On the morning of May 3, 1971, in a conference room in College Station, the University of Houston had one of its biggest athletics moments ever. Athletics Director Harry Fouke and Dr. Martin Wright, UH’s faculty representative, were hurried into a meeting already in progress and were given the news that UH had just been invited to join the Southwest Conference.
Big smiles flashed across both of their faces as Dr. Wright thanked the men in the room and immediately accepted the invitation. The 14-month process that began with an unexpected phone call ended with the league’s faculty representatives voting unanimously to accept UH as their ninth member.
“The Southwest Conference has issued an invitation of membership to Houston and Houston has accepted,” J. William Davis, Texas Tech’s representative and SWC president, said moments later. “As of this meeting, Houston is a member of the Southwest Conference.”
“This is something we have looked forward to – a member with the Southwest Conference,” Athletics Director Harry Fouke beamed when he met the media. “It will be good for all parties. We will be the very best member.”
Texas had originally sponsored the Coogs into the league but it was Rice that formally put UH forward for nomination. After years of opposing their cross-town rivals, a series of veiled threats from UT convinced the Rice administrators that UH in the SWC would benefit them in the long run. The Institute put UH’s nomination forward at the December 1970 meeting in Dallas but it was tabled when the league decided to do a feasibility study on expansion.
UT’s support for UH was due to several factors: the 20-20 tie in 1968 that convinced Darrell Royal that UH belonged, Royal’s friendship with Corbin Robertson, and problems the Horns were having with the other members of the SWC. In the spring of 1970, just weeks after winning the national title, Royal asked UT’s faculty rep, J. Neils Thompson, to advocate for UH. In turn, Thompson became the “prime supporter of Houston’s bid” according to multiple news accounts.
Other than Wright and Fouke, UH officials and former players were pleased by the announcement.
“I would like to thank the many fine players who brought the Cougars balanced success over the years,” UH President Phillip G. Hoffman told reporters. “They had a major role in our being invited to membership.”
Moving to the SWC will “definitely intensify the interest of our kids and the community,” Bill Yeoman said.
“I think it’s a great thing for UH, the Southwest Conference, and the city of Houston,” Tony Ditta, a member of UH’s first team in 1946, said. The program Ditta helped create went from practicing on rocks and broken glass in a vacant lot to the SWC in just 25 years.
“I’m ready to hook up with any of them right now. Any parking lot will do,” assistant football coach Barry Sides emphatically stated.
UH’s Plan & Negotiations
Prior to the SWC meetings in College Station, the NCAA had increased the maximum number of regular season football games from 10 to 11. Fouke knew that this decision cleared one of the biggest roadblocks for UH. The SWC wanted to keep a round-robin schedule and also have the ability to play three out of conference games.
“It was the only thing that made this possible,” Fouke declared. “Working in 8 conference games in an 11-game schedule is no different than working in 7 conference games in a 10-game schedule.”
Another thorny issue was summer school. At the time, UH required players to pass 24 hours each year while the SWC only required 20. The difference was that UH allowed summer school hours to count towards the requirement and the SWC did not. After lengthy discussions, the league voted to require student-athletes to pass 24 hours each year and, soon after, allowed summer school hours to count towards the total.
On the day of the announcement, the SWC met with Wright and Fouke for 2 hours and 45 minutes after having met for 9 hours the day before. Throughout the talks, Baylor, Arkansas, and TCU raised objections and demanded to negotiate on specific points. Those included continuing a round-robin format, syncing UH’s recruiting calendar with the league’s, financial considerations before UH began SWC football, and where UH would play their home games. By this point, UH had already accepted that it would be five years before they’d play a football game in the SWC.
Having spent nearly 12 hours addressing each school’s issues, a vote was called for and ended up 7-0 with Arkansas abstaining (the Hogs did the same when Texas Tech was admitted in 1956). UH had met the six-vote threshold and would become a member.
“If we hadn’t gotten in, I would have been bitterly disappointed,” Guy V. Lewis said later that day.
On their noon broadcast, WBAP-TV in Dallas led with news of UH being admitted to the SWC. It is believed to be the first media confirmation of UH’s invitation and acceptance.
Several schools supported Houston’s inclusion because by joining the league, UH’s advantages in recruiting (contacting and signing players earlier than the SWC allowed) would be curtailed and the school’s position in football and basketball would be weakened by more difficult schedules. But at least one AD didn’t see it that way at all. “Maybe we ain’t doing Houston all that big a favor,” the anonymous official said. Were the Cougars being used to stabilize the conference?
For UH and its fans, the why didn’t matter as much as the what. Houston was finally in the club.
“The benefits to the University of Houston are tied to one thing,” Fouke said. “To make progress and be assured of long-term success you must have natural rivalries. We now belong.”
Tuesday: Why UT and Rice decided that UH should be invited