around a Houston score to end the first quarter. In the second Davis led the Cougars to seventeen unanswered and a commanding 24-5 lead at the break. A field goal extended the lead to 27-5 into the fourth quarter, and the game appeared all over but the shouting.
Tech received a shot of adrenalin when, after failing to convert a fourth down inside the Houston five, the Red Raider defense intercepted Davis, leading to a touchdown. Tech scored again with 3:26 to play, cutting the lead to eight at 27-19. After a failed onside kick, Davis gave the ball right back with a fumble on the next Houston series. Sold-out Jones Stadium was jumping as Tech took over with a chance to tie and potentially seal a conference title. All that excitement was for nothing when Elvis Bradly intercepted an Allison pass at the one-yard line with just over a minute to play preserving the win. Houston suddenly controlled its destiny.
Standing in the Coogs way was lowly Rice, the school who's stadium Houston co-opted to fulfill the league's ridiculous terms of entry. Tommy Kramer threw for 409 yards in his last game as a Rice Owl, but seventh-ranked Houston took the game and the league with a 42-20 win.
A week later Houston wrapped up its regular season with a 21-16 squeaker over Miami in the Dome. Davis once again survived a lousy turnover outing with three interceptions and a fumble, but his two scores proved to be the difference.
Houston was the Champion of the Southwest Conference. Along the way, they took down two top ten teams and broke Texas' 42 game home winning streak. Their reward was fourth-ranked and undefeated ACC Champion Maryland.
The Terps were outside contenders for the National Title but needed Tony Dorsett and Pitt to lose to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
The game didn't sell out, but that didn't really matter, the Coogs used their trademarked speed to take a 21 point first quarter lead thanks to two Alois Blackwell touchdown runs. Maryland cut the lead to six in the fourth quarter, 27-21.
Fighting momentum and a tough Maryland defense, Danny Davis escaped four Terp rushers to find Robert Lavergne for a critical third-down conversion and Houston drained nearly six minutes off the clock before kicking a field goal to clinch the Championship.
The Final AP Poll looked like this:
Houston sat among the elites and three Texas schools made the top thirteen, a seven win Baylor ball club just outside.
Val Belcher was the only Cougar named to the SWC All-Conference Offensive First Team. The smallest tight end in football Eddie Foster and running back Blackwell made the second team.
Whitley earned the Lombardi Trophy, All-American and SWC Defensive Player of the Year Honors. He played his only year in the SWC and received a nod to the All-Decade team.
Defensive back Anthony Francis earned First Team All-Conference Defense. Francis led the nation with ten interceptions. Linebacker David Hodge and defensive tackle Guy Brown made Second Team All-Conference.
Of course, Yeoman earned Coach of the Year honors for taking a two-win team and guiding them to fourth best in college football.