Thursday, September 01, 2016

The long, strange trip

Before the University of Houston Cougars begin what is one of their most anticipated football seasons in program history, I just want to take a moment to reflect on the journey that all of us - the school, the program, the coaches and players who have come and gone, the students, the fans and the alumni - have taken to get here.

As I mentioned in my season preview, the last time the Cougars were ranked in the preseason was August of 1991, when they were #12 (they finished the 1990 season with a 10-1 record and a #10 ranking; this was the pinnacle of the Run and Shoot era).

As I also mentioned, the 1991 season was disastrous for the Coogs. So many of the seasons since then have been pretty tough for the program and its faithful. There were times when I wasn't sure UH football would even survive.

I was a freshman when Miami clobbered Houston, 40-10, in a highly-anticipated Thursday night ESPN game, and burst the Run and Shoot bubble. I suffered through back-to-back 4-7 seasons under John Jenkins and, following that, the abyss of suck that was the Kim Helton era. Between the '93, '94 and '95 seasons, Houston won a total of four games.

I thought things were trending upward after the 1996 season - my final semester at UH - when the Cougars won the inaugural Conference USA championship. That was a fun year: the Coogs almost upset LSU in Baton Rouge, won a wild overtime game against ranked Southern Miss, and went to the Liberty Bowl. I still remember hanging out with all the UH fans on Beale Street in Memphis.

Alas, Kim Helton followed that year up with back-to-back 3-8 seasons, then a fool's gold 7-4 season wherein the team beat nobody with a winning record and didn't make it to a bowl, and then got fired because the athletics director at the time, Chet Gladchuk, thought he had landed Bob Pruett, the successful head coach from Marshall, to take over the program.

Except Pruett backed out, and Gladchuk had to save face by signing Wyoming head coach Dana Dimel.

I met Dana Dimel, who is now an assistant coach at Kansas State, a couple of times while he was at UH. I liked him as a person and I appreciate him for trying to re-open local recruiting connections that Helton had neglected. But under him, the program reached its nadir. There was the announced attendance of 3,006 for a home game against Louisville to end the 2000 season. There was the "Bleachergate" embarrassment of the 2001 season, wherein temporary bleachers put up to accommodate Texas fans for a game against the Longhorns were declared unsafe. Neiher of those events were Dimel's fault, but 2001's 0-11 season - the first winless season in program history - was all on him.

I drove down from Denton, where I lived and worked at the time, to watch all those games at Robertson in 2000 and 2001. I even went to the Army game in West Point, New York in 2001. (While I was up there, I went to Lower Manhattan to discover the ruins of the world Trade Center still smouldering; that was eerie.) I had moved back to Houston in time to witness 2002's 5-7 campaign, which, although better than 2001's O-fer season, still couldn't save Dimel's job.

Those were the days when the east side of Robertson was almost completely empty. There was the band and a (very) small student section, but that was it. I remember thinking that the 19,569 we had for a game against Louisiana-Lafayette in 2002 was a "great!" crowd. That was also the season when we all had to enter the stadium multiple times using different tickets so we wouldn't fall below the NCAA's minimum attendance requirements.

Sure, in those days it was nice to be able to pull up right next to Robertson Stadium and tailgate; you didn't need a high-dollar Cougar Pride membership to do so. But as far as the program was concerned, it was irrelevant and on life support. The 2002 season was Houston's tenth losing season out of the last twelve.

Those were, indeed, the days when I really feared that the UH football program had no future. 

Then Art Briles was hired as head coach. Say what you will about him - the abrupt way he left Houston for Baylor, the scandals that eventually forced him out of Baylor - but while he was at Houston he made something out of nothing. Sure, his teams were a hot mess of turnovers, penalties and special teams mistakes, but at least he made the program fun to watch again. He had four out of five winning seasons while he was here, he led the Coogs to their second Conference USA championship, and attendance began to trend upward while he was here.

Kevin Sumlin, on the other hand (and as Texas A&M is currently discovering), was nothing but smoke and mirrors. Sure, he had some pretty big wins while he was here - beating a top-five Oklahoma State in Stillwater, that barn-burner of a game against Texas Tech, that miracle win at Tulsa, the program's first bowl win in three decades against Air Force - but his success was pretty much based entirely upon the athleticism of a quarterback he didn't even recruit. When Keenum went down after that disaster of a game in the Rose Bowl in 2010, he had nothing.

And then 2011. Keenum getting a sixth year. Beating UCLA at Robertson. That amazing comeback at LA Tech. The Cougars, that undefeated juggernaut, going into the CUSA Championship. Just beat Southern Miss, and the BCS-busting Houston Cougars get to go to the Sugar Bowl!

Yeah, we all know how that turned out.

When it was over, I thought UH football had gone as far as it could go. Sure, we'd be a "competitive mid-major" from time to time, a novelty program, like Fresno or Akron or Western Kentucky, that ESPN will mention right before a commercial break. But I had this feeling in the back on my mind that the 2011 Conference USA Championship Game was "our moment" and that we blew it.

And then Tony Levine came along. And he brought with him losses to Texas State, UTSA and Tulane. He only served to confirm that feeling in my mind that UH was "done." Building the new stadium was nice, but so what? I wouldn't admit it to anyone at the time, but I remember thinking to myself after that Homecoming loss to Tulane that I might as well walk away, that Houston Cougar football's best days were forever in the past.

But then Tony Levine was fired, and Tom Herman was hired, and now we're here.

2015 ACC Conference champions. Peach Bowl champions. Number 8 in the final 2015 AP and Coaches polls.

And now, today, opening the season ranked #15 in the AP poll and #13 in the coaches poll, with a huge, nationally-televised showdown against #3 Oklahoma on Saturday that ESPN is hyping, and some national media outlets actually suggesting that Houston could win the national championship.

I doubt that will happen. But looking back to those dark days of 2001, or even after that homecoming loss to Tulane in 2014, would I have believed where University of Houston football is right now?

Yes, the Oklahoma Sooners are a legitimate national championship contender. Sooner QB Baker Mayfield is salivating at his chance to pick apart Houston's graduation-depleted secondary. OU defenders are going to have their ears pinned back as they aim for Greg Ward, Jr. Yes, Saturday's game could get ugly.

But right now, I don't care.

It's been a long, strange trip to get here. And while today does not represent the destination for University of Houston football - the journey will continue, regardless of what happens Saturday - I'm going to savor the fact that the Coogs have made it this far.

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