The University of Houston and The SWC
April 9, 2006
The Cougars had ambitions of getting into the SWC very early in our sports history – certainly long before we were ready to compete in that famous league.
As soon as we started indicating that interest, we immediately encountered fierce opposition from Rice University, led by their famous coach, Jess Neely. They wanted no competition here in Houston. And the other SWC schools, who opposed us quite as fiercely as Rice, hid their opposition by saying they could not support another school for membership unless another member in the same city had no objections. A cowardly approach, if ever there was one.
In the early days, Rice was quite good, even winning the SWC championship in 1949. Right after that, Rice Stadium was built – holding 72,000 people! It was built largely from public donations, and Brown & Root built it in less than a year – at cost. It was to be a stadium for both Rice and the University of Houston – it was even named “Houston Stadium” to indicate it was a stadium for the entire city; however, it was built on the Rice campus. The name “Houston Stadium” did not last long; Rice soon changed it to “Rice Stadium.” And Rice had complete control of the new facility.
We were allowed to play in Rice Stadium for a number of years, but Rice placed all kinds of restrictions on our use. For example, we could not play any opponent in any year that Rice was playing that same opponent here in Houston; we could not play anyone in Rice Stadium on the same week-end that Rice was playing a game there – even if we played on a different day, or if we played at a different time on the same day; there were other restrictions. These restrictions made it very difficult for us to complete our football schedule – every year. We could not schedule until we knew Rice’s schedule.
Those infamous restrictions even extended to forcing us one year to change the venue for our biggest game of the year. We had scheduled a game with A&M at Rice Stadium on a day and week-end when Rice was scheduled to play away – all in accordance with the restrictions. And then, Rice changed their schedule to play a game in Houston that day; and they forced us to play elsewhere. We had to move the game to the old Jeppesen Stadium (now Robertson Stadium), which seated only 22,000 at the time. Suddenly we were trying to squeeze our largest crowd of the year into a stadium that would seat about one-third of the expected crowd! Not only that, on game day, the ushers, who were normally supplied by Rice at Rice Stadium, showed up at Jeppesen Stadium wearing their Rice University uniforms which they usually wore at Rice Stadium – interpreted by many of our fans as a needless affront!
Well, we drifted along, playing in Rice Stadium at Rice’s convenience, and playing the strongest teams we could schedule - even a SWC opponent occasionally. And we applied for membership in the SWC every year. We were turned away every year.
And finally the conference tired of our incessant applications. So they passed a new rule that forbad applications altogether; from then on prospective members had to be “sponsored” by an existing member, and “seconded” by another. Neither seemed likely in our case.
So for several years, we pursued sponsorship and seconding from any SWC member who would listen to our pleas. In effect, we were reduced to begging, hat in hand. The SWC schools rather enjoyed that, I have no doubt.
And then there is the matter of the infamous betrayal by Rice. One year we had acquired a sponsor and a second. Somehow Rice became aware of this, and their representatives came to Harry Fouke, our legendary athletic director, to discuss the matter. They asked Harry to get our sponsor to back off and let Rice be our sponsor. They said they had changed their minds and now wished to support our bid. They further said they thought we would have a better chance of approval if we were sponsored by Rice since we were both in the same city. We agreed and asked our sponsor to desist, after securing the promise of a second from another SWC member (that may have been Baylor, but I am not sure of that); then came the annual meeting of the SWC. Harry Fouke confidently went to the meeting site in Dallas and waited in the hall while the members went in for their session. Harry waited – and waited – and waited, thinking the door would open and he would be invited in for further discussion. The door never opened until the meeting ended. Rice had not sponsored us for membership, and the meeting was over; no chance for an invitation now until the next year!
So, again we went on our merry way, disappointed yet again. Nevertheless, we kept fielding stronger teams, and we began to beat some pretty big-name schools. And the public began to ask – ever more loudly – just why the SWC continued to deny admission into their storied league of an obviously deserving Texas school.
And finally Texas, whose influence always dominated the SWC, became sufficiently concerned with our improvement that they decided the only way to slow us down was to admit us to the conference, where they could monitor our recruiting more closely. They sure did not intend to be doing us any favors, you can be sure of that.
And so, with Texas backing, suddenly the doors of the SWC swung open to us. They invited us in – with certain restrictions, of course, just to demonstrate our inferior status. We could not compete for the championship for five years, during which time they would bring our recruiting under control, don’t you know? By this time we were playing in the Astrodome, but that was not good enough for Texas and A&M; so they reserved the right for five years (if I remember the time right) to dictate where they would play us in Houston; they preferred Rice Stadium (we had moved to the Astrodome to get away from all those restrictions imposed on us by Rice) because it was larger, they said. Actually, they cared more about dominating us than the size of the stadium!
After waiting 5 years to compete for the championship, we promptly won it all in that sixth year of membership, and went on to beat Maryland in the Cotton Bowl. Cougars began sporting bumper stickers which read “Houston Cougars, First-Year Owners of the SWC.”
Now, that was a very interesting year. Not only did we win the championship, we beat Texas in Austin by 30-0 in front of the largest home crowd ever seen in Austin to that time, ending a 43-game home winning streak by the horns, which led to the retirement of their legendary coach, Daryl Royal. I think Texas gained a total of 24 yards rushing!
But we had to share that first championship with Texas Tech. Now, Tech had waited some 30 years to gain membership in the conference, as had we. But they had been a member for several years before we were admitted. And now, finally, after waiting all those years, Tech had won the SWC championship, but they had to share it with the upstart Cougars. Not only that, they had lost to us that year – and we were going to the Cotton Bowl instead of Tech. Well, that sure did not help to endear us to a lot of folks out in West Texas, did it?
So, Texas then filed some complaints about our recruiting with the NCAA – the other half of their plans to control our recruiting, don’t you know? And we were investigated and put on probation for a year. One of the penalties was that we were ineligible for the championship or any bowl game for a year. How convenient!
After serving our year in the dock, we won the championship again, and were bound for the Cotton Bowl again, this time to play Notre Dame. We changed our bumper stickers to read “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.”
We lost the Cotton Bowl that year to Notre Dame. Well, we really won the game, but the refs gave the game to the Irish by refusing to make the call properly when the winning touchdown was clearly caught out of bounds on the very last play of the game; no way were they going to call that play against Notre Dame – on national television. If there were any regrets among our friends in the conference, it was never obvious!
The next year we won the championship again, and beat Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl on a pass with only about 12 seconds left on the clock. Just the reverse of the previous year’s game – only this time the pass was legitimate! And now our bumper stickers read “Now It’s Three out of Four.”
They never forgave us for those four years of domination. Their dismay was assuaged somewhat during the next four years while others won the championships. But in 1984 we won it again – in such a manner as to leave the other members of the conference virtually speechless!
On the last day of the season, there were about four teams which could possibly end up as champion; everything depended on the outcome of the games on that last day. Our game was played early, and we won. And then, as the day wore on, game after game fell our way. Every team that had to lose in order for us to be the champion lost, one after the other. At the end of the day, the Cougars were the last ones standing – and we were champions of the SWC once again! We lost the Cotton Bowl that year to a better team, Boston College, quarterbacked by the legendary Doug Flutie, and helped once again by some very questionable calls by the referees, to the delight of our SWC brethren! And then Texas and A&M pulled their infamous double cross. While telling all the other members of the SWC that they were negotiating with the Big 8 for a merger of that league with the SWC, they were actually trying to negotiate their transfer into the Big 8, leaving all the rest behind. They were forced to include Texas Tech in the deal by Bob Bullock, then the Lt. Governor of Texas; and they were forced to include Baylor by Ann Richards, then the Governor of the state. *
So, four members of the SWC were “invited” by the Big 8 to join their league to form the new Big 12, leaving the remaining members of the legendary old SWC out in the cold. And as the proud conference died, it came to pass that the last conference game was played in Rice Stadium between Rice University and the University of Houston – a night game. The Cougars won the game – the very last football game ever played in the SWC (I might add that we also won the very last basketball game ever played in the SWC too, against the University of Texas - irony can be a beautiful thing!). We literally turned out the lights on one of the most legendary conferences in American history. Sad indeed – to see a great conference destroyed by internal hatreds that endure to this day!
• Footnote, added on 2-17-2013: Many have disputed that Ann Richards was to blame for Baylor’s inclusion; they say that the primary mover for that was David Sibley, state senator from the Waco area, aided by Bob Bullock, who had degrees from both Texas Tech and Baylor. That might well be true, but it is a fact that Ann Richards was widely blamed, and she almost certainly had a hand in the matter.