A long time ago, in a football universe far, far away, the Houston Cougars were a dominant offensive force. Their run-and-shoot offense was putting up huge numbers on college teams nationwide. The team was regularly ranked in the Top 20, and though they had been on a probation that prevented national TV exposure and trips to bowl games, they had managed to produce a Heisman trophy quarterback while also being mentioned in national title discussions.
The time was 1991. John Jenkins was the coach and David Klingler was the returning quarterback. Klingler was the cover boy of Sports Illustrated's college football preview issue. The team came into the season ranked 12. They had finished the previous season at 10-1, the probation and sanctions were gone, and the Cougars were going to rule the Southwest Conference, compete for the national title, rack up major award after major award, and they were going to win a major bowl game.
Then came a disastrous TV appearance. A game in Miami on a Thursday night on ESPN playing the Miami Hurricanes, one of the dominant teams of college football. Instead of proving that they belonged in the national discussion, the Cougars had their ass kicked as Miami won the game 40-10.
The Cougars never recovered, finishing a season that began with high hopes at 4-7. The highlight, if it could be called that, was defeating a non-ranked Texas squad in the Astrodome. he team also finished 4-7 in 1992, and the John Jenkins era was over.
The Cougars spent the next decade and a half wondering about the desert. One-win season followed one-win season. The Southwest Conference dissolved, and the big boys abandoned the Coogs to the irrelevancy of Conference USA, a new conference best known as a collection of superior basketball programs (Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, DePaul) than it was for football. And still the Cougars struggled.
They reached a bowl game in 1996, and finished 7-4 in 1999. But those were the highlights. Then came the zero-win season of 2001 and continued C-USA mediocrity. Art Briles arrived in 2003 and slowly starting bringing the Cougars back up to speed. In his four seasons, the team went to three bowl games and once won the conference title. The Coogs won the Armed Forces Bowl in Kevin Sumlin's first year as head coach, and finished 2009 with a 10-4 record while spending a majority of the year in the national rankings, getting as high as number 12.
The school was back. Led by Sumlin and possible Heisman candidate quarterback Case Keenum, the Cougars were once more in the national conversation. Keenum spent the summer appearing on ESPN TV and radio. While they weren't seen as a national title contender, they were seen as a favorite to win the conference, to get double-digit wins, and to get to a bowl game.
Then came a disastrous TV appearance. The nationally ranked Cougars were playing the winless UCLA Bruins on the Fox Sports Net cable channels across the country. And the Cougars found themselves embarrassed, losing 31-13. But that wasn't the worst. The Cougars lost Keenum and his backup, Cotton Turner, for the season. And their future was placed in the hands of two freshmen QB, Terrance Broadway and David Piland, two players that Sumlin had intended to redshirt for the season.
The team's next game is Saturday afternoon when they host conference foe Tulane. The indications are that the 2010 Cougars aren't going to go the way of the 1991 Cougars, a team that folded when met with adversity.
Those 1991 Cougars were pretty much of a one-dimensional pass team. The 2010 Cougars have already proven that they can run the football, and while Keenum was the key to many of the team's wins in 2009, this year's Cougars think they can find a way to win games and reach their goal, a Conference USA championship, without him.
"We're going to be fine," running back Bryce Beall said yesterday. "Great players have to elevate their game to another level. I think we're [the running backs] taking this personal, to do what we can to make it easier for our quarterbacks, and make their job a lot easier."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Keenum was not only the team's quarterback, he was their leader. Beall says the older players are going to have to take over that role, and, he's confident that if he and the others make it easier for Broadway and Piland, then things will be fine.
"I'm confident in them," Beall said of the freshmen. "We've just got to make their job a lot easier. Case made our jobs a lot easier, now it's our time to make their jobs a lot easier. We've just got to go out there and be playmakers."
The season has gotten tougher for the Cougars without a doubt. Case Keenum was, is, one of the special talents that don't come around often. But the Cougars have more depth now. They have more playmakers. And if they all go out and execute and do their jobs like the jobs are supposed to be done, then the Cougars will be fine.
There may be a few growing pains for Terrance Broadway and David Piland, but Beall and his fellow Cougars are going to do everything possible to prevent a return to the awfulness that so defined the Cougar football for most of the 1990s and early 2000s.