American Dream: The Cougar relives UH’s decade in the AAC
In 10 years as a member of the American Athletic Conference, the University of Houston has participated in well over 3,000 sporting events across 17 varsity sports. In that time, UH has won 41 conference titles (second-most in the conference), made 128 NCAA postseason appearances, and won six individual National Championships.
The decade also saw the opening of TDECU Stadium in 2014, and the old Hofheinz Pavillion resurrected into the often-rowdy Fertitta Center in 2018.
Throughout all of it, The Cougar has been following every step of the way, providing crucial coverage to every twist, turn, high and low.
In honor UH’s induction into the Big 12, below are 12 of the most memorable moments from UH’s decade in the American Athletic Conference. Links to the original articles are provided as well.
UH’s C-USA journey comes to a close
By The Daily Cougar News Services | July 1, 2013
“In its 17 Conference USA seasons, UH won 59 conference titles and made 145 NCAA postseason appearances in 15 sports while also producing 10 individual national champions.”
— The Cougar, July 1, 2013
On December 7, 2011, the University of Houston announced its move to the then-named Big East Conference, after spending 17 years in Conference USA since the dissolution of the famed Southwestern Conference.
At the time, college sports was in the midst of an unprecedented period of conference realignment at almost every level. Houston and several other fellow C-USA schools were invited as full-time members to stabilize a conference that would end up losing 13 members after all was said and done.
UH officially joined the AAC on July 1, 2013, where all 16 of its varsity sports — plus the newly formed women’s golf team — would spend the next decade.
Defense carries Cougars to first American win
By Andrew Valderas | September 7, 2013
“Until this match, the Cougars had not won a game outside of Texas since Nov. 25, 2011 when former UH quarterback Case Keenum led the Cougars against Tulsa.”
— The Cougar Sept. 7, 2013
The Cougars’ coronation into the AAC was a success. On the road against Temple, UH’s defense and special teams covered up for an otherwise sputtering offense.
In eight trips in the red zone, Houston scored just one touchdown while kicker Richie Leone made five field goals. With under two minutes to go and hanging on to a two-point lead, Cougar defensive back Adrian McDonald sealed the game with Houston’s third turnover.
After starting quarterback David Piland exited the game with what would be a career-ending concussion, John O’Korn came in and found a connection with receiver Deontay Greenberry, who finished with 14 receptions and 165 yards.
The Cougars would go on to start the year 7-1 before losing three straight and ending the season on a defeat to Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass to go 8-5 for the year.
Sampson hired as Cougars next head coach
By The Daily Cougar News Services | April 2, 2014
“”Coach Sampson is committed to leading a first-class program in all areas and is excited to return to the college game,” said athletics director Mack Rhoades.”
— The Cougar, April 2, 2014
In perhaps the most impactful moment on this list, Kelvin Sampson took the helm of a UH men’s basketball program that was 30 years into a post-Phi Slama Jama Dark Age. Since legendary coach Guy V. Lewis’ retirement in 1986, Houston had been to the NCAA Tournament just four times in three decades, failing to win a game in any of them.
Sampson, on the other hand, was a proven winner returning to college basketball after a five-year penalty from the NCAA for recruiting violations (which ceased to be violations in 2013) forced him to resign from his head coaching job at Indiana. Sampson, who led Oklahoma to 11 tournament appearances in 12 years, including a Final Four in 2002, spent the next six years as an assistant coach in the NBA for the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets.
In the next nine years, Sampson would steadily rebuild Cougar basketball back to its former glory, bringing UH back as regulars in the Big Dance and as the class of the AAC. Under Sampson, Houston has made the tournament five straight years, including a Final Four berth in 2021, two conference tournament victories and 93 wins in the last three years.
Tiger Country proves perfect for Cougar victory
By Harrison Lee | June 3, 2014
“UH, like a racehorse that had waited its entire life for this moment, took a lead and never let LSU get close, going for a 12-2 win and a spot in the NCAA Super Regionals, its first since 2003.”
— The Cougar, June 3, 2014
After claiming UH’s first team title as a member of the AAC, head coach Todd Whitting’s 2014 Cougar baseball squad made history when it knocked off the top-seeded LSU Tigers on their home turf to win the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional Tournament.
After falling to the Tigers earlier in the tournament, UH made its way to the Regional Championship game by storming back from a four-run deficit in the eighth inning to beat LSU in extra innings and force a winner-take-all elimination game.
But the magic did not stop there.
Houston bulldozed LSU all the way to its school record-tying 48th win of the season, blasting a seven-run third inning to beat the Tigers 12-2 and punching its ticket to the Austin Super Regional. It was the Cougars’ first Regional Championship in 11 years, a feat that has not been replicated since.
Houston downs FSU, clinch 13-1 season with Peach Bowl win
By Bryce Dodds | December 31, 2015
“While he’s no stranger to success in big games, Herman also said this means something more than all of those.
“Hats off to our staff, our players and our administration,” Herman said. “It feels incredible.”
— The Cougar , Dec. 31, 2015
On New Year’s Eve in 2015, first-year head coach Tom Herman and company capped one of the greatest seasons in UH football history, upsetting the No. 9 Florida State Seminoles 38-24 in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
After jumping out to a 21-3 first-half lead, Houston held off FSU’s comeback attempts by forcing five turnovers, including two picks and a fumble recovery from senior safety Trevon Stewart in his final game for UH.
Star quarterback Greg Ward Jr. led the offense with three total touchdowns before backup Kyle Postma took over for an injured Ward and orchestrated a game-sealing drive in the final minutes.
The win put the Cougars’ final record at 13-1 for the season in Herman’s debut season as a head coach, earning the American title on the way. It was only the second time UH won 13 games in a season, with the Cougars’ only loss coming from UConn.
Cougars put the ‘L’ in Louisville, knock off No. 3 Cardinals
By Reagan Ernst | November 18, 2016
“In front of a record crowd at TDECU Stadium, the game got off to a roaring start from the opening kick. Cardinal return man Malik Williams fumbled the opening kickoff which was quickly recovered by Cougar junior running back Dillon Birden deep in Cardinal territory.”
— The Cougar, Nov. 18, 2016
The last time TDECU Stadium was sold out, the Cougars crushed the College Football Playoff hopes of the Lamar Jackson-led Louisville Cardinals, sacking the eventual Heisman trophy winner 11 times en route to a 36-10 thumping.
No. 3 Louisville entered the game with a 9-1 record as a whopping 16-point road favorite. That all went out the window from the opening kick when UH recovered the fumbled kick and scored just a few plays later. From there, Ed Oliver and the Cougar defense smothered Jackson and the Cardinals’ offense, sacking him 11 times and forcing three fumbles. Meanwhile, Greg Ward Jr. and running back Duke Catalon teamed up to give UH a 31-0 halftime lead in Ward’s final home game.
In a blowout complete with fake punts and tip-drill touchdowns, the atmosphere was unlike any that has been seen at TDECU. Unfortunately, the electricity that was the Tom Herman era came to a close after the season, as the coach left for the Texas Longhorns.
Cougars end 34-year drought with win over Aztecs
By Andres Chio | March 15, 2018
“Thirty four years ago, the Houston Cougars defeated the Virginia Cavaliers and headed to the 1984 NCAA championship game where the Hakeem Olajuwon-led team lost in the finals to Georgetown.
Since 1984, the Cougars have lost every NCAA tournament game they played, until tonight.”
— The Cougar, March 15, 2018
Kelvin Sampson’s time as UH men’s basketball coach bore its first fruit in 2018 when senior guard Rob Gray played the hero in the Cougars’ first NCAA tournament victory since 1984.
In a classic March Madness thriller, Gray exploded for a career-high 39 points against 11-seed Sand Diego State, scoring more than half of UH’s 67 points.
The final seconds, however, is when Gray shined the most. With the game tied at 65, Gray snaked into the lane for a go-ahead scoop layup with a second to go. When the Aztecs’ three-pointer to win missed, the drought was over.
It was the first of many milestones Sampson would achieve, an initial step in his mission to rebuild and revitalize Cougar basketball culture. Just three years later, Sampson would take the team to it’s first Final Four appearance in 37 years.
Men’s track & field takes third at NCAA Outdoor Academy
By Andres Chio | June 8, 2018
“Burrell’s win was his first individual NCAA championship and the first individual NCAA outdoor win for UH since 1994. It was also just the second time in NCAA history that two sprinters from the same team made it to the podium in the 100m dash.”
— The Cougar, June 8, 2018
During UH’s time in the AAC, the track and field team was utterly dominant. Under head coach and former world-record sprinter Leroy Burrell, Houston won 44 team conference titles — 17 in the AAC — during his tenure from 1998-2022. Leading the way during AAC competition was his son, Cameron.
Cameron set school records in the 100-meter, 60-meter, and 4×100-meter relay sprints during his four years at UH, besting records set by his own father and track great Carl Lewis. In 2018, Cameron led UH in his senior year to a third-place finish at the NCAA Championships, capturing two national titles himself.
Cameron anchored the title-winning 4×100 sprint team and captured the 100-meter title with a time of 10.13 seconds. He became the first Cougar to capture an individual outdoor national title since 1994. And, in an act of leadership, Cameron dedicated his run to long-distance runner Brian Barraza, who took a fall while leading the final lap of the 3,000-meter steeple chase.
Tragically, Cameron took his own life in the summer of 2021. His father Leroy stepped down as head coach a year later.
FINAL FOUR BOUND: UH narrowly escapes Oregon State to advance
By James Mueller | March 29, 2021
“Nearly four decades of waiting are finally over as Kelvin Sampson has led Houston back to the Final Four for the sixth time in program history after the Cougars defeated Oregon State, winning 67-61 Monday night in Indianapolis.”
— The Cougar, March 29, 2021
After COVID-19 wrecked a promising 2019-20 campaign, Kelvin Sampson’s rebuild of UH basketball culminated the next year when the Cougars made their first Final Four since 1984.
Boasting one of the country’s best defenses and its trademark rebounding prowess, 2nd-seeded Houston battled its way through an upset-laden Midwest region. After needing a late comeback to beat 10th-seeded Rutgers in the second round, the Cougars shut down a hot Syracuse team to set up an Elite Eight matchup with 12th-seeded Oregon State.
UH locked up the Beavers in the first half, building up a 17-point lead before Oregon State battled back to tie it up late in the game. Quentin Grimes nailed a big shot while DeJon Jarreau and the Cougar defense held the Beavers without a field goal for three and a half minutes, punching the team’s ticket to its first Final Four in 37 years before losing to eventual national champion Baylor.
Long-awaited dream: UH accepts invite to join Big 12
By James Mueller | September 10, 2021
“Joining the Big 12 Conference is a historic step in our institutional journey and signifies the tremendous growth and success attained academically and athletically over the last decade,” said UH Chancellor Renu Khator.
— The Cougar, Sept. 10, 2021
Since the SWC’s disbandment in 1996, Houston had spent the last 25 years on the outside looking in. When the school was passed over in its invitation to the Big 12, UH was relegated to the relative obscurity of Conference USA. Though the move to the American was an improvement, it was still a far cry from the prestige of a power conference.
That all changed in the fall of 2021 when Texas and Oklahoma announced their move to the Southeastern Conference, opening up the opportunity for UH to finally enter the Big 12 where it had been snubbed for so long. It was a long and arduous process in the months leading up, but the wait was over, and the Cougars were finally where they belonged.
No. 1: UH leaps to top spot in AP Poll for first time since Phi Slama Jama
By James Mueller | November 28, 2022
“Not everybody gets to be ranked No. 1,” said UH head coach Kelvin Sampson.
— The Cougar, Nov. 28, 2022
In another post-Phi Slama Jama first achieved under Kelvin Sampson, the Cougar claimed their spot as the nation’s best team early on during the 2022-23 regular season. The last time UH was atop the AP Poll, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler entered the 1983 NCAA tournament as prohibitive favorites to win it all.
The squad that battled its way to the Elite Eight a year prior saw the return of several key veterans, including star guard Marcus Sasser, who missed most of the 2021-22 season due to injury. Among the new arrivals was five-star freshman forward Jarace Walker, who committed to UH as the team’s highest-ranked recruit in its history.
After starting the season ranked third, UH quickly climbed up the ladder up to the top spot. Despite two regular season losses, the Cougars reclaimed the No. 1 ranking after each one, holding it for a total of six weeks during the season. Eventually, UH earned a one-seed in the tournament, making its fourth straight appearance in the Sweet 16 before falling to Miami.
UH defeats South Dakota for first NCAA Tournament win since 1994
By James Mueller | December 2, 2022
“The music plays on for UH as the Cougars lived to dance another day by defeating South Dakota in five sets Friday afternoon in Omaha, Nebraska for the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1994.”
— The Cougar, Dec. 2, 2022
David Rehr, in just his fourth year as head coach of the UH volleyball team, made all kinds of history in 2022. In unprecedented fashion, the Cougars ran through the regular season with a 28-3 record, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the program’s first in over 20 years.
Once there, UH captured its first tournament victory since 1994, beating South Dakota in a five-set victory that saw junior libero Kate Georgiades go viral after a table-clearing save to keep a point alive. However, the run did not stop there, as the Cougars would go on to beat Auburn to make it to the Sweet 16 and win 30 games in a season for the first time in over 40 years.
Maswanganyi, Wilson make history at NCAA Champs
By Starns Leland | June 10, 2023
“Maswanganyi, who qualified for the final in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes, earned his title as the fastest Cougar ever with a 9.91-second 100-meter sprint…”
— The Cougar, June 10, 2023
In the Cougars’ final act as members of the American Athletic Conferences, records were broken one last time. Under new head coach Carl Lewis, two Cougar athletes broke school records at the NCAA Championships.
South African sprinter Shaun Maswanganyi blew past Cameron Burrell’s previous school-record time in the 100-meter dash, which he set in the 2017 NCAA Championships, running a 9.91-second sprint to place third in the event, missing gold by just inches. Maswanganyi also finished sixth in the 200-meter dash.
Junior De’Vion Wilson broke the UH record in the 110-meter hurdles not once, but twice. In qualifying, Wilson ran a blistering 13.37-second time before shattering his own record with a silver-medal-earning hurdle of 13.26 seconds.
It was a fitting end to the Cougars’ time in the American, one that is surely a harbinger of things to come in the Big 12.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to every student who contributed to The Cougar’s coverage of the University of Houston Athletics in the past ten years. We promise to stay committed to bringing top-notch reporting on all things UH as the school transitions into the Big 12 Conference.