Tribulations of 2008 propel Houston toward success

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
HOUSTON -- The Heisman Trophy and the Lombardi Award sit on top of a cabinet against a wall near the door of Houston coach Kevin Sumlin's office.

Neither is in a glass case. There aren't any special lights shining on them. The trophies don't need any adornments, they speak for themselves and tell stories of Houston's football success over the years.

"That trophy was downstairs, but I brought it up here because it's important for anyone who walks into this office to see it," Sumlin said. "It reminds me. I've coached many places with a lot of tradition, even where I went to school, that didn't have one of those. And there have been a bunch of good players in that deal, a bunch of second-place finishers in that deal, but a Lombardi and a Heisman, that's big time."

Sumlin has no allusions that he'll turn the one Heisman into a set any time soon -- though junior quarterback Case Keenum is getting some quiet buzz -- but as the Cougars head into a 2009 season ripe with high expectations, it's a reminder that setting the bar high is nothing new for Houston football.

Nearly every preseason magazine and poll is picking Houston to win Conference USA -- the first title for the Cougars since 2006 -- and for Keenum to be the league's best offensive player.

"This season will test us and we'll see how mature of a team this is," Sumlin said. "It will be real interesting to see how we handle things."

Sumlin and his Cougars have faced several trials since he took over last year. After the second game of the season, the Cougars had to evacuate to Dallas because of a hurricane. The Cougars lived in a hotel, practiced at the Dallas Cowboys' various facilities with little equipment and lifted weights at a local high school. Because of the change in venue, the team had to play Air Force at 10 a.m., the earliest any of Sumlin's team have ever played, and the Cougars lost by a field goal.

"We're riding the bus to the stadium at 8 a.m. and I'm thinking, 'What the hell is going on here?'" Sumlin said. "And then we had to go back to the hotel after the game. Everybody, trainers, doctors, everything, were waiting to see when we could get home. Every morning I had to brief everyone -- there were like 100-some people -- and tell them that the power's still not back on or the water isn't right and we were going to have to stay another night. It was tough."

When the Cougars returned home to Houston for a night, flew to Colorado State the next morning and lost a three-point heartbreaker on the final play of the game, the frustration of the displacement and the 1-3 start began to boil over.

"When we left Fort Collins, you could just feel the frustration," Sumlin said. "Just living there and all that had happened and then losing the way we lost, I think everyone was just angry."

And in that anger, Houston rallied.

The next week, with No. 23 East Carolina on the horizon, Sumlin said he felt a change in his team. They were back in Houston, back on their regular regimen and there was a different sense of purpose.

The Cougars went to East Carolina and came away with a 41-24 win that ultimately saved the season.

"We had our backs against the wall," senior linebacker Matt Nicholson said. "We were going up there and it was kind of just time for us to do something about it. We really came together. It was really the defense. That was probably the best game that we played all year. We just came out and had something that game. We all had it. I'd love for us to have that every week."

While Houston couldn't replicate the play against East Carolina every week, it did win six of its final eight regular-season games. The Cougars missed winning the Conference USA West by a game, but it gave the team confidence to finish the season with a win over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.

And that confidence has Houston heading into 2009 with a positive outlook.

"Going in with new coaches, a new system and everything, there's a lot of uncertainties," Keenum said of last season. "Halfway through the season, after a couple games, we knew we were capable of being very good. Looking back on the season, you look at all the numbers and stuff, there weren't as many wins as we wanted. We felt like we left a lot of offense on the field and we stopped ourselves a bunch. ... Seeing the guys we have coming back and the new guys we have out there, it's pretty cool to think of what's to come. If we left that much out last year and we're that much better now, it's cool to see what's going to happen."