The University of Houston has attendance and general fan support issues. I'm not old enough to speak authoritatively to the entire history of the school, but it seems as if it has always been that way. Some of the older fans will tell you that even back in the days of Phi Slamma Jamma, when UH's basketball teams starred the likes of Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, games at Hofheinz Pavilion rarely sold out. For all of Houston's glory days in football, including a 1989 Heisman Trophy season by Andre Ware, support was never that great.
Fingers have been pointed at a million culprits - many of which are actually legitimate, and which have combined to create the lack of support UH has suffered through:
-Houston is a commuter school. Most students drive to school in the morning, go to class, and then drive back, never getting involved on campus, or going to games.
-Houston isn't a tier one university (yet), and isn't in as good a conference as many of the other schools in the state of Texas. Consequently, students, alumni and T-shirt fans of schools like Texas-Austin, Texas A&M, and even Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU tend to look down on UH. Rather than having a chip on their shoulder, and choosing to be proud of their school, many Houston students over the years have felt a measurable embarrassment about their college choice.
-UH doesn't enjoy support from the city at large, because there is quite simply too much else to do in Houston on any given day. While having a huge potential fan base to draw from seems like an advantage, it often isn't. Schools in small towns often draw better than schools in large cities, in part due to the fact that they are the only game in town. Why go to a UH game if I'm going to the Texans/Astros/Rockets tomorrow?
The excuses go on and on, followed closely by the hand-wringing from the small, loyal fan base that actually does show up. Heck, the first thing I ever wrote on the Internet about UH sports was a piece complaining about basketball attendance.
Now if there's anything as closely associated with being a Houston fan as complaining about attendance, it's the one optimistic fan who always thinks things are about to change. A running joke among the Cougar faithful is that we are always "this close" to things getting better.
So while this may seem trite to those who have heard it a thousand times before, I don't think the University of Houston has to worry about being "this close" any more. We've turned the corner. We've reached the tipping point. After this weekend, for a million little reasons, I am sure of it.
On Friday, I worked ball crew at a UH volleyball game - the school's home opener. I've been doing that for four years now. But on Friday, I saw something I've never seen before. I saw probably 40-45 students there. Not just the athletes from other sports who kind of have to show up now and then. Regular students who made the beautiful decision that they had nothing better to do on a Friday evening than walk across campus, and support their school's volleyball team. And stand and cheer the whole time. It was a loud, electric atmosphere. It felt like being at a big school in a college town.
On Saturday, I soaked up the tailgating experience. Houston sold out all of its available student tailgating spots before the beginning of the season, a first in school history. The line of students trying to get into the stadium early was massive, hours before kickoff. It felt like the Texas Tech game last year. And that's when it hit me.
The excitement about this game, Houston versus Texas State, felt like the Texas Tech game last year. What I said earlier, about UH being looked down upon by other schools, is absolutely a part of our identity. That's why I'll always believe that the Cougars defeating the Red Raiders last year meant infinitely more to this school than just another tally in the win column. That game confirmed UH students were already starting to suspect - that everybody else looks down on us, but that's why it's great to be a Cougar, because screw them, we're every bit the school they are, whether they like it or not!
That's all fine and good, but the sad fact of that matter is that football attendance dipped back down below 22,500 for two of the next four Cougar home games. The students and fans showed up to see their team stick it to Texas Tech, but still weren't coming out just to support the home team on principle, regardless of opponent.
But that's precisely what they did on Saturday. The fans packed Robertson Stadium, and created a tangible feeling of excitement over a game against a 1-AA opponent, just because Houston was playing.
Then an incident that occurred in the second half confirmed that the University of Houston will no longer take any sort of belittling from the "bigger and better" schools in Texas lying down. A couple kids showed up in the student section wearing burnt orange shirts with the Longhorn logo. In years past, this may not have raised eyebrows. In years past, there may not have been enough kids wearing red and filling up the section for such a thing to be noticeable. In 2010, the Cougar student section promptly proceeded to not stand for that crap.
Quite literally the entire section began chanting "UT SUCKS!"
The kids in burnt orange alternated flipping the bird, and raising the "Hook 'em Horns" sign.
University President Renu Khator came by to talk to the kids (one of whom was a UH student), and persuade them to put on some red.
The crowd yelled at them some more.
At some point, one of the UT fans got paint thrown at him. Depending on who tells the story, it was permanent paint or it wasn't. The UT fan threw a punch, or the UH fan did, or they both did. The details may be important to the feelings of those directly involved. But they're not to me.
What is important to me is that, as CoogFans poster CraigTheCougar put it, "'Whose house?' is not just a chant."
Another poster, Lawdog1, summed up the day thus, "As a Class of 1992 alum who has sat through an ungodly amount of bad football in empty stadiums over the years, it almost brought a tear to my eye last night to see thousands of students in a sold-out stadium cheering on one of the best teams in Texas.
And now, those students laying down the law to Longhorn fans? Now I do have a tear in my eye. Friggin' ay, that's awesome.
No, the University of Houston is not currently in as good a conference as it should. The facilities need some improvement, and fan support for non-football sports (especially men's hoops) could use improvement. In that sense, maybe we still are only "this close" as an institution.
But look around. We're close enough that the view looks awfully nice from here.