Houston: We have Liftoff

Now entering its fourth season, the American Conference continues to establish itself as the best of the so-called “Group of Five” Conferences.  American Commissioner Mike Aresco is adamant in his belief that his conference can (like the old Big East version that played football) become the Sixth Power Conference.

To do that, the American is going to have to put a team in the four-team College Football Playoff and heading into 2016, they may just have that team in the University of Houston Cougars.  Houston finished 2015 ranked 8th in the Associated Press Top 25 which capped the most successful season in the program’s history at 13-1.  Among those 13 wins was an absolute beat-down of ACC Power Florida State in the Peach Bowl 38-24.  The Cougars return a total of 23 full or part-time starters making them the prohibitive favorite to win the American Conference again.  They do so with a roster loaded with home grown Texas talent.  All but 13 players on the University of Houston roster are from Texas.  Louisiana – another fertile recruiting ground – has the next most with 7 players.

Houston has spent a portion of the last couple of months openly politicking to get into the Big XII if the Conference expands.  They’ll get a chance to prove on week 1 that they belong in the Big XII with a game at NRG Stadium in Houston against Big XII favorite Oklahoma.  Houston and Oklahoma have only played twice in their football histories, and Oklahoma has won both games including the last meeting in 2004 when Oklahoma beat Houston 63-13.  If Houston can beat Oklahoma, then they honestly have a shot at the four-team playoff field.  The rest of the schedule is navigable with the toughest remaining games against Navy, who they whipped soundly last year, and a late season match-up with Louisville.

Located in the nation’s 4th largest city, the University of Houston is a relatively young school founded in 1927.  It has more than 40,000 students, but only 6,000 of those live on campus.  25 Fortune 500 companies call Houston home including several large energy companies.  And then, there’s NASA, which former President Lyndon Johnson guided toward its forever home in Houston during the early days of the space program in the 1960s.  My buddies who have either lived or worked in Houston will tell you two things about the city of 2.2 million people.  One, the traffic sucks, and two it’s the hottest place on earth.  Among the University of Houston’s famous alums are CBS’s lead play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz, who keeps a home in the City, and his former college roommate Golfer Fred Couples.  For the longest time, Houston was known for its basketball program under the direction of Hall of Fame coach Guy V. Lewis.  The Cougars featured future NBA star Elvin Hayes in the late 60s and in the 80s it was all Phi-Slamma-Jamma with Clyde Drexler and Akeem Oljawon among others.  Probably the greatest collection of talent to never win an NCAA Title.

The idea that winning football is suddenly a new thing at the University of Houston is to ignore the program’s history.  In fact, the University of Houston will forever be known for a football innovation that came alive in the 1960s and remains alive and well primarily in high school football today.  It will also be known for breaking the color barrier in Texas college football.

The University of Houston didn’t begin fielding a football team until 1946 and they were never very successful.  Then in 1962, a Michigan State assistant coach named Bill Yeoman arrived on campus to be the Cougars head coach and the foundation for success was starting to be built.

Yeoman was a graduate of the Army class of 1950, so you know two things right of the bat.  One he’s smart and two he’s tough because you don’t get through the United States Military Academy without either of those traits.  He was a captain on the Army football team that featured two Heisman Trophy winners in Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis in the backfield.  During his years playing at Army, the program went 22-2-and-4 including 9-0-1 in 1946.

After serving his required stint in the military, Yeoman took a job as an assistant at Michigan State.  From there he jumped to Houston so unlike some coaches who have two jobs in a single year, Yeoman had only two jobs his entire career.

It was at Houston that he signed the first African American player at a predominately white school.  But, his greatest innovation came in 1964 when he began experimenting with and developed the “Veer Offense”.  For those of you not football goobers like me, the Veer is triple option at its finest.  It features two backs tight behind the right and left guards and offensive line splits (or spacing) several inches apart.  The idea is to get the ball to either the back quickly or the quarterback pulls it and either keeps it on the edge or pitch it to the trailing back.  In his 25 years at Houston, the Veer was so successful that Yeoman won 160 games, losing 108 with 8 ties.  Houston also won 4 Southwest Conference Titles under Yeoman which in those days meant 4 Cotton Bowls, the prize to the SWC Champion.  His Houston team was on the short end of maybe the most famous Cotton Bowl on a frigid day on January 1, 1979 when Notre Dame’s Joe Montana – battling illness – threw a touchdown pass in the final seconds to give Notre Dame at 35-34 win.

While triple option football lives in the college game at select places like Ga. Tech and Navy, it’s mostly gone the way of the dinosaur.  College Athletic Directors believe that triple option football won’t put butts in the seats and that may be true, but the Veer is still an important part of high school football.  My buddy Chris Jones used it to win back-to-back state titles at two different schools in 2001 at Bath County, Virginia and in 2002 at Heritage High School in Lynchburg.  He’s never asked me and I’m not going to tell him but when he quit running the offense, his teams didn’t seem to be as good.  It also lives on at lower levels of the college game.  Carson Newman College – a Division II school in Jefferson City, Tennessee – lives and dies with the offense and they mostly live with it because once it gets going, it is difficult to stop.

Yeoman’s tenure at Houston ended under a cloud of NCAA violations.  250 of them to be exact.  Among the things he was accused of doing was giving cash to players and so when his Houston team went 1 – 10 in 1986, Yeoman was out and Houston football underwent a radical change.  First the school had to deal with NCAA sanctions, including three year’s probation, no bowl games in 1989 and 1990, no live television in 1989, and the reduction to just 15 scholarships for 1989.

The sanctions didn’t have an immediate impact and under coach Jack Pardee (who would coach in the NFL with the Redskins and Oilers), Houston went from the Veer to the Run-and-Shoot offense, which features very little run and lot of shooting.  In 1989, Houston scored its only Heisman Trophy winner in Quarterback Andre Ware who threw for 4,699 yards and 46 touchdowns and led Houston to a 9-2 record.  Ware won the Heisman having never appeared on live television in 1989 due to the NCAA ban.  Among the games Houston won in 1989 was a 95-21 win over SMU at their former home the Astrodome.  SMU was just coming off it’s two year death penalty ban and one of the players on that team has said that the 1989 SMU team made up for being small, but being really slow.  The 1989 Cougars scored over 60 points 5 times.

Since the days of Andre Ware, Houston has set new standards in offensive production with quarterbacks like Case Keenum, now starting with the Los Angeles Rams, David Klinger who played in the NFL and Kevin Kolb who also played in the NFL.  They’ve had some solid coaches along the way as well with Art Briles (a former Houston player), and Kevin Sumlin now at Texas A&M, and for a couple of years under Sumlin, current West Virginia Head Coach Dana Holgerson was the offensive coordinator at Houston.

Yoeman now spends his days at his home in Sugarland, Texas and helps the University raise money for its athletic programs.  A hall in the new Stadium (opened in 2014) is named in his honor and while this year’s Cougars – and probably none of the future Houston teams – will resemble his Veer Offense teams of the past, without Yeoman laying his foundation and making football important at a University in a pro sports city, the Cougars wouldn’t be in the discussion for the playoff or the Big XII.

Predictions:

American Conference West – (1) Houston – whether they beat Oklahoma or not, whether they beat Louisville or not, Houston is destined to be the best in the American Conference barring a total meltdown; (2) Navy – Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo came within an eyelash of taking the head coaching job at BYU.  Niumatalolo is a member of the LDS Church and stated his faith is very important to him.  My guess is that he looked at what he’d have to give up at Navy – which in my opinion is probably the best job in college football – where he’s the winningest coach in school history at 68 – 37.  Navy is coming off a school record 11 wins in 2015 but has lost quarterback Keenan Reynolds to the NFL.  Enter Senior Tago Smith, another bite size Navy quarterback at 5-10, 201 pounds who no doubt will be able to dive it, pitch it, run it, and occasional thrown it to keep Navy driving its opponents crazy; (3) Memphis – Memphis is a better job now thanks to Justin Fuente.  Unfortunately for Memphis, Fuente is now at Virginia Tech and Memphis is still a basketball school in a basketball city, with an absolute dump of a stadium.  Will Memphis still be a good job in a few years?  We’ll see.  Prior to Fuente Memphis football wasn’t exactly a raving success under horrendous coaches like Tommy West; (4) Tulsa – when last we saw Tulsa they were scoring points in bunches against Virginia Tech, while not being able to actually tackle Va. Tech; (5) SMU – Great campus, cool little stadium tucked in the nicest part of Dallas known as Highland Park.  And guess, what Dallas doesn’t care.  Can SMU ever get back to being competitive in college football?  If they can’t under Chad Morris, then the outlook may forever be bleak; (6) Tulane – New coach in Willie Fritz, who wouldn’t have taken this job if he didn’t think he could be successful eventually.  They have a new on-campus stadium and keep in mind that Tulane hasn’t always been bad.  Long before winning a national title at Texas, Mack Brown coached at Tulane.

American Conference East – (1) South Florida – the school whose football program started in a modular home on campus years ago and rose to #2 in the nation in 2008, has been reeling for a while.  Not any more, the Bulls are now bullish on winning; (2) Temple – Last year set a high bar for the Owls, which included an ABC Primetime Game against Notre Dame.  Let’s see if it continues; (3) U-Conn – the key game for whether U-Conn gets to a bowl game comes in Week 3 when they host Virginia.  U-Conn’s defensive coordinator is former Virginia defensive star Anthony Poindexter.  You think he wouldn’t like to show U.Va. a thing or two?; (4) Cincinnati – They move back to their on-campus Stadium this year after a year downtown while their stadium was being renovated.  I always thought life long Southerner Tommy Tuberville was an odd-fit at this school, but if he can find a way to beat Houston in week three after warm-ups against U-T Martin and Purdue, maybe just maybe; (5) East Carolina – The school with no shame.  They have been unabashed in politicking for the Big XII if the conference expands going so far as to show how close they are to West Virginia (and they aren’t that close) to make a good travelling partner.  ECU is a bit like you basic number 3 television station in a market.  They’d be much happier if they’d stop trying to find the next big thing, and just stay the chicken-shit program they are.  ECU is so dysfunctional they fired the best coach they’ve had a while when they sent alum Ruffin McNeal packing after last year.  They have back-to-back wins over Va. Tech, but my hope is that ECU once again becomes someone’s bitch because there’s no school more deserving of  beat down.  On second thought watching East Carolina get kicked around in the Big XII might be fun; and (6) Central Florida – last year the Knights went 0-12 after coach George O’Leary looked down the roster and saw a train wreck coming and just quit.  Central Florida is going to build a statue for O’Leary.  Now, new coach Scorr Frost has to rebuild a program.

Championship game: Houston over South Florida.  The Cougars get a New Year’s 6 bowl, but losses to Oklahoma and Louisville keep them out of the playoff and leave the American Conference dreaming for another year.

 

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