This was it, the year Houston finally became eligible to win the Southwest Conference championship. Ironic. For years they had popped in and out of the Top 20, and one afternoon back in 1968 the freewheeling Cougars scored 100 points. But suddenly last season Houston staggered to 2-8. So the coaches of the conference favorites, Texas, Texas A&M and Arkansas—Darrell Royal, Emory Bellard and Frank Broyles—spent their summers worrying about beating each other or the upstart Texas Tech and Baylor. And the SWC writers, who so often guess wrong, heard few complaints about their annual poll in which the Cougars were picked to finish sixth.
But last Saturday in the Astrodome—on the same day that Texas beat Arkansas 29-12 to finish fifth in the SWC (Arkansas was sixth) and Texas Tech defeated Baylor 24-21 to become conference co-champions—there was pore little ole Houston whipping up on Miami (Fla.) to finish the season 9-2, and with only one conference loss—to Arkansas—heading triumphantly to meet Maryland in the Cotton Bowl. Now how did all this happen?
That the Cougars beat Miami at all is explanation enough. Here was Houston trying hard not to get injured. For their part, the Hurricanes were striving to salvage something out of a season in which they had already been beaten by seven opponents (six of whom were invited to bowls) and all fired up because on the night before the game Coach Carl Selmer had been canned. Houston played as expected—bad. The Cougars turned the ball over five times, compared to only 24 giveaways in the previous 10 games. The offensive line missed blocks all afternoon, and Backs John Housman and Dyral Thomas, who had been averaging 5.1 and 4.4 yards per carry, netted 34 yards in 14 tries. Miami Quarterbacks George Mason and Frank Glover blistered the Cougar secondary for 282 yards and two long touchdown passes. Houston Linebacker David Hodge left the game in the second quarter after taking a shot in the head. Defensive End Vincent Greenwood, the right side of the Cougar pass rush, had a sore back and didn't play at all. And still Houston won.
Alois Blackwell, the leading Cougar runner, had the second-best game of his career, 170 yards in 24 carries, including a 28-yard burst for a touchdown that gave Houston a 21-10 lead. Danny Davis scored on runs of four and 25 yards, completed eight of 18 passes for 127 yards and operated the veer in a way that suggests he might be the quickest, flashiest option quarterback in the country. Cornerback Anthony Francis killed two Miami drives by intercepting his ninth and 10th passes of the year, tying an SWC record and becoming the nation's leading interceptor. The defense yielded 440 yards, its third-highest total this season, but clamped down when it mattered.
With three minutes to play, Miami trailed 21-16. Then the Hurricanes' Bryan Ferguson took a punt on his 41, cut to the right sideline and finally got pushed out of bounds at the Houston 15. Miami inched to the three—first and goal. Glover called a pass play. But as he back-pedaled with the snap, 6'3", 269-pound Tackle Wilson Whitley came bursting through the line and grabbed Glover's jersey. The quarterback let loose a wobbler toward the end zone. Cougar Linebacker Willis Williams intercepted the pass, ran it out to the 13, and Houston ran out the clock.
Whitley is the heart of Houston's defense and last week was named one of four finalists for the Vince Lombardi Award, which goes to the nation's outstanding lineman. "You defense Whitley with two big men," says Texas Tech's Steve Sloan, "and give them some novocaine."
Six months ago Houston Coach Bill Yeoman had no idea his team could be a winner. True, he had 18 starters returning from the 2-8 club and Whitley had recovered from a long-term knee strain, but what he mainly had was just about the same team—except it was a year older—that had scored 18 points a game in 1975 while yielding an average of 27, both "worsts" in Yeoman's 14-year coaching career. Moreover, the Cougars had lost to Rice and SMU, no SWC powerhouses, and were shut out by North Texas State, a so-so independent. Yeoman switched a few offensive linemen, flip-flopped Tight End Don Bass and Split End Eddie Foster—because Foster, the little guy, blocked better—and replaced his 4-3 defense with a 5-2 to cover up a shortage of tackles and guards. It was no big deal, nothing complicated. Davis, a soph redshirt in '75, won the quarterback job from Bubba McGallion, who had completed only 47 of 103 passes and had 11 picked off. Later on in the season, freshman Elvis Bradley filled a vulnerable free-safety spot, and 6'3" Melvin Jones, another freshman, alternated with Robert Oglesby at nose guard. That was it.
"The trouble with kids today is that they're too serious," Yeoman said on the morning before the Miami game. He sat at his desk, feet up, surrounded by photos of Houston's 17 All-Americas, wishing he were playing golf. A reporter was asking him to explain the Cougar turnabout. "If a kid's life isn't planned out by the time he's 14, he's a nervous wreck," Yeoman continued.
"But coach," the reporter persisted, "what about the turnaround?"
"When I was their age," he said, "I used to sit on a fence for two hours just watching the sun set."
What Yeoman meant was that he had a potentially potent team last year. But after losing three of their first four games, the players, the too-serious players, got nervous and little mistakes were magnified. The kicking team alone gave up three touchdowns that were directly responsible for two losses. Arguments erupted in the huddle. A starting tackle quit. "We were probably the best two-win team in the country," Yeoman said. "This year I hoped we'd be competitive, but after shooting eight blanks, I didn't know what to expect."
The Cougars started off by upsetting Baylor. Although Florida crushed them 49-14, the following week they whipped favored Texas A&M 21-10, limiting Aggie Fullback George Woodard to 15 yards rushing, 129 below his average. The defense had arrived. The 14-7 loss at Arkansas was followed by a 28-point thrashing of TCU. By November, Houston was rolling and the campus came alive. Somebody started painting victory scores on the front doors of the administration building. The next score on the door was Houston 30, Texas 0—a game that ended a 42-game Longhorn home-win streak. The Houston alumni association tried to round up enough fans to fill a charter flight to Lubbock for the Texas Tech game, and came up with enough to fill five airplanes. The Cougars toppled unbeaten Texas Tech 27-19 to tie for the SWC lead. Then they polished off Rice 42-20 to secure it.
For 25 years Houston had politicked and upgraded entrance requirements and every year had its SWC membership application rejected. The school had good teams, all right, but the feeling was that few of the athletes could have hacked it academically at SWC institutions. In 1964 Houston became the first major football university in Texas to recruit blacks, a step many felt further damaged its chances for admittance to the SWC. The Cougar basketball team was a juggernaut from 1964 to 1968 with players like Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney, and many think Houston's requests for admission during that period were deftly pigeonholed. But back in 1963, pushed by rising costs, Houston had joined the Texas State System of Higher Education, thereby becoming a state school. This made it difficult for its fellow state schools—Texas, A&M, Tech—to exclude it from the SWC, and an invitation to join the league was extended in 1971. As is normal in such situations, one stipulation was that the Cougars couldn't compete for quite a while in football (five years) and basketball (four years).
"Cotton Bowl thoughts haven't hit me yet," Yeoman said in his office. "I'm relieved more than excited. Maybe in five years I'll feel the impact of what this team did. But right now I'm just thrilled we didn't have another loser."
One day last January Davis showed up at Camp Fun, the Cougar weight-training program, wearing a new gray T shirt with black lettering that read: 1976 SWC CHAMPS. The quarterback wore the shirt in every conference game. After the Miami win he was asked if he planned to wear it again next year. Davis thought a moment. "Nope," he finally answered, "I'm getting me a new one. It's going to say: 1977 NATIONAL CHAMPS."