In the dying days of the Southwest Conference Houston was already dead.
The magical days of Ware, Klingler, Weatherspoon, Pardee, and Jenkins were gone. By 1993, the Multiple Adjusting Passing Offense or “Run and Shoot” as it was more commonly known was shelved and replaced by Kim Helton’s pro-style attack. The results were overwhelmingly bad. Helton’s teams won four games in three SWC season. Houston fans, those that stuck around, endured four more seasons of Helton’s regime.
The Astrodome became a cavernous reminder of what used to be, during their last year in the SWC, the Coogs struggled to draw 15,000. Houston limped into Conference USA. Helton gave way to Dana Dimel who couldn’t correct the program's trajectory, instead worsening its fortunes. At the same time, Houston’s facilities were a laughing stock. Robertson Stadium, though quaint, was desperately behind the times.
When Houston hosted Texas in 2001, the University placed temporary bleachers in an end zone to accommodate 4,000 additional fans. On the Wednesday of game week, the school decided the additional seating was unsafe, thoroughly pissing off Texas fans who were already angry that the Houston hadn't moved the contest to the dome. The story became national news and as ESPN’s cameras panned the field the empty bleachers were giant aluminum reminder of how far the once proud program had fallen.
The Longhorns took out their frustrations by putting 52 on the Cougars which didn’t even serve as the low point of the 2001 season. That came in November when just over 10,000 fans watch UAB hand Houston its tenth loss in an 0-11 campaign.
The bigger picture was grim. Facilities were lagging. Hofheinz Pavilion, once the home of Phi Slamma Jamma, hadn’t seen a postseason squad in over a decade and fans were recovering from the Alvin Brooks/Clyde Drexler eras. Inside it felt like 1983, not the ironic hipster wearing a fanny pack sort of way, more like your grandparents living room with plastic on the couch vibe. Fan interest was on life support and worse, donations had dried up.
Houston was dead. In just over a decade, the University resurrected itself.
The Athletic Department and the University resuscitated themselves the old fashioned way - by making the right hires and building stuff. With the opening of the Fertitta Center, a modern, intimate, basketball arena that has programs in College Station and Austin taking copious notes, the Cougar athletic program continues to be the engine that can.
In the last four months, Houston did two things few thought possible - they lured Dana Holgorsen away from West Virginia, and locked up Kelvin Sampson long term.
When Holgorsen’s name surfaced, national writers scoffed at Houston’s ambition. Firing Major Applewhite to take a giant swing at a P5 head coach was doomed to fail according to the conventional wisdom. The talking heads have no clue about Houston’s ambitious, charismatic leadership - school President Dr. Renu Khator and Board of Regents chair Tilman Fertitta. Bet against them at your peril.
Khator, Fertitta, and the rest Houston’s Athletic brain-trust grew tired of watching coaches leave 3rd Ward for Power 5 jobs, and decided to end that trend by continually improving facilities and paying premium compensation packages, including increasing the pool for assistants and support staff as well. The message is clear, Houston is about winning on big stages, it’s not a farm system for the Big 12; not anymore. And while some might view Applewhite’s departure as rushed, Khator and Fertitta aren’t going to sit by and absorb a mediocre return on investment. Khator famously declared to faculty and staff at a Holiday party “winning is defined at University of Houston as 10 and 2. We'll fire coaches at 8 and 4."
Don’t say she didn’t warn you Major.
And why the hell not? Houston’s a better job than a lot P5s all things considered. The head coach and assistants at places like West Virginia, Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State are going to spend most of their precious recruiting time flying to places like Houston, DFW, Miami-Dade, and everywhere in between. If you amass your frequent flyer miles and recruit at a high level, you’re still in for a Herculean effort to keep pace with Texas, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State to say nothing of Baylor, TCU, and Texas Tech who can recruit in their backyards.
Holgorsen told the media last week that his staff will visit every high school campus in Houston in the next few weeks. They’ll visit most campuses twice in that time. All that and they’ll get to drive home each night rather than catch a flight or sit in a hotel for three weeks while they trudge through the South Florida circuit. If a talented Houston kid wants to come to campus, he can hop on 45 or 10 or East Tex and be there in 30 minutes instead of catching a flight into Morgantown, Ames or Manhattan.
The TV dollars aside, Houston’s a better job when compared to the middle and lower half of the Big 12. Do you want to be the next guy to get a three year stint at Kansas? Matt Campbell’s had an excellent run at Iowa State, yet he’s still under .500 against the Big 12. Third place in the league is probably his ceiling. Congratulations, you’ve hit it Matt, now try and keep up the good work. Enjoy those flights.
Holgorsen’s well compensated in a league that he can win every year and with a better shot at a New Year’s six bowl than his previous job. He’s also working for a group of people who are committed to equipping their coaches with all the tools necessary to win.
Want proof? Just look where the Coog's have come from.