The University of Houston’s football program had operated as an independent for much of its history. Prior to the 1976 season, the old Southwest Conference, led up by Texas and Arkansas, opened its doors and let Houston in. The Cougars were anything but timid new arrivals. The 1976 Houston football team not only won a share of the conference title and its coveted Cotton Bowl bid, but they ushered in a brief era where Houston ruled the roost in the old SWC.
There was nothing foreshadowing a special season. Bill Yeoman was in his 15th year on the sidelines, and after nine straight winning seasons, the Cougars had fallen to 2-8 in 1975. Their hopes for rebuilding would hinge on their defense and running game.
Houston’s defensive front was led by Wilson Whitley. The lineman went on to win the Lombardi Award in 1976 and was a top 10 draft pick in the NFL the following spring. The secondary had a pair of ballhawks. Anthony Francis intercepted ten passes and Mark Mohr added six more picks.
The running game was keyed by Alois Blackwell, who ran for 934 yards at better than six a pop. Dyral Thomas was a solid #2 option, rushing for over 500 yards.
Danny Davis was the quarterback and while his 47.8% completion rate was low, it wasn’t unthinkable in this era of college football. Davis did generate big plays, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt. And Davis contributed in the running game, adding over 400 rush yards. Houston would end up in the top nationally for both scoring offense and scoring defense.
An opening day road win over what would prove to be a pretty good Baylor team, 23-5, was promising, but the Cougars promptly lost 49-14 at Florida on September 18.
September 25 was what gave Houston fans real hope that this year would be different. They hosted ninth-ranked Texas A&M. The Aggies had a terrific running back in George Woodward, who would average 144 yards-per-game this season. Houston shut him down. They won that game 21-10, then blew out West Texas A&M two weeks later to move into the Top 20.
Houston thumped SMU, but then dropped a tough 14-7 decision at home to Broyles and Arkansas. The loss sent the Cougars back out of the polls. They began another climb and this time they didn’t stop.
Houston blasted winless TCU to move into the polls and then opened everyone’s eyes when they went into Austin and shut out Texas 30-0. It’s true that was not a vintage Longhorn team for Royals’ final year—they went 5-5-1—but beating Texas in any era is significant and certainly a road shutout in the mid-1970s.
It set up Houston’s biggest game, with unbeaten and fifth-ranked Texas Tech on November 20. The winner would hold the inside track to the Cotton Bowl.
Two second-quarter touchdowns put the Cougars in control, and they led 27-12 in the fourth quarter. Texas Tech made a last-gasp effort. The Red Raiders scored one touchdown to cut the lead to eight. Then they drove to the Houston 10-yard line late in the game.
There was no overtime in college football prior to 1996, but a tie would be as damaging to Houston as a loss. They trailed Texas Tech by a game in the standings. The Cougars needed the outright win and tiebreaker advantage that came with it.
Fittingly, a defensive back making a play was the difference. It wasn’t Francis or Mohr. This time it was Elvis Bradly coming up with the interception that preserved the 27-19 win.
.The victory moved Houston to #7 in the polls and they took care of three-win Rice a week later to sew up the Cotton Bowl spot. A non-conference home win over lowly Miami, 21-16, had the Cougars ranked #6 when New Year’s Day arrived.
A juicy opponent awaited—Maryland was undefeated and ranked #4 in the country. While the Terps were not under serious consideration for the national title, winning this game would still be a prestige win for Houston.
January 1 arrived with the kind of chill blast that’s not uncommon in north Texas and has created some icy Cotton Bowl conditions. This game was one of them. But the Cougars heated up quickly.
Facing a Maryland defense that closed the year with three straight shutouts, Houston drove the field and got an 11-yard touchdown run from Thomas to start the scoring. Then they blocked a punt, setting a up 33-yard scamper from Blackwell. Then they capitalized on a Maryland mistake, recovering a fumble on the Maryland 23. That set up another Blackwell touchdown.
Houston had roared out to a 21-0 lead before fans even got settled in. Then the Terrapins started to chip away. By the third quarter the lead was cut to 27-21. The Cougars were deep in their own end and facing a third down.
Davis met the challenge with a big throw for a first down. Later in the drive, on 4th-and-1, Thomas took off on a 32-yard run. That set up a field goal that gave the Cougars some needed breathing room. And 30-21 is where the game ended.
A year that had started with uncertainty had ended in triumph. Houston was ranked #4 in the final polls. Moreover, this year started a trend. They won conference titles again in 1978 and 1979, capturing another Cotton Bowl victory in ’79. The old Southwest Conference was good to Houston, and it got started right away in that inaugural year of 1976.