Like Temple, Houston strives for athletic relevance

Posted: December 23, 2013

HOUSTON - Much like Temple, its doppleganger 1,350 miles to the northeast, the University of Houston employs billboards in an attempt to upgrade its profile in a city where the pro and college sports scene is as congested as the highways.

Sprinkled amid the tangle of interstates that encircle this city's shimmering downtown, the colorful signs feature upbeat messages, smiling Cougar athletes, and the school's redesigned red-and-white logo.

Houston and Temple, as it turns out, have much more in common than a penchant for roadside marketing.

Both are members of the American Athletic Conference. Both are urban, state-affiliated institutions. Both are traditional commuter schools looking to house more students on campus. Both have undergrad populations near 24,000, will have 17 sports teams next year, and athletic budgets in excess of $35 million.

And both, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their location at the heart of two large American cities, have athletic-inferiority complexes.

But where this tale of two city schools diverges, as became clear earlier this month when Temple eliminated seven teams, is in the immediate outlooks for their athletic programs.

In a landscape where football revenue is the key to sports success, Temple's ambitions continue to be restricted by its lack of both a stadium and a sizable fan base.

Houston, meanwhile, despite decades of similar struggles, has decided to broaden its athletic ambitions. Whether or not its efforts prove successful, they have enlivened this big campus in Texas' largest city.

A $125 million football stadium, with two tiers of luxury suites and its own dedicated light-rail station, will debut next fall.

The basketball team is constructing a new practice facility and thoroughly revamping its 10,000-seat Hofheinz Pavilion. The adjacent baseball stadium has been renovated and refitted with artificial turf.

And, far from cutting teams (as Temple did with baseball, softball, men's gymnastics, men's indoor track and outdoor track and field, and men's and women's rowing), Houston has actually added one for next year, women's golf.

"I really believe this program can be nationally relevant again," Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades said during a lengthy interview last week. "And obviously football is the huge driving force in that."

The answer to what differentiates Houston from Temple in December 2013 is, sadly, an all-too-familiar one - money.

Under Rhoades, whose resumé is heavy on fund-raising, and aided by a buoyant Texas economy and revived alumni spirit, Houston has been hell-bent on enhancing revenue.

The new stadium, of course, is the strategy's centerpiece. But marketing and merchandising contracts have been renegotiated. Ticket-sales staffs have grown. Student fees have increased.

And potential donors, some enriched by the recent oil and gas boom that has Houston as its capital city, have been tapped as never before.

"When I arrived, I really thought we were what I'd term an inbound company," Rhoades said. "We waited for people to call us. We needed to get out in the community. I've got a simple philosophy: You don't G-E-T unless you A-S-K."

It appears to be W-O-R-K-I-N-G.

In four years at the helm, Rhoades has tied his revenue goals to facility renewal. A new stadium, he understood, would make it easier to find new donors. So, armed with detailed plans, he set out on a contribution quest.

"There's nothing magical about it," he explained. "We put together a vision, and we've been able to go out and talk to people about that vision, to sell that vision.

"When it came to the stadium, before we asked people to get involved, we needed to let them know we'd done our due diligence, that we'd spent a lot of time and thought on what we were showing them."

The stadium will seat 40,000 and can easily accommodate large or small expansions. One end, which will remain permanently open, will frame the glass spires of Houston's downtown skyline.

The two dozen suites, many loge boxes, and club seats will be built in the middle of the home team's grandstands and not, as is usually the case, on top.

"The views of the field," said David Bassity, Houston's assistant athletic director for communications, "will be amazing."

A successful drive to raise $80 million, the minimum needed for groundbreaking, was kick-started by a $10 million gift from an alumni couple who had founded an Austin high-tech firm.

A few months later, a surprisingly compliant student senate approved a $50 hike in student-athletic fees - from $190 to $240 a semester - to help fund the facility.

"The great news is we're building a brand-new stadium," said Rhoades, minutes after touring the construction site with several large contributors. "The bad news is we're building a brand-new stadium.

"It's an expensive project. It's overwhelming. It's time-consuming. It's all-hands-on-deck. But it's something to sell to recruits and our alumni."

As recently as three years ago, Houston's alumni were apathetic, and the school returned the favor. Contributions to the athletic scholarship fund barely topped $1 million, and football season-ticket sales totaled just 6,000.

Last year, season-ticket sales reached a record 13,000. That total is expected to climb higher as the stadium opening nears and an enhanced sales staff goes to work. Scholarship-fund donations hit $3.5 million.

The transformation, as much psychological as tangible, took hold quickly.

Soon after 70-year-old Robertson Stadium was leveled in 2012, cranes rose like church spires on this 667-acre campus that abuts Interstate 45.

The school's past sports glories were employed as a means of igniting a successful future.

A sports Hall of Honor, fronted by a statue of UH track legend Carl Lewis, was opened in the Athletics/Alumni Center, a floor below Rhoades' office.

Across the street, an azalea garden has been dedicated to late basketball coach Guy Lewis and his wife. A field house was named for former football coach Bill Yeoman.

"The sports history here is pretty amazing," said Bassity. "We've had 66 Olympians, including Carl and Carol Lewis [from Willingboro High] and Leroy Burrell [from Penn Wood]. Freddie Couples played golf here."

Cougar basketball legends include Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Don Chaney. Besides Couples, its golfers have included John Mahaffey, Homero Blancas, Kermit Zarley, and CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz. Numbered among the famous football grads are Wade Phillips, Andre Ware, and Riley Odoms.

But after the NCAA sanctioned football in the late 1980s, the athletic program slumped badly.

The 1995 breakup of the Southwestern Conference and Houston's subsequent entry into the Midwest-based Conference USA left football without a strong regional identity. Robertson Stadium was considered so inadequate that for a time the Cougars played in the Astrodome or elsewhere. As a result, Houston's football record since 1990 is a mediocre 123-150.

Basketball crashed hard, too. A program that had made 18 NCAA appearances through 1992 has had just one since (2010).

Men's swimming and diving were dropped in 1984, men's tennis three years later. Even golf, which had won 16 NCAA titles, fell off the map in recent years.

Not surprisingly, Houston's meager athletic contributions were in another zip code from the amounts pulled in by in-state rivals such as Baylor, Texas, and Texas A&M.

Meanwhile, the facilities that had sustained UH success, and which are essential elements in the new college sports paradigm, grew old and obsolete.

When Rhoades arrived in 2009 from Akron, where he'd also shepherded the construction of a new football stadium, he saw that his revenue-raising dreams would require a much-improved football stadium and basketball arena.

Texas is awash in big-time college sports programs. Most, as a result of successful fund-raising, have state-of-the-art arenas, stadiums, and practice facilities.

Houston's, by comparison, looked ancient.

"We made that a priority," said Rhoades. "We decided we needed either a new football stadium or basketball arena. We could have renovated the old stadium, but to get people excited and raise the type of money we needed to raise, we needed something brand new. So I went out and started selling that idea."

For all its revenue enhancements, Houston athletics - like Temple's and most athletic departments' - is not yet a profit-making enterprise.

UH athletics requires subsidies from the university's general fund - 2 percent of its $35 million budget, or $700,000, in 2013.

Still, this nascent turnaround has been so encouraging that last year Houston bucked the national trend toward sports retrenchment and added the women's golf team.

While the move clearly helped the school comply with Title IX requirements, it brought other benefits.

"We're in a state where people play golf all year round," Rhoades said.

A contract with the courses used by the men's team was renegotiated. And golf, with its upscale connections, helped in fund-raising.

The school, the AD admitted, has also looked at adding gymnastics. In an area that is home to some of the nation's top gymnasts and legendary coach Bela Karolyi's academy, that seems like a no-brainer.

Not long ago, all contributions to Houston athletics went to a general fund. While that fund still exists, individual sports can now do their own fund-raising.

"We had golfers who wanted to give back, but they wanted to support men's golf and men's golf only," Rhoades said. "Do you leave that money on the table? We didn't think that was smart, so we've allowed our programs to raise money. Our annual fund has increased and yet our fund-raising for specific sports programs has flourished as well."

Ultimately, the success of Houston's sports renaissance will be measured by the level of penetration it manages in a city with NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball franchises, and in a state whose college sports tastes have long leaned toward Texas and Texas A&M.

"We've had to fight, scratch, and claw to become relevant, not just in this city but in the state," Rhoades said. "By no means do I think we've conquered that. But we've made inroads."

Maybe someday Temple can say the same.


Temple and Houston by the Numbers

How do Temple and Houston compare? Here are some numbers from the most recent Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act form, which must be filed annually.

   Temple   Houston   

Undergraduate students   24,230   23,187   

Number of sports   24*   17   

Athletic budget   $41,558,322   $35,514,862   

Head coaches' salaries   $3,125,118   $2,249,237   

* Will drop to 17 beginning in the fall of 2014.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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