Coming full circle
It would be fitting for the Cougars to win this weekend.
This season marks the tenth anniversary of the Cougars’ winless 0-11 season in 2001.
Much has changed since then. The administration. The coaches. The attitude of the University.
No single individual has caused the change. It has been the work of many people involved, beginning with the hiring of former Athletics Director Dave Maggard and head coach Art Briles, and furthered by current Athletics Director Mack Rhoades, Senior Associate Athletics Director Darren Dunn, head coach Kevin Sumlin and President Renu Khator among many, many others.
Maggard and Briles got the ball rolling, changing the culture of an Athletics Department that was floundering.
The fall of 2001 was not the brightest point on the UH campus, particularly for athletics.
“It was a gloomy fall,” UH alumnus Keenan Singleton said. “We had a bad football team, a bad basketball team. The world was changing.”
Singleton was a walk-on for the 2001 Cougars, but left the team before the season to focus on being the sports editor for the Daily Cougar.
“Most of the campus wasn’t even aware that we were enthralled in an 0-11 season,” Singleton said.
“I don’t think people even cared. It’s not like now when sellouts are the norm.”
The Cougars averaged 19,457 fans for home games that season, a number inflated by strong turnouts for the season-opener against Rice and a near sellout the next week against Texas. Attendance bottomed out with UH’s last home game against UAB that only drew 11,647.
There were even rumblings that many faculty members wanted to see the athletics program scrapped altogether.
“Crowds were dwindling,” UH alumna Ali Brayton said. “The football program was going down the toilet. There was a lot of fear at the alumni level.
“At that moment there was a lot of thought and fear that we weren’t going to have a football program. That makes it so sweeter to have these times right now.”
Brayton, who has been a season-ticket holder with her husband Pete since graduating in 1989, attended all 11 of the Cougars’ losses in 2001.
“The stands were pretty empty,” Brayton said. “There was a lot of apathy about the program and we fired one coach and went from bad to worse.”
The Cougars closed that season with a devastating 35-7 loss at Georgia.
“Even though they weren’t a good team, I never got the feeling that the team gave up on itself,” Singleton said. “I never got the feeling that they thought it was a winless team until that week against Georgia.”
Maggard and Briles were both hired in 2002. In his first season at helm, Briles led UH to a 7-4 record and its first bowl appearance in seven years.
Between 2003-07, the Cougars went 34-28 under Briles, reaching four bowl games in his five years.
Sumlin and Khator both came to the University in 2008, and Rhoades replaced Maggard before the 2009 season.
Maggard and Briles began the uphill climb, but Rhoades and Sumlin gave the program that last push that it needed to get over that hill and continue toward greatness.
In Sumlin’s first season in 2008, he brought UH its first bowl win since 1980.
Rhoades and Sumlin have created an attitude of winning both on and off the field since coming on board.
“I think it takes a lot of people being on board with the same vision,” Rhoades said. “I think what I’m most proud about is the culture of the program. I think we have a coaching staff — coach Sumlin, his assistant coaches, our administrative staff — that really focused in on the culture that we have both on and off the field.”
This past academic year, the Cougars posted their highest GPA in program history.
“That’s the culture that we’re trying to create throughout the entire athletics department,” he said.
Rhoades has also used an aggressive and effective strategy to market the Cougars to alumni and the city of Houston.
“Ten years ago, tailgating wasn’t anything like it was now,” Singleton said. “Student apathy on campus was alarming.”
Dating to last season, the Cougars have sold out eight of their last 12 games at Robertson Stadium.
The Cougars gained national attention in 2009 for their upsets of Oklahoma State and Texas Tech and the super-human play of Case Keenum, rising as high as No. 12 in the polls. But losses later in the year pushed them out of the spotlight.
The 2010 season was supposed to be the Cougars’ big rebound year with Keenum back at the helm, but those plans went out the window when Keenum tore his ACL in the Cougars’ 31-13 loss to UCLA, and the Cougars finished the season 5-7.
“I think attitude is everything,” Rhoades said. “How you handle adversity and how you handle ups-and-downs. I think it’s extremely powerful.
“I think coach Sumlin and the way that he and his staff handled last year, they coached every bit as well last year as they’re coaching this year. I thought this football program grew from that adversity.”
When Keenum was given a sixth year of eligibility, it made his injury a blessing in disguise.
This year’s Cougar team has a much higher ceiling than last year’s squad, with stronger defense and even more weapons on offense — talking about you, Charles Sims.
Getting off to the best start in program history at 10-0 has helped get Keenum the national attention that he deserves for having one of the all-time great seasons and careers in college football.
The season is far from over, though.
The toughest part of the season is still yet to come. With all of the attention that the Cougars have received, teams will definitely be gunning for them now more than ever.
SMU is not a matchup to sneeze at, and a loss next week at Tulsa would destroy any chance of receiving a BCS bowl.
Either way, this season has done wonders for giving the University a national identity.
If the Cougars continue winning and take home the Conference USA championship, they will find themselves in uncharted territory for the program with a potential BCS bowl invitation.
Ten years ago, suggesting that the Cougars would have a Heisman trophy candidate and welcome ESPN’s College GameDay to campus would have a been a great joke for the water cooler. Now it’s a reality.
“I’m a big believer that in order to be great, you have to do things that you’ve never done before,” Rhoades said.
“That would certainly be the case for this program and it would be really something to build on and grow on. And it would mean so much to our University, to our fanbase, the national exposure and certainly to our student athletes.”