by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

As the "American" (or officially the American Athletic Conference) sets for its debut this fall, the league is hardly without any gridiron history. Indeed, many of the members of the new alliance, mostly cobbled together from the old Big East and defectiors from Conference USA, have some real football tradition.

And, at least in terms of color, few in the nation can match the history of the University of Houston, considered one of the potential flagship programs of the newly-christened American. That colorful past holds especially true of the Cougars' glory era of the '60, '70s, and even into the '80s under legendary HC Bill Yeoman.

Houston has provided so many highlights for us at TGS over the years, and was involved in so many interesting developments, that we have decided to provide an overview of the best of the Yeoman era instead of picking just one storyline. And as recollections confirm, there is no shortage of historical subject matter related to the Cougars, who served as something of a lightning rod for college football during the Yeoman years.

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Certainly, no one can ever accuse Houston of being dull!

For a program that his mostly existed outside of the college football mainstream, the Cougars have been involved in some pretty interesting and landmark events. Including an important role in helping to break the color line in the Southwest and hosting the first football game to be played on artifical turf, when beating Washington State, 21-7, in the 1966 opener at the Houston Astrodome. The previous fall in 1965, the Cougs would play on dying indoor grass when becoming the Dome's first football tenant, preceding the AFL Houston Oilers, whose owner, Bud Adams, couldn't agree to a lease in the mid '60s and didn't take up occupancy in the Dome until 1968, playing instead at Rice Stadium from 1965-67.

The introduction of "Astro Turf" was also a lot more significant football milestone than many might realize. The Monsanto Company, creator of Astro Turf, was so excited about its invention that it took out a two-page ad to promote it in the game program of the first Super Bowl, played the following January between the Packers and Chiefs, with special emphasis on the landmark UH-Wazzu game.

Moreover, Houston continues to feature one of the nation's most-menacing real-live mascots, a cougar named Shasta VI. It seems as if almost everywhere we look in this program's history, we can find something interesting.

Especially on the field!

Throughout the decades, UH has also presented a series of football squads as colorful as the school’s scarlet uniforms. Among those would be the 1989 team that featured Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware, though he is hardly the only highlight-reel performer in the history of this landmark program.

In addition, modern TD celebrations were also spawned by long-ago Cougar WR Elmo Wright, an All-American in 1970 and inventor of the first end zone dance, which Wright would further popularize in the NFL as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Where else but at UH, we ask, would TD celebration dances have originated?

The flip-side of the often rogue and adventurous nature of the Cougar program includes more than one run-in with the enforcement arm of the NCAA. Which contributes further to the historical mystique of Houston football.

No mention of the Cougars on the gridiron, however, is complete without touching upon some of the fascinating tidbits about this perennially-upstart program that continues to generate headlines despite an eternal curse of being an “outsider” in the Lone Star State.

Houston had originally made a gridiron name for itself in the ‘50s and especially the ‘60s as a fast-paced Missouri Valley and then independent side that was routinely scoffed upon by the Southwest Conference elite, the University of Texas in particular. Despite the Cougars’ presence in the rapidly-growing Houston metropolis that had become quite chic in the last half of the 20th century due to its status as an energy-sector hub (meaning oil) and home of NASA’s Space Center, the old-line SWC looked down upon UH as merely another commuter school with an unattractive campus (which, in truth, it is). Besides, the conference already had representation in Houston with nearby Rice University.

But the Cougs made it hard to keep avoiding them. After performing for 14 seasons at Rice’s stadium (shown above), the move into the futuristic Astrodome upon its opening in 1965 confirmed UH as a member of the new jet-set, nouveau riche class of college football. The exciting Veer-T offenses of aforementioned HC Yeoman made it harder still to overlook the Cougs, who were posting impressive wins and eye-opening stats.

Houston was also a trailblazer in the region regarding the color line, which was adhered to steadfastly by “gentlemen’s agreements” between the SWC schools into the mid ‘60s.

Remember, the old SWC that avoided the Cougars was among the college football royalty, producing national title and Heisman Trophy winners as well as dozens of All-Americans and future pro football stars. The SWC had also commandeered media attention in the region with its premier schools, money, influential alumni and big stadiums.

The SWC, however, also remained off limits to Texas’ black citizens. A few attended games and sat in segregated sections and had their own restrooms and water fountains inside Texas Memorial Stadium, TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium, Rice Stadium, Baylor Stadium, Arkansas’ Razorback Stadium, A&M’s Kyle Field, Texas Tech’s Jones Stadium and of course the Cotton Bowl. Most blacks, however, paid little attention to the SWC, since their sons were forbidden from participating by custom and/or edict, although a handful of black undergraduate students had been allowed on some campuses by the late 1940s.

Not that Texas’ black prep athletes weren’t a potential gold mine for college recruiters. Consistently, schools from outside the region would poach top-level black high school talent, while others might attend the historical black colleges such as in-state Prairie View and Texas Southern (literally down the street from UH) or out-of-state schools such as like Grambling, Jackson State or Florida A&M. One of the first gridiron stars to bolt the region was back Oze Simmons, the “Ebony Eel” from Fort Worth, who went north to the University of Iowa in the ‘30s and became one of college football’s first black All-Americans.

Top-tier black talent continued to leave the state into the ‘60s, when stars such as Charley Taylor of Arizona State, Junior Coffey of Washington, Johnny Roland of Missouri, Mel Farr of UCLA, and Bubba Smith and Gene Washington of Michigan State, among others, went elsewhere to play their college football. But the SWC coaches, bound by their gentlemen’s agreements, still dared not to rock the status quo despite this wealth of athletic talent at their doorstep that was going untapped.

Other schools in the Lone Star State, however, stepped to the fore. Texas Western, in El Paso, began to actively recruit black athletes in the late ‘50s (by now we all know the story of the Miners’ “Glory Road” 1966 NCAA basketball champions coached by Don Haskins). In the late 1950s, a back named Abner Haynes (right) walked on at North Texas State in Denton. Coach Odus Mitchell received permission from the school’s administration to take Haynes who, although he quickly became the offensive and defensive star of the football team, was still not allowed to live on campus. He had other painful encounters with Jim Crow while playing for the Eagles, the worst being when Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Chattanooga canceled their games with NTS.

But the tide was slowly changing, with Haynes moving on to prominence in the early days of the AFL as a star with the Dallas Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. Soon, sorts such as Leford Fant of Texas Western, Sid Blanks of Texas A&I (a future Houston Oiler who became the captain of the team in his senior year), Kenneth Decker of McMurry and “Pistol” Pete Pedro of West Texas State emerged as black, non-SWC college stars in the Lone Star State. Meanwhile, Prentice Gautt became the first black varsity player at nearby Oklahoma in the late '50s. The winds of change were beginning to blow.

Culturally, however, the civil rights movement was moving at a snail’s pace in the Lone Star State. As Texas’ non-SWC colleges were integrating, so were some Texas high schools, albeit slowly. Following the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision which outlawed public school segregation, many school systems across the South were in no hurry to act upon it. The first Texas cities to do so were San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Austin, El Paso, Kerrville, Harlingen and San Angelo, all with negligible black populations.

Still, the SWC didn’t blink. At least until 1963, when the University of Texas Board of Regents overturned a rule that had prohibited blacks from playing on its various intercollegiate teams, which resulted in integration of the Longhorn track program. Basketball and football would seem to be following close behind, yet changes certainly didn't occur overnight.

But the biggest blow to end the color line in the SWC was struck not by one of its member schools, but rather Houston, which in 1964 recruited Warren McVea (left), perhaps the most ballyhooed Texas prep athlete of the 1960s. As a running back for Brackenridge High in San Antonio, McVea led his team to a state title and scored an incomprehensible 68 (!) touchdowns in his final two prep seasons.

McVea, however, was a prima donna of the highest order, and scared away many schools. Some of his off-field issues might have justified the SWC steering clear and not making him the first to break the conference’s color line.

Yet McVea shook the SWC to its core, not by signing with suitors such as Southern Cal, Missouri, or Nebraska, but rather by inking with that in-state upstart, Houston. Sports Illustrated would later joke that “McVea was rumored to have received an automobile, a wardrobe to equal a South American dictator’s, free trips home to San Antonio any time he wished to go, a telephone card, a suite of rooms at the Tidelands Hotel his freshman year and a four-year salary of $40,000.” Blatant transgressions these, and more than a bit of truth in them, which eventually helped land UH on NCAA probation.

The enlistment of McVea had more of an impact in the state and within the walls of the SWC than his eventual performance with the Cougars, which, though impressive, didn't quite live up to the high school hype. By the time McVea made his varsity debut with UH in 1965, SMU HC Hayden Fry had decided to break down the SWC’s color line barrier by inking Beaumont’s Jerry LeVias, an electric runner/receiver/returner, who would debut on the varsity in 1966, although Baylor's John Hill Westbrook would officially become the first black player in the SWC when debuting a week before LeVias in September of 1966.

There was never a dull moment with McVea, who clashed with coach Yeoman, and had various run-ins with teammates, including one well-publicized shoving match with WR Ken Hebert in the middle of a game. But no one could say McVea was a coward, demonstrating great courage as one of the first black players to enter the stadiums at Texas A&M, Miami, Tennessee, Mississippi (both in Memphis and in Oxford), Kentucky and Mississippi State. In some of those games, fans hurled racial abuse and various airborne missiles at McVea and his teammates. It was not a situation for the faint of heart.

McVea was also a central character in UH’s first true marquee win when rushing for 155 yards on just 14 carries in an early 1967 game at East Lansing in front of 75,833 fans at Spartan Stadium as the Cougs swamped Duffy Daugherty’s Michigan State, 37-7, lifting UH to the number three ranking in the next week’s polls. The result not only confirmed the arrival of UH as a force to be reckoned with but also marked the beginning of a downturn for Daugherty and the Spartans, who had not lost a regular-season game in the preceding 1965 and ‘66 seasons.

McVea would eventually move to pro football with the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs, though knee injuries curtailed his career. Not before, however, he won a Super Bowl ring with the 1969 Chiefs. The Yeoman Cougars produced several future pro players besides McVea in that late ‘60s-early ‘70s era, including RB Dickie Post (who would lead AFL rushers with the San Diego Chargers in 1969), TE Tom Beer, DE Royce Berry, LB Greg Brezina, DB Gus Hollomon, RB Paul Gipson, DB Johnny Peacock, LB Carl Cunningham, DB Mike Simpson, RB Jim Strong, WR Elmo Wright, TE Riley Odoms (a first-round draft choice of the Denver Broncos in 1972), and RB Robert Newhouse. A member of the Cougars' great, Elvin Hayes-led basketball teams of the era, Carlos Bell, was also a RB of note when he gained 691 YR for the '68 team, teaming with Gipson and Strong to form one of the nation's most-potent backfield corps. A few other notables who made marks in their post-UH football careers were future NFL coach and LB Wade Phillips, future MLB outfielder and DB Tom Paciorek, and future singer and WR Larry Gatlin of Gatlin Brothers Band fame.

Speaking of Gatlin, he was ironically a central figure in one of the landmark games in college football history, scoring a late TD on pass reception (his only career TD) in the Cougars’ 100-6 win over a flu-decimated Tulsa team at the Astrodome on the night of November 23, 1968. Bad blood had existed between coaches Glenn Dobbs of the Golden Hurricane and Yeoman, and UH scored a whopping 76 points in the second half that night, including 49 in the 4th quarter. Gipson ran for a UH record 282 yards that would stand for 34 years, as the Coug Veer piled up 763 yards and in the process set an NCAA record for total offense in a season.

Tulsa also had a linebacker on the field in that game named Phil McGraw...otherwise known as Dr. Phil.

Yeoman has always denied running up the score on Tulsa, although evidence to support his claim is hard to justify as the Cougs scored three TDs via passes (one to Gatlin) in the 4th quarter of that rout.

It's hard, however, to take Yeoman at his word in a game that through the years has invited some of the same sort of curiosity that Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point effort for the old Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks in Hershey, PA back in March of 1962, has held for sports historians.

No college team had hit triple digits since 1949, when Connecticut beat the Newport (R.I.) Naval Training School, 125-0, and Wyoming blasted Northern Colorado, 103-0. And no college team has matched the Cougars' 100 point-effiort since.

Although lopsided, the game did not appear en route to an epic blowout by halftime, when UH led "only" 24-0. And when Tulsa would score a TD early in the 3rd Q to cut the margin to 24-6, it hardly looked like a rout that was due to rewrite the record books. But for the rest of the second half, UH would run roughshod as the points kept piling higher and higher.

To this day, Yeoman sticks with the story he gave reporters the night of the game, saying he was "embarrassed" that the Cougars could win by such a lopsided margin.

Instead, he points blame at the Golden Hurricane. "I don't think the Tulsa kids played very hard," Yeoman would say in an interview with the Tulsa World a few years ago. "I think they were a better collection of athletes than that. We had all our starters on the sideline. We were running the ball, and nobody was tackling anybody. They never should have let it happen."

In Yeoman's defense he also didn't know how depleted the Hurricane really was. Several regulars were hobbled from a 28-8 loss at Air Force the previous week, and many more fell prey to a flu virus that made it almost impossible to practice leading up to the game. Even HC Glenn Dobbs, nearing the end of his eighth and final year at the Hurricane helm, fell ill on Monday before the game and missed two days of practice.

"Everyone was sick," remembers DB Ron Cambiano in another interview with the Tulsa World. "They had to quarantine us in our dorm. No one was able to practice." Some at Tulsa were even wondering if the team should request to postpone, cancel, or even forfeit the game beforehand, so decimated were the troops.

Cambiano was one of several starters who played the first half, but missed the second half due to dehydration.

"We went with a small crew, and those who went were very dehydrated," Cambiano said. "At halftime, our locker room looked like a M.A.S.H. unit, with people lying everywhere, getting IVs. For precautionary reasons, the doctors made many players leave the game. Those who were left finished the game."

Dobbs was literally looking for volunteers in the second half; anybody who could walk and strap on a helmet played in the final 30 minutes, including walk-ons. Recalling the days of single-platoon football, DB Doug Wyatt, one of the few not afflcited by the flu bug, would play both ways.

Tulsa's starting QB, Mike Stripling would miss second half, thrusting Johnny Dobbs, son of the head coach, into the fray.

With a makeshift backfield surrounding Dobbs, including emergency blocking backs who had never played the position, Tulsa was no match for Houston's pass rushers.

Yeoman insists that he substituted freely, although it wasn't until the 4th Q that Yeoman began to show some heart. Gipson, the Cougars' star fullback, played only briefly in the final quarter before retiring with the aformentioned 282 rushing yards. By the 4th Q, starting QB Ken Bailey was on the sidelines, too.

Many of the 34,008 fans in the Astrosome that November night, however, were bloodthirsty and crying for 100 points as the score mounted in the 4th Q. The most-ravenous of Cougar fans were crying for Yeoman to put Gipson and the first-stringers back in the game in the 4th Q as the 100-point mark began to loom over the horizon.

Gatlin's TD, which helped UH crack the 90-point barrier, came on a pass, but two of the final four touchdowns were scored on a punt return and interception return, the last with six seconds to play. Cougar PK Terry Leiwecke had to boot the final PAT to reach 100 points, and said he was "never as nervous" as he was when awaiting the snap and hold for the 100th point of the night.

Yeoman, however, was guilty of running up several scores in the era, as would other coaches (including Tulsa's Dobbs when the Golden Hurrciane was flying high a few years earlier) for the same reason--getting recognized. Shunned by the regal SWC, Yeoman was constantly fighting an identity problem, compounded by the fact that UH was a huge commuter school and had few students living on campus, while having just a fraction of the support Texas and Texas A&M had in the Houston area.

UH had beat the Hurricane 73-14 in 1966 and scored more than 50 three other times in 1968. The Cougars put 77 points on Idaho, a school record, the week before the Tulsa massacre.

There was no love lost between the teams. TU rallied to beat Houston 22-21 in 1963 and won 14-0 in the first nationally televised Astrodome football game in 1965.

The Cougars avenged those losses with the 73-14 Astrodome drubbing in 1966. But in Tulsa the following year, the Hurricane stunned a 10th-ranked UH squad 22-13, knocking it from the rankings.

Afterward, according to Tulsa World sportswriter Jerry Pogue, Yeoman declined Dobbs' handshake offer and said, "Wait until we get you back in our place next year." Yeoman has never acknowledged saying such a thing because he "never disrespected another coach or football team."

It didn't matter the next November. Whatever Yeoman has maintained for the subsequent 45 years, scoring 100 points on any foe suggests bloodthirstyness of the highest degree. As for Tulsa HC Dobbs, he would depart after the season, although the Godlen Hurricane did bounce back to beat Wichita State, 23-7, in its finale the next week.

(Sidebar note: The 1969 Tulsa press guide, perhaps inadvertently, or perhaps not, mistakenly listed the 100-6 score in Tulsa's favor when listing the 1968 results, although we should point out that all of the scores from the 1968 games were listed in reverse order!)

Yeoman's '68 team, which had been getting votes but hovering outside of the top ten in the rankings for most of that season, would be rewarded with the 10th spot in the AP poll subsequent to the Tulsa massacre. Along the way that season, the Cougs had played eventual SWC champ Texas to a 20-20 tie in Austin, beaten Ole Miss, and played Sugar Bowl-bound Georgia to a 10-10 tie in the Astrodome. A loss in the regular-season finale to Bill Peterson's high-powered and inaugural Peach Bowl-bound Florida State side, led by WR Ron Sellers, would knock UH down to the 18th spot in the final polling for '68.

Still, results such as 100-6, and Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl wins over Pat Sullivan and Auburn by a 36-7 count in 1969, and a 47-7 trouncing of Tulane in the same bowl four years later, made it hard for the SWC to continue avoiding UH. The Cougs were given provisional membership in 1971 but were not allowed to compete for conference titles until 1976. And when they finally did in '76, Yeoman’s troops marched through the league and into the reward for SWC champs, the legendary Cotton Bowl, where a QB Danny Davis-led UH downed unbeaten and 4th-ranked Maryland, 30-21.

The teeth-gnashing at locales such as Texas and Texas A&M was hard to conceal.

UH would humble the old guard by winning the SWC three times in its first four years in the league, including the aforementioned '76 campaign and win over Maryland in the Cotton. The Cougs were on the wrong end of Notre Dame’s great Joe Montana-led rally at the January 1, 1979 Cotton Bowl when losing on the last play, 35-34, but UH backers more recall the Cougs’ heart-stopping 17-14 win over Nebraska in the following year’s Cotton, when a 6-yard TD pass from backup QB Terry Elston to WR Eric Herring with 12 seconds to play proved the game-winning score.

Houston fortunes have fluctuated wildly in the 33 years since, but in a broad overview of the program's history, there have been no shortage of high-water marks. Yeoman would return to the Cotton Bowl in the 1984 campaign, and the Cougs hit some crescendos later in the decade and in the early '90s with high-powered spread offenses under the regimes of Jack Pardee and successor John Jenkins, producing Heisman winner Ware in 1989 and record-breaking stats from Ware and QB David Klinger in the aerial show.

Jenkins’ tenure, however, ended in scandal and preceded a dark period that included UH being left behind when the SWC disbanded after the 1995 season. Again, the old-boy network was shutting out the Cougars, who were not invited with the conference elite to the merger with the Big 8 and the newly-named Big XII. UH instead landed in Conference USA in 1996, where it stayed until this year and the move the American.

But no one can deny that the Cougars are going to bring a lot of colorful gridiron history to their new league!

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