Nine years ago, Renu Khator became president of the University of Houston with an ambitious plan to transform it from an undistinguished commuter school into a “nationally competitive university,” as she likes to put it. In addition to hiring noted faculty, undertaking major construction projects and doubling research spending, she also strove to have the kind of big-time football team that students, alumni and the city could all rally around — and which could reinforce the sense that Houston was a university to be reckoned with.
Houston was then in Conference USA, one of the lesser athletic conferences. Still, by 2011, the Cougars had become a powerhouse, going 13-1. But that December, even before the team played its bowl game, its head coach, Kevin Sumlin, jumped ship, moving to Texas A&M, which was poised to join the powerful Southeastern Conference. His salary was $2 million a year. (It’s now $5 million.)
After a few years in the wilderness, Houston again became a powerhouse when it brought in a dynamic young coach, Tom Herman, the former offensive coordinator at Ohio State. In 2015, by which time it had joined the American Athletic Conference, Houston lost only one game and manhandled Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
Hoping to keep Herman at Houston, Khator ripped up his contract and gave him a new, five-year deal that included both a carrot — a $3 million salary — and a stick — a clause that called for him to pay the university $2.25 million if he left within three years.
“We’re going to make it really hard for him to choose to go to another institution,” Hunter Yurachek, the Cougars’ athletic director, told The Houston Chronicle after the deal was unveiled.
As it turns out, it still wasn’t all that difficult for Herman to leave. On Sunday, Herman stood up at a news conference in Austin, Texas, to affirm that he would be the new head football coach at the University of Texas, a linchpin of the Big 12. His salary will be $5 million. He had spent only two years at Houston. Like Sumlin, he left before the season had ended.
Although Khator and Tilman J. Fertitta, the chairman of the University of Houston System Board of Regents, both issued gracious statements, people at the university are dismayed that Herman has departed so quickly. Yes, he had ties to Texas — he was a graduate assistant under Mack Brown, the head coach from 1998 to 2013 — which might have made the move impossible to resist.
But Houston was reportedly willing to match Herman’s Texas salary. It was building the kind of infrastructure meant to appeal to a coach and his recruits: a new football stadium, a $1 million locker room renovation, and (upcoming) a football indoor practice facility and a football operations building. There was enormous enthusiasm for football on campus. And Khator had made it clear that she would do whatever it took to have a successful football program.
What she couldn’t offer, of course, was a spot in a Power 5 conference. And in truth, that’s the real reason Herman left: The name brand teams in the Big 12, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Pacific-12, the Big Ten and the SEC all get to compete regularly to be in the lucrative four-team college football playoffs, which they essentially control. They get the best slots on television. They have unmatched fan and alumni support. It’s easier to recruit the best high school players. They can absorb multimillion-dollar buyouts for hot coaches like Herman without breaking a sweat — while paying millions more to the departing coach whose contract still has years to run.
In football, especially, the Power 5 conferences are the insiders, their hands firmly on the controls, and everyone else is on the outside looking in.
This raises a painful question that Houston must now grapple with: For all of Khator’s ambition — and the team’s recent success — can Houston ever truly be a football power if it is not in a Power 5 conference? And will its head coaches always view it as a steppingstone rather than a destination?
It’s not as if Khator hasn’t tried to get into a major conference. This year, when the Big 12 was flirting with the idea of adding two more members, four colleges from the American Athletic Conference — Cincinnati, Memphis and Connecticut, as well as Houston — vied to be considered. Watching from the outside, it seemed as if Houston would be a shoo-in if the Big 12 decided to expand. (In the end, the Big 12 decided to stay with the current 10 teams, in large part because its network partners objected to the expansion.)
After all, Houston is in the country’s eighth largest media market, larger than any other Big 12 market. It is also a market that tends to prefer SEC games over Big 12 games, something Houston’s inclusion would probably change.
Unlike the other three AAC colleges, which were primarily basketball schools, Houston had shown that it knew how to build winning football teams and generate fan enthusiasm, even without the advantage of being in a Power 5 conference. The Big 12 already has three teams from Texas — Texas Tech and Texas Christian as well as the University of Texas — so Houston made geographic sense. Houston in the Big 12 had the potential to lead to heated rivalries with the other Texas universities.
What’s more, much of the Texas political establishment was behind Houston’s bid, with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick expressing hope that the Big 12 would let Houston in. And Khator lobbied the presidents of the Big 12 universities relentlessly.
But seeking to join a Power 5 conference is like trying to join an exclusive club: Ultimately, the current members will decide, and the reasons won’t necessarily be for the good of the conference.
In particular, Texas was not keen to have Houston become a Big 12 rival. Why? Because the Houston area offers some of the most fertile recruiting territory in the country — and Texas has a long history of successfully recruiting star players from the region.
At Houston, Herman had succeeded in recruiting some of those same players, winning over enough of them to build competitive teams. If Houston got into the Big 12 — especially with a coach like Herman — Texas had to worry whether it would start to regularly lose important recruits to the Cougars.
What’s more, the Big 12 teams would have to share the money they received from their television contracts and other leaguewide revenue sources with the newcomer. Last year, the Big 12 parceled out $304 million to its 10 teams: That’s more than $30 million a team. (The University of Texas makes an additional $15 million from its Longhorn Network.) The AAC, by contrast, is expected to send each of its teams $3.1 million this year.
Overall, the University of Texas, partly because of its tradition, partly because of its membership in a Power 5 conference and party because its former athletic director DeLoss Dodds cut shrewd deals throughout his lengthy tenure, generated $183 million in athletic revenue last year, including a $10 million profit. Houston, by contrast, has $44 million in revenue, of which $25 million comes in the form of a subsidy from the university.
The Houston athletic department is projected to get to $80 million in revenue during the next few years. But that’s still $100 million less than Texas generates now. At a recent conference where I heard her speak, Khator pointed to Texas Christian University as an example of what happens when a college joins a Power 5 conference.
In 2011, TCU played football in the Mountain West Conference, where it was one of the dominant teams; its athletic revenue was $17 million. By 2015, as a member of the Big 12, that number had jumped to $80 million, thanks in large part to the television money provided by the conference.
Of course, money alone won’t solve her dilemma. If the university sticks with hot up-and-coming coaches like Sumlin and Herman, it will risk seeing them depart as soon as they have a few good seasons at Houston. But if it searches for a coach who is likely to stick around, he might lack the requisite fire in his belly. The only way to latch on to a hot coach who will stay awhile is to join a Power 5 conference and have a chance to win national championships.
But as Khator discovered this year, this is simply not something she can control. Nor is there any sense in railing about such unworthy universities as Rutgers, which was invited into the Big Ten not because it has a storied athletic department (it most decidedly does not) but because it opened the New York market to the Big Ten Network.
Which is not to say Khator is giving up. “Look how far we have come,” she told me Monday, pointing to the facilities and the way football has captured the campus. “It is so much more an attractive place,” she said. “We have the tools, the city, the environment.”
“We have a long-term commitment to build a national program,” she added. “No matter what we do, we cannot settle for mediocrity.”
“I like challenges,” Khator concluded.
That’s a good thing. Getting her football team the same kind of brand awareness and national spotlight — and money — as the Power 5 without being in the Power 5, well, that’s a puzzle no one has yet solved. Maybe she’ll be the first