To Build a Red House

The Cougars are hammering away, and using the model developed by Coach Yeoman of an innovative offense, an aggressive defense, an arduous but beneficial off-season program, and strong recruiting within the state of Texas, within a year or two, they are going to erect a palatial, red mansion that will stand for years to come.

Other than perhaps the Almighty, no one should be immune from criticism; however, when I hear complaints about Coach Briles and the University of Houston football program, I'm sorely tempted to act like someone disturbed by a noisy bunch of teenagers in a theater and let out a boisterous, "Shuddup!" The truth is the coaches are finally about to lay a solid foundation. It's been a long time coming! Critics should note that when Art Briles and his staff arrived at UH, the football team had compiled a miserable 32-79-1 record over the past 10 years, 40-93-1 in the previous 12. The Cougars were flying high before the 90s, so the fall was precipitous. Under Coach Bill Yeoman, UH was almost annually one of the top two or three programs in the state. Bowl games and Top 20 finishes came nearly as often as Christmas. The Cougars were respected as a national power. But in 1991, Shasta was declawed. After climbing as high as #3 in the nation in 1990, it was almost all downhill afterward. Cougars fans, then, must realize that the odds have been against Briles and his staff. The foundation was cracked, flooded, and filled with all sorts of pesky insects. A decade-long tradition of losing, apathy among fans and media, years of poor recruiting and frayed relationships with high school coaches, and a revolving door in the athletic director's office have made the job of building this red house one meant only for the most determined football architect. But with apologies to Henrik Ibsen, the Cougars' construction team is led by a master builder. The Cougars are hammering away, and using the model developed by Coach Yeoman of an innovative offense, an aggressive defense, an arduous but beneficial off-season program, and strong recruiting within the state of Texas, within a year or two, they are going to erect a palatial, red mansion that will stand for years to come.

So what causes this optimism? Let's start with the numbers. Coming into a situation not unlike what Kim Helton and Dana Dimel faced, the new staff has compiled a regular season mark of 10-13. No, that isn't going to be quite enough for enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame, but compare that nearly .500 mark to the first two years of Helton and Dimel. Helton was 2-19-1 in his first two campaigns, Dimel 3-19. So Coach Briles has won twice as many games in his first two years as Helton and Dimel combined did in their first two seasons at UH. In 1994, Houston was 92nd out of 92 teams in points scored per game. Under Coach Briles in 2003, the Cougars were 12th in the nation in total offense and 16th in points scored. Defense? In 2001, the Coogs gave up nearly 40 points and 436 yards per game; only three Division I-A schools fared worse. In Coach Briles' second season at the helm, the Cougars finished near the middle of the Division I-A pack defensively, giving up less than 400 yards per contest despite playing scoring machines such as Louisville, Miami, and Oklahoma. No, neither the ‘03 nor ‘04 defense will remind longtime Cougar fans of the ‘79 or ‘81 or ‘89 units, but if the Cougars can consistently put together the kind of offensive performance they had in ‘03 with even a representative defense, one that doesn't rank at or near the bottom of college football in practically every statistic, hey, happy days are here again! But even so, Coach Briles wants a better, more active defense, and he brought in one of the state's best defensive minds in veteran coach Alan Waddell to lend his expertise to the staff. The Cougars have switched to a 3-4 and will field a more aggressive, ball-hawking defense.

Art Briles learned under Bill Yeoman. While a player at UH, he would watch film with his head coach and learn the intricacies of the game. He also learned how to win. The Cougars were SWC champions and finished #4 in the nation in Briles' last year at Houston. But he also learned something even more important for Cougar fans: he learned what it takes to win at UH. Cougars know their school is unique in the college football world. Located in the largest city in the South and the fourth largest in the United States, the competition for the entertainment dollar is stiff; moreover, UH comes in third or fourth in the public university pecking order in the Lone Star State, at least in terms of political clout and often perception. And now the Cougars have been relegated to a mid-major conference by the powers that be in the state. But guess what? Bill Yeoman faced almost all of those problems when he arrived and made UH a perennial national power. No, the Cougars weren't in a mid-major conference. They left the Missouri Valley Conference in 1959 to become an independent, but the situation is still similar today in that UH is not in the major regional conference just as it wasn't in the SWC when Coach Yeoman took the reins of the program. So the paradigm is there, and while Art Briles is a leader and not a follower, there is nothing wrong with copying success. Who blames Barry Switzer for riding Darrell Royal's wishbone to national titles or, for that matter, John Wooden for implementing Guy Lewis's presses into his defensive scheme at UCLA?

The most recognizable Yeomanesque trait Cougar fans will see with Briles is an exciting, innovative, big point-producing offense. No term has yet been coined for the offense. It will be tough to top "the veer," but maybe there's another Tommy Bonk, the Houston Post sports writer who christened the Final Four teams of the 80s "Phi Slamma Jamma," out there who will watch the Cougars put up 60 on someone and think of the perfect appellation. But nickname or not, one can count on Art Briles' coached teams racking up yards, first downs, and points much as Bill Yeoman's teams did in the late 60s and early 70s and also like the Coogs of the run-n-shoot era. But what about last year? That was an aberration. When the new staff got to UH, there were only seven scholarship offensive linemen on campus, a frightening predicament, and, moreover, of those seven, three were seniors, one later quit the program, and one was moved to tight end. So in ‘04, Briles and offensive line coaches Mike Spradlin and Randy Clements were forced to start a true freshman, but one destined for stardom, a redshirt freshman, and a redshirt sophomore transfer, who was for all intents and purposes a redshirt freshman, in the offensive line. As Bill Yeoman might say, "That's hard cheese!" Every knowledgeable football fan understands that it all starts up front. So there just wasn't the talent on hand to move the ball successfully and score points like Cougar fans will see once the linemen Coach Briles has signed start coming of age. Briles' philosophy of signing at least four offensive linemen each year and developing them within the system is a big part of building that red house. There are still some concerns concerning the ‘05 offensive line, but it will be much improved over last year's unit. But despite freshmen starting in the offensive line and at least three green receivers playing key roles, the Cougars still managed to finish just 10 yards shy of averaging 400 yards per game; moreover, Kevin Kolb finished 16th nationally in passing and 23rd in total offense, amazing feats when you take into account his supporting cast, which was largely inexperienced and not quite ready for prime time. Anyone can look at the stats from the previous year when Briles' offense scored 40 or more points seven times and averaged 458 yards per game to realize what his offense, which was led that season by a true freshman quarterback, is capable of doing. That wasn't a fluke, and that kind of production is going to be the norm rather than the exception from here on out.

Undeniably, the defense has been something of a disappointment, though strides were clearly made last year, and Briles is doing everything within his power to restore the Mad Dog tradition that held sway at UH for some 20 years. Much like the offensive line in ‘04, the defensive talent just wasn't there in ‘03. But the Cougars moved up from near the bottom of the national heap in ‘03 defensive stats to about the middle of the pack last year, not great by any means but an improvement nonetheless, especially considering that more than half the Coogs' opponents ranked somewhere between #1 (Louisville) and #23 in points scored per game. In an effort to make the defense more aggressive and make use of the mother lode of athleticism the Cougars have at linebacker, Briles hired Alan Weddell, a legendary high school coach at LaMarque, who went on to become the linebacker coach of the Wrecking Crew at Texas A&M; he's also one of the state's best recruiters. Simply put, Briles could not have hired a better defensive coach. But he did bring in one other, purloining Clay Jennings, an experienced hand at recruiting the Houston area, from Louisiana-Lafayette to coach the Cougar safeties. In another move, Rodney Blackshear, a former Houston Reagan Bulldog and Texas Tech Red Raider, takes over as wide receivers coach while Jason Phillips will now work with the cornerbacks. So, Briles saw that the defense needed work, and changes were made. Cougar fans may now look forward to a defense that won't sit back on its heels. The new, blitz-oriented defense may give up a big play every now and then, but it will also register more fumbles, interceptions, and sacks. If Lance Everson and Will Gulley were both healthy, this could be the best Cougar defense since ‘99. It still could be, but Gulley needs to get healthy, and someone needs to step up at right tackle and inside linebacker. The Cougars signed several talented defensive prospects from the California junior college ranks, and how quickly they progress will be another key. So, admittedly, arguing that defense under Briles is or will be reminiscent of Yeoman's defenses, units that often ranked among the best in the nation, probably needs a great Cougar lawyer such as John O'Quinn, Racehorse Haynes, or even our own Coog57, Jim Perdue, to make the case; nonetheless, Briles will get the defense there because he's willing to shake up the staff if necessary, he's brought in a strong defensive mind to help develop the new, more aggressive 3-4 that he is implementing, and he's signing the kind of athlete that will help build that red house. More than likely, the Cougars will start no more than three, possibly four seniors on defense this season. Players such as ‘04 freshmen starters Rocky Schwartz and Brendan Pahulu, among others, are going to be around for a few more years, and by the time they are seniors, they're likely to be working on the roof since the foundation will have long since been repaired.

One of the trademarks of the Bill Yeoman era was the off-season program administered by trainer Tom Wilson, one of the all-time great Cougars. And the defining trait of that program was toughness. Quitters and those who didn't want to be the best need not apply. Wilson instilled a mental and physical toughness in the players, not to mention getting them in top physical condition, that could make the difference in close games. Now Coach Briles isn't running a modern version of Bear Bryant's Junction, but the weight-lifting program at UH does require dedication and a strong will to excel, much as Tom Wilson's program did. When he first met with the team, Briles asked the players how many days per week they had to work out. When he heard the answer was "three," he immediately replied, "It's now five." That seems like a lot, but players do get time off for classroom achievement. Besides, as tough a job as building this house is, maybe the crew needs to stay on the job rather than take four days off every week.

But if Coach Briles can't repair the damaged recruiting pipelines to the Houston area and East Texas, he may as well build a house without indoor plumbing, and nobody wants that! Bill Yeoman made a living off signing many of the best kids from the Piney Woods and from right here in his own backyard, and he mixed them with some players from the Metroplex, Central Texas, and occasionally even a few from out in West Texas, where he found a speedy high school quarterback named Art Briles. Coach Briles is taking the same approach. He wants to hit Houston hard, he's made some big moves in East Texas, and he's also brought in some good kids from other parts of the state. Like most everything else involved in this building job, recruiting has been a tough slog. The Cougars don't play in a BCS conference, and they don't get the fanfare that two or three other state schools do. So it's been difficult to sign players like Wilson Whitley, Hosea Taylor, and David Hodges, the blue chippers that Coach Yeoman used to haul in. But Briles has signed a few difference-makers, and he already has commitments for next year's class from two pre-season Top 100 prospects in Wayne Daniels and Lon Roberts, both of Kilgore in East Texas. UH has also signed players from Jasper, Lufkin, Port Arthur. And speaking of our own back yard, how about the two kids from Houston Yates that cast their lot with the Cougars, Quinte Williams and Quentin Smith? Other local schools recently sending players to UH include Smiley, Baytown Lee, Alief Hastings, Friendswood, and Fort Bend Kempner, to name a few. The Coogs have also had success in the Metroplex, Central Texas, and West Texas. Briles is very much like his mentor in that he has a keen eye for talent. It was Briles who convinced Mike Leach to sign an unheralded receiver named "Wes Welker." Despite the plethora of combines and camps and video and you-name-it, there are still a few kids who go unnoticed. Briles has connections throughout the state, which make it that much easier to nab those kids who fly under the radar. And winning and continuity will make it easier to sign those players coveted by the name programs. It will always be a battle, but one at which Coach Briles and his staff will win their share. As mentioned, they're off to a great start. Look for the Cougars to sign their best class in February since the ‘01 group that included Anthony Evans, Carlos Jones, Jeff Mayhew, Theadric Lee, and other Top 100 prospects. But only one of those players is still in the program. Coach Briles wants to sign players who will be around for the long haul. That's what is needed to build that red house.

No one is claiming the Cougars are going to win the national championship, but they could win Conference USA, and they have a good to excellent chance of going bowling for the second time in three years. Think about that! Before Briles arrived in 2003, the University of Houston went to one bowl game in the previous 14 years! I would call that major improvement! By following the model set by Bill Yeoman of installing a fun-to-watch, record-shattering-type offense, a quick, gambling defense, a strenuous off-season program, and improving recruiting, Briles and his staff are well on the way to building a red house that all Cougar fans will want to see.

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