50 years ago today, the Houston Cougars finally stepped onto the football field with the Rice Owls. The game was 25 years in the making – UH had craved this game while Rice avoided even the thought of playing the Coogs. But things started to shift in favor of the Cougars during the summer of 1970. By the fall, things were coming together.
Starting in September 1970 and over the span of 10 months:
– UT head coach Darrell Royal proposed UH for Southwest Conference membership;
– Rice’s new President (and former UT President) Norman Hackerman became an advocate for UH;
– the teams scheduled their first-ever basketball game;
– Rice made the formal motion to invite UH;
– Rice hired a new football coach and AD, Bill Peterson, who was friends with Bill Yeoman and had played UH for years when he was head coach at Florida State;
– Peterson agreed to schedule the first UH/Rice game; and
– the Cougars were invited to join the SWC.
Up to this point, it had been official Rice policy to never play the Cougars in any major sporting event. For 25 years, UH was often described in the press as eager to get a game with the Owls. Rice officials believed that the best way to maintain its superiority in the city was not engaging with the Cougars. That policy would have continued except for UT starting to turn the screws in mid-1970. By December of that year, Rice’s tune had shifted dramatically.
“It was foolish to pretend they are not there…that Houston does not have a recognized athletic program in Texas,” Rice’s faculty rep Dr. Alan Chapman said. It was a shocking acknowledgment that things were moving in UH’s direction. The change was duly noted by the Rice Thresher newspaper just before the 1971 game.
“Up until the early 1960’s, UH was considered too weak to take on the powerful SWC Owls, but since that time the situation has been reversed. The Cougars have developed one of the nation’s most successful football factories, while on South Main gridiron fortunes have been failing.
Mother Nature nearly conspired to keep UH from playing the much-anticipated game as Hurricane Fern churned in the Gulf of Mexico for the week prior. A tropical depression hit southern Louisiana on September 4th but quickly moved back into the Gulf and intensified into hurricane status and was named Fern. The storm threatened Galveston but shifted direction three times before making landfall just south of Freeport on Friday the 10th. The storm dumped a ton of rain on Houston but hit early enough to allow the game to continue.
The storm did dampen the crowd, though. 70,000 were expected but the crowd ended up being 62,000 which is still, by far, the largest in series history.
UH fans, finally with a chance to face the crosstown tormentor, wanted vengeance after decades of frustration. The Veer had been setting offensive records for 4 years and, combined with a limited Rice roster under a new, pass-happy coach, most UH fans expected a slaughter. Newspapers around the country predicted 20- and 30-point wins. Even the sports editor at the Rice Thresher predicted a 21+ point UH win. UH was favored by 13 points in the game.
It was time for payback.
But the game did not happen the way most Cougar fans expected. In fact, it gave the first example of many of an under-matched Rice team battling UH blow for blow. Rice scored late in the first half and held a 7-0 lead heading into the break. The Owl defense had suffocated the notoriously slow-starting UH offense.
The Cougars came back from the second half on a mission. Quarterback Moon Mullins uncorked a 73-yard touchdown bomb to walk-on junior Del Stanley on the 2nd play of the half. Following the score, UH safety Nick Holm intercepted passes on back-to-back Rice drives. After the second INT, Robert Ford caught a pass from Mullins and dashed 11 yards for the score. UH led 14-7.
On the ensuing kickoff, UH’s Sandy McCrea kicked a “wicked spinner” that fooled Rice returner Tom Clanton. He caught the ball and inadvertently stepped out at the one. On first down, Butch Brezina powered through the line and stripped Rice RB Mike Phillips in the end zone. Phillips managed to fall on the ball for a safety. It is, perhaps, the most important safety in school history.
Rice scored early in the 4th quarter to take the lead but UH battled back. The Cougars went on a 12-play, 84-yard drive to go up for good. Robert Newhouse, who finished with 147 yards, made the run of the day to get to the Rice the 2-yard line. Newhouse’s run was described in the San Antonio News and Express as a “twisting, churning effort that eluded six tacklers – a marvel of motion.” From there, Mullins punched it in and the Cougars held on, 23-21.
After the game, Yeoman heaped praise on Rice. “There is no question that Rice was loose, alert, and very active,” Coach said. “We were very tight.”
The game was a milestone for the UH program and helped validate their place in the Southwest Conference. UH jumped to #18 in the AP Poll after the win. Three years later, the Touchdown Club of Houston would introduce the Bayou Bucket trophy that would go to the winner.