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University of Houston football: Big challenges, big goals

SMU isn't the only former SWC school current playing in C-USA who will be moving on to the Big East in 2013.

Thomas B. Shea - Getty Images

SMU welcomes a familiar opponent to Gerald J. Ford Stadium on Thursday. There are more than a few similarities between SMU and UH, so I brought in Michael Porter, a UH grad and man about town in the Houston area, to talk about the difficulties the Cougars have had trying to build their program ever since the dissolution of the SWC in 1996.

The University of Houston has had its share of "BCS" football success, winning 4 Southwest Conference titles in 19 seasons. However, since the SWC dissolved, it has had sporadic success overshadowed by years of irrelevance, moving into the background behind UT and Texas A&M. And while the school has some inherent disadvantages it will have to overcome, it has also suffered from some self-inflicted wounds that it seems on the right track toward correcting.

The obvious way to close the gap is by having sustained success, which means having talent in place on a continuous basis. UH now finds itself on an unlevel playing field with its BCS conference counterparts in the recruiting battle. Recruiting is an extremely inexact science. When UH is stuck filling the majority of its class with players leftover after UT, A&M and other BCS programs fill theirs, it becomes that much more inexact.

The first and most glaring difference between a BCS team and a non-automatic qualifier is the amount of revenue the football programs generate. The Big 12's television agreement with ESPN pays each school $20 million per year. By comparison, C-USA's television agreement with Fox Sports pays $1 million per year.

Bowl game payouts are another enormous advantage for AQ schools. If UH wins its conference and is awarded C-USA's top bowl tie-in with a trip to the Liberty Bowl, it will receive $1.1 million. To match that payout, a SEC team need to only finish 8th in its conference. If an AQ team wins its conference and goes to a BCS game, it receives $18 million.

The programs that reap the benefits of the revenue disparities are able to build newer and superior facilities, which is one of the top bargaining chips used in recruiting and one of the most cited reasons concerning why UH loses recruits. With additional funding, AQ schools are able to pay more for coaches and select from a more proven coaching pool, often pulling coaches from successful non-AQ schools.

Hiring the correct head coach, and ensuring that the correct person is evaluating the talent being brought in to mold a program into a consistent winner, is almost as inexact a science as recruiting. Twice in the last decade, UH has began building momentum, only to have it's coaching staff poached along with potential recruits.

UH went from a 0-11 team to a conference champion in 5 years under Art Briles. But just as it appeared Briles was laying the foundation of a premier program, he and his star commit (Robert Griffin III) left for Baylor.

Kevin Sumlin started his tenure 0-3, effectively dampening any momentum the UH program had from the Briles era. But last season, he had the Cougars at 12-0 and brought them to the forefront of the sport. However, the school was once again a victim of its own success, as Texas A&M hired Sumlin away before the bowl game. UH started the 2012 season 0-3 and again has to try to rebuild its momentum, all while hoping it has been lucky enough to hire a third successful coach in a row in Tony Levine.

Having a winning coach that gets hired away is a better alternative than having a losing coach that other programs do not desire, but UH must keep working toward making itself a destination program where coaches want to spend their careers. The school can have a great chance at attaining uninterrupted success, instead of the two steps forward-one step back results of the last decade, by creating continuity in the program. Moving to an AQ conference is a large step in that direction, but the extra money they will receive from the Big East's television contract won't be enough in and of itself.

In addition to the systemic issues facing UH, the Cougars will have to avoid making some of the mistakes they have made in the past. One the biggest mis-steps occurred during the Kim Helton era in the 1990s, when it stopped recruiting local Houston players and filled its team with junior college transfers. The easiest way to compete with the Longhorns and the Aggies in recruiting is to use the allure of staying at home and playing in front of families and friends. By removing itself from the hotbed of talent that exists in Houston, UH spiraled into a losing program and fan apathy set in to the degree that the program has not fully recovered. Apathy has led to generally unimpressive attendance numbers and a lack of alumni financial support, which further contributed to our facilities remaining inferior to our competitors.

Over the last few years, UH has made strides to begin creeping closer to the Longhorns and the Aggies. They have once again been recruiting the city of Houston heavily. And by installing a unique offense that is predicated almost entirely on speed, UH has been able to recruit to its system and win with 2 and 3 star prospects that possess in quickness what they lack in size. The gains in recruiting have led to more success on the field: UH has been to 6 bowl games in the last 7 years, which is more than A&M over that period and equal to UT.

Sustained success, in turn, has led to a more passionate fan base. Attendance is up significantly over the last 5 years compared to the previous 15, as are alumni donations. At the end of the 2012 season, UH will demolish its current stadium to make way for a larger new stadium, which will bring the program closer to its competition with regard to facilities. The school is also moving away from its previous status as a commuter school and will house around 10,000 students on campus by the end of 2013, which will help lend a permanent solution to ending fan apathy.

Being a UH fan over the last decade has been a frustrating process as the school tries to rebuild its program. Although evaluating the hurdles UH must overcome to create an elite program paints a very daunting picture, I can't help but be encouraged by the direction the program has taken over the last few years.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.