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12 for 12 Series Part 1: Houston Cougars

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NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Houston at Baylor IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome! You may have seen my name popping up around ODB lately and thought, who in the world is this guy? Well, I’m Joe Goodman, a die hard Baylor fan who also happens to be a fan of the Big 12 in general. Consider me your liaison into the broader world of the Big 12, your Conference Ambassador if you will. I do love to poke our fellow schools on twitter from time to time, but it’s mostly with love. And as the person who loves having a broad friend group with fans from schools around the country, I’d like to introduce you the schools and fanbases we will be encountering more in the future. Welcome to the 12 for 12 series. During the year, I will be covering a school a month from the new look Big 12, sorry UT and OU call an SEC blog. I will be working with bloggers, podcasters, and fans from across the new Big 12 to bring you insights into how they feel about the new conference, their school, and of course Baylor.

For part 1, I decided to go with a new face, but one that isn’t too unfamiliar for Baylor fans: the Houston Cougars. As the older folks know, Houston was once a conference mate of the Bears, competing against us in the Southwest Conference from 1972 to 1996. After the SWC broke up, the Coogs have spent 25+ years looking for a true home at the height of college athletics, and they’ve found that home in the new Big 12. Houston brings a solid pedigree with them as well. They’ve been in 6 Final Fours (Bears fans remember the most recent one very well) in MBB, they’ve got a Heisman Trophy won by Andre Ware who ran one of the most exciting offenses CFB has ever seen, they won a NY6 Bowl in 2015, and even poached their current football coach from fellow Big 12 school West Virginia, and that’s not even mentioning their elite Track and Field squads, Baseball prowess, and pretty much unmatched Golf history. There may not have been a Group of 5 school more deserving of the jump to the Power 5 than Houston, and they’ll certainly help maintain this conference’s pedigree in multiple sports.

But hey, that’s enough from me, let’s hear what the real Cougars have to say. For this month’s piece I was able to speak with Sam Razz and Dustin Rensink, the co-hosts of The Scott & Holman Pawdcast (part of the Ten12 Network, check them out, they’re very good.) Let’s dive in!

Tell me a little about yourselves. How did you get into Cougar fandom and eventually podcasting, and where can the people find you guys?

Dustin: Sam and I met while we were both students at UH through Coog Crew, which was then the official student organization of the UH athletics department. We both did a little blogging about UH athletics years ago, both eventually got bored with that, and then during the summer of 2015 Sam pointed out that nobody was doing a UH podcast, and even though neither of us knew anything about podcasting, we (probably) couldn’t do a worse job than nobody. We’re in year 7 now, and we’ve got to talk to a ton of cool people along the way, including Carl freaking Lewis, so I feel like we cleared that low bar at the very least. The only things we have to plug are the podcast itself, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts, and our crippling twitter addictions, which you can enable by following us @SHPawdcast

What is your State of the AD address? For Baylor fans that know nothing about UH how would you describe your athletic department?

Sam: First and foremost, it’s an athletic department that finally seems to have people in prominent positions that believe the University of Houston is a destination. For a number of years, Houston seemed to be a proving ground for people who moved onto bigger name institutions. The previous 2 UH athletic directors: Hunter Yurachek and Mack Rhoades, are now at Arkansas and Baylor, respectively. Those 2 did plenty of good things while in the employ of UH, but nobody was too surprised they moved on when they got another job opportunity at P5 league institutions.

This is not to say the current athletic director: Chris Pezman, can’t or won’t take another job someday, but it would be a bit more surprising. Pezman is a UH alumnus and previous employee who came back after serving in a senior athletics department role at Cal and really connects with the university in a way that Yurachek and Rhoades really couldn’t.

You also have long-term stability and a clear desire to be at UH from your football and men’s basketball coaches: Dana Holgorsen and Kelvin Sampson. There are plenty of unique circumstances surrounding how both of those coaches got to Houston, but there are very few in the Cougar fan base that aren’t happy with those 2 right now. Cougar men’s basketball went to a Final Four a year ago and has been one of the sport’s most consistent winners the last 4-5 seasons. Football is coming off a 12-2 season where the Coogs took advantage of a pretty iffy AAC, but also fielded one of the most fun defenses this fan base has ever seen and developed an offensive identity missing from Holgorsen’s first 2 seasons.

Outside of the biggest 2 sports, I would say nearly all intercollegiate sports are in better shape now than when the 2 of us first started podcasting in 2015. This has become an athletic department where you’re seeing the positive effects of institutional investment and good hires in places besides the highest profile 2 or 3 sports.

If Alabama is a football school and Kentucky is a basketball school, what kind of school is UH?

Dustin: There are a couple of right answers here. At the moment, I would say that Houston is a basketball school, with the 2021 men’s Final Four appearance, the presence of a larger-than-life coach like Kelvin Sampson, the brand-new arena and adjoining practice facility, and the increased fan interest and support around the program. But over the last 10 years, you could argue Houston is a track & field school, with multiple top-3 team finishes and several individual national champions. But all-time, Houston is a golf school, with 16 men’s team national championships. And in the sense of “what sport does the fan base most care about?” Houston is definitely a football school. So, it’s a question that’s very much up for debate.

What are your initial feelings about coming into the Big 12?

Sam: I think the first thought Dustin and I had about the prospect of UH going to the Big 12 was what an unbelievable men’s basketball league our alma mater was going to be a part of. You have the sport’s current national champion (Baylor), a recent runner-up (Texas Tech), Kansas and just top-to-bottom schools that put competitive teams on the floor annually. I don’t think there’s a Cougar fan out there who’d prefer the current set-up to annually playing Kansas, Baylor, Tech, Iowa State and the like. I’m a big fan of college basketball generally, and Big 12 basketball is brutal, iconic and I’m dying to see a team with Houston on their jerseys march into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and those kinds of venues.

The immediate reaction wasn’t the same for football, but as the 2021 season played out we saw the high ceiling programs like Oklahoma State and Baylor have and that even without 2 of the sport’s bigger names that this would still be a good, competitive football league. Most importantly, it seems like the kind of league where several teams can go into a preseason with legitimate hopes of winning conference hardware. No matter the sport, it’s some degree of a higher level of competition than we see in our current conference.

To zoom out a bit though, I think what’s also exciting is simply playing regional rivals again. We talked about this very topic with fellow UConn podcasters/bloggers when that program moved to the Big East. Its nothing personal, but UH fans don’t generally run into Temple, USF, Tulane or ECU fans in their every day lives and that doesn’t give your conference games much ‘juice’ for even your dedicated fans. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying that games against Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech garner a lot more interest from Cougar fandom.

I won’t deny that I had kind of hoped UH would get a P5 opportunity that wasn’t the Big 12 after getting denied membership following the SWC breakup and again in 2016. But when it was finally offered there was no way UH leadership or the fan base at large wasn’t going to jump at a chance to upgrade the league affiliation.

What sport(s) do you think will be the most successful once you join the Big 12?

Dustin: I expect men’s basketball to have success right away. I’m certainly under no illusions about the talent gap that exists between Houston’s current competition in the American Athletic Conference, and what they’re going to face every game in the Big 12. But Houston’s Final Four run, and their track record against ranked teams and teams in power conferences under Kelvin Sampson, gives me confidence that Houston will be a force to be reckoned with from day 1.

Track & Field can have success, as well. Houston is fortunate enough to have Olympic gold medalists Leroy Burrell and Carl Lewis leading that program, they’ve already had a ton of success recently as I mentioned, and adding the legitimacy of being in the Big 12 can only help that program. I think Cougar football is on track to be competitive right away, as well. Dana Holgorsen has remade the roster from the sorry state it was in when he took over, and there’s been a noticeable uptick in the quality of recruits he’s been bringing in since the Big 12 announcement. The Coogs won’t be the favorites in the Big 12 in 2023 or 2024, but I don’t think they’ll look out of their depth in what figures to be an incredibly competitive conference.

What sport(s) do you think will require some time to compete in the Big 12?

Sam: I don’t want to pick on these sports too hard because they’re both coached by good people who have won and gone to the postseason at UH, but baseball and softball are my answers.

UH has a good baseball history and has dramatically improved program facilities and infrastructure under current HC Todd Whitting. This is a program with a Super Regional appearance and multiple seasons as a Regional host (plus several AAC titles) under Whitting. But it is also one that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2018. Cougar baseball had by far its worst season since joining the AAC in 2021, finishing 2nd to last in the league standings and well below .500 overall. Given the historic prowess of Big 12 baseball, getting this program competitive in a tougher league may be a challenge.

Softball is one of UH’s younger programs but has made lots of Regionals and had a couple close calls in the Super Regionals in just a couple decades of existence. Under current HC Kristin Vesely, the Coogs have multiple regional appearances, but like baseball finished well into the bottom half of the AAC in 2021. Even if this team returns to being a top 2-3 AAC program the bar is about to become a lot higher for a postseason worthy season, like baseball.

Who are you most excited to play in the Big 12 and who do you see becoming your biggest rival(s)? (Assuming Texas and Oklahoma aren’t around once you join)

Dustin: The obvious answer has to be the Texas schools. There’s a Houston-DFW aspect with TCU, older Houston fans still resent Baylor receiving what they feel was Houston’s rightful spot in the Big 12 when the SWC broke up, and the Coogs have faced Texas Tech regularly enough in football as of late that there’s already meaningful recent history there. And most importantly, most Houston fans have friends or family members who attended those schools, which is what makes those games feel so important. That’s something that has never really been true of Houston’s conference “rivals” since the SWC days, and it’s maybe the most exciting thing about UH moving to the Big 12. I’ll also throw out Kansas men’s basketball as an answer for who I’m most excited to play. Getting to play at Phog Allen on a regular basis is beyond exciting.

If the Big 12 were to expand further, what schools would you add and why? (If any)

Sam: I’m not wild about any of the current AAC schools who aren’t already slated to join the Big 12. Memphis, despite admittedly good fan support and hoops history, haven’t been to March Madness since 2014 and don’t even own their football stadium. Nothing SMU does is that well supported or sustainable. In the last 6-7 years SMU has had their best runs in football and men’s basketball, post-SWC breakup, and it produced 0 NCAA Tournament wins and 0 conference championship game appearances. Yet, those 2 schools probably have the best case for further expansion right now among current AAC schools.

I guess if there are going to be any additions, I think looking West to the likes of San Diego State and Boise St to maybe pair with BYU makes the most sense. But there’s a valid counterargument that the logistics of a conference spanning from West Virginia to San Diego would create absurd logistics and increase travel costs.

Finally, this is a Baylor blog. Give me a few sentences on how you view Baylor as a new conference opponent.

Dustin: As I mentioned, there is plenty of institutional memory at UH about getting left out of the Big 12 when the Southwest Conference broke up, and a very strong feeling that Baylor has been enjoying what should have been Houston’s spot in that conference for the past 3 decades. So as much animus as Houston definitely feels towards the entire Big 12 for that (not to mention the dog & pony show that was the Big 12’s flirtation with expansion in 2016), with UT-Austin leaving, Baylor will assume the mantle of being the school most Coogs resent most strongly. Add to that the fact that Baylor has had plenty of success on the football field as of late, and has joined Kansas in the top tier of the conference for men’s hoops, and the Bears are a conference opponent that will be very much circled on the calendar, so to speak.

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And there you have it folks! Houston may be the team I’m most excited to play against out of the new group coming because that animosity definitely exists from the old SWC days. It will be interesting to see how their addition affects Baylor, TCU, and Tech in recruiting, but get excited Bears fans, we’ve got some close away games being added to the schedule, and Houston is definitely a school committed to building their athletics. Be on the lookout next month for part 2 in the 12 for 12 series, and let me know how you feel about facing the Coogs once again.