As Bill Yeoman was packing up his whistle and his clipboard and preparing to leave Michigan State in 1962 to become head coach at the University of Houston, everybody in East Lansing was wishing him all the luck in the world. He would need it, they said, since, in the last three years, the Cougars had hardly distinguished themselves.
Not too long after that Yeoman was on the telephone from Houston, hopeful that Duffy Daugherty and Athletic Director Biggie Munn would agree to a Michigan State-Houston game some year. Well, Michigan State had been an independent, too, before finally getting into the Big Ten, and Munn and Duffy remembered how hard it had been to schedule top teams. They were willing to help their old friend, Yeoman. How about a season opener in 1967 they said. "Great," said Yeoman.
"Right now," says Daugherty, with a grimace, "I would have to say we didn't do ourselves any favors."
They didn't. Since Bill Yeoman arrived, lots of things have happened at the University of Houston, one being the school's switch from a private to a state university. When that occurred in 1963, lowered tuition costs swelled the student body, academic standards jumped, and so did the school's athletic program and prestige.
Two years later Houston football received an even bigger boost when the school got its first home stadium—the Astrodome. Prior to that the Cougars had played their home games at nearby Rice Stadium, which was fine except that whenever the Houston coaches took a hot prospect over to Rice to show him the stadium, the prospect would likely as not enroll at Rice.
But the most important element in the change in Houston's fortunes may well be the sudden emergence of the Texas Gulf Coast as a fertile recruiting area. At one time West Texas schoolboys ruled state football, but not any more. "There is so much football talent in the Gulf Coast area," says Bill Yeoman, "that a coach could move in after everyone else was through recruiting and still find himself a pretty good team."
Last year the 100-mile area around Houston could boast of having produced All-Americas Bubba Smith, Gene Washington and Me! Farr, as well as two leading sophomores, SMU's Jerry Levias and Texas' Chris Gilbert. Houston is now getting its share of this talent pool—12 of last year's starters came from within an 80-mile radius of the school.
With attendance soaring because of the Dome, Houston was able to show big crowds the man who is now playing the key role in its football revival, Halfback Warren McVea. "He is the only runner I have ever seen who compares with Glenn Davis," says Yeoman, who should know something about Davis, having been a teammate of his at West Point. "Glenn was just as fast, but I'm not sure even he could match McVea for quickness." In two years with the Cougars, McVea has averaged 10.5 yards a carry and displayed an ability to perform at his best when the opponents were the toughest. Unfortunately, his performances are not always predictable, either on the field or off. He is habitually late and may someday miss a kickoff. "You're improving," Houston Publicity Director Ted Nance told McVea recently. "As a senior, you're only 15 minutes late for appointments. When you were a sophomore you were always half an hour late."
"If Warren doesn't have a football under his arm, he is the slowest human being around," says Fullback Paul Gipson. But Warren will have a football under his arm more than ever this year, for Yeoman is switching him from flanker to running back. McVea, in turn, seems to be in the best shape of his career.
Helping McVea in the backfield will be Jim Strong or George Nordgren at fullback, and Don Bean at Hanker. Bean was among the country's leading punt returners last year and could be an important aspect of the Cougar offense when turned loose under the new punt-return rule. The question is how much Quarterback Dick Woodall will help. A senior who is getting his first starting chance, he is a good passer but a poor runner and has trouble avoiding the rush.
The offensive line is good. It includes two fine guards, Rich Stotter and Bill Pickens, and Ken Hebert, a hot-tempered battler who was the nation's leading scorer (113 points) from his split-end position last season.
On the defense, there are some difficulties because Ends Royce Berry and George Caraway, both of whom were injured last year, have not recovered. Their places probably will be filled by sophomores. A hard rush from the front four would have made the deep backs hard to beat. Safeties Gus Hoi Ionian and Tom Pacioreck each picked off six passes last fall, Halfback Johnny Peacock is smart and steady, and Mike Simpson runs the hundred in 9.6.
More than one team, however, insists that the Astroturf is the best defense the Cougars have. Houston furnishes its opponents with special, rubber-cleated shoes for home games, but Ole Miss yelped that the shoes did not fit and Memphis State claimed the Cougars used a different kind of shoe from the ones they loan their guests. As a result several teams—Georgia, for one—have purchased slabs of Astroturf to practice on, but Athletic Director Harry Fouke says they are wasting their time. "If they want to worry about Astroturf instead of us," he says, "let them go right ahead."
Houston would make anyone worry. Just ask Duffy.