Long-Awaited Big East Invite Marks New Era In Cougar Athletics

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 19: University of Houston Frontiersman hold the UH flag and the American flag during the University of Houston school song before the Houston Cougars played the Southern Methodist University Mustangs on November 19, 2011 at Robertson Stadium in Houston, Texas. Houston defeated SMU 37-7. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)

Houston got its major conference invite at long last, leaving Conference USA and the "small school" mentality behind.

The past week hasn't exactly been the most fun in the history of Cougar athletics. The Houston faithful watched a BCS bowl bid slip through their hands, and are now watching their coach flirt with bitter rival Texas A&M. (Or at least former bitter rival, back before Austin, College Station and Waco colluded to keep Houston out of the big boys' conference, and proceeded to pretend like UH didn't exist.)

But while it may not feel like it, this week is actually one of the happiest, and most important in the history of Cougar athletics. Because on Wednesday, we got news that far outweighs the value of any single football game, or any single coach:

Houston was officially accepted as a full member of the Big East Conference.

The tangible benefits are many. The increase in television exposure and revenue will help attract top coaches, and help UH improve its athletic facilities. With a planned (and much needed) brand new football stadium, and upgraded basketball arena in the works, that money can't get to Cullen Boulevard fast enough.

In all sports, the recruiting boon should be immediate. UH has always benefited from being the stay-at-home option for local kids, but now the "as long as you don't mind playing in lowly Conference USA" stigma is no longer there. The University of Houston now allows Houston-area recruits not only to stay home, but to play in a major conference while doing so. And while that doesn't completely level the playing field with schools like Texas-Austin or Texas A&M, in terms of facilities, tradition, or fan base, it is a huge step in the right direction.

Then, of course, there is the automatic bid to a BCS bowl game, should Houston win a football conference championship. The Big East was already the weakest AQ conference, and with the departure of West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, it's even easier to poke fun at the quality of the Big East in football, but the conference's Automatic Qualifying status is unlikely to be revoked. (As has been well detailed here.) In any circumstance, with the addition of teams like Houston and Boise State, and with the shedding of the football dead weight that is Syracuse, the conference will arguably become stronger than it was before.

As exciting as that is for the Houston football program, Cougar basketball will benefit even more. There are a number of candidates for blame when you consider that one of the nation's most storied programs has made the NCAA tournament only once in the past 19 years, but conference affiliation is absolutely one of them. Moving from "lucky to get two NCAA bids" Conference USA to the "A 9-9 team can win the national championship" Big East is like trading in your Kia for a Ferrari. The move does mean that the basketball program (which went 12-18 last year, and is off to just a 4-4 start this year) had better get its act together quickly, but with recruiting already at a Big East level (four national top 100 recruits in two years), the potential for the Cougars to become a national power program once again is certainly there. As long as Hofheinz gets its much-needed facelift, there's no reason the Cougars shouldn't become a force to be reckoned with.

With its location and history of athletic excellence, UH has been a sleeping giant for far too long. If this doesn't wake that giant up, nothing will. It's time to drop the Big XII envy, drop the small-school mentality, and drop the "if only we weren't in Conference USA" excuses. "Occasionally good" is no longer good enough. The University of Houston has been reborn as a true power program, in every sense of the word.

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