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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 22, 2003

Houston bouncing back with Briles

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer

A new head coach and staff.

"It has been quite a season," coach Art Briles says, "and we're excited about finishing it in Hawai'i."

University of Houston photo

A freshman starting at quarterback.

A lot of new faces and new schemes.

When the University of Houston football team began two-a-day practices four months ago, it looked like the recipe for exactly the poor season everyone was predicting.

Indeed, the Conference USA coaches and media picked the Cougars to struggle to a 10th place finish in an 11-team league where Army, which would go an NCAA record 0-13, was holding down the cellar.

Houston's plight was echoed by most of the preaseason magazines. The Sporting News picked Houston 106th among 117 Division I-A teams.

That was on paper. But a funny thing happened on the field. The Cougars pounded cross-town rival Rice, 48-14, in a season opener that wasn't that close — and kept going.

Before they knew it, the Cougars had won five of their first six games. Then, after a midseason letdown, Houston came back to win two of its last three games and earn a spot opposite Hawai'i in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl.

Two seasons removed from the depths of 0-11, the Cougars find themselves at 7-5 and in their first bowl game in seven years.

A team that had barely dared to dream of a bowl when the season began finds itself on national cable.

Small wonder folks around the Houston football office were answering the phone, 'Aloooha, Cougar football," after bowl bids were announced.

"The trip to Hawai'i is an appropriate reward for our players and coaches," said Dave Maggard, Houston's athletic director. "They did a wonderful job to get us there."

After attempting to install a new offense in the spring, the Cougars found themselves without their top two quarterbacks in the fall. One transferred and the other became an academic casualty.

Then, Kevin Kolb, one of the more heavily recruited Texas high school quarterbacks just a matter of months earlier, won the job, becoming the school's first true freshman to start at the position.

Until the Cougars hit a mid-season slump, at times it would be hard to tell that Kolb wasn't a more seasoned performer. Kolb (pronounced Cobb) passed for 2,779 yards, the most by any freshman in Division I-A, and 23 touchdowns with just four interceptions.

Helped, no doubt, by his familiarity with the spread offense that he had run in high school at Stephenville (Texas) High, the launching pad of head coach Art Briles, Kolb didn't miss many beats and was named the C-USA newcomer of the year and College Football News freshman offensive player of the year.

It was just a year ago this month that Briles was given the job of turning around the fortunes of a program that had averaged just three wins a season for a decade. Houston hasn't had back-to-back winning seasons since 1989-90, the days when Andre Ware and David Klingler were rewriting passing records.

Maggard, a former Olympic shot putter who had been athletic director at California and Miami, conducted what was termed a "nationwide" search to fill the opening left by the firing of Dana Dimel. But he ultimately found his man in-state and in the Cougar family.

Briles, the first Houston alumnus to coach the Cougars, was a wide receiver on the school's 1976 Cotton Bowl team, but made his name as an offensive innovator at Stephenville (Texas) High, where he won four Class 4-A state titles in the 1990s and was 136-29-2 in 12 seasons. At one point, he had a 90-2 run. His 1998 team set a national record with 8,650 yards of total offense.

Then, Briles took up the challenge of college as an offensive assistant for three seasons at Texas Tech. "I had a fun time coaching high school and really enjoyed my time there," Briles said. "I just felt like I needed to do something else. I felt like I needed a new challenge."

Briles said, "I guess, in the back of your mind, you always wonder what you'd do different and how your philosophies would do somewhere else."

What he brought to Houston was both a balanced offense and a new attitude.

"There really isn't that much of a difference (on various coaching levels)," Briles said. "It is still about coaching. It is about motivating players. Offenses are still offenses."

It had been 14 years since the Cougars had both a 1,000-yard rusher, a 1,000-yard receiver and a 2,500-yard passer. Anthony Evans got the ground yards, 1,083 in 214 carries, and Brandon Middleton got the receiving yards, 1,225.

Into Houston's offense and defense, the Cougars have plugged a lot of young faces. Forty-five percent of the players on their two-deep lineup are freshmen or sophomores. As many as four freshmen have started on defense this year.

"It has been quite a season," Briles said, "and we're excited about finishing it in Hawai'i. When they offered us the chance to go to Hawai'i and play in this bowl, we said, 'thank you' before they could finish asking us."

• • •

Year Team Position
2003 Houston Head coach
2002 Texas Tech Assistant/running backs
2001 Texas Tech Assistant/running backs
2000 Texas Tech Assistant/running backs
1999 Stephenville H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1998 Stephenville H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1997 Stephenville H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1996 Stephenville H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1995 Stephenville H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1994 Stephenville H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1993 Stephenville H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1992 Stephenville H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1991 Stephenville H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1990 Stephenville H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1989 Stephenville H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1988 Stephenville H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1987 Georgetown H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1986 Georgetown H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1985 Hamlin H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1984 Hamlin H.S. Head coach/athletic director
1983 Sweetwater H.S. Assistant
1982 Sweetwater H.S. Assistant
1981 Sweetwater H.S. Assistant
1980 Sweetwater H.S. Assistant
1979 Sundown H.S. Assistant