I got the chance to visit with Houston Cougars athletic director Mack Rhoades last Friday to discuss the school's new stadium plans -- I was just one of the several media members there. And while Rhoades was trying to get out his vision for the future, there was one other topic that kept dominating the discussion: conference realignment.
The rumors at that time were that Texas was on its way West and that the Aggies were heading to the SEC. Boise State had just joined the Mountain West, and it looked like the Big 12 was about to go out of business. So the new stadium was discussed. The chances of the Cougars going to a new conference were discussed. And the role that a new stadium could play in a possible Cougar move was discussed.
But Rhoades made thing one clear. The facilities wouldn't matter; the success of the teams wouldn't matter. Nothing would matter if the fans didn't show up, especially the students.
"Come to games," Rhoades said when asked what the students could do. "I think the student body is such a huge part of any type of college environment, particularly football and basketball. For them to be there, I think they set the tone for a game environment. I want our students at games, whether we're playing in a new venue, or Robertson. They just have a huge impact. I want our students to know that they are critical to our success as an athletics program. They're part of that equation."
Student involvement has long been a big problem with UH athletics. When I was a student, back in the ancient `80s, lots of my fellow students didn't want to go out to the Dome to watch football. And since Clyde and Hakeem were gone and Guy V. Lewis was retired, none of them really cared about going to Hofheinz.
Part of the reasoning for the move of football back to Robertson was to get the students involved and to make it easier for them to attend games. But for the most part, this hasn't really helped, and attendance has been disappointing. Yes, it's getting better, but trust me when I tell you that people at UH were disappointed with their lack of sellouts for a top-25 ranked team last season. And if you've ever been in a packed Hofheinz Pavilion, you know that the din from the crowd rivals that annoying buzzing sound of those World Cup horns.
James Dickey, the new men's basketball coach, has remarked on several occasions that a packed Hofheinz is a difficult place for a visiting team to play, something he repeated last week.
"It's got a lot of tradition, certainly it's got a lot of history there, and it's a very difficult to place," he said. "When I was at Arkansas and at Tech, I thought we had a very difficult time winning here."
But it's been a long time since Hofheinz has been a difficult place to play. So Rhoades and Dickey are planning to continue playing in Conference USA for the time being, and they were planning such before Texas decided to stay the big fish in the small pond of the Big 12.
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I'm not convinced that realignment is done. Maybe for this year, but it's something that is going to raise its head in the future. The Pac 10 is still probably looking to expand. The Mountain West might look to grow, especially if it's raided by the Pac 10. Maybe the Big 12 tries to get back to 12 teams. And these are all things that the Cougars are going to be following with the hopes of moving up a level to a better conference.
The Houston Chronicle's Steve Campbell had a good post earlier this week on the major obstacle facing Houston, its attendance, especially when compared to other schools primed to make the leap to another conference. This is also something I discussed last week. Until the fans show up in huge numbers for every game, no matter the opponent, and they do so consistently, then the Cougars are probably going to stay stuck in Conference USA.
But maybe, just maybe, if the students can actually start getting involved in bigger numbers, as requested by Rhoades, then things can change. If the students start packing Robertson and Hofheinz, especially Hofheinz, then maybe that buzz remembered by Dickey will return. And if that can return, if the students can bring it on a regular basis, then maybe UH can put itself in a better position than it was this time.
Rhoades is going to get done what he needs to get done to make this happen. He'll get the stadiums and the first-class facilities. But until the stadiums are packed, until that large UH student body makes its presence felt every time an opponent comes to town, then his work will end up for naught.