by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

No one can ever accuse the Houston Cougars of being dull.

Indeed, for a program that his lived most of existence outside of the college football mainstream, Houston has been involved in some pretty interesting and landmark events. And now the program is preparing for a new adventure next year as it aligns with the Big East (along with current Conference USA members SMU, Memphis, and UCF, plus football-onlys Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West, and eventually Navy) iin 2013.

In the meantime, plans are ongoing for a complete renovation of the current Robertson Stadium (above left, which was once known as Jeppesen Stadium and the original home of the AFL Houston Oilers) after the upcoming 2012 campaign.

Not to mention the real-live mascot, Shasta VI.

An always-interesting bunch, these Cougars!

Throughout the years, UH has also fielded a series of football squads as colorful as the school’s scarlet uniforms. Among those, recent editions featuring QB Case Keenum (right) were among the most prolific, carrying on a tradition of high-powered offensive machines that have often produced prodigious stats that many times have required double-takes.

Moreover, modern TD celebrations were spawned by long-ago Cougar WR Elmo Wright, an All-American in 1970 and inventor of the first end zone dance, which Wright would further popularize in the NFL as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Where else but at UH, we ask, would TD celebration dances have originated?

This fall’s Cougar version will be in a slight adjustment phase after the departures of not only record-setting QB Keenum but also HC Kevin Sumlin, who took a similar job at Texas A&M after the Cougs threatened to qualify for the BCS a year ago when posting a spotless, 11-0 regular-season record. But a CUSA title game loss to an aroused and upset-minded Southern Miss wrecked those BCS plans and preceded Sumlin’s departure before the Dallas Ticket City Classic in which UH whipped a distracted Penn State side. Assistant coach Tony Levine was promoted to the top spot before the bowl game and already enters the 2012 campaign with a win under his belt after that 30-14 cruise past the Nittany Lions.

No mention of Cougar football, however, is complete without touching upon some of the fascinating tidbits about this perennially-upstart program that continues to generate headlines despite an eternal curse of being an “outsider” in the Lone Star State.

Houston had originally made a gridiron name for itself in the ‘50s and especially the ‘60s as a fast-paced Missouri Valley and then independent side that was routinely scoffed upon by the Southwest Conference elite, the University of Texas in particular. Despite the Cougars’ presence in the rapidly-growing Houston metropolis that had become quite chic in the last half of the 20th century due to its status as an energy-sector hub (meaning oil) and home of NASA’s Space Center, the old-line SWC looked down upon UH as merely another commuter school with an unattractive campus (which, in truth, it is). Besides, the conference already had representation in Houston with nearby Rice University.

But the Cougs made it hard to keep avoiding them. After performing for 14 seasons at Rice’s stadium (above left), the move into the futuristic Astrodome upon its opening in 1965 (three years before the AFL Oilers could secure a lease) confirmed the Cougs as a member of the new jet-set, nouveau riche class of college football. The exciting Veer-T offenses of HC Bill Yeoman (right) made it harder still to overlook the Cougs, who were posting impressive wins and eye-opening stats.

Houston was also a trailblazer in the region regarding the color line, which was adhered to steadfastly by “gentlemen’s agreements” between the SWC schools into the mid ‘60s.

Remember, the old SWC that avoided the Cougars was among the college football royalty, producing national title and Heisman Trophy winners as well as dozens of All-Americans and future pro football stars. The SWC had also commandeered media attention in the region with its premier schools, money, influential alumni and big stadiums.

The SWC, however, also remained off limits to Texas’ black citizens. A few attended games and sat in segregated sections and had their own restrooms and water fountains inside Texas Memorial Stadium, TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium, Rice Stadium, Baylor Stadium, Arkansas’ Razorback Stadium, A&M’s Kyle Field, Texas Tech’s Jones Stadium and of course the Cotton Bowl. Most blacks, however, paid little attention to the SWC, since their sons were forbidden from participating by custom and/or edict, although a handful of black undergraduate students had been allowed on some campuses by the late 1940s.

Not that Texas’ black prep athletes weren’t a potential gold mine for college recruiters. Consistently, schools from outside the region would poach top-level black high school talent, while others might attend the historical black colleges such as in-state Prairie View and Texas Southern (literally down the street from UH) or out-of-state schools such as like Grambling, Jackson State or Florida A&M. One of the first to bolt the region was back Oze Simmons, the “Ebony Eel” from Fort Worth, who went north to the University of Iowa in the ‘30s and became one of college football’s first black All-Americans.

Top-tier black talent continued to leave the state into the ‘60s, when stars such as Charley Taylor of Arizona State, Junior Coffey of Washington, Johnny Roland of Missouri, Mel Farr of UCLA, and Bubba Smith and Gene Washington of Michigan State went elsewhere to play their college football. But the SWC coaches, bound by their gentlemen’s agreements, still dared not to rock the status quo despite this wealth of athletic talent at their doorstep that was going untapped.

Other schools in the Lone Star State, however, stepped to the fore. Texas Western, in El Paso, began to actively recruit black athletes in the late ‘50s (by now we all know the story of the Miners’ “Glory Road” 1966 NCAA basketball champions coached by Don Haskins). In the late 1950s, a back named Abner Haynes walked on at North Texas State in Denton. Coach Odus Mitchell received permission from the school’s administration to take Haynes who, although he quickly became the offensive and defensive star of the football team, was still not allowed to live on campus. He had other painful encounters with Jim Crow while playing for the Eagles, the worst being when Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Chattanooga canceled their games with UNT. But the tide was slowly changing, with Haynes moving on to prominence in the early days of the AFL as a star with the Dallas Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. Soon, sorts such as Leford Fant of Texas Western, Sid Blanks of Texas A&I (a future Houston Oiler who became the captain of the team in his senior year), Kenneth Decker of McMurry and “Pistol” Pete Pedro of West Texas State emerged as black, non-SWC college stars in the Lone Star State. Meanwhile, Prentice Gautt became the first black varsity player at nearby Oklahoma. The winds of change were beginning to blow.

Culturally, however, the civil rights movement was moving at a snail’s pace in the Lone Star State. As Texas’ non-SWC colleges were integrating, so were some Texas high schools, albeit slowly. Following the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision which outlawed public school segregation, many school systems across the South were in no hurry to act upon it. The first Texas cities to do so were San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Austin, El Paso, Kerrville, Harlingen and San Angelo, all with negligible black populations.

Still, the SWC didn’t blink. At least until 1963, when the University of Texas Board of Regents overturned a rule that had prohibited blacks from playing on its various intercollegiate teams, which resulted in integration of the Longhorn track program. Basketball and football would seem to be following close behind.

But the biggest blow to end the color line in the SWC was struck not by one of its member schools, but rather Houston, which in 1964 recruited Warren McVea (left), perhaps the most ballyhooed Texas prep athlete of the 1960s. As a running back for Brackenridge High in San Antonio, McVea led his team to a state title and scored an incomprehensible 68 touchdowns in his final two prep seasons.

McVea, however, was a prima donna of the highest order, and scared away many schools. Some of his off-field issues might have justified the SWC steering clear and not making him the first to break the conference’s color line.

Yet McVea shook the SWC to its core, not by signing with suitors such as Southern Cal, Missouri, or Nebraska, but rather by inking with that in-state upstart, Houston. Sports Illustrated would later joke that “McVea was rumored to have received an automobile, a wardrobe to equal a South American dictator’s, free trips home to San Antonio any time he wished to go, a telephone card, a suite of rooms at the Tidelands Hotel his freshman year and a four-year salary of $40,000.” Blatant transgressions these, and more than a bit of truth in them, which eventually helped land UH on NCAA probation.

The enlistment of McVea had more of an impact in the state and within the walls of the SWC than his eventual performance with the Cougars, which, though impressive, didn't quite live up to the high school hype. By the time McVea made his varsity debut with UH in 1965, SMU HC Hayden Fry had decided to break down the SWC’s color line barrier by inking Beaumont’s Jerry LeVias, an electric runner/receiver/returner, who would debut on the varsity in 1966. We’ll chronicle LeVias’ experiences with the Mustangs when we get around to our SMU preview in a few weeks.

There was never a dull moment with McVea, who clashed with coach Yeoman, and had various run-ins with teammates, including one well-publicized shoving match with WR Ken Hebert in the middle of a game. But no one could say McVea was a coward, demonstrating great courage as one of the first black players to enter the stadiums at Texas A&M, Miami, Tennessee, Mississippi (both in Memphis and in Oxford), Kentucky and Mississippi State. In some of those games, fans hurled racial abuse and various airborne missiles at McVea and his teammates. It was not a situation for the faint of heart.

McVea was also a central character in UH’s first true marquee win when rushing for 155 yards on just 14 carries in an early 1967 game at East Lansing in front of 75,833 fans at Spartan Stadium as the Cougs swamped Duffy Daugherty’s Michigan State, 37-7, lifting UH to the number three ranking in the next week’s polls. The result not only confirmed the arrival of UH as a force to be reckoned with but also marked the beginning of a downturn for Daugherty and the Spartans, who had not lost a regular-season game in the preceding 1965 and ‘66 seasons.

McVea would eventually move to pro football with the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs, though knee injuries curtailed his career. Not before, however, he won a Super Bowl ring with the 1969 Chiefs. The Yeoman Cougars produced several future pro players besides McVea in that late ‘60s-early ‘70s era, including RB Dickie Post (who would lead AFL rushers with the San Diego Chargers in 1969), TE Tom Beer, DE Royce Berry, LB Greg Brezina, DB Gus Hollomon, RB Paul Gipson, DB Johnny Peacock, LB Carl Cunningham, DB Mike Simpson, RB Jim Strong, WR Elmo Wright, TE Riley Odoms (a first-round draft choice of the Denver Broncos in 1972), and RB Robert Newhouse. A few other notables who made marks in their post-UH football careers were future NFL coach and LB Wade Phillips, future MLB outfielder and DB Tom Paciorek, and future singer and WR Larry Gatlin of Gatlin Brothers Band fame.

Speaking of Gatlin, he was ironically a central figure in one of the landmark games in college football history, scoring a late TD on pass reception (his only career TD) in the Cougars’ 100-6 win over a flu-decimated Tulsa team at the Astrodome in 1968. Bad blood had existed between coaches Glenn Dobbs of the Golden Hurricane and Yeoman, and UH scored a whopping 76 points in the second half that night, including 49 in the 4th quarter. Gipson ran for a UH record 282 yards that would stand for 34 years, as the Coug Veer piled up 763 yards and in the process set an NCAA record for total offense in a season.

Tulsa also had a linebacker on the field in that game named Phil McGraw...otherwise known as Dr. Phil.

Yeoman has always denied running up the score on Tulsa, although evidence to support his claim is hard to justify as the Cougs scored three TDs via passes (one to Gatlin) in the 4th quarter of that rout. By the way, Yeoman's Veer had also posted 77 points the previous week vs. Idaho!

Results such as those, and Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl wins over Pat Sullivan and Auburn by a 36-7 count in 1969, and a 47-7 trouncing of Tulane in the same bowl four years later, made it hard for the SWC to continue avoiding UH. The Cougs were given provisional membership in 1971 but were not allowed to compete for conference titles until 1976. And when they finally did in '76, Yeoman’s troops marched through the league and into the reward for SWC champs, the legendary Cotton Bowl, where a QB Danny Davis-led UH beat unbeaten Maryland, 30-21.

The teeth-gnashing at locales such as Texas and Texas A&M was hard to conceal.

UH would humble the old guard by winning the SWC three times in its first four years in the league, advancing to the Cotton Bowl on each occasion. The Cougs were on the wrong end of Notre Dame’s great Joe Montana-led rally at the January 1, 1979 Cotton Bowl when losing on the last play, 35-34, but UH backers more recall the Cougs’ heart-stopping 17-14 win over Nebraska in the following year’s Cotton, when a 6-yard TD pass from backup QB Terry Elston to WR Eric Herring with 12 seconds to play proved the game-winning score.

Cougar fortunes have fluctuated wildly in the 32 years since, but there have been no shortage of high-water marks. Yeoman would return to the Cotton Bowl in the 1984 campaign, and UH hit some crescendos later in the decade and in the early '90s with high-powered spread offenses under the regimes of Jack Pardee and successor John Jenkins, producing Heisman winner Andre Ware in 1989 and record-breaking stats from Ware and QB David Klinger in the aerial show.

Jenkins’ tenure, however, ended in scandal and preceded a dark period that included being left behind when the SWC disbanded after the 1995 season. Again, the old-boy network was shutting out the Cougars, who were not invited with the conference elite to the merger with the Big 8 and the newly-named Big XII. UH instead landed in Conference USA in 1996, where it has stayed prior to next year’s move to the Big East.

After just one bowl appearance in 15 years, the Cougs resurfaced as a football factor in 2003 under new HC Art Briles, under whom UH would again become postseason regulars, as they would under Sumlin following Briles’ move to Baylor.

New coach Levine (right, getting a victory ride after the bowl win), however, has a tough act to follow, and prospects are very remote for UH to approach the heights of last season, especially with the record-setting Keenum having finally left school. The Cougars also scored a nation’s-best 49 ppg last season (you read that correctly), and Levine has had to remake almost his entire staff after several assistants accompanied Sumlin to A&M or went elsewhere after 2011.

Offense, as always, remains the trademark at UH and the bar has been set in the stratosphere not only by last year’s prolific “O” but strike forces that have ranked first or second in the country in total offense three of the past four years.

New coordinator Mike Nesbitt will try to keep the Cougar spread humming but must replace six starters from last season’s record-setting scoring attack. The decorated Keenum (who signed as a free agent with the hometown NFL Texans) is among those departed, but Nesbitt actually has the luxury of a QB with some experience in soph David Piland (left), who stepped into the breach as a frosh in 2010 when Keenum and backup Cotton Turner went down with early-season injuries. In that difficult trial-by-fire campaign, Piland merely led CUSA in passing yards per game (316.5).

Piland will be throwing to a rebuilt receiving corps breaking in four new starting wideouts in the high-tech spread, and no one returns who caught more than 16 passes last season. Still, regional sources say to keep an eye on some touted replacements, including one of the gems of the 2011 recruiting class, blazing David Spencer, and the unquestioned star of the 2012 class, Deontay Greenberry, one of the top WR recruits in the nation after scoring 33 TDs as a prep senior in Fresno, California last fall and surprisingly de-committing from Notre Dame at the last moment in the winter. Another wild card could be RS soph Aaron Johnson, a jack-of-all-trades who was looking to get into the QB mix in spring but instead ended up wowing Nesbitt and Levine when moved to the “X” wideout position (to the far left side of QB Piland).

There are certainly no shortage of receiving candidates, as 19 were on hand to compete for the four starting spots during spring, and that was before Greenberry arrived.

Four starters also return along a functional and veteran OL, and the leading rusher, 205-lb. Jr. Charles Sims (right, last season vs. Tulane), is back in the fold after percolating for 821 YR and 575 receiving yards last season while scoring 13 TDs. Meanwhile, frosh RB Terrence Taylor is a flyer who might be hard to redshirt. Senior PK Matt Hogan also returns after connecting on an NCAA season-record 78 consecutive PATs a year ago.

Although only five returning starters from 2011 are in place, the veteran presence along the line and the established Sims at RB suggests that the offense could hum again if Piland and the new receivers can begin to click. Replicating the breakneck pace and brisk tempo of the Keenum offense, however, might not come easily.

Despite the return of seven starters, Levine’s defense is an adjustment mode under new coordinator Jamie Bryant, a holdover from last year’s staff when the LB coach who spent spring installing the Cougs’ new 4-3 looks after UH deployed 3-4 alignments under predecessor Brian Stewart, who moved to Randy Edsall’s Maryland staff in the offseason.

The reinvention continues into fall camp as Bryant feels some urgency to get the defense up to speed just in case the rebuilt “O” isn’t ready to uphold its end of the bargain in the early going. Bryant experimented with lots of position-shifting in the spring as he desperately looked for another DE to go opposite sr. Eric Braswell. Auditions in spring included a trio of former LBs led by Efrem Oliphant, Desmond Pulliam, and Jon Witten, the latter especially impressing until injuring a knee in April. Witten, however, is likely to be ready for fall camp.

The platoon was also a bit ginger vs. the rush in 2011 (ranking 80th nationally), and a couple of well-regarded frosh DT recruits, Donald Hopkins and Tomme Mark, could be in line to see extensive duty alongside thick 301-lb. sr. DT Dominic Miller, a returning starter. Adding respected DL coach Ricky Logo from Vanderbilt’s staff should be a plus.

Bryant claims his platoon will be “very multiple” in its looks but sources suggest much of Bryant’s scheming will depend upon the front four providing constant pressure. Though aligned in a 3-4 last season under Stewart, the Cougs still sent four at the opposing QB on most pass plays, often with graduated LB Sammie Brown a designated pass rusher. Bryant would prefer to blitz by situation and not out of necessity, although quicksilver, 210-lb. sr. OLB Everett Daniels hinted at becoming a high-impact sack specialist after flashing eye-opening stuff in spring.

Indeed, Bryant’s LB corps (which includes returning starters OLB Derrick Matthews and MLB Phillip Steward) lacks bulk, with outside backers Daniels and Matthews both DB-sized. Speed will be their greatest asset, and it will help if the DL can occupy blockers and allow these heat-seekers to disrupt as necessary.

The strength of the stop unit would appear to again rest in the secondary, where three starters return. Included are both CBs, shutdown former juco D.J. Hayden (right, CUSA’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2011) and jr. Zach McMillan, from a unit that ranked 12th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season.

The 2012 schedule is manageable with three winnable non-conference games (Dennis Franchione’s Texas State, La Tech, and UCLA, though the last two are hardly gimmes after each playing the Keenum Cougars close last season) and eight games within the Houston city limits. An expected West showdown vs. SMU on October 20, however, will be played in Dallas.

Handicappers will be paying close attention to the Cougs as well to see if Piland can come remotely close to generating the type of spread success that Keenum’s Cougars did a year ago when covering 11 of 14 games, many with hefty imposts. Keep on mind, however, that UH covered only 2 of 10 games minus Keenum two years ago, when Piland was thrown into the fire for eight of those battles.

Summary...The Cougars always intrigue, but it’s hard not to expect some sort of a drop-off from the prolific Case Keenum-led team last season. Although promoted from within to replace the departed Kevin Sumlin, new HC Tony Levine is working with two new coordinators and an almost completely-new staff, and the most-important elements of last year’s offense (Keenum and the starting receivers) have all departed. Though Piland might prove an effective successor at QB, it’s hard to envision the Cougs as the machine they were a year ago, or threatening to again bust into the BCS. Still, CUSA is hardly the SEC, and UH should do enough to at least get back to another bowl for the still-undefeated (1-0!) Tony Levine before the move to the Big East next year.


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