Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson with his grandson, Kylen, celebrate cutting down the nets in honor of winning the 2022-23 American Athletic Conference regular season title. (Courtesy Anh Le)
The University of Houston said goodbye to the American Conference with Sunday’s 75-65 loss to Memphis in the basketball tournament championship game. (Yes, there are other spring sports still to finish, but football and basketball rule the roost). It has been an amicable divorce and one that UH needed to do to get into the Big 12.
But even with the excitement of the new conference, let’s not lose sight of what the AAC meant to Houston athletics.
UH was left out of the original Big 12 when the Southwest Conference folded. It could have been a death blow. The Cougars became mired in mediocrity and even worse at times in football and basketball. Conference USA, their new home, was a minor league. From 1991 to 2002, the football team played in one bowl game. In 2001 under Dana Dimel, they went 0-11. They played in essentially a high school stadium.
Basketball was not much better. The Cougars made the tournament under Pat Foster in 1991-92. They would not make it again until an unexpected conference tournament win under Tom Penders in 2009-10. These were programs that had thrived in the 1970s and early 80s, with basketball making Final Fours and football winning New Year’s Day games.
It was the darkest times in UH Athletics. And it got worse when they were invited to the Big East and had a seat at the big boy table – for a matter of days. The premier programs left, and what remained became the American Conference in 2013. It was not Power Five. But it was a step above C-USA.
And that is when things started to turn around. Football had already become good again under Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin, making bowl games in seven of nine years and winning a conference championship under Briles. Basketball still floundered until Kelvin Sampson arrived in 2014. He went 13-19 in his first season. He has not failed to win at least 21 games since, with two early NITs, and now four consecutive NCAA appearances (it would have been five if not for the COVID cancellation in 2020). An Elite 8. A Final Four. A No. 1 ranking most of this year.
Football has made bowl games in nine of 10 seasons since 2013, winning the conference and a New Year’s Six in 2015, all since joining the American Conference.
More importantly, UH got new facilities. A brand new football stadium at TDECU. A total revamp of the now Fertitta Center for basketball, which might be the best sports experience in the city.
UH helped raise the American Conference. But the conference was great for UH, too. Oh, the leadership under Renu Khator, Tilman Fertitta, and now Chris Pezman at AD had the most to do with it. They were all-in to improve UH’s status, and what they have done deserves the highest praise.
But as Cougar basketball says goodbye to the American, let’s keep in mind how the conference helped UH, too. Programs like Cincinnati and UCF (also headed to the Big 12) helped raise the bar. Memphis and SMU had moments. Better TV deals than C-USA got more eyes on the Cougars and helped recruiting. That, plus the new facilities, took the teams to levels not seen since the 1980s.
And as the Cougars said goodbye on Sunday, so many great things are ahead. The NCAA Tournament with a possible Final Four in Houston. A bigger stage with the Big 12. It’s all exciting, and the future looks amazing.
But let’s celebrate how they got here, and how the UH-AAC relationship had a lot to do with it.