Today is the official first day of the Houston Cougars as members of the American Athletic Conference. And while this isn't quite the conference upgrade the Cougars were hoping for when they signed up several years ago, the former Big East is still better than Conference USA.
Making the conference leap is one step towards the Cougars entering and staying in the national sports conversation. New and upgraded facilities, which the school is also working on, are another major step -- for all of its history, for instance, Hofheinz Pavilion has turned into a dump desperately in need of a facelift. And while I question some of the moves the athletic department has made with the programs in terms of coaches, etc, the argument can still be made that the school has seen a major upgrade since the end of the 1990s.
But if the Cougars are ever going to make that move back into a permanent place in major sports consciousness, the fans are going to have to start turning out for the games. Hofheinz needs to be packed for every men's basketball game, no matter the opponent. And it should be packed for all football games, whether UH is playing Memphis or the Cougars are playing Southern.
I'm a Houston native. I can still remember the struggle it was for UH to gain admittance into the Southwest Conference even though I was just a kid at the time. I've lived with the Cougar High wisecracks and the snide comments about how bowl games don't want the Cougars because the fans make day trips and shop at 7-11. I delight with every defeat of the Longhorns, and suffer the same agony every year when CBS replays the end of the North Carolina State game.
But I was amazed, as a student in the mid- to late 80s, how Hofheinz was never at capacity. And how the Dome was only packed when the Coogs were playing UT or A&M or Arkansas, and only then because the visiting fans had snapped up half the tickets.
At one time the argument was that attendance would improve when the Cougars moved all of their games to Robertson. Then it was that attendance would improve when the football team was better. And then the excuse was the caliber of competition and the lousy conference. And basketball fans didn't like the so-called watered-down level of teams UH faced in Conference USA. And then they said it was a dislike of Tom Penders and that they would return when a new coach was hired, only they didn't return, and they're now complaining about James Dickey.
At some point, UH fans, the excuses have to stop. Football attendance has improved because the football team has improved. But when the team started slumping last season, attendance began to dip. Now some fans are complaining about playing games in Reliant while others are complaining about playing a game at BBVA Compass. And I'm sure that there will be new complaints once the Robertson resurrection is completed.
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The Cougars won't be playing Boise State. They're still stuck playing teams like SMU and Memphis. But that's the conference schedule. And despite what happened last season, there's no excuse for the games this season to not be packed because that's what a good fanbase does, it sells out the stadium no matter the opponent instead of threatening to stay home because they don't like the Reliant Stadium tailgating rules.
UH will be facing some major basketball squads this season. They'll have to deal with Memphis and Louisville and Cincinnati. So what will the excuse for non-attendance be this season? Will it be dislike of James Dickey? Will it be the departure of Joseph Young? Is it because Hofheinz is in bad shape and you don't like driving to campus during the middle of the week? There will be an excuse because there's always an excuse to not show up, that's just the UH way. It was the UH way before I was a student, when I was a student, and even now that I'm no longer a student and just a hack who writes about sports.
Am I a bit harsh? Maybe. But I'm tired of sitting on the back table of the press seating but still being able to hear James Dickey giving instructions to his players because Hofheinz is nearly empty. I'm tired of a fanbase that wears its Cougar red and packs the football stadium when the team wins, then finds better things to do when the team's experiencing a bit of a slump.
So here's the deal, UH fans. Do you really want to become part of the national consciousness? Are you still dreaming about that never-going-to-happen move to the Big XII? Then start showing up for every football and basketball game. Make sure the place is sold out every week. Make opponents fear coming to Houston because of the loud fans. Oh, and Todd Whitting is putting together a damn good baseball team, so show up for some of those games every now and then -- and no, attending that one game against UT last March doesn't count.