For reasons we're sure were important at the time, from 1946, when Houston's football program launched until 1971, a near quarter century, the two schools - separated by less than five miles - hadn't met on the field. For the record, Rice administrators seemed to impede playing the game, claiming the contest would cause too much of a rivalry. All that changed in 1971 with new Rice President Norman Hackerman and new head coach Bill Peterson giving their blessing to play the game.
So it came to pass that the season opener pitted the two squads against each other.
Technically the two teams met in the 1940s, but that "game" was actually a practice. Of course, the practice drew 11,000 fans, but the two teams wouldn't meet formally for a quarter century. 1971 wasn't officially a Bayou Bucket contest; the series wouldn't garner that name until 1974. Still, the excitement for the game was palatable.
A near capacity crowd of 62,000 made the trip to Rice Stadium for the game. Tickets were in such demand that Rice sent out a press release imploring fans to leave early to avoid the rush. It being Houston in the early fall, a hurricane was closing in on the city.
Peterson welcomed the storm. The former Florida State coach told reporters, "some of our best games at Florida State were played in those conditions (wind and rain). The storm in question Hurrican Fern, fortunately, or unfortunately if you were Peterson, bypassed Houston and made landfall further down the southern Texas coast. The storm missed a direct hit, but rain fell throughout the evening.
Bill Yeoman's Cougars came into the game as a two-touchdown favorite. His Cougars, after all, led the nation in total offense for five consecutive seasons.
To Rice's credit, they didn't put much stock in the prognosticators. Owl legendary linebacker Rodrigo Barnes to the media "I don't want to lose. I know too many people in this town." Taking their cue from Barnes, Rice struck first after a Bruce Gadd to Edwin Collins 55-yard completion. From there fullback, Mike Phillips bulled in from a yard out to give Rice a seven-point lead into the locker room.
Whatever Yeoman fed the Cougars at half it worked. Gary Mullins found walk-on Del Stanley for a 73-yard touchdown three plays into the second half. On Rice's next possession, the Cougars intercepted Gadd and set up a second Mullins' touchdown pass, this one from eleven yards out.
The came the play that proved the difference in the game. On the ensuing kickoff, Rice return man Tom Clantom stumbled at his one-yard line and went out of bounds. On the next play, Houston middle linebacker Butch Brezina tackled Phillips for a safety. From down by seven to up by nine in under three minutes of game time, the Cougars were in control.
Rice cut the lead to two on a three-yard run by Stahle Vincent early in the fourth quarter. Houston then methodically marched 84-yards in twelve plays led by Cougar and later Cowboy great Robert Newhouse. Mullins scored, giving the Cougars a 23-14 lead and leaving Rice just two minutes to do anything about it. The Owls took just under a minute to cut the Cougar lead to 23-21. Rice wouldn't get another chance with the ball.
Rodrigo Barnes, by all accounts, helped Rice contain Houston's potent veer attack. Brezina stifled the Owls as well. Peterson's Owls finished the season 3-7-1 with an improbable tie against 16th ranked Arkansas. Yeoman's Cougars finished 9-3, heading to the Bluebonnet Bowl where they lost to Big 8 opponent Colorado. The AP voted the Cougars 17th in their final poll.
A year later Rice would settle the score with a one-point win over the Cougars. Since 1971 the Cougars and Owls have made it a near yearly affair, skipping every now and again as various and amazing leagues folded. College football's a better place when the two schools, five miles apart, find a way to get together on the field.