Is This The Dawning of A Cougars Renaissance? Don't Be Too Sure

The Houston Chronicle's Sam Khan, Jr. had a good story on Houston Cougars athletics yesterday. It's called a story of a renaissance, and it looks back at the last 10 months of the program. It's told through the eyes of the football program, going through the incredible season the Coogs had as they marched into national relevance.

While I cover the Cougars for the Press, I've also made no secret that I'm a UH alum, and I want nothing more than to see the rebirth of Cougar athletics. The Coogs were in the Southwest Conference when I was a student, but I missed out on their glory days in the conference. They made their last Cotton Bowl my freshman year. Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler had already left and Phi Slama Jama was no more.

But unlike Sam, I'm not yet convinced that the Cougars are experiencing a renaissance. Things have definitely improved over the past five or six years. Athletic Director Mack Rhoades has brought a new attitude to the program, aided in part by UH President Renu Khator. It's not enough to just be competitive anymore. The programs are supposed to win. And they're supposed to win while keeping up grades and not bringing shame to the school.

They've gotten the school out of Conference USA and following this upcoming sports season, the school will be moving to the Big East Conference. The TV markets will be bigger, especially for basketball with the huge New York City market. But like C-USA, the Big East is a conference in transition and it, too, is bleeding schools that are looking for stability, more money, and better chances of playing for the mythical national football championship.

But what will be the condition of the Coogs when they officially start play in the Big East? They'll be playing games at Reliant Stadium while Robertson Stadium is rebuilt, but what about the football team? Kevin Sumlin is gone. Case Keenum is gone. Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier are gone. Will new coach Tony Levine be able to keep the program nationally relevant while rebuilding it? How much rebuilding exactly will be needed?

The football program's not the biggest concern though. The men's basketball program is still in turmoil, and it's basketball that runs the Big East. James Dickey's squad looked to take a step back last season, Dickey's second year at the school, and though the team showed flashes, are flashes enough? The program's got a fantastic recruiting class coming onboard, but the man mainly responsible for the recruiting, assistant coach Ulric Maligi, has left to join Larry Brown's staff at SMU.

It's also hard to see a renaissance with the baseball program. The program fell completely apart in the final years under Rayner Noble, and Todd Whitting has a lot of work to do to bring the program to prominence, and though the baseball team has never received the attention of the UH football and basketball teams, the baseball program does have a history of excellence that has produced many MLB players.

The baseball team got off to a good start this season, then the wheels just seemed to fall off. There were injuries that had multiple players playing out of position, and one just never knew what the night's starting pitcher was going to do, or what the relievers were going to do, and when a college baseball team can't depend on its pitching, it's going to have problems.

But Whitting is like many of the hires made by Rhoades since he took over. Whitting went to Houston, he played for the Cougars, and he was an assistant for Noble before taking an assistant coaching job at TCU. He doesn't look at this job as a stepping-stone. This is a job he wants at a place he wants to be at. Tony Levine talks like that with the football program. That's the attitude Todd Buchanan has with women's basketball. And James Dickey is very aware of the school's basketball history and he speaks of a desire of packing Hofheinz Pavilion nightly to watch the best basketball in the country.

Unlike my friend and colleague Sam Khan, I don't think this is yet the renaissance of Houston Cougar athletics. The roadmap is there. You can see where things are headed, and you can practically touch the potential. But it's not yet known how big a rebuilding project the football team will be. The basketball team's currently a mess, though the potential is there if this recruiting class is as good as promised -- and to compete in the Big East, it better be.

So the renaissance of Cougar athletics might be close, but it's not here, not yet. And let's not proclaim it as so until it's sure that that light at the end of the tunnel is actually the exit and not an onrushing train.

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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal