The Houston Cougars hosted the UTSA Roadrunners on August 29, 2014. It was a hot, muggy night, but the air was electric with anticipation. The Cougars, fresh off an eight win 2013 season, were double-digit favorites, and fans flocked to brand new TDECU Stadium to soak in the atmosphere of a state-of-the-art stadium housing a state-of-the-art football team before a national TV audience.
But things quickly went downhill. There were fans who missed the kickoff because of parking and traffic issues. The stadium was mostly, but not fully completed, and many fans were just then discovering there were no restrooms on the upper levels. Then there was the football team, which lost 27-7 to start what could only best be described as a disappointing season.
Word leaked late Sunday night (and was confirmed yesterday) that UH athletic director Mack Rhoades was leaving the program for the same job with Missouri, a promotion seeing as how Missouri belongs to the SEC, perhaps the most powerful conference in college sports. And if there's any one thing that got Rhoades this job at Missouri, it's got to be the existence of TDECU Stadium.
The Mack Rhoades era at UH lasted five years. But his tenure leaves an open book that will not allow his work to be judged for several more years. He inherited a football team teetering on the edge of national relevance, a basketball team barely hanging onto relevance, two deteriorating stadiums, and a second-tier conference affiliation mainly consisting of teams with no historical ties to Houston or to Texas.
As Rhoades departs, UH is still very much a work in progress. A football stadium has been built, but Hofheinz is barely holding together. The football team survived a disastrous coaching hire, but still teeters on the brink of national relevance while the basketball team was nearly killed by a disastrous coaching hire. And the school's still affiliated with a second-tier conference with almost no historical ties to UH or to Texas.
Rhoades deserves as much credit as possible for getting TDECU built. He worked tirelessly to get the needed funds, discovering along the way that UH alums talk big games, but often fail to back the talk up with checks made payable to the athletic department (it took the UH students agreeing to add on to their already onerous student fees to help get the thing built). But for all of the good done on the stadium, Rhoades blew it with the hiring of Tony Levine to replace Kevin Sumlin when Sumlin split for Texas A&M.
Levine, the team's former special teams coach, was a very nice guy who cared deeply for his players and was loyal to a fault. But he was not a good head coach, going 21-17 in three years. His teams often appeared to be outclassed when facing better teams, and often struggled against teams in lower weight classes. Yet for his failures, Levine was a better hire than James Dickey, the man who was hired to replace Tom Penders soon after Penders resigned after leading UH back to the NCAA Tournament in 2010 for the first time since 1992.
While the momentum of the Sumlin-era football team was stalled by Levine, whatever momentum was generated by Penders was jettisoned by Dickey. The squad was hit by player defections, dispirited play, and struggles against both vastly inferior competition and superior competition. Yet it could have been worse for basketball. The rumors are that Rhoades wanted to hire Billy Gillispie but that his choice was vetoed. Gillispie who had been fired after only two years as head coach of the college basketball factory known as Kentucky, instead ended up at Texas Tech after the UH job fell through, and he flamed out in spectacular style, being hit by allegations of abusing and mistreating his players.
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Rhoades appears to have righted the football and basketball ships by hiring the highly sought-after Tom Herman to coach football and by bringing on Kelvin Sampson, a former Rockets assistant coach who was highly successful as the head coach at Oklahoma and Indiana, to rescue the basketball team. But as Rhoades departs, it's still soon to say for sure that the two sports (the most important in the NCAA sports hierarchy) will recover from the disaster that was inflicted on them by the men Rhoades initially hired to be head coach.
And while Rhoades got TDECU Stadium built, Hofheinz Pavilion has continued to deteriorate. There's still no plan to replace or renovate the arena, and there's supposedly not much money available for use on the replacing/renovating. The place is a dump, and even if the team was good, it's difficult to imagine any but the most hard core fans wanting to come out to the games.
There wasn't really much that could be done about conference realignment. Houston was never in a position to be a major player, and as in the 90s when it found itself in the strange sounding Conference USA, it found itself in the American Athletic Conference, which in reality is really nothing more than Conference USA version 2.0. So while Rhoades might have wanted UH to move up to a power conference, he was really powerless to do anything when the best he had to offer were sports teams that rarely come close to packing their stadiums, an apathetic fan base, and a home market that already delivers big ratings to other conferences.
It'll probably be a few more years until the full legacy of Mack Rhoades at UH can be evaluated. If Tom Herman turns UH into a Texas version of Ohio State, and if Kelvin Sampson can rebuild basketball, then the Rhoades era will be an unqualified success. Baseball and the smaller sports are in really good shape, there has been tremendous academic growth from the athletes, and then there's TDECU Stadium. So at least things are looking up for the Houston Cougars.