University of Houston officials took the high road in accepting an invitation to join the Big 12 that was a quarter century overdue. This being big business and all, playing nice may have been the smart play.
Or perhaps UH’s journey was so long and so uncertain—right until the end—that elation over finally being admitted to the conference really did overshadow the bitterness of having been left out in the cold for so long.
Besides, regardless of who did what to whom, last Friday was a very good day for the University of Houston. For the Cougars, once a Southwest Conference powerhouse, a move to the Big 12 will boost status and revenue and give the school’s sports programs more opportunities to compete against opponents that matter to fans. Even after Texas and Oklahoma depart for the Southeastern Conference—whenever that day comes—Houston will still have Texas Tech, Baylor, and TCU back on their schedule every season.
These are the games that matter to alums, and this is good for the university and the city of Houston. And this development has been a ridiculously long time coming, even if it required UT and OU taking a sledgehammer to the Big 12 to make it happen. “What gives me the greatest gratification,” said UH System chancellor Renu Khator, “is to make alumni stand tall today and say with greater pride, `I’m a graduate of the University of Houston.’ That is the biggest thing I can find joy in.”
Let’s be clear: One of our state’s largest and most vibrant universities—an institution with a rich sports tradition and based in the largest city in Texas—never should have had to wait 25 years. “It’s been a tough twentysomething years on our alumni and our fans in the city of Houston,” said Tilman Fertitta, chairman of the UH System Board of Regents.
As one university official after another joined a Zoom press conference on Friday, I kept hoping just one of them would veer off script and let slip a jab or two at the institutions that held UH out of the Big 12 when the conference was formed in the mid-nineties. Athletic director Chris Pezman came closest when he said: “There’s a lot of scars in a lot of alumni at the University of Houston from what happened in the early nineties. It’s a little bit of gun-shy.”
While the departures of Texas and OU will leave the modern-day Big 12 diminished, the conference apparently will retain its Power Five status—if such a thing still exists. That’s a sidebar to all of this: what the landscape of college sports will look like a year or two from now is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, for UH the Big 12 is a step up from the American Athletic Conference.
The additional prestige and broadcast rights revenues that Houston will reap as a member of the Big 12 should benefit the university beyond football. As men’s basketball coach Kelvin Sampson said: “That TV money creates a difference in a lot of things.”
“We are very grateful,” Khator said. “I’m sure we’ll make the Big 12 Conference very proud. We have been on a path of transforming the great University of Houston into a greater University of Houston.”
Also, this will be good for fans.
Oh right, them.
They’re usually the last consideration in realignment discussions. While this gift may come from the department of unintended consequences, seeing the Cougars compete in the Big 12 will mean all kinds of good for UH supporters. “This is great for the city of Houston, which everybody knows how much I love,” said Fertitta, who owns the Houston Rockets and who stressed the benefits to the city of attracting fans from Baylor, TCU, Iowa State, and other Big 12 members. “This is a big area and a big city with so many alumni from all of these schools,” he said. “It’s got to be exciting for them as Houstonians that they get to watch their school come to the city of Houston and be part of it.
“It’s just special to be part of the Big 12,” Fertitta added.
That the Big 12 would not be rushing to add a vibrant campus of 47,000 in the nation’s fourth-largest city until now is galling, infuriating, and indicative of the conference’s lack of vision. “We have been totally focused on ourselves, the things we can do, the things we should do to deserve a more competitive platform for our student athletes,” Khator said. “As we started to look at our academic things, there were a lot of things that we needed to raise. I’m proud to say all these things are coming together. We feel like all of that journey has been very worth it.”
Under Khator, UH has been remade in all sorts of ways, with a flurry of campus construction and enough research spending to achieve tier one status as a world-class research institution and place of learning. UH poured money into sports too, building new venues for football and basketball, along with new practice facilities for both programs. UH’s hiring of Sampson to coach men’s basketball paid off in a trip to the Final Four last spring, and football coach Dana Holgorsen is being paid $4 million to keep the Cougars on the national radar.
“There isn’t any question that the Cougars raise the bar in every sport and in every way,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
Yeah, Bob, that has been true for years.
UH was not passed over for Big 12 membership when the conference opened play in 1996 because of any lack of facilities. Back then, Hofheinz Pavilion was one of the most revered college basketball venues in the country. When the Southwest Conference disbanded that year, only four schools—Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech—joined the Big Eight to form the Big 12. TCU was admitted to the conference in 2011, after A&M bolted for the SEC.
The University of Houston should have been included. The roll call of greatest Cougars athletes—Hakeem Olajuwon, Carl Lewis, Wilson Whitley—is second to none. UH had won four SWC football titles and went to seven bowl games during its twenty years in the conference. In basketball, UH won three SWC championships and five SWC Tournaments. The Cougars made eight trips to the NCAA Tournament and five to the NIT. But after the SWC broke up, the Cougars were forced to toil in the relative anonymity of Conference USA for seventeen seasons, before joining the newly formed AAC in 2013.
We may never know why UH wasn’t invited to join the Big 12 all those years ago. Some people suspect the University of Texas got tired of losing football games to UH by embarrassing scores: 30–0 in 1976, 66–15 in 1988, and 47–9 in 1989. UH was only 7–12–1 against Texas during the SWC years, but apparently that wasn’t what the Longhorns had in mind when they lobbied to add Houston to the conference in the seventies. One story goes that then–UT coach Darrell K. Royal pushed for UH because it would help with recruiting to play a game in Houston every year. (Texas played at Houston in odd-numbered years and at Rice in even-numbered years.)
Royal didn’t anticipate losing 30–0 to the Cougars that first year, which may have hastened his retirement at the end of the season. He remained athletic director until 1980, but may have lost some of his enthusiasm for playing against UH.
Even after Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, UH was guaranteed nothing. Its place in the conference was left hanging until the very end, and at one point, Houston officials were led to believe that Big 12 expansion would begin and end with Cincinnati, Brigham Young, and Central Florida. In the final days, Fertitta and Pezman worked every angle to press Big 12 leadership to include the Cougars. “Trust me when I say fired every bullet,” Pezman said. “This was not an opportunity we are going to allow to pass us by. We didn’t want to sit here and say, `What else could we have done?’”
Here’s the interesting part: UH has a chance to be a Big 12 powerhouse. Sampson, fresh off leading the men’s basketball team to the Final Four, will be part of a great hoops conference with Kansas, Texas Tech, Cincinnati, and Oklahoma State. As for football, the door is open for UH to compete at the highest level, although Holgorsen, in his third season, has a record of 8–14 at the school and badly needs a breakthrough 2021 season to justify his $4 million salary. And the football team blowing a 14-point lead in a season-opening, 38–21 loss to Texas Tech did not help Holgorsen’s case. But if he lasts long enough in the job to see UH join the Big 12, the coach will have a nice selling point to share with all those star recruits who grow up a short drive from the UH campus.
While it’s impossible to know what the Big 12’s long-term future will look like, UH can use the next several years to reestablish and solidify its reputation as a relevant football program—and all it took was 25 years of lobbying, cajoling, and pleading.
That’s the point that UH officials emphasized during last week’s press conference, after the news was official. At one point, Fertitta was asked how he would have responded if the school had been passed over again.
“I would not be chairman of the Board of Regents as of today,” he said, suggesting he would have resigned on the spot. “I would have been a failure and could not have dealt with it. Thank God it didn’t happen.”