Dana Holgorsen put out the bat signal to Houston fans during his Monday afternoon press conference ahead of the program’s season opening matchup against UTSA.
Houston found itself in a weird spot.
They’d officially climbed the conference hierarchy from the American Athletic Conference to the Big 12. Yet many pundits predicted a downward trajectory on the field. After a 12-2 season two years ago, they seemed poised to follow fellow soon-to-be Big 12 members Cincinnati and UCF as the next group of five College Football Playoff team. Then came a disappointing 8-5 campaign and the departure of star quarterback-wide receiver duo Clayton Tune and Nathaniel “Tank” Dell. For its first year in the Big 12, Houston brought a roster with zero players on the preseason all-conference team.
Now, the Cougars faced the possibility of losing to a UTSA team from the conference they thought they’d ascended past.
“Nobody thinks we’re any good, so let’s line up and see,” Holgorsen said during the week. “I’ve told them (the players) that a few times. We’re underdogs at home. I can’t wait. Looking forward to Saturday at 6.”
The implications of a win, and those of a loss, were clear. Houston needed every bit of the added fan support the move to the Big 12 was supposed to get them. They’d set a record with 6,000 new season tickets sold over the summer.
Houston won its first game as a Big 12 team, 17-14, over UTSA by an almost literal hair. As the players swarmed in front of the student section to sing the fight song, the PA announcer said tonight’s game was the largest home opening crowd since 2015.
Holgorsen sat at the podium for his first postgame press conference of 2023 and before he took any football related questions, he has to say a thank you.
“I can’t thank the fans enough, the student section enough,” Holgorsen said. “It made a difference. I can’t tell you how much that affects our players.”
12:30 p.m. - Five-and-a-half hours before kickoff
It’s fairly quiet outside TDECU Stadium, but preparations for the first tailgate of the year are underway. The heat is stifling. Good thing I wore my thickest denim jeans and boots to walk around in.
Multiple pickups roll down U of H Entrance Street, each carrying a handful of college guys in the bed. They all pull off next to a large swath of grass where tents are pitched, then the guys hop down and start moving case after case of beer to their respective marked territories. I let them each drink a couple before trying to approach them and getting their real thoughts about their team moving to a new conference.
A quick lap around the stadium conveys the massive production a game day entails. Near Gate 4, roughly 20 student marketing interns set up the Kid Zone, blowing up bright red bounce houses and placing inviting inflatable air dancers at the arched entrance. The FS1 production truck is tucked into the back of the stadium, and the camera crew stands in a semi-circle around the cinematographer giving their marching orders for the broadcast.
Back at the tailgate area, Houston’s Student Government Association is assembling a massive inflatable pop-a-shot and a bunch of smaller outdoor games like ladder toss. According to Senate members Justice McClure and Andrew Johnson, it’s an effort to get more students involved in Houston’s game-day experience. In years past, they’ve felt an absence of students at football games. Andrew says he believes soccer is actually the campus’s most popular sport. Part of the reason for the interest in futbol instead of football is how diverse Houston’s campus is. The University’s Fall 2022 demographics note a majority Hispanic student population, with African Americans the second-most represented.
I introduce myself to a junior student named Jacob to ask my first question about the student body’s opinion of the move to the Big 12. He’s still moving ice to and from a pickup parked nearby, but stops for a quick breather. They feel Houston hasn’t been represented as much in Texas the past nine years they were in the AAC. Their biggest game last season was SMU, but now they’ll get to face Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech and more.
The tailgate doesn’t open until 2 p.m., and it’ll actually fill with students around 3:00. Of course, everyone knows to show up fashionably late to these events. Otherwise you’ll get stuck talking to a sports reporter like me when you want to party. Since I still have some time before things get going, I meander to one of the alumni tailgates on the other end of the stadium.
It’s like walking from a Chili’s to a prime steakhouse. The adults have fine red tents across the parking lot to shade themselves as they watch the noon kickoff games on their TVs. The college kids brought whatever food they could muster, mostly some pizza. But the dads are manning stainless steel grills. I see a UH flag flying mounted from the pickup of a white truck, and right underneath is a Big 12 flag.
There’s a sheriff in a cowboy hat, name tag “Salinas”, filming the tailgaters as they get situated. He doesn’t have any gruff exterior. It seems he’s taking an iPhone video to show his friends later. I ask him if they’re expecting a big day attendance-wise.
“It’s starting,” Sheriff Salinas says with a smile. “It’s starting.”
3 p.m. - Three Hours until kickoff
I’m standing on the blocked off U of H Entrance Street, in neutral ground between warring tailgates. On the side of the road farthest from the stadium are the few and proud UTSA fans pregaming under their blue and orange tent. In the side closest to the stadium 1,000 Houston students celebrate their new beginning.
There’s at least one speaker for every tent set up side-by-side with each other, and students flow between them and the differing rap and electronic music they blare. But suddenly the band’s real instruments cut through the tailgate, and I walk over to where the cheerleaders and Cougar Dolls dance team are lined along the sidewalk for the first Cougar Walk of the season.
Holgorsen leads his players down the parted path, walking among the cheering fans he summoned. He’s the man tasked with bringing Houston seamlessly into the Big 12 because he’s already successfully integrated one program into the conference, when he guided West Virginia from the Big East in 2012. Sure, last season took some momentum away, but today’s game is a celebration.
A current student named Roy looks on at what he calls the biggest tailgate he’s seen. Last year remembers the third level of TDECU Stadium as relatively empty throughout the football season. Today he thinks it could be nearly full. The move to the Big 12 has created a palpable buzz. He again points to the bigger programs from Texas they’ll now get to play every year.
For all the students, this move to the Big 12 is nothing but a positive. They get to play nearby schools with bigger brands than were found in the American. The games will be more exciting, thus the turnout should be better.
As the Cougar Walk disperses, I stop an older gentleman in U of H regalia, who graduated in 1981, to get an alumni’s perspective. I’m more or less expecting the same cheery disposition.
“It’s about time,” he says.
His tone is different from any student so far. It’s not necessarily joyful. He’s more acknowledging a wrong that has been made right, albeit long overdue.
This man went to college when Houston was in the Southwest Conference and playing most of the current Big 12 teams every year. The Southwest disbanded in 1996 when Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech all teamed up with the Big Eight Conference to form the Big 12.
Houston was left out.
The man asks me if I saw Holgorsen’s radio interview. I had. It’s been all over social media.
“You can have that opinion about Texas and Texas A&M if you want to, but they are the reasons we weren’t in the Big 12,” Holgorsen said. “Those two (schools) are the specific reasons why we haven’t been in the Big 12 the last 28 years. Screw them. They can go wherever they want. They don’t want us, and we don’t want them. So move on.”
Holgorsen didn’t live through these alumni’s pain, but as head coach he spoke for all who saw their school spurned from the original Big 12 even though they had the pedigree to be included.
“My response to that (Holgorsen interview) is ‘Hell yeah!’” the man says.
The alumni tailgate area and student tailgate area are next to each other on the same expansive lawn before the stadium. For the first time I walk across the 15 yards worth of empty grass between them, and fully step onto the alumni side.
I duck under a tent and speak to Gerald Balboa, who’s hosting friends and family for another kickoff to Houston’s season. I asked what the alumni thought about the move to the Big 12 and he lays it out plain.
It depends on who you ask. Balboa finished undergrad in 1993, another alum who used to travel to nearby away games against regional rivals in the Southwest Conference. He says he’s jaded. The current students and younger alumni are excited to be in the more prestigious Big 12. The older alumni felt they’re back where they belong.
That 15 yards of grass between the student and alumni tailgates isn’t just a generational divide. It’s the disconnect between feeling your school has made it to the big leagues and knowing this moment was robbed from you long ago.
“There’s a lot of scars in a lot of alumni from what happened in the early nineties,” athletic director Chris Pezman admitted at the Zoom press conference when Houston announced their move to the Big 12.
In the middle of the 15-yard patch, the Houston Band Alumni was holding a charity raffle. Terry Charlene stands behind the table giving out tickets to win a signed football and U of H helmet. She tells me the fans love that they’re in the Big 12 now and get to play Texas Tech and Baylor. I tell her what I’ve noticed, the chasm between alumni who lived through the Southwest Conference and the current students who weren’t alive when it all fell apart.
“Those of us who remember the Southwest Conference, there is some hurt,” Charlene says.
But most of all, she’s happy. She does make one thing clear, however.
She’s happy Texas is leaving their new conference.
Roy was right to expect a packed house tonight. The majority of the three decks of the stadium are filled.
They go crazy when their 2023 football team takes the field for the first time. The Cougars are decked out in the famous “Luv Ya Blue” Houston Oiler throwback uniforms. Sure, it’s a great marketing deal for the school. But the Houston Oilers relocated to Tennessee in 1997, one year after Houston was left out of the Big 12, and this season the Tennessee Titans decided they’ll break out those uniforms ... for a game against the Houston Texans.
On this night, the University of Houston reclaims its spot in a power conference and its city’s colors.
They also get on the board first. Houston quarterback Donovan Smith fired and eight-yard bullet to Joseph Manjack IV to put Houston up 7-0 with 6:54 left in the first. Manjack turns to the sea of red behind the end zone he just scored in, a sold-out student section jumping joyously up and down.
You know the rest. Houston pulls off its historic first win as a Big 12 program in front of a record-setting crowd. The hype was justified, now it's time to keep it moving forward.
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