This has got to be a strange season that's coming up for Houston Cougar Athletic Director Mack Rhoades. His first year was spent settling into the city and the school as the football team went on an amazing ride. Last year saw the school introducing numerous new head coaches, including both basketball teams and the baseball team, while the football team, seen as possibly being a BCS-buster, suffered through the wild ride of an injury-plagued season.
Rhoades was also out trying to raise massive funds for an extensive modernization of Robertson Stadium and the renovation of Hofheinz Pavilion. And as the college sporting year came to an end, Rhoades and the UH athletic department had to deal with the sudden and tragic death of UH swim coach Mark Taylor.
This year, with football just under three weeks from kickoff, things at UH appear to be a bit calmer for Rhoades and the school. Case Keenum is back to lead the football team. James Dickey and Todd Buchanan are back for their second years as the head coaches of the men's and women's basketball teams. The school is ahead of last year's numbers on season ticket sales, and Rhoades is quickly closing in on the monetary number he needs to start work on Robertson Stadium.
(And from seemingly out of nowhere, realignment talk has started up again and the Coogs are being mentioned as a possible candidate to replace the Aggies in the Big 12 -- but that's for a different story, at another time.)
Thus things for Rhoades, and the Cougars, are good. And good is always a good thing.
"I really like where they're headed," Rhoades says of the UH athletic programs. "This past year, 14 of our 16 sports programs got better. That's tremendous for us. Our expectations...everybody talks about football, men's basketball. And our goals for those two sports are to be nationally competitive, each and every year. Not once every three years. Not once every two years, but every year. But we expect the same of the other 14 sports programs. And I think they're headed in that direction."
As with most college sports, things revolve around the football program. After a down season, the Cougars are looking to rebound and grab the conference title and make a bowl. And with the return of Keenum, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after suffering an injured ACL against UCLA last year, that rebound is highly likely. But it's a rebound that would not be possible without the work of the school's compliance department, who found the documents and leaped through every NCAA hoop to get Keenum that eligibility.
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"Our compliance people haven't received enough credit," Rhoades said. "They worked their tails off, and I think they did just a tremendous job communicating back and forth with the NCAA. The NCAA was extremely receptive. They were great to work with. But our compliance people really did their due diligence and made sure that they had gathered all of the facts."
As for the fundraising, Rhoades says the school has raised $51 million since last September and is quickly approaching the $85 million figure that he would like to see before starting work on Robertson. But the area that Rhoades feels has improved the most about the department is not the ability to raise funds for the stadium -- though very impressive in this economy -- but the ability to get out there and sell tickets and put people in the stands. Something that's been a historical problem for the school.
"When I first got here, it really felt like we were an inbound company, that we just waited for people to call us," he said. "I think we've changed that. Are we perfect? No, we need to continue to do a better job, but we're out asking people to be involved. We're out trying to sell tickets. And the fact that people have been pretty receptive is terrific. Last year, even though the season wasn't what we wanted, to still sell out five of six home games, I thought that said a lot in terms of the Houston community and people getting behind our program. We need to do this again this year."
The Cougar athletic department appeared to be dead at the end of the last century. It's been a slow climb back toward respectability, and it's a climb that's not finished. Rhoades's predecessor, Dave Maggard, deserves a lot of credit for keeping UH athletics afloat, but it's all Mack Rhoades and his vision running the program now. And the vision of that future looks very bright.