SWC Rewind: Cougars took massive first step in Waco in 1976
It’s odd how history can repeat itself.
On Saturday, Houston will play Baylor in Waco in search of its first win against a former Southwest Conference opponent in their first season in the Big 12.
On Sept. 11, 1976, the Cougars traveled to Waco looking for their first win in the Southwest Conference in their first game of the season.
This year, the Bears are two years removed from a Big 12 Championship in 2021, a season where they were picked to finish towards the bottom of the conference before the season. After a disappointing 6-7 year in 2022 and a rocky start thus far, Baylor is looking to get things back on track by beating a new conference opponent in UH at home.
In 1976, Baylor was two years removed from its first SWC title in 50 years in 1974, where they were picked last in the league by many in the preseason. After a tough 3-6-1 year in ’75, a home game against wide-eyed conference newcomer Houston seemed a good opportunity to bounce back.
In 2023, the Cougars, much like Baylor, entered the Big 12 with low expectations from outsiders after an underwhelming 2022 season that followed up a 12-win campaign in 2021.
In 1976, UH was not viewed by analysts and fans as a threat going into its first SWC season, either. The year prior, Houston fell flat on its way to a 2-8 record after an impressive 8-3-1 season in 1974.
With Saturday’s game yet to be played, that’s where the historical similarities stop. As for what happened in 1976, the Cougars’ momentous SWC opener proved to be a monumental first step.
The antsy lead-up
“As game time approached, the magnitude of the event began to take its effect on the players as well as the coaches.
‘Just before game time (starting offensive tackle) Val Belcher couldn’t even talk,’ Yeoman said. ‘I haven’t seen him that worked up in the four years he has been at UH.'”
— Robin Wright, The Daily Cougar Sports Editor 1976-77
Then-independent Houston was invited to join the Southwest Conference in 1971 but had to endure five long years of waiting before they could play against its in-state rivals as league foes.
As such, head coach Bill Yeoman and his staff began recruiting heavily for the 1976 season a year after getting invited. Yeoman’s pitch to potential players was that after a few years, UH would have a team that was built to compete for the SWC title immediately.
“When we were recruited out of high school, that was the theme,” said former All-SWC tailback Alois Blackwell. “That we would be the first class that would be able to play in the Southwest Conference and would have an opportunity to win the conference our first year.”
A young team riddled with injuries caused the 1975 season to go awry, but by the next year, Yeoman had finally built the squad he needed for the SWC. Boasting defensive stalwarts like Wilson Whitley and Anthony Francis and the revolutionary Veer offense developed by Yeoman himself, UH would field a team that featured eight All-SWC selections in 1976.
Donning shirts that read “Think Cotton” as a reminder of the team’s ultimate goal of an SWC title and Cotton Bowl berth, Houston walked into Baylor Stadium on a hot September day anxious to finally play in their new conference.
“You can’t even explain the emotion that went through everybody,” said center Chuck Brown. “I walked up (the stadium) and saw it was bright sunshine. I was like, ‘Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into?'”
In the locker room, several recent former UH players were there to see off their former teammates into the beginning of a new era for a program that they had helped build.
“We had four or five guys up in the dressing room saying, ‘This is what we built for y’all,'” Brown remembered. “Then that makes you feel good because all the blood and sweat and tears those guys did got us to where we’re gonna go.”
Sensing the team’s angst perhaps reaching dangerous levels, Yeoman, calm as ever, addressed the players and cooled them down.
“When he talks like that, it just kind of settled you down,” Brown said. “That’s what I admire about him. He never got too high. He never got too low.”
“WACO — When Danny Davis took the snap from center Chuck Brown at 3:25 p.m., Saturday, it marked the first time a University of Houston player had touched a football in Southwest Conference history.”
— Robin Wright, The Daily Cougar Sports Editor 1976-77
The Bears under Hall of Fame head coach Grant Teaff were confident that Houston’s first day in the SWC would be a long one.
From sports writer Jerry Wizig’s book, “Eat ‘Em Up Cougars“: “The pregame invocation that day concluded, ‘We welcome The University of Houston into our Southwest Conference family. Lord, help us make their visit as memorable as possible.'”
Early on, it seemed that such a statement would turn out to be true. Brown scored the first points in UH’s first SWC game on a first-quarter punt that read on the scoring summary as simply, “Safety – bad center pass.”
“I snapped it 35 yards into the end zone,” Brown said. “I scored the first points for UH in the Southwest Conference.”
UH went into halftime down 5-0. The Cougar defense had done its job, but the offense had yet to find its rhythm in quarterback Danny Davis’s varsity debut. After some words from the defense and a confidence-injecting halftime speech from Yeoman, things finally started to click in the third quarter.
“If we wouldn’t do anything or we weren’t moving the ball like we should,” Blackwell said. “They (the defense) would say, ‘You’re going to work us all day and not pay it?'”
After a Baylor fumble out of the half, Davis led UH down the field and scored the Cougars’ first-ever points in the SWC and the lead on a tough four-yard keeper.
Up 6-5 after a failed two-point conversion, cornerback Anthony Francis caught the first of his nation-leading 10 interceptions that season in the first few minutes of the fourth quarter. His pick was then followed by an impressive 87-yard drive led by Davis and capped by a one-yard touchdown by Dyral Thomas.
The Cougar defense didn’t allow Baylor to score the rest of the game, picking off the Bears again on a tipped pass by Lombardi Award winner Wilson Whitley while the Veer began chewing up yardage and time. Leading 16-5 in the final seconds, Thomas once scampered into the end zone five yards out to cap a historic 23-5 win.
“It was all lined up,” Blackwell said, “This was the first step that we had to take care of and so everyone was on the right page.”
It was the first act in a year where the Cougars announced their arrival to big-time Texas football. Back in Houston, the football team became the talk of campus, with fans itching to get to watch UH play its first SWC home game in two weeks.
“The students and the alumni have come alive,” tackle Val Belcher told The Daily Cougar in 1976. “It’s a whole new atmosphere. Football players now enjoy walking around campus. This is the first time anything like that has happened in the four years I’ve been here.”
On Sept. 25, the Cougars jumped on No. 9 Texas A&M in front of 70,000 fans at Rice Stadium and took a 21-3 lead before winning 21-10 and putting the SWC on notice.
UH finished 10-2 and took just one loss in conference play on the way to a Cotton Bowl win over No. 4 Maryland, taking the Terps’ spot in the AP Poll at season’s end.
Houston fulfilled the destiny Yeoman had told his players of back when they were just high schoolers four years prior: The 1976 Cougars were SWC champions in their first year there. And in that first game in Waco, those promises bore its first fruits.
“I think that set the tone for everybody,” Brown said. “You know, like ‘Better get ready for us.'”