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UH Football Players and Their New Stadium Are All Dressed Up but May Have Nowhere to Go

A top-drawer stadium worthy of a Tier I team and its devoted fans.
A top-drawer stadium worthy of a Tier I team and its devoted fans.
Courtesy of the University of Houston

"Always in motion is the future."--Yoda

Since the summer of 2010, when collegiate athletics' massive wave of conference realignment began, the goal for most of the FBS schools sitting on the margins of college football, outside of the stated "power conferences," has been survival.

Survival and access, really. Access to college football's major bowls, access in recruiting top high school talent, access to the millions in television revenue the networks can't spend fast enough.

For middling schools like the University of Houston, navigating the ever-shifting landscape and trying to gain that access has been like walking a tight rope.

In snowshoes.

The Coogs' safari through the realignment jungle started in December 2011, when they accepted a bid to upgrade their conference affiliation, leave Conference USA and join the Big East Conference (which sounds geographically illogical until you consider that Boise State and San Diego State briefly agreed to join the Big East in that same wave of membership expansion).

At the time of Houston's Big East invitation, the conference still had an automatic bid to a lucrative BCS bowl and was thought to be on the cusp of a major television deal. The revenue outlook was rosy, and UH itself was coming off its best season in two decades (a Case Keenum-led 13-1 campaign).

Life was glorious, so the timing was perfect to finally tear down Robertson Stadium and raise the money to build a new football home, a home worthy of the BCS conference team the Coogs would soon be.

And so it was that in a February 2012 vote, which UH Athletics Director Mack Rhoades called a "statement moment," students overwhelmingly approved additional fees that would help the school pay for the new stadium. Regents approved an $85 million finance package, and the project was on.

Destruction of Robertson would begin after the 2012 season, in December that year. Oddly enough, the unforeseen destruction of the Big East, UH's new home and life raft, would begin about that same time.

On December 15, 2012, several Big East basketball-only schools broke off to form their own conference, which was essentially the death blow to the Big East as it had been constituted since adding football in the early '90s. By the time the fallout was complete, Houston would be playing in some newly morphed subset of the old Big East called the American Athletic Conference.

With no organic rivalries and a geographic footprint that would choke most travel budgets, the AAC was every bit the hot mess that it sounds like.

Even worse, by 2014 this hodgepodge conference would no longer have automatic BCS bowl access, mainly because in June 2012, college football power brokers had voted to replace the BCS with a four-team college football playoff in 2014, a playoff to which the AAC would have virtually no access.

In short, the tectonic plates of collegiate athletics had essentially shifted the AAC and, in turn, the Cougars back into a slightly more competitive version of the conference purgatory they were in as a member of C-USA.

The one saving grace? The new stadium, approved months before the Big East earthquake, was still coming.

Thankfully, for UH fans, nothing could stop that.

And now, nearly two years later, it's here.

On August 29, the school will unveil TDECU Stadium, its new $120 million on-campus football home, in a nationally televised game against the University of Texas-San Antonio. For longtime Cougars fans who had become accustomed to antiquated Robertson Stadium, the TDECU experience will feel like an upgrade from a Motel 6 to the Marriott Marquis, with ample seating room, beautiful downtown skyline views and a nearly 3,000‑square‑foot video board.

Also, equally important, TDECU Stadium itself will generate significantly more revenue than its dilapidated predecessor, with donations tied to specific seating locations, suite sales and premium seats expected to conservatively drive revenue up by 30 percent or more. The 26 premium suites as well as the four open-air party decks are sold out for the season.

 

The naming rights deal sold to TDECU is a record setter for a college football stadium, putting $15 million in school coffers over the next ten years.

"We're excited about a number of things about this partnership and relationship we're going to build with TDECU," said Head Coach Tony Levine. "It's been fun for me as a head football coach to have the privilege of driving by the new stadium twice daily and see the progress that's been made in the course of the last year."

Above all else, the stadium allows UH to keep up in college football's stadium arms race. In an era where the flat-screens in the players' lounge are far more important to many high school kids than the quality of, say, the business school, things like the 5,000-square-foot locker room in TDECU should play well on the recruiting trail.

"It's been huge," said Levine. "We've been talking about [the stadium] for the last couple of years and the last couple of recruiting classes about having the ability to move in and be the first to move into this new home on campus."

There's no question that the experience of watching a UH football game will be more comfortable, more enjoyable. August 29 will be a "feel-good" moment.

The question becomes, over time, whether the $120 million was money well spent. Again, keep in mind, when the funds for this stadium were approved, the conference the Cougars were joining was thought to have much better access to college football's lucrative postseason.

That's no longer the case.

The UH football media guide paints what sounds like a rosy major bowl access picture:

"American Athletic Conference teams will have access to the pinnacle of college football's postseason structure. An American representative would be chosen for the College Football Playoff semifinals if it is among the top four teams following the regular season. Otherwise, the league would place its champion in either the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl if it is ranked higher than the champions of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference and the Sun Belt Conference."

Translation: The American Athletic Conference, simply put, has almost no access to the four-team playoff and crowded access to one major bowl berth.

Now, instead of merely competing with the other ten schools in its conference for a major bowl bid (as they would've done in the old Big East), UH is competing with those ten other AAC schools and the champions of four other "non power" conferences.

For what it's worth, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco bristles at the thought his conference is somehow inferior to the "Power Five" conferences (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac‑12 and Big 12).

"Make no mistake, we'll remain an integral part of the FBS college football fabric," Aresco contends. "We do not accept the notion that we're not a power conference, or this 'have-not' tag that some people use. We have resources and enormous potential."

To be fair, in support of Aresco's point, the 2013 AAC champion Central Florida did beat Big 12 champion Baylor in last season's Fiesta Bowl. That said, the 2014 season will open with exactly zero AAC teams in the coaches' Top 25 poll.

So did UH's donors and students pay for a new stadium to watch a souped-up version of Conference USA football?

The newness of TDECU stadium will be enough to carry the day attendance-wise early on, but over time, will competing for an AAC title with virtually no shot at college football's playoff be enough to sustain crowds worthy of a $120 million home?

"We broke ground on the new stadium in 2013, and we were able to do that because we had some very generous people step up and help us build a new stadium," said Rhoades.

Indeed, but major donors typically like to know that, at the very least, their millions are leading to some tangible end game that will allow them to puff their chests out.

With 40,000 seats currently and modularity that could expand the stadium to 60,000 seats someday, who knows? Maybe TDECU Stadium positions the UH for a conference upgrade in the next wave of realignment. What if the Big 12 were ever to want to expand beyond its current ten teams?

Stranger things have happened.

For now, we will focus on 2014, and 40,000 Houston fans on August 29 screaming "Whose house?" We all know the definitive answer is "Coogs' house!"

The question to which nobody knows the answer is "What will the football neighborhood around the Coogs' house look like a few years from now?"

Always in motion is the future.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/-
Sean-Cablinasian or email him at sean.-pendergast@cbsradio.com.


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