As last weekend winded to a close, Monday night was looking to be a promising start to the week, with the Peach Bowl Celebration and the Houston Cougars men’s basketball team taking on #12 ranked SMU Mustangs. I was looking forward to Monday, which is not something I often do. But it promised celebratory proclamations of glory in football, and the chance to sustain this momentum into basketball, with the following game against the private school a few hours north on I-45.
But when Monday finally arrived, I was feeling slightly grumpy. The weather was hot, as February in Houston can sometimes be. And I was having trouble being productive. Instead of doing the things I should have done, I got sucked into binge watching the final season of Friday Night Lights on Netflix. I love the show, but at this point, it had begun taking over my life, rendering me severely unproductive. I plunged too deep into the fictionalized Dillon, Texas and the exploits of coach Eric Taylor. I had wasted the bulk of my afternoon watching the extraordinarily compelling melodrama about small town Texas high school football by the time I was to head to the University of Houston campus.
If you read this blog, then you are probably aware of the Houston Cougars football victory in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta, over #9 ranked perennial powerhouse Florida State. Actually, if you read this blog you were probably there, or at least watched it from a couch and spent a significant amount of time screaming in ecstasy over the eventual win. In Tom Herman’s first year as head coach, he brought the somewhat underachieving Houston program back into the spotlight and into a New Years Six bowl.
The biggest Cougar football victory of the last thirty years justifies a celebration, and that is what newly elected mayor, and Cougar alumnus, Sylvester Turner believed, as well. He put on the event, and as a Cougar fanatic, I made plans to attend it and the following basketball game, which would include a halftime honoring of the football team, as well.
But when I got to campus I was still slightly sullen for some reason. Maybe it was the feeling that I had spent so much of my time plowing through five seasons of Friday Night Lights, and that I had fallen too deep into indulgence. I needed a dose of the real world. I also needed some coffee.
I headed to The Nook Café. I got an iced coffee and began to feel better. Despite the appearance of rain clouds and accompanied ominous wind, my lack of a jacket didn’t bother me too much. I was back in reality. And seeing the growing number of Cougar fans with Peach Bowl memorabilia on, heading toward Legend’s Plaza, in front of TDECU Stadium, brought my energy levels up even more. These people had the same allegiance as me, and were as excited about Houston athletics and the university as I was. It’s a nice feeling. I was part of this gathering and I had more agency, or at least presence there, than I do in the world of Friday Night Lights. I was part of the picture, instead of behind it.
With caffeine and endorphins now pumping through my body, I arrived at Legend’s Plaza. The mass of red swelled to a sizable crowd. Many, including me, wore the same gray Peach Bowl hat. It was a good look on everyone.
Meteorologist Chita Johnson, from KHOU news, did the introductions. The Peach Bowl trophy was brought into view of the crowd, which erupted into applause and emphatic yelling. The following speeches by Renu Khator, Sylvester Turner, and Tom Herman were, at times, inaudible, because of the cheering. But they all articulated the same sentiments: the University of Houston is on the rise on all fronts, including academics, athletics, and on-campus morale. The mayor put to bed the “Cougar High” identity of his alma mater and helped usher in a new one. This new identity is one still being built. Coach Herman reaffirmed this, then preceded to thank the administration, the players, students, and fans.
Ultimately, the event celebrated the University of Houston. It was focused on the achievements of the school, brought about by its student athletes, the student body, and those advocating for it in any capacity. We all got to celebrate the institution that we are connected to in whatever way we are.
I, like mayor Turner, am an alumnus. The four years I attended the school oversaw my emotional and intellectual growth into the early stages of adulthood. And for someone still attempting to navigate graduation and the next step, college athletics are a great way for me to feel connected to the fond memories I collected throughout my time on campus. Every time I come back I tap into this feeling. And because I usually come back for athletic events, it is nice to see a physical manifestation of my beloved university defeat a physical manifestation of an institution I dislike because it’s not mine. It’s not logical, but it’s genuine and unambiguous, which is comforting when living in a world often colored in shades of gray.
And this connection to the institution was again triggered by the Peach Bowl celebration, which did a lot to lift me out of my brooding. Maybe it’s just a distraction, but I felt fulfilled, a part of something. The coffee helped, too. After the speeches ended, I wanted to sustain these positive feeling. I was hoping the basketball team would defeat SMU, and keep the winning going.
Once inside Hofeinz Pavilion, the atmosphere was incredible. With twenty minutes until tip-off there were already more fans in attendance than the last home game I attended, versus USF. Once I found my seat, I noticed a roped off section with extra security. Not long after, the football team filled it in. I tried to identify as many as I could as they filed in.
As the game began, Hofheinz was as full of red as I had seen it this season. While the LSU game had been busy, almost half of the crowd was clad in Purple and Gold. On Monday, however, it was almost entirely red. There was a section of SMU fans. But it wasn’t as big as you would expect for a # 12 ranked intra state rival. That’s SMU for you, I guess.
The Cougar fans were amped throughout the game. The excitement from the Peach Bowl celebration definitely carried over into Hofheinz. They were loud and the student section was on their feet. The first half the game remained fairly close. With Rob Gray Jr, the Cougar’s leading scorer, out with a sprained ankle, Houston played admirably. But when Galen Robinson Jr hobbled off of the court and didn’t return in the first half, I began to worry. Houston trailed SMU 39-34 going into the second half.
But I was quickly distracted by the second honoring of the football team and their Peach Bowl victory, during halftime. The team and coaching staff ambled onto the court, alongside the trophy they earned. Tom Herman gave another speech, which I legitimately couldn’t hear because of the emphatic cheering from the crowd. I did see him gesture toward the student section, which I assumed was a nod to their robust presence at football games. At this point, everyone was on their feet, in praise of Herman and what he achieved in his first year as head coach of the football program.
The second half of the game was full of many ups and downs. Robinson did return, which eased my nerves. But the Cougars fell to an 11-point deficit. But a 21-4 run, followed, and in the closing minutes, Houston led. SMU, however, clawed their way back. A Nic Moore three got the Mustangs within two points with 18 seconds left. A Wes VanBeck free throw and a subsequent missed shot from Jordan Tolbert, though, was good enough to secure the Cougar victory, 71-68.
There’s nothing quite like winning. Even from the stands, as a fan, this feeling is electric. I was standing for most of the game, and every time Houston made a good shot, got a block, or dunked, a surge of endorphins would permeate through my brain. Not many other pursuits can evoke this kind of feeling. On the other hand, a loss feels just as bad as a win feels good. But, on this night my team didn’t lose. Not in basketball, or in any other way. The basketball team took down the #12 ranked team in the country, the highest ranked team they have beaten since 1996. And we, as a fan base, got to celebrate the best football victory in 30 years.
The entire night lifted me out of a bad mood, and maybe even a temporary rut. It probably isn’t smart to depend on sports to bring you happiness. Maybe they’re just a temporary distraction from your problems. But it’s a very enjoyable one, and more fulfilling than binging a television show. Even one as great as Friday Night Lights.