As anybody who knows me can attest, my favorite time of year is college football season. And, with a month and a half left until kickoff, I feel myself eagerly awaiting the beginning of another fall of University of Houston Cougar football.
It's hard not to get excited about the Coogs. They're coming off of their second bowl season in three years. They return a ton of starters on offense and defense. The schedule is, to say the least, favorable, with seven games at home and eight games in Houston. Senior quarterback Kevin Kolb is being presented as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Gushing previews of the team are enough to get any Houston fan's blood flowing.
But I'm wondering: do I really want to get excited about Cougar football? One thing I’ve noticed over the past decade or so is that there is an inverse relationship to the amount of excitement I have for the coming football season and the actual results of that season. Generally speaking, if I'm overly enthusiastic about UH football during the offseason, the team does poorly. If my offseason enthusiasm is muted, the team does well.
In the summer of 1996, I wasn’t terribly enthused about UH football. The program had been in the toilet for the last five years, the 1995 team was one failed SMU onside kick and one missed Rice chip-shot field goal away from going 0-fer. The SWC had been dissolved and the Coogs were on their way to a small, second-rate conference. There was even some grumbling, from faculty members and Daily Cougar columnists alike, about dropping football. Those were times of doubt and indifference.
Of course, that fall the Coogs went 7-4, captured a share of the Conference USA title and went to the Liberty Bowl. By all accounts, it was a good season, and, needless to say, it whetted my appetite for more Cougar football. I spent all spring and summer of 1997 eagerly looking forward to the coming season and hoping that the Coogs could build on last year’s momentum, begin dominating their new conference, and eventually rebuild the program to its former greatness.
Instead, the Coogs went 3-8 in 1997.
No matter, I thought. Sometimes you have to take a step back before you take another step forward. 1998 will be better, right? I enthusiastically spent another spring and summer awaiting kickoff.
The Cougars rewarded my anticipation by going 3-8 once again.
Back-to-back three-win seasons dampered my enthusiasm for football. By now I had realized that Kim Helton was a pro position coach who simply wasn’t meant to be a college head coach; I just couldn’t get excited about him or his team anymore. Added to that was the fact that during the spring and summer of 1999 I was finishing graduate school, searching for a job and moving to the north side of the DFW Metroplex, so I really didn’t have a lot of time to think about college football.
Happily, the Coogs managed a 7-4 record that fall, and notched wins on the road against BCS schools LSU and North Carolina. The winning season didn’t result in a bowl appearance, however, nor was it enough to save Kim Helton’s job. He was replaced by Dana Dimel, who had previous experience as a college head coach at Wyoming and, at least we thought, had been successful there. Things were looking up for Cougar football, I decided.
The spring and summer of 2000 is when I really began pining for college football. For the first time, I began to closely pay attention to recruiting classes. I eagerly read the various spring practice reports, trying to discern how good the team really was. I literally counted down the days until the season started on my dry-erase board in the kitchen (“Only 146 days ‘til kickoff! Woohoo!”) and started buying the preseason magazines. September 2000 couldn’t come soon enough for me.
Alas, Dana Dimel’s first season didn’t turn out that well, as the team went 3-8.
No matter. The new coach needs time to install his gameplan and recruit his own players, right? I expected that the Coogs would be better in 2001. Another spring and summer were spent in eager anticipation, counting down the days until the start of football season on the dry erase board.
However, the 2001 season was the first winless season in UH football history. To say that I was dissatisfied with the result would be an understatement.
The spring and summer of 2002 were spent moving back to Houston, traveling through Europe, and searching for a job. That left little time to think about football, and given the crushing disappointment of the previous season I really didn’t want to. I was looking forward to the Rice game, however; I was getting tired of watching the Coogs lose to the Owls and it was time for revenge.
The Coogs did go on to beat the Owls, and the ensuing 5-7 campaign of 2002 was a considerable improvement over the previous year. But it was still a losing record (which included inexplicable meltdowns against Alabama-Birmingham and East Carolina) and it wasn’t enough for Dana Dimel to keep his job. Art Briles was hired to replace Dimel, becoming UH’s third head coach in five seasons.
In the spring and summer of 2003, my enthusiasm for UH football was at an all-time low. Houston’s new head coach is a high school coach from West Texas? Oh, boy. Our best offensive athlete, Barrick Nealy, has transferred to San Marcos? Great. I no longer counted down the days until kickoff, I walked right past the magazine aisle with all the preseason magazines at the store, and I ignored the typically gushing spring football reports on coogfans.com. I was Missouri: "show me."
The Coogs did show me that fall, ending Briles’ inaugural season with a 7-5 record and a bowl appearance. The offense was really exciting, I thought. If there’s just a little improvement on defense, we could be really good! Maybe this Briles guy is who we need after all!
It’s amazing how one winning season can get one’s hopes way up. And so it was in 2004, as I spent the spring and summer once again eagerly awaiting the start of another football season. I really expected the Coogs to notch at least six wins in 2004 and, in the process, cobble together their first consecutive winning seasons since the run and shoot era. It didn’t hurt matters that the original date of the Bayou Bucket – September 4, 2004 – was also Lori's due date. So I was focused on the start of the season in more ways than one.
Kirby actually arrived a couple of weeks early, so I didn’t have to miss the start of football season. However, the loss to Rice at Reliant Stadium – Rice’s third victory over the Coogs in four years – made me wish I had. The season ended with another disappointing 3-8 record, the fourth in eight years. Was 2003 just a mirage? Was Briles’ offense just a gimmick that other teams had already figured out? Once again, I was left disappointed and full of doubt about UH football. Added to my discouragement was the fact that the next round of conference realignment had come and gone and, while schools like Louisville and Cincinnati had converted their success on the field (and on the basketball court) into an invitation to a BCS conference, Houston was left to languish in a weakened Conference USA. Where was this program going?
So I can’t say I was overwhelmingly enthused about the start of the 2005 season. The yearly football-related emotional roller-coaster had taken its toll and I was fatigued. I didn't know what to expect for the fall, but I was not particularly hopeful. Not even the relentless optimism over on CoogFans could raise my spirits; instead, it repulsed me.
Of course, the Coogs ended the 2005 regular season with a 6-5 record - only their fourth winning season in fifteen years - and went to their second bowl game in three years. It was, relatively speaking, a good year for the Coogs, even though they probably should have come away with more than six victories. The ass-whipping they received at the hands of Kansas in the Fort Worth Bowl wasn't exactly encouraging, either.
So, what is my mood about UH football right now?
Truth is, I honestly don't know how to feel. A lot of people are expecting big things from the Coogs this fall. Several months ago legendary former UH coach Bill Yeoman told me (when I ran into him at Love Field in Dallas) that 2006 would be "the year." Over on CoogFans, some people are saying that not even eight wins will be good enough this fall. An overwhelming sentiment among UH fans seems to be "if we can't do it this season, then when?"
I agree that, "on paper," good things should happen this fall. But that in and of itself is not enough for me to be shivering with anticipation for the coming season. Last year’s problem areas - penalties, turnovers, special teams lapses, bizarre offensive play-calling, a lack of a pass rush - had nothing to do with how good the team was "on paper." Are those areas of concern going to be fixed this fall, or will it be more of the same? Will the team be focused and ready for every game and maintain that focus to the final whistle, or will they do like last year and let the other team back into the game late (as they did against Tulsa and Southern Miss) or not show up at all (as they did against SMU)?
Don’t get me wrong: college football is my favorite sport and, if nothing else, I really enjoy the tailgating. I’ll always, to one extent or another, look forward to the start of football season. But right now, I'm trying to keep my excitement (and my expectations) under wraps.
And, given my history of expectations and excitement over the last ten years, that could be a good thing for the Coogs.
For more preseason analysis of the University of Houston Cougars, check out these articles at si.com, collegefootballnews.com and southerncollegesports.com. UH blogger Ronnie Turner over at the Chronicle has come up with some preseason picks as well. I'm debating as to whether to make my own set of predictions for the upcoming season; if I do they will be posted on this blog sometime in August.