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Five Thoughts on the Houston Cougars Joining the Big 12

It’s almost July, which means the Houston Cougars are close to being official members of the Big 12 Conference after accepting the invitation nearly two years ago.

It’s been a long road back to a power conference for the Cougars, who at one time were members of the Southwest Conference with new Big 12 rivals like Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, and Texas.

Here are five things to know about the Cougars as their tenure in the Big 12 begins.

 

The History

The university is actually four years younger than Texas Tech, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The Cougars didn’t start playing football until 1946. The Big 12 will be at least its seventh conference. In its early days, the Cougars were members of the Lone Star Conference, the Gulf Coast Conference, and the Missouri Valley Conference.

From 1960 to 1971, the Cougars did the independent thing before joining the Southwest Conference (1971-96). When the Cougars couldn’t tag along to the Big 12, they ended up in Conference USA and then the American Athletic Conference.

Despite being one of the most populous cities in the country, the Cougars have only been a part of a major conference once.

 

The Sports

The Cougars have six men’s sports and nine women’s sports going into the 2023-24 season. Football had its highest level of success under coach Bill Yeoman, who led them to four SWC titles between 1976-84. Jack Pardee, succeeded him in 1987 and lasted just three seasons before he and his run-and-shoot offense migrated to the NFL’s Houston Oilers. But he coached quarterback Andre Ware to the 1989 Heisman Trophy. Their last conference title was in 2015 under Tom Herman.

The school is probably best known for men’s basketball, men’s golf, and track and field. The men’s basketball team has resurged under Kelvin Sampson, who led them to the 2021 Final Four. Before that, the Phi Slama Jamma days of center Hakeem Olajuwon and coach Guy V. Lewis took the Cougars to three straight Final Fours (1982-84). The 1967-68 Final Four teams were led by Elvin Hayes, who led the Cougars past UCLA in the “Game of the Century” in the Astrodome in the 1968 regular season.

Men’s golf at Houston is traditionally strong and boasts alums like Masters champion Fred Couples and CBS Sports announcer Jim Nantz.

Houston’s track and field team is usually formidable and known best for Carl Lewis, who won nine Olympic gold medals.

 

The Rivalries

When in Houston it’s the ‘Bayou Bucket’ game, the annual contest between Houston and Rice, the city’s two FBS football programs. The two teams have played every year since 1971, with the exception of a three-year gap (1996-98) right after the collapse of the SWC. The teams will meet again on Sept. 9 at Rice Stadium.

The Coaches

Dana Holgorsen is familiar to Big 12 football fans from his time at West Virginia, where he went 61-41 in seven seasons before taking over at Houston. With the Cougars he’s 27-20 in four seasons, including a 12-2 mark in 2021. With high expectations in 2022, including the return of quarterback Clayton Tune, the Cougars only went 8-5.

Sampson, as noted earlier, is the men’s basketball coach. The former Oklahoma coach has more than 700 career wins and a long-term contract extension that puts his son, Kellen, in position to succeed him.

Ronald Hughey is the women’s basketball coach. Entering his ninth season he’ll seek to get the Cougars back into postseason action for the first time since 2019 when it was in the WNIT.

Todd Whitting coaches the baseball team. He’s the program’s second-winningest coach but hasn’t taken the Cougars to an NCAA regional since 2018.

Kristin Vesely is the softball coach. The former Oklahoma player has led the Cougars since 2017. She last led the Cougars to an NCAA regional in 2019.

The Future

The Cougars have stability in their major sports entering their first year in the Big 12. They also have important things going for them — a deep-pocketed donor in Houston Rockets owner and UH Board of Regents chairman Tilman Fertitta. He already spearheaded the renovation of Hofheinz Pavilion (now the Fertitta Center). The Cougars are now working on a football operations building between TDECU stadium — which replaced Robertson Stadium — and an indoor football practice facility, with hopes for it to be completed by the winter of 2024.

That, combined with the boost in television money in the new media deal — which will be more than three times what the Cougars were getting in the American — should allow it to be competitive immediately in men’s basketball and grow to a competitive level in the other major sports in the next two to three years.

Matthew Postins can be found on Twitter @PostinsPostcard

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