Football Sports

SWC Rewind: ’76 Cougars teach Maryland modesty in Cotton Bowl upset

The Cougars “Mad Dog” defense lines up against an undefeated Maryland squad in the Cotton Bowl. | The Houstonian 1977

Though the Cougars’ first Big 12 season ended back in November without a bowl berth, there’s still time to look back at one of UH football’s crowning achievements as members of the Southwest Conference: the 1977 Cotton Bowl.

When it was announced UH would enter the Southwest Conference, Hall of Fame head coach Bill Yeoman immediately began building a conference champion in year one. By the end of the 1976 regular season, Yeoman’s Cougars had done just that.

A disastrous 2-8 season in 1975 — Houston’s first losing season in a decade — made it seem like big-time SWC football was going to be far too much for the formerly independent school. UH was picked to finish towards the bottom of the conference by media members before the season began.

However, internally, the Cougars had their eyes locked on ending their season as SWC champs and earning a spot in their first-ever Cotton Bowl and were supremely confident in doing so.

“That’s what we played for all year long,” said former guard Chuck Brown. “We had an offseason (training program) called ‘Camp Fun.’ And we wore a t-shirt that said ‘Think Cotton’ on it.”

Capturing wins over all of its in-state foes along the way, The Cougars shocked the SWC to a 9-2 record with just one conference loss. UH announced its arrival with a decisive 23-5 win over Baylor in its SWC debut, then shut down a No. 9-ranked Texas A&M team in Week 3.

The Cougars closed conference play by rattling off road upsets against No. 20 Texas and No. 5 Texas Tech to put the SWC title within reach. A week later, Houston took care of Rice to clinch co-ownership of the conference championship.

“We had done what we said we were going to do,” said former star running back Alois Blackwell. “Win the conference and go to the Cotton Bowl.”

Waiting for the Cougars in Dallas on New Year’s Day was one more massive obstacle: No. 4 Maryland.

Maryland was an 11-0 juggernaut enjoying one of its greatest seasons in school history (11 wins is still the most in a season for Maryland) under fellow Hall of Fame head coach Jerry Claiborne. The ACC champ Terps were armed with a defense that entered the game having earned shutouts in each of its last three games, and had only allowed more than 10 points just three times. When game day came, Maryland still had a chance (albeit very slim) at being named national champions with some help from other New Year’s bowls.

The Cougars were chomping at the bit to show up a Maryland team that they felt entered the game overconfident in its undefeated record. On top of that, the fact that the Terps hadn’t allowed a rushing touchdown in five and a half games was enough for the Veer-running Cougars to prove a point on the national stage.

“The offense was so fired up because we run the Veer.  We just believe that there’s no one that we play that we’re not going to score a touchdown on,” Blackwell said. “And I think if they hadn’t had all of those things going for themselves, then maybe they’d have had an opportunity or a chance to win the game.”

The Game

The Cougars were in Dallas for a week prior to the game but the enormity of the moment didn’t hit until the players walked into the legendary Cotton Bowl Stadium on a freezing New Year’s Day in 1977. Players walked down the tunnel in awe of the venue they dreamt of playing in as kids in Texas.

“You watch it on TV growing up and you’re thinking, ‘Man, I’m walking down the stairs,'” Brown said. “It’s just an eerie feeling of excitement.”

Perhaps Cotton Bowl jitters caused UH quarterback Danny Davis to fumble on his own 36-yard line, but after  Maryland missed a chip shot field goal soon after, the Cougar offense began flexing its muscles.

UH began running its Veer offense right in the direction of Maryland’s All-American lineman Joe Campbell. Dyral Thomas struck first on an 11-yard run to cap an impressive 11-play, 80-yard drive to put Houston on the board first with 6:27 left in the first quarter.

On Maryland’s next possession, Houston defensive back Mark Mohr blocked a punt to set up Alois Blackwell for a 33-yard touchdown once again going past Campbell.

“I came back and ran a counter play and he was cheating a little bit,” Blackwell recalled. “And I stepped around the end and went for a touchdown.”

On the very next play from scrimmage, UH’s own All-American defensive lineman Wilson Whitley stripped Terps’ quarterback Mark Manges and Mohr was once again there for the recovery. Five plays later, Blackwell was in the end zone again, and Houston was up 21-0 by the end of the first quarter.

In the previous 11 games, Maryland had allowed more than 15 points just once. In the span of about five and a half minutes, Houston had already scored 21, all on the ground.

“Jerry Claiborne, the head coach, was in awe when I looked over at the sideline,” Blackwell said. “And I was like, ‘Well, Jerry, you should have went to another bowl because this wasn’t a good one for you.'”

The Terps finally got on the board in the second quarter, but the Cougars got the last word of the first half.  Danny Davis led a 97-yard drive capped off by a 33-yard touchdown pass to receiver Don Bass to close the half with UH up 27-7.

After the dominant half the turnover bug — an issue that plagued the team all year — reared its ugly head and allowed Maryland to get back in it. Two fumbles deep in Cougar territory set up two Maryland touchdowns and all of a sudden it was 27-21 with 6:10 left to play when UH began its final drive at its own seven-yard line.

A first-down pitch gained five yards, but Davis was then stopped for a loss. UH faced a decisive third down just 11 yards from its own end zone.

Davis took the snap and rolled to his right when he began getting furiously chased by three Maryland defenders. Davis ran back just short of his goal line when he ducked through contact from the Terrapin defenders, popped up and hit Robert Lavergne on the sideline for a crucial first down.

The Cougars used its new lease on life to drain the clock and march into Maryland territory before facing another critical conversion attempt. On fourth down and inches, Dyral Thomas took a pitch and scampered 32 yards down to the Maryland nine-yard line. From there, Lennard Coplin nailed a Cotton Bowl-clinching field goal with 18 seconds left, and the Cougars had done it.

The goal Yeoman had been working toward — even while the Cougars suffered through just two wins the previous year — since UH’s admittance into the SWC in 1971 had been completed: Houston won the Cotton Bowl.

“It was just really surreal,” Brown said. “You know, the year before you go 2-8. Now you go 10-2 and beat the number four team in the nation.”

For many players, the Cotton Bowl was the thing they had been working toward from the moment they stepped on campus. Throughout the year, each win was only given so much celebration before it was back to work the next day. Now with the season over and the mission complete, the Cougars could finally smell the roses.

“Whenever the game was over, you had until the next morning to enjoy it and once the next day came, it was back at work,” said Blackwell, who was named Cotton Bowl offensive MVP. “So I think the game that I probably enjoyed playing in the most was Maryland because at that point, there wasn’t a next game. It was over with, so you got a chance to kind of enjoy it for a longer period of time.”

The 1977 Cotton Bowl was the first of four appearances in the classic game for UH under coach Yeoman, two of which would come in the next three years. After the nightmare 1975 season, Houston won three SWC titles in its first four years in the conference finishing in the AP top 10 in each championship season.

[email protected]

Leave a Comment