UH Football and Money
The Houston Cougars open its much anticipated 2016 season against perennial Big 12 power, the Oklahoma Sooners, Saturday in a highly anticipated game where UH hopes to solidify its status as a program deserving of Big 12 inclusion. The program’s efforts to maintain its success following a winning season and American Conference Championship are evident in the university’s commitment to heavily invest in the future of its football program.
While the program’s investments may seem like a good thing for the football program, some students observe better usage of the funds. A year after the University of Houston closed out a winning 2015 season with the Peach Bowl Championship, art student Yetzah Noyola, a senior at UH, returns to class dismayed at the lack of new equipment available.
“A lot of the equipment we have for our classes is really old, some equipment has even been there since UH was first opened. Some classes have to be smaller because of the lack of equipment, and I think that’s unfair to students who really want to take a class but can’t because there’s not enough equipment for everyone,” she said.
Noyola’s concerns with how the university’s funds (or lack of funds) are distributed are common, especially as the increase in UH football spending continues to make headlines.
In 2014, the University of Houston completed the TDECU football stadium, which exceeded the initial cost of $105 million by more than $20 million, according to a budget presentation by UH’s Chief of Financial Operations Carl Carlucci. Half of the additional cost came from student fees. And during his whirlwind opening campaign at UH, Rockstar Head Football coach Tom Herman’s salary was a trending topic on Facebook, as he became the highest paid coach at UH and from a Group of Five school with a robust $3 million annually making its way to Herman’s Direct Deposit, according to ESPN.go.com.
Speculators believe these investments are necessary in order to boost the football program’s recognition and with it, the school’s. Conrad Garcia, Editor in Chief of The Overtime Page, explains the impact that a successful football team can have within the school and its appeal to future students.
“Successful football programs, especially in Texas, help establish a bigger and better culture in the school because there are so many events that rally around football, and if you’re winning, people want to be more involved and be a part of that lifestyle. More culture and winning means more students want to join your university and be a part of that culture,” he said.
Last year, UH brought an American Athletic Conference trophy to its new stadium and finished No.8 in the final AP poll. With the Cougar’s success, the stadium drew crowds that filled up nearly every seat in the house.
“Oh yeah, I definitely saw an increase in the crowd,” said Efrain Lopez, a senior who has attended every game since he started going to UH in 2013. “It made me mad because so many were bandwagon fans, but then again it’s a good thing.”
But not everyone was pleased with the bump in attendance, including Herman. “I’m confused when I ask Cougar Nation why they’re not at every home game,” the then first-year coach told The Houston Press. According to the UH website, UH averaged only 32,592 fans, good for only fifth best in 12-team AAC, a paltry number for a team that was undefeated for most of the season.
Student Government Association Director of Public Relations Dena Moghtader agrees that student participation at the stadium has inflated, but stressed that participation should be a basic student duty.
“I do think that having a good football team can positively impact student engagement, but I don’t think that it should have that big of an impact when we should always be supporting any of our teams whether it’s for athletics, music, or debates. We should always be supporting one another because we are one student body,” she said.
The program’s football supporters argue that a successful team will draw the media’s attention and bring money that could be spent to improve academics.
Charles Crixell, a former Sports Editor at the Houston Chronicle, connects the dots between sports revenue and education.
“There is a correlation between a winning athletic program, in general, and funding for sure. The program makes money, that’s gonna help. If you have more funding, you have more resources, and you can throw those toward academics,” he said.
Moghtader observed that certain departments on campus could greatly benefit from those resources.
“I feel some of the classrooms, especially in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Science classrooms have very outdated desks, and could use some renovation,” she said.
While there seems to be plenty of benefits to investing in athletics, some students question whether this can ultimately advance the school’s overall national success.
“Although it does bring revenue and recognition to the school, it does not mean that it brings better teachers. It does not mean that its academics are at par with other schools,” said Edward Sanchez, a junior studying business at UH. “For example, Harvard is not a well-known school because of its football program. It’s not the most intellectual school in the world because of its football, or Yale, or Stanford.”
Sanchez believes UH’s football program should not overspend if it finds itself unable to compete with bigger teams at the expense of letting the university’s other needs suffer.
“If you focus spending on football, you kind of neglect the other pieces, which are education and hiring better teachers. The loss of good teaching is very prevalent. I can feel it in classrooms,” he said.
Despite the recent success, UH faces constant criticism as many undermine the program’s long-term talent prospects. Crixell notes that critics say the Cougars have been successful merely because they have played weaker or lower-ranked teams. He evaluates when the program would be overspending its means.
“If you do play bigger programs and they just wipe the floor with you, then you take a step back because the things that everyone was saying are true,” he said.
But not everyone is as bearish on the Coog’s future prospects – Garcia is optimistic about the direction of the Cougars thanks to the rejuvenated attitude and overall improvement under Herman.
“Building a successful program begins and ends with your staff. UH brought in Tom Herman from a very successful Ohio State program, and it’s moves like that that prove to recruits that UH wants to win, and they will do it by any means necessary,” he said.
Fred Davis, co-host of The HD Show on ESPN 97.5 FM here in Houston, is adamant that it’s how a program spends it’s money is paramount to a program’s success.
“Like anything, you have to invest wisely. Plenty of Power 5 schools spend millions on football and don’t sniff bowls or have success. But when you invest in the right coaches, that’s ultimately what makes the most financial sense. Michigan spent millions on Rich Rodriguez and they suffered. Jim Harbaugh comes in, and in year two, they’re a National Title favorite.”
Crixell remarks that even if the University of Houston were to show consistency in its achievements, there is a large obstacle in its path to permanent and future triumph.
“If you spend money and then you are successful, you’ll make money. But the key to that is being successful. The risk with a program like (UH) is if the coach goes away, then you start over. It has already happened twice with recent successful [UH] teams. Art Briles went to Baylor, Kevin Sumlin went to A & M, both in bigger programs,” he said.
If UH wants a return on its investment in order to increase school recognition and become profitable, it must keep winning and win big on the national stage, like on Saturday’s tilt with OU. It’s the only way to prevent Herman from being tempted to jump to a bigger, more prominent program. If UH can sustain its run, UH may ultimately find itself in the Big 12.
Davis believes UH must make its way to the Big 12.
“The future is simple – keep Tom Herman, keep winning games and get into the Big 12. That’s the only play,” he said. “These moves where you take out of region schools and plop them in Big Conferences is stupid. Why would Houston want to venture out of Texas to play the Pac-12? Expand your footprint? Sure. But in the end, the rivalries don’t make sense and they never catch fire, and then no one’s going to care. Join the Big 12? Now, you line up against Big 12 foes, those rivalries are real, and that’s what gets fans, recruits and players excited.”