History of the Powerhouse: A deep dive into UH football’s past
As Juan Miranda waited for his flight to Virginia, he was enjoying his burger inside of a restaurant at Hobby Airport.
Suddenly, his eyes were drawn to a TV screen that was showing a football game between Houston and Oklahoma State.
Miranda, who had just graduated from the University a year prior as a mechanical engineering technology major, slowly began to pay attention to a player in white that was wearing No. 7 for the Cougars — Case Keenum.
“You just need to watch this guy,” Miranda recalled his college friends say to him when he was still a student. “He’s good.”
As he continued to watch Keenum play against the Cowboys, he began to see why.
The then redshirt sophomore quarterback finished that particular game completing 35 of 61 passes for 387 yards and four touchdowns. Even though the Cougars lost the contest, Miranda became forever hooked with the Cougars’ program.
This is The Cougar’s series — History of the Powerhouse: UH football.
Roughly 67 years prior to Miranda staring in awe of Keenum’s play on the field, the seeds to establishing the University’s varsity football program began in 1941.
Then sports editor of The Cougar, Johnny Goyen, along with Jack J. Valenti, started a petition to launch an official intercollegiate football team to represent UH. After years of delay, largely in part due to World War II, the two’s vision to start an intercollegiate program became reality in 1946.
The first official game in program history kicked off on Sept. 21, 1946, against Southwestern Louisiana Institute, who later became Louisiana-Lafayette.
Quarterback Charlie Manichia scored the first touchdown in Houston history, but the Cougars lost the game 13-7.
Houston first competed as a Lone Star Conference member and went 4-6 in its inaugural season, which included a 3-game winning streak and a victory over Stephen F. Austin.
The Cougars were coached by William Jewell Wallace (7-14) during their first two years of existence.
Between the infancy seasons of the program until 1962, Houston hovered around .500 for much of it.
After a two-year independent run, the Cougars joined the Missouri Valley Conference in 1951.
Their best year in this initial phase came in 1952 under head coach Clyde Lee when the team ended the year with an 8-2 record. Under Lee, the Cougars also made their first bowl game appearance in the 1952 Salad Bowl, which they won by defeating Dayton 26-21.
Years of Yeoman
As the calendar turned to the ‘60s, the Cougars once again competed as an independent, this time a 16-year run, and in 1962, Bill Yeoman took the reins of the program.
He immediately made an impact taking the Cougars to only their second bowl game in program history at the time after a 7-4 first season. Houston dominated Miami (Ohio) 49-21 in the 1962 Tangerine Bowl.
The Hall of Fame head coach won 160 games in 25 years with the Cougars, taking them to 11 bowl games (6-4-1) and was the leader when Houston finally joined the Southwest Conference.
While Yeoman is the longest-tenured and the winningest coach in Houston history, his stint with the University was not unblemished.
Under Yeoman, UH had multiple recruiting and improper payment violations that led to punishments by the NCAA, which included a three-year probation beginning in 1966, a one-year sanction in 1977 and a three-year probation in 1989, 1990 and 1991.
One of Houston’s biggest wins in the Yeoman era came in 1967 when the Cougars went into East Lansing, Michigan, and shocked the No. 3 Michigan State Spartans in a 37-7 rout.
“That was a seriously critical game for us in the program’s progress,” Yeoman said of the win. “I think it was an awakening moment for a lot of people to see how many football players are in this state. They don’t all go to (Texas) A&M or Texas.”
Arguably the best season under Yeoman came in 1976, when the Cougars went 10-2 and finished No. 6 in the national poll and capped it all off by defeating No. 4 Maryland in the 1977 Cotton Bowl 31-24.
After years of being denied admission into the Southwest Conference, the football team finally competed in it in 1976. The Cougars not only made a huge statement in their first season by winning the conference title that year, but the bowl game win topped it all off.
Houston running backs Alois Blackwell, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Offensive Player with 149 yards, and Dyral Thomas each rushed for over 100 yards in the contest against the Terrapins’ No. 2 rushing defense in the nation.
Following a dreadful 1-10 season, ending Yeoman’s 25-year stint as Houston’s head coach, quarterback Andre Ware kept the Cougars in relevance, which was highlighted by his 1989 Heisman season.
That campaign came to end in early December with a 64-0 rout of Rice on the Owls’ own campus. In his final game with the Cougars, Ware completed 36 of 51 passes and threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns.
Even though Houston was at Rice Stadium, the Heisman Trophy presentation was put up on the jumbotron and Ware got to celebrate with his teammates while his mother, Joyce Ware, accepted the trophy in New York for him.
“It was such a great feeling,” John Dees, a 1986 UH journalism graduate who was at Rice Stadium that day said. “Just seeing Andre surrounded by his teammates … his teammates practically mobbed him at the end.”
Ware’s Heisman season comes with a bit of controversy, however, due to an NCAA punishment, which banned the University from getting to a bowl game and even from being shown on TV. This led a few of the players in contention for the award to argue that the situation favored Houston’s quarterback.
“It depends on how you look at it,” 1989 West Virginia quarterback Major Harris, who finished third in Heisman votes that season, once said. “He’s got the statistics. He had a great year. (But) they’re on probation … they can go out there and go for it on fourth down because they’re not thinking about a bowl.”
Despite the circumstances, Ware’s 1,073 votes clinched the Heisman trophy for him.
After a 10-win season in 1990 the year after Ware left for the NFL, the Cougars entered a lull. For the next 15 seasons, Houston never won more than seven games in one campaign and had a couple of one-win years, and even a winless one in 2001.
After finally breaking through in 2006 with a 10-4 season under Art Briles, a new era began in Houston’s history the following season.
After redshirting his true freshman season, Case Keenum made his collegiate debut off the bench in 2007 against Oregon. After an entire season of mostly sharing quarterback play with Blake Joseph, Keenum was finally given the keys to the offense in 2008.
Opening the season with a 392-yard, five-touchdown performance in a 55-3 rout over Southern, Keenum put up a 387-yard, four-touchdown performance the following week against OSU and never looked back.
The Abilene-native went on to throw for 5,020 yards and 44 touchdowns that season. Keenum reached the 5,000-yard, 40-touchdown mark two more times in his UH career and threw 48 touchdowns in 2011.
Arguably Keenum’s best career game at UH came in 2009 during a 50-43 shootout win over Southern Mississippi. He threw for 559 yards and five touchdowns.
Keenum’s worst UH game, however, came at the end of that year as well during the Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force as he threw six interceptions in a 47-20 loss.
The Modern Era
Levine coached UH for two more seasons as the program entered the American Athletic Conference and moved to TDECU Stadium.
In 2015, Tom Herman took over as the head coach, and the Cougars saw a quick resurgence, finishing 12-1 during the regular season and the 38-24 New Year’s Eve Peach Bowl win over No. 9 Florida State capped it all off.
The Seminoles turned the ball over five times as the Cougars ran all over FSU, rushing for 187 yards. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who won the offensive MVP, scored three touchdowns in the game.
Houston’s success carried into 2016 with a 33-23 season-opening win over No. 3 Oklahoma, which was the program’s most recent high point for some fans.
“(The belief was) if UH could beat Oklahoma on that stage given the national conversation, then UH could become a recognizable, household name along with other universities like (Texas) A&M, UT, LSU, Oklahoma, etc.,” said Miranda, who after watching Keenum play in 2008 in Hobby Airport, became an avid supporter of the team.
The Cougars started 5-0 that season and at one point stood at No. 6 in the nation, but the Herman rumors about big-name schools calling began and the team started to falter a bit.
Despite losing two of their next three games, the Cougars seemed to bounce back and tallied another impressive win, this time a 36-10 victory over Lamar Jackson’s No. 3 Louisville Cardinals, but Houston dropped its final regular-season game.
Herman then left for Texas, and the Cougars fell to San Diego State in the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl as Major Applewhite became the head coach.
With him at the helm, the Cougars went 7-5 in 2017 and 8-5 in 2018. After Houston was hit with NCAA infractions last December and forced to vacate wins, the Cougars’ 2018 record officially stands at 5-5.
Quarterback D’Eriq King and defensive tackle Ed Oliver shined for the Cougars in those two seasons.
King at one point led the nation in scoring 50 total touchdowns and 11 two-point conversions in 2018, accounting for 27.5 points per game before suffering a season-ending injury.
His record with the Cougars finished at 12-14.
Dana Holgorsen officially became the 15th head coach of the Cougars in 2019, and after a difficult 4-8 opening year, he looks to make a quick turnaround.
While King transferring to Miami makes things a bit more challenging, Holgorsen has shown that JUCO recruits are a key in filling his roster.
While it is still too early to tell what his stint will be known for, Holgorsen knows a year like 2019 won’t cut it.
“(4-8) is not what we want,” Holgorsen said last month during a Zoom video call with fans. “It’s not what we are about, and I can’t wait to get a product out there that everyone is going to be proud of.”
This is the second article in a multi-part series. If you missed our first article on the men’s basketball program, click here.