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Archive for Saturday, December 24, 2005

Commentary: Cougars have long way to go

December 24, 2005

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— The University of Houston is again at a football crossroads. Yes, another one.

Seems like only yesterday we were having this same discussion regarding Dana Dimel. Or was it Kim Helton? Or John Jenkins?

Names and faces become blurred at UH. Coaches come and go. So do players, schemes and themes. UH may lead the nation in fresh starts and misplaced optimism.

In the end, the bottom line doesn't change much. Art Briles is finishing his third season with some of the same issues his predecessors had.

If you're counting, the Cougars have had one winning season in the last six years. And no bowl victories in a quarter-century.

Friday was supposed to be one of those days when the Cougars would show the world they were back. If not back, at least hard on the road to respectability.

Instead, UH was overwhelmed by Kansas University on its way to a 42-13 defeat in the Fort Worth Bowl.

Don't mistake Kansas for an elite team. Kansas was the eighth-best team in the Big 12. Kansas lost to Texas by 52 points. Kansas suffered double-digit defeats to Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Colorado.

Kansas is a rising program under Mark Mangino, but Kansas isn't close to playing with the big boys. And Kansas controlled the Cougars from start to finish.

"I don't think the score is indicative of tonight's game," Briles said.

Huh?

"We had some bad things happen," Briles said.

Even if UH athletics director Dave Maggard can get past the final score -- he played and coached; he knows things happen -- a dozen other things will bother him.

Like missed tackles and special-teams breakdowns and dropped passes and dumb penalties and a general disorganization. All these things reflect poorly on Briles and his staff.

Shouldn't the University of Houston at least be able to stay on the field with the eighth-best team in the Big 12? Would Baylor have been a fairer fight?

UH thought it would be different this season. The Cougars were part of a weakened Conference USA, and they figured the quickest way back to prominence would be to dominate a bad conference.

They couldn't. The Cougars beat just two winning teams. They got close against UTEP and Central Florida, but were beaten by SMU in a now familiar pattern of one step forward, one step back.

Maggard's blueprint for rebuilding sports at UH begins with having winning football and basketball programs. He can market and sell and broadcast and the like. But until the Cougars win consistently, crowds will remain small and the program insignificant.

Tom Penders seems on his way to getting UH back to March Madness in basketball, but Friday was a reminder how far the football team has to go.

Maggard is a man in a hurry. He begins each day wanting more. More fundraising. More victories. More of everything.

How long will he be patient with Briles? Briles seemed like a perfect hire three years ago. He'd played at UH. He'd become a Texas high school coaching legend at Stephenville.

He played a pass-first offense that would be easy to sell. And there HAS been progress. He's the first UH coach since Bill Yeoman to get the Cougars to two bowl games in three years. But his overall record is 16-21.

In his biggest game at UH, his offense produced one touchdown and three turnovers. Meanwhile, Kansas rolled up 538 yards and had the game in hand by the end of the third quarter.

For Maggard and Briles, for the players and especially for the fans who came out in surprisingly large numbers, this defeat was both eye-opening and humiliating.

Can Briles fix everything that's broken? Has the progress he has made been enough? Could anyone else -- R.C. Slocum, for instance -- get UH on a faster track?

These are questions few at UH thought they'd have to answer this winter. They'd entered this game with a degree of optimism. They never expected to come undone.

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