Back then, with coach John Jenkins in charge, Houston was college football's most intriguing and polarizing team. Most coaches believed that defense and running the ball won games; Jenkins laughed at that notion. Instead, his Cougars ran a no-huddle offense and lined up with four receivers on most plays, compiling eye-popping passing statistics and forcing defenses to cover the entire field.
As precursors to the passing masterminds and spread formations that have transformed contemporary college football, Jenkins and his Houston teams are forgotten disruptors—a coach and a system that were way, way ahead of their time.
"I think the game's more fun for players now than it was 20 or 30 years ago," says Hal Mumme, a longtime college coach and offensive guru who learned from Jenkins. "And John Jenkins was a big part of changing those attitudes."
Jenkins only spent six years at Houston: three as offensive coordinator, and three as head coach. He resigned under pressure, and hasn't coached in college again. But he had a lasting impact on the sport.
Consider: Houston's 1989 offense, which was led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Andre Ware, still holds the NCAA record for passing yards and total yards per game and is second in points per game. One year later, [David] Klingler set several NCAA marks that remain today, including passing yards per game and touchdowns per game. Ware and Klingler, both of whom ran option offenses in high school, became first round NFL draft picks in large part due to their success in Jenkins's offense.
"It's taken college football 20-some odd years to catch up to what we were doing back then," Klingler says. "And in some ways, they still haven't. That just tells you how much of an offensive genius John Jenkins was."John Jenkins made a lot of enemies while he was at the University of Houston, especially because of his penchant for running up the score on hapless opponents such as Eastern Washington or an SMU team coming back from the Death Penalty. He focused on offense and neglected defense, with predictable results. He left the UH program under a cloud of scandal* in 1993, after back-to-back losing seasons; his tenure marked the beginning of the nadir of the UH football program. His antics effectively got him blackballed from ever coaching again at the college level; he now is a scout for the Canadian Football League. The Run-and-Shoot offense itself, after having a few years of glory in the NFL in the early 1990s, has now been superseded by newer offensive philosophies.
And with all that said, his offense was something to behold. And it has certainly affected the way football is played, almost 30 years later:
While Jenkins is happy with his current role with the Argonauts, he still thinks about returning to college coaching. How, he wonders, would his offense look now? "If anybody would ever hire him today, it would be the same discussions," Klingler says. "They'd be scoring 95 points against people and everybody would be offended about how he was running up the score. It would be right back to the same thing because he's just that good."
That said, what if? could be the wrong question. Maybe Jenkins doesn't have to wonder; maybe he just has to look around. Ware, who is now an ESPN college football analyst, said coaches often ask him about his Houston days. When he called the Missouri-Kentucky game on Oct. 29, he noticed Missouri ran some of the same formations and routes that the Cougars did in the late 1980s and 1990s.
"It's still very prevalent out there, some of the stuff that we did," Ware says. "It's grown. It started as a plant and sprung its own limbs, and now you see what it is today. I think we were the foundation of what you see a lot, not only in college but in some NFL stadiums on Sundays."(*One oft-repeated story is that he spliced footage of porn into game films to keep the kids' attention.)