The University of Houston’s move to the Big 12 is the culmination of nearly 30 years of conference maneuvering. UH officials were shocked when Arkansas announced they were heading to the SEC, bewildered when Texas A&M floated themselves and the Cougars as part of a 14-team SEC in 1993 and were left flatfooted when UT and A&M began negotiating with the Big 8 without them.
Today, UH has a seat at the table thanks in part to a conference shuffle brought on by OU and Texas. But also because the school has put itself in a position for a moment just like this.
When the Big 12 was formally announced on February 25, 1994, UH was left without a home. Houston’s revolving door of Presidents and ADs lacked leadership, stability, and the necessary political contacts needed to protect the school. UH was orphaned along with Rice, SMU, and TCU.
UH then made a savvy move by joining Conference USA, then seen as inferior to the 16-team WAC superconference that the other SWC vagabonds chose. The Cougars won their inaugural season in C-USA, just as they had done in the SWC.
Eventually, all three of the other SWC orphans would join C-USA.
Another major round of conference realignment kicked off in 2011 when the ACC added two schools from the Big East, Colorado moved to the Pac-12, and Nebraska headed to the Big Ten. A year later, Texas A&M made the biggest move to date, leaving UT behind and heading to the SEC with Missouri.
With the Big East needing to bolster football, UH joined that conference in December 2011. But the Cougars never played a game in the Big East. The seven Catholic schools broke away from the football-playing schools and negotiated to take the conference name with them. In April 2013, it was announced that the football-playing Big East schools would compete in the American Athletic Conference that fall.
UH won the American in 2015 and then won the Peach Bowl over Florida State.
The next year, the Big 12 made a big show of inviting UH and others to make pitches in hopes of joining the conference. In the end, the process was a charade and angered a lot of people.
In the spring of 2021, Kelvin Sampson led the Cougars on a magical run to the school’s 6th Final Four. UH lost to eventual national champion Baylor.
In the summer of 2021, when Texas and OU shocked the world and bolted for the SEC, the Big 12 had an obvious need to add schools to help solidify the conference. But this time, there was no theater and no pomp and circumstance, which obviously meant Texas wasn’t pulling the strings.
It was strictly business and was done in an expedited manner. Just eight days ago, BYU, Cincinnati, UCF, and UH emerged as the teams the Big 12 had decided upon. It was the smart course for the conference and came ESPN-approved. UH’s Board of Regents moved quickly and authorized Chancellor Renu Khator to negotiate all contracts on the school’s behalf.
While UH was a smart move for the Big 12, it was not a foregone conclusion. In the past, some Big 12 schools worried about empowering UH which could be to their own detriment. UH needed someone with finesse to work behind the scenes, smoothing the way for the school to make the jump if it ever became viable. Board of Regents Chairman Tilman Fertitta had largely been the school’s spokesman for the last few years but his combative manner has not always been well received.
Understanding this, Dr. Khator has spent the last several years making inroads with Big 12 school Presidents and Chancellors. Even before the 2016 Big 12 farce, she befriended WVU’s E. Gordon Gee, serving on committees and panels with him, and hosting him in Houston multiple times. Gee is perhaps the most influential President in the conference.
In an interview this week, Gee discussed relationships when addressing expansion rumors.
“It is about relationships,” he said. “We think stability in that area is very important for the success of our program. At the end of the day, relationships matter, don’t they? And that’s what it’s all about, how the leaders lead and how leaders interact with other leaders.”
Khator has also served with Oklahoma State Chancellor Glen Johnson and Baylor President Linda Livingstone on the board of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB). Livingstone and Khator also serve together on the NCAA Division I Board of Directors. Outside of academics, Khator has also gone about building relationships with local and state politicians and has the ear of Governor Abbott.
UH’s 30 years in the wilderness finally ends to day. For the first time in the 30+ year history of conference realignment, UH has its ducks in a row at a moment in time when it was needed.