A Final Tribute to the Rob

The venerable old girl stands no more. Well technically she does, as the wrecking ball isn't scheduled to begin destruction until Monday December 3 (according to ‘Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics' Mack Rhoades) but the Houston Cougars football team has played their last game at Robertson Stadium, or simply known as ‘the Rob' to most,

this past Saturday in a 40-17 victory over  the Tulane Green Wave. With the win, the Cougars are 72-44-1 all time at Rob. On a side note, the team is 113-57-4 at astrodome, 1-2 at Reliant, and 42-29-3 at Rice Stadium all-time (stats thanks to UH SID David Bassity). Construction will begin on the new stadium by early to mid January, which will sit on the same site as Robertson currently stands, and is scheduled to open to begin the 2014 season.

There are a few time periods that should be considered the most important in the history of University of Houston athletics, from the days that Cougar coaching legends Guy V. Lewis or Bill Yeoman roamed their respective sidelines, to the more recent hires of Art Briles and later Kevin Sumlin as football coaches because make no mistake about it – football and basketball are the two revenue trains that keep the athletics department operating fiscally. It could be argued, however, that the most important time in Cougars athletic history was the day in which then athletic director Chet Gladchuck decided to permanently move home football games from the antiquated Astrodome back to Robertson Stadium on a full-time basis, for the beginning of the 1998 season (for the 1995 and 96 seasons prior games were split between the Rob and the Astrodome under then AD Bill Carr). Gladchuck’s reasoning on moving back to the Rob on a permanent basis, “It was simple really; I wanted to play the games close to the students and on campus. I had just always been an advocate, having come from Boston College, for on-campus football. I had gone to a game at the Astrodome and it just wasn’t the same type of feel or atmosphere. It was very commercial. The crowd was no where near what was needed to create a home field advantage and we tried to stretch the envelope a little by pushing the issue with me bringing the team back onto campus because the stadium hadn’t been touched in terms of any kind of renovations or maintenance for years.”

Gladchuck, who was the AD from 1997 through 2001, on his first thoughts about the stadium, “I remember the first day I went to look at the stadium to see if it was feasible. There were actual wild dogs living under the bleachers. I confronted what looked like this wild mongrel and it made me a little concerned and scared because it hadn’t been used. Even the track was beat up a bit even though we were using it for track at the time.” Gladchuck said his vision included getting recruits to visit so they could “feel as if they were part of an on-campus community which might make a difference in their decision making.” The current Navy AD knew he had a lot of work ahead of him however, “It was in condemned status. We looked at the developmental luxury boxes and it was horrific – there was water damage. There were a million spiders and bees, but it took us less than a year to get it ready. We went out and raised the monies; John O’Quinn, The Robertson’s, Mr. Smith, Ken Bailey – there were a number of people we were able to convince that moving games back on campus was the thing to do and they all put up a lot of money to do it.”

The first game played back at Robertson (in decades) was on September 9, 1995 in a 19-7 loss to Louisiana Tech in front of an almost capacity crowd of 20,520 (capacity then was 22,000). On September 4, 1999 the Cougars defeated Rice 28-3 in a ‘refurbished’ Robertson, thanks to a 6 million dollar donation from UH alumnus (and Board of Regents member) John O’Quinn, in which the track was removed and the field lowered to add seats which brought capacity to 32,000. In a startling revelation, Gladchuck admitted that O’Quinn was not on board in terms of the renovations at first, “When I took the job I never realized that there was a movement by some of the Board of Regents, because of the financial deficits, that were advocates to drop football. So the first thing I had to do was convince them that we could make this work and that we didn’t want to drop football – that history and tradition of football is part of the fiber of what makes an institution great. John O’Quinn was one of the leaders wanting to drop football and within six months I convinced him not only to not drop football, but to give us six million dollars for the upgrade. We basically went from dropping football to getting people to invest, giving the program a chance to get our feet on the ground. That was the time the foundation was built and the resources were put in place – the AAU (Athletic/Alumni Facility) had just been built.” John J. Moores donated a then record $51 million to the university in 1991, of which $25 million was earmarked for the construction of the AAU, which was completed in 96. I then asked him if football were ever considered being dropped in his administration, “It never even entered my mind in considering dropping football. That never would have happened if I were the AD because I just wouldn’t let that happen.”

In true Cougar fashion, Gladchuck had to figure out ways to make the dollar stretch concerning the renovation, “We were a little renegade in the way we did it. We didn’t go through normal protocols. We hired outside contractors to expedite the construction so it made it a little more affordable so we could stretch the dollar. One night everybody was painting the press box, including myself and my wife to spruce it up literally hours before kickoff of the inaugural game. It was a lot of hard work but everyone (in the athletics department) got on board – even Joe Curl (the then Women’s basketball coach) was up there with his team helping to spruce up the box laying carpet the night before the game. What was able to be done with the dollars contributed might be one of the greatest examples of stretching the buck. It was a dilapidated condemned structure that we upgraded, added all new seating, the end zone – we wanted to do it the right way but in the meantime it was all about fundraising. We had just finished the upgrade – build the concession stands, redid the locker rooms and press box and put in a new scoreboard along with dropping the field. When it was finished, from the palm trees in the corner to the lighting to the new elevators it was a very modest step but was never a stadium that could compete with some of the finer stadiums at the division one level. It was definitely a intermediate step and I’m so happy that they’re going to construct a new stadium.” 

Gladchuck on his favorite memory, “Before our very first game we were rushing to finish what needed to be done, we were still molding seats in the aluminum platform an hour before kickoff. That’s how tight it was in terms of having it ready. What I’ll never forget was that very first game in the renovated stadium, that was a tribute game to the 1929 alumni and I remember the Robertson’s were there; Ed Smith and Wilhelmina Robertson and all kinds of dignitaries and we had the brand new elevator ready to go. We had all the hospitality in order and everyone was so proud and pleased and excited. The new scoreboard was in with all the video and we had a great crowd for the first game and everyone was suppose to meet up in the hospitality suite an hour before game time and wouldn’t you know the elevator didn’t work,” Gladchuck said laughing. He continued, “basically my biggest concern for game one was one of the senior alumni having a heart attack climbing the stairs to get up to the box. To see them walking up the stairs and walking up the seating and bleachers just to get to the box was concerning, but everybody made it. The other thing that stands out was, besides the great games and environments there, was the very first game when we played Rice. I had been in the business awhile at a number of schools and attended a number of festivities and events but I don’t remember being more proud of an institution and of a game and of the students and of the fans and the environment any more than when we played Rice and beat them. It was a magnificent evening and it was televised and sold out. Everything was working and it was just a great scene watching everyone hoisting up the ‘Bayou Bucket.’ It made it worth the effort – all the blood, sweat and tears and fundraising and all that goes into creating that kind of environment. It all worked and I just remember how good everyone (inside the athletic department) felt because not only was it completed but because we claimed the ‘Bayou Bucket’ and I remember how excited the team and coaches were about that. It was definitely a labor of love to bring that facility back. Wilhelmina and Ed Smith – that whole family, just wanting to make them proud of that facility and make them feel as if somebody cared about a facility that was originally constructed to host high school football.”

Speaking of high school football, the Rob obviously has much more to do with the history of football in the city of Houston than just University of Houston football history. First built in 1942 by the Houston Independent School District (after the land for the stadium was purchased from the Settegast Estate for $75,550.16 in 1940), the Rob – then known as Public School Stadium, was constructed for $665,000 (which would be the equivalent of 9.25 mil today). Its first game was on Sept. 18 before a crowd of 14,500 (capacity was 20,500) when Houston’s Lamar High School defeated Dallas’ W.H Adamson High 26-7. The Cougars first game was played on September 21, 1946 as they lost to Louisiana-Lafayette 13-7 before a crowd of 13,000. Three weeks later, on October 12, 1946, the Coogs won their first collegiate game at the stadium 34-0 over Texas A&I (before a crowd of 6,500). The team played its home games there until 1950 (winning 13, losing 10 and tying once) before moving to ‘Houston Stadium' which would later be named Rice Stadium.

After initially leaving Public School Stadium, the Cougars spent 13 full seasons at Rice Stadium from 1951 through 63. In 1964, UH split home games between Rice and back to what would be renamed as Jeppesen Stadium in honor of former UH Board of Regents member and Athletics Committee Chairman Corbin J. Robertson, before moving full-time to the newly constructed Astrodome, where they would play from between 1965 and 1994 with a few home games at Rice Stadium. Cougars former and long-time SID (1960-94) Ted Nance and his favorite memories during that era, “We only played in Robertson (Jeppesen) one time while I was SID at UH. That was in 1964 when we beat Texas A&M 10-0. It was the first time we played in Jeppesen since 1950 and it was Public School Stadium then. We played our home games in Rice Stadium in those days. We moved to the Astrodome the next year. An unusual thing about the A&M game was it was played on a Friday night. Back then Friday night was strictly a night for high school games, but Rice was playing at home the next night, so we opted for Jeppesen Stadium (the name at that time). We had a sellout crowd of 30,000, which was our largest crowd of the year, home or away. Senior Horst Paul, the team captain scored the game's only touchdown on a short pass from senior QB Jack Skog. Horst would become the first UH academic All-America player at the end of the season. It was Coach Yeoman's third season and the last season of one platoon football. The next season was the return to the two platoon system with offensive and defensive units.”

The Houston Cougar track and field program also had a nice tradition at the Rob hosting some of the greatest Olympians ever in UH’s own Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell (among others); under all-time great coach Tom Tellez. I interviewed Lewis at halftime of Saturday’s final game versus Tulane, “My favorite memory was the first year I came here. There was a cinder track and a clay track and it didn’t look like a university. Most people thought it was a joke. Coach Tellez thought I was going to be the greatest athlete ever at the university, little did I know, and one year later we had a state of the art facility. In 1980 we had a world class event here and everyone came, not just college. I’ve never been more proud. My entire career was on this track for 18 years and I can’t even tell you how many days, 11 months a year for 18 years, you count the days I was here. I had to be here today because this stadium to me is like your child. My ‘child’ was born when I came here and 18 years later you’re sending your child off to school. A lot of people are upset about tearing it down but to me it’s like progress. It’s like letting your baby go away to school and the memories will never ever go away. I’ve had all of the best moments of my life, the best and the worst workouts have all come here.”

Other tenants have included the old Houston Oilers from 1960 through 64 along with the Houston Dynamo of the MLS from 2006 through 2011. The Oilers defeated the Los Angeles Chargers 24-16 to become the old AFL’s first champion on January 1, 1961, but speaking of the first ever professional game to ever be played at the Rob, Coogfans.com fan Billy Irvine remembers, “It was an NFL pre-season game in 1959 with the Chicago Bears beating the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Oilers first game was in 1960. Some of the NFL greats such as Rick Casares, Willie Galimore and Tom The Bomb Tracey played.  After the game I was given Chicago's Fred Williams' chin strap, whereupon I was attacked by an older kid.  We went to the ground and I just clutched the chin strap until some adult pulled the kid off me.”

As for my favorite memory of the ol girl? I was a freshman in 1996 working as a student assistant for ‘Cougar Video.’ Taping from on top of the press box, I’ll never forget the scene after a thrilling 56-49 overtime victory over Southern Mississippi in which the Golden Eagles were stopped at the one yard line just plays after the Cougars Antowain Smith scored the game deciding touchdown. The defensive stop, by freshman cornerback William Fields set off a wild celebration in which the fans rushed the field. The Coogs would clinch their first ever CUSA championship the next week with a victory over Louisville. Watching the video tribute on the scoreboard followed by the ceremonial turning out the lights along with that fireworks display after watching seven generations of Cougars hand the ball off to one another with Coach Yeoman being the final person to ever cross the goal line Saturday night also made me shed a tear (or two or three or four). As a life long Cougar athletics fan, I must thank Mr. Gladchuck, Mr. O’Quinn (RIP), and Mr. Moores (among many others) for bringing football back on campus as we enter a new era in Cougars football.

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