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Thursday, June 1, 2023


Wednesday Rewind: Cougars fall victim to Montana magic in Cotton Bowl

Bill Yeoman

Head coach Bill Yeoman led the Cougars to a 9-2 regular season record and a conference title, but wasn’t able to overcome the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Cotton Bowl. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In this week’s edition of the Wednesday Rewind, we look back at the 1978-79 Cougar football team, which captured a Southwest Conference title before falling to an NFL legend in one of the greatest bowl comebacks of all time.

Houston is a city known for its rich historical moments in football. UH contributes to that history as we remember the Cougars’ 1978 season and its shocking end at the hands of a future Super Bowl champion.

As the 1978 season began, legendary coach Bill Yeoman entered his 16th year as head coach for the Cougars and the team’s third season in the Southwest Conference

The season marked the return to prominence for Houston after being ineligible for a bowl game with a 6-5 record in 1977.

Houston’s season began with a 17-3 loss at the University of Memphis; however, the Cougars began to show the prowess that enabled them to reach the top of the conference by winning their next eight games, spanning both out-of-conference and SWC games.

The streak came to an end as the Texas Tech Red Raiders gave the Cougars their second and final defeat of the season, by a score of 22-21.

Houston rebounded on the final game of the regular season, with a 49-25 victory at home against Rice University, downing their rivals for the third straight year.

The Cougars finished the season 9-2 overall, with a 7-1 record in the Southwest Conference, winning the conference championship for the second time in just three years of membership.

Houston looked poised to capture its second Cotton Bowl title behind a pair of 1000-yard rushers, seniors Emmett King and Randy Love.

The Cougars faced some tough competition, however, as they met future San Francisco 49er and four-time Super-Bowl Champion Joe Montana and the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Despite freezing temperatures and trailing by 12 points in the first quarter, the Cougars fought back as they had done throughout the regular season. Converting a Notre Dame turnover into a touchdown, and before tacking on thirteen more points in the second quarter, the Cougars took a 20-12 lead into halftime.

At the start of the second half, Montana remained in the locker room due to hypothermia after his body temperature dropped to 96 degrees during the game.

Notre Dame medical staff attended Montana as they tried to warm him by feeding him chicken bouillon and covered him with blankets.

Montana returned by the fourth quarter with Houston leading Notre Dame 34-12 and just 7:37 remaining on the clock.

Montana magic kicked in full force as Notre Dame scored 16 unanswered points to come to within one score of the Cougars.

With two seconds on the clock and Houston leading by a touchdown, Montana threw a touchdown pass to receiver Kris Haines as time expired.

Irish kicker Joe Unis split the up-rights with the extra-point kick, and Notre Dame had completed the improbable fourth-quarter comeback over the Cougars to win the Cotton Bowl, 35-34.

The 1979 Cotton Bowl has become recognized as one of the most memorable games in college bowl history, earning its nickname as the Chicken Soup Game.

Despite the loss, the Cougars solidified themselves as a successful football team as they were ranked 10th in the AP Poll after the season.

The Cougars would go on to have a successful tenure in the SWC under Yeoman, capturing two more conference titles while registering two more bowl wins, building off the success established by the Cougars in the 1978 season.

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