Pezman: AAC success played a large part in Big 12 opportunity

Former UH quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was one the Cougars’ best athletes during their time in the AAC. In 32 games as a starter, Ward won 27 games — second in school history — and led UH to a conference title, a Peach Bowl title, and wins over top-ranked teams in Oklahoma and Louisville. | File Photo/The Cougar

During the University of Houston’s tenure in the American Athletic Conference, everything the athletic program did was done with an eye toward earning a chance to be a member of a Power 5 conference.

From the building of TDECU Stadium in 2014 to the Fertitta Center’s opening in 2019 and everything in between, UH was looking to show the nation that it was committed to sustained athletic success.

“You’re really doing that, on the prospect of ‘what if’ in the hope that this opportunity (to join the Big 12) would present itself,” said athletic director Chris Pezman. “Whether it was TDECU, Fertitta Center, Guy V. Lewis (basketball development facility), the indoor practice facility, or the baseball operations facility. Those massive investments were really a commitment to (showing the nation that) it mattered to us.”

From those investments came massive returns.

Just two years after the opening of TDECU, the Cougars rattled off a 13-1 conference championship season that was capped off with a Peach Bowl win on New Year’s Eve of 2015 against No. 9 Florida State. A year later, the stadium saw a record-breaking 42,000 fans come to watch UH steamroll third-ranked Louisville on Senior Night in 2016.

When the Fertitta Center debuted in 2018, men’s basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson’s squad won a school record-tying 33 wins on the way to the Cougars’ first Sweet 16 appearance in 35 years. From December 15, 2019 to February 12, 2022, UH would go a perfect 37-0 at Fertitta during seasons that saw Houston go to the Final Four and Elite Eight in 2021 and 2022. In 2022-23, the attendance record at the arena was broken four different times.

Even in the non-headliner sports, Houston proved its meddle as a potential Power 5 player.

Early on in UH’s time in the AAC, Todd Whitting took the baseball team on a magical run to NCAA Super Regionals in 2014, beating top-seeded LSU in Baton Rouge to win the Regional. In the next four seasons, the Cougars would win three conference titles.

David Rehr took the reins of a down-trodden volleyball program in 2019, and in just four years the Cougars went to the Sweet 16 in a historic 30-win campaign in 2022.

Swimming and Diving won its first-ever conference championship in 2017 under head coach Ryan Wochomurka and never relinquished the throne, winning the last seven AAC titles — the last two coming with head coach Tanica Jamison.

UH’s most dominant program, the fabled track and field squad, won 17 total conference titles under head coach Leroy Burrell as well as six individual national titles. His son, Cameron, won three national championships himself in a college career that rivaled legendary UH sprinter (and now-head coach) Carl Lewis. In UH’s final event in the AAC, sprinter Shaun Maswanganyi blew past the Cougar 100-meter dash record en route to a bronze medal at the NCAA Championships in June of 2023, while De’Vion Wilson broke the 110-meter hurdle mark twice while placing second.

“If we hadn’t made those investments, you would have looked at well, ‘do athletics matter to that university and to that community?’ But we made those investments and then all of a sudden had high-end returns in competitive success,” Pezman said. “That’s what gave us a chance to prove that we’re in a position to join the Big 12.”

After 41 conference titles and many millions of dollars spent, Houston’s hard work has finally paid off. The Cougars will now get to prove themselves among the best in the nation where they belong.

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