On September 11, 1976, the University of Houston arrived on the big stage.
Bill Yeoman and his Cougar football team were in Waco for the school’s first-ever Southwest Conference game. After five years of waiting, UH beat Baylor, 23-5, in a game that would go down in Cougar lore.
Houston started recruiting for the SWC in 1972 and signed a star-studded class in early 1973. That class would become the backbone of the team that entered the SWC and included seven players who would be all-conference.
From late 1972 through the last week of 1974, the Cougars went 23-3. As the program set its sights on entering the SWC, the 1975 season developed unexpectedly.
The 1973 recruiting class included seven players that would be All-SWC.
UH slipped to 2-8 in 1975 as the UH defense allowed 245 total points. To put that in perspective: from 1951 to 1981, the Cougar defense gave up 208 points or more just twice: 1975 and 1977 (UH followed up both of those “bad” defensive years with SWC titles).
In addition, the ’75 team scored just 18 points a game. The offensive and defensive outputs were both career lows for Yeoman at that point in his career. But people around the program believe that the ’75 Cougars weren’t a bad team—even the head coach.
“We were probably the best two-win team in the country,” Yeoman said about the 1975 season.
A rash of injuries, a lack of seniors, and players pressing too hard all contributed to UH’s first losing season since 1965.
Spring & Summer 1976
As the calendar turned to 1976, the Cougars focused on making a statement in their first year in the league. Student manager Mike Brem coined the term “Think Cotton” to help put the goal in focus.
“We put (Think Cotton) on the back of the “Camp Fun” jerseys in the spring of ’76,” Brem says in discussing UH’s infamous training and conditioning program.
Sophomore quarterback Danny Davis showed up to Camp Fun in the spring of 1976 in a gray t-shirt that read: 1976 SWC CHAMPS. Davis won the starting job for the upcoming season and wore the shirt in every conference game. As his team prepared to enter the SWC, Coach Yeoman was featured on the cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football.
Even with a decade of winning behind them, the Cougars were overlooked in the summer of ’76: UH was picked 6th in the SWC Writers Poll and were an early four-point underdog to Baylor in week one. But truth be told, even Yeoman didn’t know what to expect.
“I hoped we’d be competitive, but after shooting eight blanks, I didn’t know what to expect,” Yeoman quipped.
Finally, Game Day
Yeoman treated every game like a business trip, but even he knew this was different. It would be impossible for his players not to understand the significance of the Baylor game.
Finally, the Cougars were part of the league. Houston was playing for the right to go to the Cotton Bowl. And they were playing against the best in Texas and, therefore, the country. The players couldn’t help but be excited for this moment in history.
The Cougar offense started the game slowly. In the first quarter, UH failed to pick up a single first down. The Coogs only had 66 yards in the first half and did not score. Six minutes into the game, UH center Chuck Brown snapped the ball over punter Jay Wyatt’s head, leading to a safety. On the ensuing drive, Baylor drove down to the 11 but had to settle for a field goal.
It was 5-0, and nothing was going right. But the Bears would not score again.
“We’re down 5-0 at the half, but it was pretty obvious to everybody on our sideline that we were going to win,” Brem said. “And we did.”
“I hoped we’d be competitive, but after shooting eight blanks, I didn’t know what to expect.” – Coach Yeoman
Just as they had in the first half, the Cougar defense dominated in the second. The Mad Dogs created four turnovers: Grady Ebensberger grabbed a Baylor fumble, and David Hodge, Mark Mohr, and Anthony Francis each picked off a Baylor pass. Francis would lead the country in interceptions in 1976.
And the offense came around, too. Six Cougar rushers carried the ball in the second half as the Veer started rolling. Danny Davis scored UH’s first SWC touchdown in the 3rd quarter (two-point conversion failed), and the Coogs led 6-5.
Houston controlled the 4th quarter as well. Running back Dyral Thomas scored twice, and Lennard Coplin kicked a field goal as UH scored 23 unanswered points. Houston didn’t turn it over and was closing in on their first SWC win.
With 3 seconds left in the game, Coach Yeoman called a timeout to allow his players and the UH fans to savor the moment. The Cougars beat Baylor 23-5.
“In the offensive (meeting) rooms, the thought was that we could score five times against Baylor,” Brem recalled. “And but for a fumble in the first half, that’s what would have happened.”
Baylor coach Grant Teaff said the Cougar offense “was good, and they picked at us. They were well-drilled and did a good job on us.”
By the end of the season, Sports Illustrated said that Davis “operated the veer in a way that suggests he might be the quickest, flashiest option quarterback in the country.”
The Cougars finished the regular season 9-2, beating Texas and A&M but losing at Florida and against Arkansas at Rice Stadium. The team only played one SWC game in the Astrodome, thanks to a rule that allowed visiting teams to choose between Rice and the Dome. The vagabond Cougars overcame all obstacles to win the SWC title, beat Maryland in the Cotton Bowl, and finish 4th in the country.
And it all started on that scorching afternoon in Waco when the Cougars finally arrived in the SWC.