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Saturday, October 1, 2022

Sports

UH’s preparations for move to Big 12 already under way


UH athletic programs will officially become members of the Big 12 on July 1, 2023. | James Mueller/The Cougar

UH athletic programs will officially become members of the Big 12 on July 1, 2023. | James Mueller/The Cougar

The University had been waiting for years to pounce on the opportunity to join one of college athletics’ power conferences whenever the opportunity arose.

It appeared as if the Cougars’ chance to finally take a seat at the table as a member of one of the Power Five conferences had arrived in 2016 when the Big 12 considered expanding.

But those plans quickly fell apart and UH was left waiting once again, as it had been since the old Southwest Conference disbanded in 1996.

Now after 26 long years of waiting, the University is less than a year away from finally becoming a member of a Power Five conference after accepting an invite to join the Big 12 in September 2021.

July 1, 2023, the day UH officially joins the Big 12, will be one of the most monumental days in the school’s history. In the meantime, there are lots that need to be done, from fundraising to facility upgrades to rebranding and everything in between, to put UH in a position to succeed from day one when it joins the Big 12.

“Our mindset going into the Big 12 is we’re going to win,” said UH athletic director Chris Pezman. “This isn’t, ‘Hey we made it,’ and we get to sit back.

“This is the time we go.”

Houston Rise

Athletics fundraising has long been a problem for UH. Pezman, President Renu Khator and the head coaches across all of the University’s sports understand this and know the methods used to fundraise must change in order to raise the money necessary to put its athletics programs in the best chance to succeed in the Big 12.

“Fundraising, and the way we fundraise, has to change. Period,” said men’s basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson. “We can’t be archaic. This is 2022.”

In June, the University announced a $150 million fundraising campaign called Houston Rise with the purpose of raising funds to build new athletic facilities and upgrade current ones.

UH is well behind the other members of Power Five conferences in terms of facilities. 

It will be the only Power Five school without a football operations building when it enters the Big 12. The men’s and women’s golf programs don’t have their own locker rooms. The indoor track and field complex has trouble accommodating all its spectators during meets.

All this and more pose major problems as UH gets ready to join the Big 12, and Pezman knows it needs to be addressed immediately.

“Everybody expects to win, and to do that we need to help our coaches … and our student-athletes have the resources they need,” Pezman said. 

Much of the money raised through the campaign will go towards a $75 million football operations building, which will be located between TDECU Stadium and the indoor football practice facility. This facility, which is set to break ground in the fall, will serve as the main hub for UH football as it will contain a locker room, coaches’ offices, a players’ lounge, as well as sports medicine and strength and conditioning areas. It will also feature premium seating options, including suites and a party deck as a way to enhance the UH football gameday experience.

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Head football coach Dana Holgorsen, who has expressed numerous times that a football operations building is vital if the Cougars are to have success in the Big 12, kickstarted the campaign by donating $1 million.

“If we’re going in wanting to compete, we got to start digging,” Holgorsen said.

Another portion of the funds raised through Houston Rise will go towards redeveloping the Athletics-Alumni Center to better suit UH’s Olympic sports programs. Pezman said the football operations building will free up around 70,000 square feet of space in the Athletics-Alumni Center, which will be repurposed for new locker rooms for the track and field program as well as increase the capacity of Yeoman Fieldhouse, the indoor track complex, to up to 5,000 people. 

The Guy V. Lewis Development Center, the home of the University’s men’s and women’s basketball programs, will also receive upgrades, particularly on the second floor. Plans include redeveloping the team dining space as well as adding cutting-edge technology like sleeping pods to boost player recovery.

The other aspect of Houston Rise focuses on increasing support for UH’s athletics programs through adding new members to the Cougar Pride Athletic Fund and increasing season ticket holders across all sports, with a special emphasis on football.

“Now we’ve got basically a year until we’re members of the Big 12, and this is a chance for us to really pop our chests out, straighten our back and be very prideful about what we’ve been able to accomplish in a short period of time and get excited about what’s coming,” Pezman said. “We need help. In so many ways, you can look at the institution and what it’s done to help support us to get to this point, but this is where we really start calling out and asking for assistance from those that support us in our city and support our University. This is the time we need you.”

Just getting started

The $150 million fundraising goal is not the endgame.

“We’re playing catch-up,” Sampson said. “And we’re going to be playing catch-up for a while.”

After UH raises the first $150 million, it will have to raise $100 million more after that and then another $100 million and so on because the world of college athletics is constantly evolving. Having the money to consistently upgrade facilities is a necessity for any of UH’s athletic programs to have any chance to succeed at the highest level instead of taking a backseat and just being along for the ride.

The last thing UH wants is a situation similar to Hofeinz Pavilion, which opened in 1969 and underwent very few and insignificant upgrades over the following decades before finally being renovated and renamed to Fertitta Center in 2017.

“We have to continue to invest and build these facilities because if you don’t you look up in 20 to 30 years and you’ve got a facility that you’ve got to turn around and drop tens of millions of dollars on,” Pezman said. “The idea is that we continue to do small upgrades constantly to the facilities so that way we don’t turn around and have a big albatross that we have to take into account and start over from scratch 20 to 30 years down the line. What our mindset will be is to always try to do incremental upgrades over the course of time so that way we’re not turning around and scrambling.”

The clock is ticking until UH officially becomes a Big 12 member, and ith change comes the need for new ideas.

For everyone associated with UH athletics, the time to raise money and act is now. 

“Raising money at a school like the University of Houston has to be important to our fan base,” Sampson said. “We need our fan base to be engaged with us.”

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