Houston & the Big 12: What might have been
The University of Houston’s football visit to Stillwater for a game Saturday is a good time to consider what might have been 15 years ago. What if Houston, not Baylor, had been selected to join the Big 12?
We all know why Baylor is in: politics.
The other candidates from the Southwest Conference? Rice and SMU, no way. Which leaves TCU or Houston. TCU has since become a force, a regular top-20 team that can play with the big boys. The Horned Frogs knocked off OU in 2005 and have been BCS bowl contenders from time to time. Houston has not fared as well, becoming a solid Conference USA team but nothing like Bill Yeoman’s Cougar teams of the 1970s, which went to three Cotton Bowls in the first four years after UH joined the Southwest Conference.
Meanwhile, Baylor has been a Big 12 doormat in both football and men’s basketball but very competitive in many other sports. And lately, Baylor has shown signs of coming to life; the Bears made the 2008 NCAA Tournament and its football team, after a win at Wake Forest, seems poised to make a bowl run for the first time in the Big 12 era.
How would TCU and Houston have done instead of Baylor? I say the same.
TCU’s football stock grew when its opponents changed. From the Grant Teaff renaissance at Baylor in 1974 until the formation of the Big 12, 21 seasons, TCU finished with a better record than Baylor exactly once. In 1995, TCU was getting better, but Baylor was still Baylor, even though Teaff had retired. Baylor’s records under Chuck Reedy in the final three SWC years were 5-6, 7-5, 7-4.
And yet Baylor immediately became the worst program in the Big 12 and really hasn’t deviated. There’s no great reason to believe TCU would have fared better. TCU would have started from even further down than where Baylor started, with no great hope of rising up. TCU has flourished by competing well in the WAC and Conference USA and now the Mountain West. That’s four leagues for the Horned Frogs in less than 15 years. Put TCU in the Big 12 now, and the Horned Frogs would be competitive. Put TCU in the Big 12 in 1996, and the Frogs would have been soaked. The private schools’ rarely have the alumni bases or financial support to compete with the major public institutions.
So what about Houston, a public school that took the SWC by storm when it joined in the ’70s? UH was the victim of bad timing. If the Big 12 had been formed in 1980 instead of 1995, Houston would have been one of the first schools in. If the Big 12 had been formed in 1990, same thing, although some NCAA questions plagued Houston. Houston’s three-year record from 1988 through 1990 was 28-6, and that’s in a SWC that also included Arkansas.
But by 1995, Houston had fallen on hard times. The John Jenkins scandal sent UH into a spiral, and the Cougars from 1991 through 1995 went 4-7, 4-7, 1-9-1, 1-10 and 2-9. Attendance was minimal at the Astrodome, and though Houston had seen glory days, they seemed far removed.
Houston likely would have fared no better than Baylor in the Big 12, and the reason we can say that is to compare UH to TCU. While the Horned Frogs took their new mid-major status and ran with it, navigating conference shifts and building a solid program, Houston never took advantage of dropping down and becoming the new bully on the block.
In the 13-plus seasons since the SWC ended, Houston’s overall record is 70-85. In 1996, its first year in Conference USA, Houston tied for the title and went to the Liberty Bowl. It has won Conference USA just once since, 2006.
So Houston didn’t take advantage of its superiority over new rivals, and while Art Briles and now Kevin Sumlin have the Cougars playing competitively, there is no grandeur in the program. Houston has moved to on-campus Robertson Stadium, which seats 32,000, not enough to be considered by a major conference.
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