During conversations about conference realignment and expansion, I get so sick of hearing people whine about the Houston Cougars: “But what has Houston done to deserve a Power 5 invite?” When Houston joined the Southwest Conference in 1976 the Cougars proceeded to win the conference championship in 1976, 1978, and 1979. That’s three titles won in our first four years in the conference! We won another championship in 1984.
Let’s compare the Cougars against the rest of the SWC schools now in the Big 12 in the same era, from 1976 until the conference dissolved after the 1995 season (an asterisk denotes a shared title).
SWC football champions (1976-95) – Current Big 12 vs Houston:
- Texas – 5 titles – 1977, 1983, 1990, 1994*, 1995
- Houston – 4 titles – 1976*, 1978, 1979*, 1984*
- Baylor – 2 titles – 1980, 1994*
- TCU – 1 title – 1994*
- Texas Tech – 1 title – 1994*
Hmm, other than the Texas Longhorns, it seems like the Houston Cougars have “done” quite a damn bit.
What about the other former SWC teams who are not in the Big 12 or have since left? I’m glad you asked!:
SWC champions (non Big 12 schools):
- Texas A&M – 6 titles – 1985, 1986, 1987, 1991, 1992, 1993
- Arkansas – 3 titles – 1979*, 1988, 1989
- SMU – 3 titles – 1981, 1982, 1984*
- Rice – 1 title – 1994*
So, other than the two flagship schools in the state of Texas (UT & A&M) who clearly have an advantage in money and political clout from the state, it looks like the Houston Cougars did fairly well in the SWC. The Coogs won more titles than current P5 schools Arkansas, Baylor, TCU, and Texas Tech.
[Side note: In case you’re wondering, current Big 12 members, the Oklahoma Sooners won an unreal nine Big 8 football conference titles between 1976-95. Oklahoma State won one.]
Looking at Men’s College Basketball
But what about men’s basketball? Basketball is another sport that generates a fair amount of revenue from television and advertisers. Let’s take a look (including all former SWC teams for simplicity):
Regular season titles:
- Arkansas – 8 titles – 1977, 1978*, 1979*, 1981, 1982, 1989, 1990, 1991
- Texas – 6 titles – 1978*, 1979*, 1986*, 1992*, 1994, 1995*
- Houston – 3 titles – 1983, 1984, 1992*
- Texas A&M – 3 titles – 1976, 1980, 1986*
- Texas Tech – 3 titles – 1985, 1995*, 1996
- SMU – 2 titles – 1988, 1993
- TCU – 2 titles – 1986*, 1987
- Rice & Baylor – 0 titles
Not bad! Houston finished tied for third place with the Aggies and the Red Raiders. Since Arkansas in now in the SEC, that moves Houston up to tied for second place against the current Big 12 colleges who are ex-SWC.
SWC tournament championship:
- Arkansas – 6 titles – 1977, 1979, 1982, 1989, 1990, 1991
- Texas Tech – 5 titles – 1976, 1985, 1986, 1993, 1996
- Houston 5 titles – 1978, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1992
- Texas 2 titles – 1994, 1995
- Texas A&M – 2 titles – 1980, 1987
- SMU – 1 title – 1988
- Rice, TCU, and Baylor – 0 titles
Wow! Houston is tied for second place with the Red Raiders in tournament championships! Again, since Arkansas is now in the SEC, so that moves Houston and Texas Tech up to first place as current Big 12 schools.
And just for fun, looking at current Big 12 schools who were in the Big 8.
Big 8 conference tournament champions (1977-95):
- Oklahoma – 4 titles – 1979 · 1985 · 1988 · 1990
- Kansas – 4 titles – 1981 · 1984 · 1986 · 1992
- Oklahoma State – 2 titles – 1983 · 1995
- Kansas State – 2 titles – 1977 · 1980
- Iowa State – 1 title – 1996
BOOM! The Houston Cougars won more SWC basketball tournament championships than any current Big 12 school won a Big 8 title between 1977 (their first tournament year) and 1995.
Those Bill Yeoman, Jack Pardee, and John Jenkins football teams and Guy Lewis basketball teams were truly dominant for a long time and put Houston on the map. I’ve even heard college historians stating the Houston Cougars had one of the top athletic departments in the whole country for nearly two decades, through the seventies and eighties.
When the Southwest Conference dissolved in after the 1995 season the Cougars were obviously left stranded, banished to Conference USA mediocrity. TCU, Rice, and SMU would join the WAC.
This website has a good overview of the collapse of the old SWC and I recommending reading through all of it. What I found interesting is how little Texas and Texas A&M thought of Texas Tech and Baylor. Some very powerful politicians had to strong arm UT and A&M to force them to bring Tech and Baylor with them to the Big 12. From the article:
“As luck and fate would have it, Texas Tech had some very powerful members of the legislature,” said former Tech AD Bob Bockrath. “Candidly, if not for the influence, it’d be the Big 10 — that’s taken, so some other name. I don’t think Texas and A&M saw Tech and Baylor as equal partners.”
Former Baylor AD Dick Ellis said: “It was a battle of the haves and have-nots. Baylor, we kind of snuck in. I’m sure there’s resentment from SMU, TCU and Rice.”
Remember that quote. Baylor and Tech did nothing on the football field to deserve their Big 12 invite when the SWC, they had to bully and force their way in. I’m not even mad at them, I just wish Houston had that clout back then. Hopefully we do now!
Obviously on the field performance is a very small piece of conference realignment. The are many other more important factors, but this post is an answer to those who say Houston has never done anything to deserve a Power 5 invitation. We’ve already proved our worth twice: First was getting into the SWC and the second was winning many league titles once we got in.
I think why us Houston fans talk so much about conference realignment is because we feel we already proved our worth, then had the rug pulled out from under us, and now we have to do it all over again. No offense to newer programs like Central Florida or Memphis, but the whole realignment issue is much more painful when you have the history of being in a major conference like we have and then losing that membership.
Houston’s athletics took a huge hit after the SWC folded and it took awhile for the school to build back up to levels of success on the football field. The team hit rock bottom in 2001 going 0-11. Art Briles was hired in 2003 and Kevin Sumlin followed and both helped re-build the program and regain the confidence of the jilted fan base. We’ve still got a long way to go to show we belong at an elite level, but hopefully this post helps show how much history our school has and how good we can actually be on the field and on the hardwood.
Still want to read more?