Staying the course: UH and its journey to the Big 12

Renu Khator called the work the UH administration put in to receive a Big 12 invite a "village effort." | Andy Yanez/The Cougar

Renu Khator called the work the UH administration put in to receive a Big 12 invite a “village effort.” | Andy Yanez/The Cougar

Athletic director Chris Pezman remembers well the day UH was left in the dust when the Southwest Conference dissolved in 1996.

“Wow, that sucks,” he remembered thinking as he sat in the old Fouke Athletic Building.

From that point on, UH made it its mission to get into one of the college athletics’ power conferences. But this proved to be difficult as the lasting effects from Southwest Conference break up forced UH athletics to take a major leap backward, leaving the University and its fans with little hope for the future.

“There’s a lot of scars on a lot of alumni at the University of Houston from what happened in the early ’90s,” Pezman said.

As the Power Five rose to prominence, UH was continuously overlooked and forced to wander the mid-majors while looking for any way to squeeze its foot in the door of one of the autonomous conferences.

Despite many disappointments along the way, the administration stayed the course, believing the day would come when UH finally got the opportunity to gain a foothold in a power conference.

When Renu Khator took over as UH president in 2008, she entered with a simple philosophy.

“I always say dream big,” Khator said. “There’s no point in dreaming small.” 

As a result, the University’s search of finding a more permanent home in a conference allowing UH athletics to compete at the highest level possible ramped up.

“This journey did not start a month ago or a week ago or even five years ago,” Khator said. “This has been in the making for quite some time as our community, fans, boosters, faculty, staff  and students supported investing in athletics.”

Tilman Fertitta furthered the push when he was appointed to the UH System Board of Regents in 2009, believing great rivalries were what made college sports so special and the Cougars just weren’t able to establish a tradition of high-level rivalries in Conference USA and the American Athletic Conference.

Fertitta said he would consider his time on the board a failure and would have not been able to deal with himself if UH didn’t join a Power Five conference under his watch.

When Pezman took over as the UH athletic director in December 2018, his eyes were already set on making Khator and Fertitta’s vision a reality.

A window of opportunity opened for UH over the summer when Texas and Oklahoma announced their intentions to leave the Big 12 and join the SEC by 2025.

Khator, Pezman and Fertitta thought openings in the Big 12 presented a chance for UH to finally realize its long-awaited dream of joining a power conference.

“Trust me when I say we fired every bullet,” Pezman said. “This was not an opportunity we were going to allow to pass us by.”

Together, the three worked tirelessly behind the scenes, paving the way for UH to be in the best position to receive an invitation to join the Big 12. 

The Big 12 could not pass up on an opportunity to extend an invitation to UH, knowing the school’s rich history of athletics and the market Houston would bring to the conference, especially in football.

“There isn’t a question that the Cougars raise the bar in every sport and in every way,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. “They live and reside in arguably the best recruiting county in the United States for football.”

Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU, the Big 12’s other Texas schools, were all on board with adding UH to the conference and excited for the in-state rivalries across a variety of sports that will ensue.

“There was no reservations on behalf of (the other Big 12) Texas institutions,” said Texas Tech president and Big 12 board chair Lawrence Schovanec. “We saw this as strengthening the state of collegiate athletics in the state of Texas as well as it being a benefit to the league as a whole.”

Sept. 10 marks a historic day for UH, signifying everything the University has gone through the past 25 years has been worth it, Khator said.

But joining the Big 12 is not UH’s end all be all, rather Pezman believes this is just the beginning of greater things to come.

“We’re not backing into this,” Pezman said. “We’re running into this. We’re going there to win across the board.”

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