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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 8, 2003

Houston has recovered from past problems

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer

"Alooooha, Cougar football," is how they are answering the phones these days at the University of Houston football office.


"We have no idea what 'aloha' means yet, but we sure like saying it," acknowledged Art Briles, the Cougars' head coach.

Houston's impending trip here for the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl and its 3 p.m. Christmas Day meeting with the University of Hawai'i (8-5) at Aloha Stadium have put a festive exclamation point on a 7-5 finish for a team that had been expected to suffer through another painful rebuilding year.

After three consecutive losing seasons, including 0-11 in 2001, and the coaching change that came with them, the Cougars were picked to finish 10th in the 11-team Conference USA in many preseason polls and magazines.

But in Briles' first season the Cougars won five of their first six games and finished 7-5 (4-4 in C-USA) to earn the school's first bowl berth in seven years.

Normally, that would have consigned the Cougars to one of the last of the five bowls with which C-USA has ties. But when Texas Christian balked at returning to the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and C-USA chose to reshuffle the lineup to accommodate the Horned Frogs, Houston figured it hit the jackpot.

"We kind of crashed the party, so to speak," Briles said. "I mean, it didn't take us long to accept (the bowl invitation). I think we accepted before they finished asking. There are worse places to play a bowl and our team was pretty excited about going to a bowl and going to Hawai'i."

The Cougars got their bid with a freshman quarterback and a head coach just three years removed from coaching high school.

"I guess we were the surprise team; everybody picked us for the bottom," Briles said. "But we won the games we had to win in the conference and it has allowed us to make this trip over there."

Briles ran a well-recognized program at Stephenville (Texas) High, a town of about 25,000 outside Fort Worth, where he won four 4-A titles in the 1990s. In one stretch his teams went 90-2 and set several state offensive records.

Briles then spent three years as an assistant at Texas Tech before Houston hired him to be its head coach, the first ex-Cougar to do so.

"I talked to Cliff Kingsbury, who had been their (Tech's) quarterback and he told me Art knew as much about football as anybody he'd met," said Dave Maggard, Houston's athletic director.

As part of his first recruiting class, Briles, 47, brought in Kevin Kolb, who had been a freshman at Stephenville during his tenure.

Kolb (pronounced Cobb) was named C-USA freshman of the year after passing for 23 touchdowns and 2,771 yards and just four interceptions.

He also rushed for 339 yards and seven touchdowns.

"This bowl game and the opportunity to play Hawai'i is a reward for us," Maggard said. "After the job our kids and our coaches did, we can't think of a better place for them to go."

Tickets are available at the Aloha Stadium Box Office, the Stan Sheriff Center Box Office, by calling 944-BOWS or online at etickethawaii.com.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8044.