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WHY UTEP OVER HOUSTON
Adrian Mac over at Miner Rush laid out an excellent case for UTEP’s inclusion in the Mountain West in an article last April, but I thought I’d take this time to expand the case for the Miners. With MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson’s strike-first inclusion of Nevada and Fresno State, the conference has been abuzz with talk of a 12th team and a conference championship game. Now that it looks as though BYU’s quest for independence has all but fallen apart, this talk of a 12th team is more or less necessary, as functioning at 11 teams is sloppy and unprofessional (as evidenced by the Big Ten in years past). As result, many within the Mountain West community have strongly begun pushing for the Houston Cougars, and when viewing potential members at a cursory glance, it’s hard to blame them. However, upon deeper investigation, I’d like to think we can all realize that UTEP is the far wiser choice. Why? Here’s 7 reasons to ponder:
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1. The History of (Reckless) Expansion
Lest everyone forget, part of the reason the WAC so foolishly expanded to 16 teams was to grab ‘market shares’ in large metropolitan areas. That’s why you saw teams like SMU, San Jose State, Rice, UNLV, etc. get the big invite – they were supposedly going to bring their markets with them. Now, fairly enough, many of you can toss aside SMU and Rice as small private schools, but UNLV and San Jose State didn’t/haven’t exactly brought in their large markets either (for those keeping score at home, San Jose is the 31st-largest metro area, and part of the 6th-largest Combined Statistical Area, for example).
Now, as everyone here well knows, this blunder of a 16-team WAC led 8 schools to break off and form the vastly-superior Mountain West, of which we are all greatly appreciative of today. Among those eight were 4 of the 6 founding members of the WAC (BYU, Utah, Wyoming & UNM), one of the first two expansion schools from 1967 (Colorado State), one of the two schools included after the AZ schools left in 1978 (San Diego State), Air Force (who was added in 1980), and UNLV (who was crammed in from the recent WAC expansion, but had been recently good at basketball and was in a large and growing market). What’s forgot is who was left behind. UTEP was the *other* expansion school from 1967, which resulted in a long and rivaled history with many of the MWC’s founding institutions. Somehow, however, UTEP was left behind (alongside Hawai’i, 1978’s other expansion team). Surely, part of this was the desire to have (at the time) an 8-team league, but it was tragic nevertheless.
So what’s the point of this argument plank?
a.) UTEP has a long, traditional history with many of the MWC institutions, and was left out in the early days of the MWC somehow.
b.) A blind, greedy grab for market share doesn’t always work out for the best. The recruits didn’t exactly pour in either.
c.) Houston has no history with MWC institutions aside from TCU. That is, Houston has *no* history with MWC institutions aside from TCU.
[For those voting on the main page, there are *6 more reasons* to pick UTEP over Houston after the jump!]
New Mexico going through a down period certainly isn’t bolstering their strength to argue, but this rivalry is a great one, and would make an excellent addition to conference play. Moreover, as I’ve stated above, UTEP has a history with other MWC schools that lasted 32 years (BYU, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado State), 21 years (San Diego State), or 19 years (Air Force).
The glory years of WAC basketball also revolved around a rivalry between a MWC school (BYU) and UTEP – a rivalry which produced an incredible series of games over the course of two decades (80s, 90s).
Let's not discount the fact that for 32 years (1967-1999) the Miners were in the WAC with BYU, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado State. The WAC's storied basketball history was built on a ferocious rivalry between UTEP and BYU during the 1980's and early 1990's. UTEP is a natural geographic rival for New Mexico. We're not talking artificial rivalries here. BYU and UTEP hated each other. Don't believe me? Watch this.
The Miners and New Mexico are natural geographic rivals as they share common recruiting grounds. When an El Pasoan burns UTEP and goes to UNM, he instantly becomes despised. I remember Lobo All-American Kenny Thomas, a former EP Austin standout, getting booed time and time again when the Lobos played UTEP. So, do booing and fights make for a compelling argument for conference admission? Not exactly. But, it doesn't hurt. Full stadiums look good on television. I don't see a lot of football fans getting riled up for Nevada vs. San Diego State in San Diego or Reno. How many fans might go to that one? 16,000? I don't see the masses in Houston blowing off an Astros game to watch the Coug's take on Wyoming.... in anything.
3. Attendance & Fan Support
Again, as Adrian Mac has wonderfully noted before, UTEP has much better attendance and fan support than UofH does. Not only that, but when one looks at the long history of Houston football attendance, one would *surely* want to second-guess an inclusion of the Cougars. There were many years were UofH struggled to draw 20,000, with noticeable average attendance figures hovering around 15,000. That’s not exactly the kind of fan support one would expect to see for a team to be included in a BCS-caliber conference.
Note that Adrian Mac is also quick to point out how, despite residing in the *massive* DFW market, and despite an undefeated regular season in 2009, TCU failed to draw significant attendance numbers in comparison. Why? Because people don’t care that much about TCU football in DFW. I hate to break it to y’all, but it isn’t much different in Houston. Even during the Cougs’ best years, they fail to out-draw the Miners.
From an article covering Houston’s wins-to-attendance ratio,
"To say that the University of Houston football program has a nagging attendance problem would be an understatement. For having an enrollment in excess of 33,000 students (the third-largest university in the state behind Texas and Texas A&M) and being located in the fourth-largest city in the United States, attendance at UH sporting events such as football simply sucks. Of the 117 schools currently playing division I-A football, Houston ranks towards the bottom in terms of attendance, with higher crowd numbers than a handful of schools, like Akron or Louisiana-Monore, but with gameday crowds well below those of other urban public schools like Louisville or Memphis and nowhere near those of flagship state schools like Texas or Louisiana State. Many seasons, schools like Michigan or Tennessee will attract more fans to see a single game than the University of Houston will attract in an entire season of five or six home games."
Take a look at the following chart comparing attendance figures at UTEP and the candidates identified by the MW-Connection.
Football/Basketball Attendance Figures for 2009 & 5 Year Average (From NCAA)
Football 2009 Att.
5 Year Avg.
5 Year Avg.
I included basketball attendance to show a broader point. Whenever expansion talk happens, Houston and SMU will instantly be mentioned because they are in huge media markets. What difference does it make if you are in the nation's 5th or 10th largest media market if nobody in those markets cares to see you live or on TV in college athletics two marquee sports? Houston has over 30,000 students at their campus yet they average under 21,000 fans at football games over 5 years. SMU get's 2,800 a game in basketball. There are good high school programs in Dallas that could get more fans than that. Really.
Over the last five years (I used 5 years because the NCAA site only has team by team attendance through 2004), UTEP has averaged more football fans per game than all of the other teams mentioned. Fresno State is right there. Boise packs their stadium, and I'm sure if they added more seats they'd be full too. The other schools simply have atrocious local support. Houston had their most successful season in 20 years, and had a home game with Texas Tech on their schedule, yet they still averaged 4,000 less fans a game than UTEP who probably had their most disappointing season under Mike Price in 2009. SMU has a beautiful campus and has lots of tradition. But, in a year where they made a bowl game, they averaged under 22k fans a home game. Doesn't Odessa Permian beat that at Ratliff?
UTEP, even in bad seasons, has incredible city wide support that dwarfs the love Houston, SMU, and Tulsa get in their respective cities. When Coach Price has UTEP winning, the Miners will easily average over 40,000 per game on the gridiron and sellouts are common (52,000). In basketball, most El Paso fans still don't know where or what "Marshall" is but there are still over 9,000 at the Don per home game. Even in years where Houston and SMU made huge strides in football, their local support doesn't come near UTEP's. Imagine when they have down years. And, they will.
Houston and Dallas are professional sports towns. And when locals take the time to follow college sports, they follow the Big 12. That's the honest truth. TCU was a point or two away from the BCS National Championship Game and they had all of one sellout in Ft. Worth this year. Why so bad? Even TCU's Cancellor blames their attendance woes on "conference affiliation." If Dallas doesn't support a MWC team that's as good as TCU, how will they treat SMU?
The geographical question goes beyond the obvious superior proximity of El Paso to other member institutions compared to Houston. Rather, the case is much deeper than this.
First and foremost, El Paso has a lot more in common with other MWC cities than Houston does. El Paso is arid and dry, with beautiful mountains (yes, actual mountains!) and gorgeous weather (there’s a reason they have the Sun Bowl there). Houston, in comparison, is a humid, muggy Hellhole with an inescapable pollution issue.
Second, UTEP, like most Mountain West schools, is on Mountain Time. That’s great. Yes, TCU is already a MWC example on Central Time, but I like the idea of trying to keep the conference within at most 2 time zones. I couldn’t even imagine the headache I would have endured going to school in the SEC if we were stretched across 3 time zones beyond a mere aberration (TCU).
Third, I don’t know how many of y’all have ever been to both of these cities before, but let me tell you something: El Paso is a *HELL* of a lot more fun than Houston. Not only does El Paso have a uniquely wonderful cultural and nightlife scene, but it’s a skip away from Mexico, which is a blast. Houston, in comparison, is a stuffy corporate city without much of a culture. Sure, all the oil barons there were sure to pony up for nice museums and whatnot, but any quick visit to the city will tell you that there just seems to be something missing there.
Any consideration of a business model with an eye towards the future *has* to be mindful of changing demographic patterns. In this regard, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic of the economy, and that El Paso is obviously more in tune with Hispanics than Houston is (Houston tried naming its soccer team in honor of the Texas revolutionary victory over Mexico, for pete’s sake – not too culturally considerate). As a border city, El Paso is also a (literal) gateway to the Hispanic community, and any outreach to Hispanics across the Southwest or even into Mexico may be well served by reaching out to one of the NCAA’s top Hispanic-heavy institutions.
UTEP has 21 Men’s Division 1 NCAA championships, tied for 10th-most overall, and more than any school in the Mountain West. These championships include Basketball, Cross Country, Indoor Track & Field, and Outdoor Track & Field. Houston has basically won championships in... Golf. I didn’t even know there was NCAA Golf.
7. Hypocrisy for Houston
For all the clamoring these past few years about the Mountain West being deserving of national attention, a reactionary move for Houston sends all the wrong signals. It doesn’t say "we’re proving we’re better than you" anymore. It says, "we’re trying to play your game by being market-share relevant," and there’s no guaranteeing this path will even help the MWC. As long as BYU stays, the MWC should automatically qualify for the BCS. It doesn’t need Houston. What adding the Cougars does is throwing away the MWC’s moral superiority on the issue. It doesn’t address the patience by which the MWC realizes the West is growing fast and MWC schools and facilities are improving all the time, it reeks of the desperate reactionary grab-bag the WAC did in the 90s.
One last note... when Kevin Sumlin (inevitably) leaves, look for Cougar football to take a nosedive once again.
Adrian Mac’s take:
Houston: I don't buy that the Cougars can bring in the Houston media market. The college market in H-Town is already owned by Texas and A&M. The Cougars have porous facilities and little to no local support. Kevin Sumlin is doing a heck of a job and I'm a big fan of Mack Rhoades. He'll get that athletic department going in the right direction, but he has a lot of work to do. Houston might have a better football program than UTEP right now (so does Tulsa and Nevada), but success is cyclical. If Houston can't draw local support when they are winning, what happens if their program loses a step after Sumlin inevitably leaves to greener pastures?