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Coach Sumlin, QB Keenum have Houston back on national stage

Bill Yeoman arrived at work on Monday to a scene that conjured old memories. Hordes of Houston students, still energized by the Cougars' 45-35 win at then No. 5 Oklahoma State on Sept. 12, had lined the block for their chance to purchase the precious remaining tickets for this Saturday night's showdown with another Big 12 foe, Texas Tech.

"When we played Texas in [1968], the line was a quarter-mile long," said Yeoman, 81, who coached Houston from 1962 through '86 and now works as a fundraiser at the school. "[The Oklahoma State win] was not totally dissimilar from our Michigan State win in '67 [when the Spartans were ranked third]. We kind of burst on to the national scene with that one game."

To today's younger fans, Houston is merely the latest in a long line of potential BCS busters, a harmless Conference USA program that until last December hadn't won a bowl game in 28 years (the Armed Forces Bowl, against Air Force). For those well-versed in football history, however, Houston is the school that pioneered the veer offense in the '60s under Yeoman, won four Southwest Conference championships between 1976 and 1984 and produced record-setting run 'n' shoot quarterbacks Andre Ware, the 1989 Heisman winner, and David Klingler in the late '80s and early '90s.

Led by their latest prolific passer, junior Case Keenum, the No. 17 Cougars have entered the national rankings for the first time since 1991 and will get another shot to make headlines when they host the Red Raiders.

"The ranking is good, but I'm more interested to see where we'll be in a couple of months," said second-year coach Kevin Sumlin. "We're a talented enough team to win every game on our schedule. Are we mature enough to handle it? We'll see."

Viewers watching Sumlin's team for the first time against Tech may wonder: Where did Houston come from? The more appropriate question may be: Where did the Cougars go? Over a 12-year span starting in 1991, Houston produced just one winning season and went through three coaches (John Jenkins, Kim Helton and Dana Dimel).

"There was a long desert in there," said Klingler, who went to the Cincinnati Bengals with the sixth pick in the 1992 NFL draft. "Unfortunately, after [coaches] Jack Pardee [1987-89] and John Jenkins [1990-92] left, the program went in the tank for quite a while."

The SWC's disbandment in 1995 didn't help. While the Big Eight joined forces with Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor to form the Big 12, Houston was relegated to the kiddies' table, in Conference USA.

Even before the split, however, the Cougars had long played the role of unwanted stepchild. Founded as a junior college in 1927, Houston later became a private school, but it did not field its first football team until 1946 and did not land its SWC invite for another 30 years.

The university (now the third-largest in Texas) sits in the largest city in the nation's most rabid high school football state, smack-dab in the center of one of the country's most fertile recruiting hotbeds. Sumlin said that 101 players from within a 60-mile radius of the downtown school signed with Division I schools last February.

Yet Houston has never approached the sustained success of more established in-state programs such as Texas and Texas A&M, as droughts of mediocrity have repeatedly followed sporadic periods of success. Houston plays in a 32,000-seat, on-campus venue, Robertson Stadium, and on Saturday it will be sold out for just the fourth time since the Cougars returned there from the Astrodome in 1998.

"The biggest thing we've had to overcome is the stigma that we're an inner-city school," said Sumlin. "People who haven't been on campus think it's a commuter school with a couple of buildings. They don't know that we have dorms and a campus."

Sumlin, 45, formerly Bob Stoops' co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, has orchestrated the latest step in a resurrection that began under Art Briles (now at Baylor). Upon his arrival in 2003, Briles, a former Houston player and longtime Texas high school coach who spent three years on Mike Leach's Texas Tech staff, reintroduced the type of wide-open offense in which Ware and Klingler's teams thrived. The Cougars went to four bowl games in five years, won a C-USA title in 2006 and produced another standout quarterback, current Philadelphia Eagle Kevin Kolb.

It's no coincidence Houston's greatest successes have involved creative offenses.

"With both the Bill Yeoman era and the run 'n' shoot era, UH did not have to go after the same players everyone else did," said Klingler. "When I was there, we were recruiting 5-foot-9 receivers. We didn't need a tight end who was 265 pounds or a fullback who was 230. When everyone else was fighting over those guys, we were finding guys who fit the system."

Sumlin, who became the first black coach in program history when he was hired in December 2007, has continued that tradition. He imported another Leach protégé, Dana Holgorsen, to run a hurry-up, spread offense. Under their tutelage, Keenum, an undersized Abilene native who received no other scholarship offers, led the nation in total offense last season, throwing for 5,020 yards, with 44 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Against Oklahoma State, he was 32 of 46 for 366 yards and three touchdowns.

But those around the program say Sumlin's biggest influence has not involved Xs and Os. Having previously worked under coaches such as Stoops, R.C. Slocum, Joe Tiller and Glen Mason, he and his staff operate like they're running a major-conference program.

"He brought a lot of discipline to the program that we needed," said Keenum. "A lot of what he's done is still coming into effect, little stuff like pregame routines to how we travel to the way we practice and the way we meet."

Shaking off a 1-3 start, the Cougars finished 8-5 in Sumlin's debut season, including a 70-30 explosion against then 8-1 Tulsa. Shortly thereafter, Sumlin and his staff signed a recruiting class they hope will help elevate the program to a new level.

Houston signed 11 Rivals.com three- or four-star prospects -- one more than in its previous three classes combined -- and Sumlin has not waited to put his young talent on the field. This year's squad includes nine starters recruited in the past two classes, most notably sophomore running back Bryce Beall, a 1,247-yard rusher last season who caught the go-ahead touchdown against Oklahoma State. Remarkably, five of the top eight defensive linemen are true freshmen, including starting end Zeke Riser.

"These coaches are building a program," said Yeoman. "We're located in an area where there are an inordinate number of good players available, and these guys have gone out and found them. With about one more good year of recruiting and playing together, these guys could go play anyone in the country."

That may sound a little lofty, but consider the sport's present landscape. Both Boise State and Utah have produced significant BCS bowl wins and earned national prestige despite residing in untraditional football locales. A program such as Houston's, with both a recognizable history and a talent-rich backyard, seems like a potential juggernaut in comparison.

Sumlin's timing could not be better. Hurry-up spread offenses have become the rage at Texas high schools, from which a slew of successful college quarterbacks (Keenum, Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel, Todd Reesing, et. al.) have emerged in recent years.

"There are a bunch of positives we should be able to take advantage of," said Sumlin. "We don't have to be a one-hit wonder, but a team that sustains success."

Several obstacles remain in the program's path. For one, Conference USA has garnered little national respect since the Big East pilfered Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida in 2005, so the Cougars will have to keep scheduling -- and beating -- BCS conference teams. (Houston also visits Mississippi State, on Oct. 10. Next year, the Cougars travel to UCLA and Texas Tech and host the Bulldogs.)

Also, fan support may always be an issue. As Keenum noted, "We've had people wearing other teams' jerseys on campus in the past." A lack of natural rivalries in the Cougars' conference certainly doesn't help -- lifelong Longhorns or Aggies fans don't come running to see Houston face Southern Miss and Memphis.

Most important, however, is the question of how long the school will be able to keep Sumlin. His name has already surfaced as a replacement for struggling Colorado coach Dan Hawkins. Sumlin signed an extension last winter through the 2013 season (with a reported annual salary of $700,000), but if Houston has a big season, his stock will continue to rise.

"He knows what it takes to win," said Klingler, who lives in Houston and served as a radio analyst for Cougars games in past seasons. "There are a lot of guys who can call plays, but he stresses attention to detail, work habits and the things that make you successful.

"U of H has made some strides, but for them to go onto the national stage, they have to win 'em all."

First comes Texas Tech, a team with its own high-octane offense and a defense that held No. 2 Texas to 340 total yards last Saturday.

The last time Houston played in a game of this magnitude, it didn't end well. On Sept. 12, 1991, the No. 10 Cougars fell 40-10 at No. 1 Miami. Two weeks later, they fell out of the rankings, and they didn't return until last week. Sumlin, though, won't let the past cloud the present.

"Being ranked in '91 has nothing to do with this team," Sumlin said. "Our expectations have been pretty high since we've been here."

Win Saturday, and expectations from around the country will be pretty high, too.

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