1976 was the year that the University of Houston joined the Southwest Conference as a full member. The Cougars had just finished a stint as a Division I independent that lasted 15 years. Thanks largely to legendary U of H coach Bill Yeoman’s success, the Cougars were extended an invite to join Texas’ premier conference. As the last full member to join the SWC, the Cougars were often looked down upon by other member schools and few, if any, expected Houston to succeed in their inaugural season of SWC play.
In fact, just the season before, Houston had limped to a miserable 2-8 finish. The 1975 Cougars fell to future SWC opponents Rice (7-24) and SMU (16-27) in back-to-back weeks. Those two losses would start an eight game losing streak that would see Houston fall to the likes of UNT (0-28) while battling in tight contests against other schools, such as, Miami (20-24) and Virginia Tech (28-34). Regardless, at the end of the season the Cougar record was still 2-8 with the lone victories coming against Lamar and Tulsa. Expectations were low entering the dreaded SWC.
Fortunate for Houston, they would open 1976 and SWC play against Baylor. While the Bears had claimed the SWC crown in 1974, their 1975 campaign had been nearly as bad as the Cougars. The ’75 Bears finished 3-6-2 with highlights coming in the form of a tie against top-10 Michigan in Ann Arbor and a Homecoming victory over TCU.
So on September 11, 1976, the Bears and the Cougars met at Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco, Texas. Both schools were now equals, as members of the SWC. However, many outside spectators believed this contest would be a battle for the bottom of the SWC. To say things started poorly for the Cougars would be putting it mildly. Houston had as inauspicious a start to SWC play as you could possibly imagine.
Early in the game, the Cougars faced a fourth down and, in expected fashion, Yeoman called on his punt team to send the ball back to the Bears. While the punter waited for the snap, Chuck Brown, the Cougars deep snapper in his first year of varsity play, launched the ball too high and too far. It rolled out of the back of the end zone for a safety and the Cougars were down 0-2. Incidentally, Brown was the brother of Billy Ray Brown, the NCAA men’s golf champion in 1982. While things started poorly for Chuck, they would quickly turn around. Chuck Brown would finish the 1977 season as the SWC’s lineman of the year before being named All-SWC in 1978. Fortunately for Brown and Houston, the Cougar’s 1976 fate would mirror Brown’s career. (Another interesting side-note, Baylor’s current head coach Art Briles was on the ’76 U of H team).
Down 0-2, Houston stormed back and ultimately defeated the Bears 23-5. The Cougars had turned an awful start into a great beginning. After one game, the Cougars were tied for first place in their new conference home. However, after week two people immediately went back to assuming the worst about Houston’s SWC fate when the Cougars were humiliated by the Florida Gators 14-49. Yeoman and Houston responded quickly, playing #9 Texas A&M in Rice Stadium, the Cougars pulled off their second straight SWC victory winning 21-10.
Through their next five games, Houston went 4-1 with the lone loss coming to #15 Arkansas by a score of 7-14. The highlight of the stretch was the Cougars shutting out #20 UT 30-0 in Austin. Now with a record of 6-2 (5-1 in SWC play), the #9 Cougars headed to Lubbock to play the #5 Red Raiders in what SWC personality Dirk West called the most important game in Texas Tech history.
The game turned out to be a good one. Down 19-27 in the fourth quarter, the Red Raiders began a drive to score a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie the game. Tech quickly marched down to put themselves in scoring position when the Houston defense dug in. The Cougars ultimately intercepted a pass to preserve the 27-19 victory.
Houston used the momentum, winning their last two games beating Rice 42-20 and Miami 21-16. Now ranked #6 in the nation, the Cougars were invited to the 1977 Cotton Bowl as the Southwest Conference Champions to face #4 Maryland. The 1976 SWC title was Houston’s first conference title since they won the Missouri Valley Conference in 1959. Conversely, Maryland at 11-0 was making their fourth straight bowl appearance after having won their third consecutive ACC title. For both teams, it was their first appearance in the Cotton Bowl.
The Cougars wasted no time in setting the tone. With a 21-0 lead at the end of the first, Houston took a 27-7 lead into the locker room at halftime. If it weren’t for three lost fumbles by the Cougars, the game would likely never have been close. However, the Terrapins would in fact claw back into the game before ultimately falling to Houston 30-21. The Cougars outgained the Terrapins in total yards 428-299, but really did their damage on the ground, out-rushing Maryland 320-120.
So after an inauspicious beginning, the 1976 season became one of Houston’s greatest ever and, perhaps more importantly, became a sign of things to come. In the next eight years, the Cougars would win three more SWC titles, make three more Cotton Bowl appearances and earn five total bowl invites.
This article was written and researched by Ryan Sprayberry, Collections and Exhibits Manager at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame