Yeoman Work: The Golden Age Of Houston Football

In a closing ceremony for old Robertson Stadium at the end of the 2012 season, the Houston Cougar football program — soon to begin work on a new stadium which opened last year — wanted to spike the football.

Bill Yeoman, shown above, was just the man to do it.

Houston is trying to make some magic this season under a new coach, Tom Herman. As the Cougars, in the American Athletic Conference, try to bust into the New Years Six, they can be reminded that once upon a time, they were the best team in the Southwest Conference — not just in one year, but for half a decade.

It wasn’t expected, and 35 years after this run ended, it’s not celebrated the way other prime periods are in college football history, largely because Houston hasn’t been able to remain a central presence on the college football scene. Yet, as Houston tries to re-enter the New Year’s Day bowl spotlight by eclipsing all other contenders in the Group of Five, it’s worth recalling the time when the Cougars were the pride of Texas.


Bill Yeoman’s great and lasting contribution to the whole of college football is that he developed the veer offense. He used it to establish a foothold at Houston, and turn that foothold into something much more over the course of time. Yeoman needed four seasons to fully implement his system, but once he settled into a groove — recruiting the right players and getting everyone on the same page — his coaching career took off.

Yeoman played — and played well — for Red Blaik at Army in the late 1940s. He later became an assistant coach for the legendary Duffy Daugherty at Michigan State. Yeoman knew what winning looked like in college football, from two different vantage points… but not from the head coach’s chair. He knew patience was part of the equation, and in 1966 — his fifth season — that patience was finally rewarded.

In 1966, Houston began a string of nine straight winning seasons. Without that period of excellence, the Cougars probably would not have catapulted themselves into the Southwest Conference. An odd duck of a 2-8 season in 1975 as an independent raised fears about Houston’s readiness for a conference in which Frank Broyles was handing the baton to Lou Holtz at Arkansas, and Darrell Royal was turning over the University of Texas juggernaut to Fred Akers. Texas and Arkansas had cast such a large shadow over the rest of the Southwest Conference that it was going to be hard for Houston to immediately muscle its way into the conversation…

… or so the conventional wisdom went.

It’s true that in 1977, Texas won the Southwest Conference and played Notre Dame in the 1978 Cotton Bowl for the national title. It’s also true that in the same 1977 season, Arkansas reached the 1978 Orange Bowl and thrashed No. 2 Oklahoma, Lou Holtz’s greatest college football achievement until he won the 1988 national title with Notre Dame. (A young assistant on that 1977 Arkansas coaching staff, by the way? Pete Carroll.)

However, in Houston’s first four seasons in the Southwest Conference, only that 1977 season did not deliver a league championship. That’s right — in Houston’s first SWC season in 1976, and again in 1978 and 1979, the Cougars topped everyone else in the conference and made their way to the Cotton Bowl. Moreover, although Houston’s collapse and subsequent loss in the 1979 Cotton Bowl to Notre Dame are remembered by many casual college football fans, the larger reality of the Cougars’ journeys to Dallas in the latter half of the 1970s is that they won two of the three Cotton classics they played. Houston won the 1977 Cotton Bowl against Maryland, and it responded to the Joe Montana Chicken Soup Game by winning the 1980 Cotton Bowl against Nebraska.

You can watch the full game here (embedding is disabled), with CBS’s Frank Glieber replacing Lindsey Nelson on the play-by-play call due to Nelson’s bout with laryngitis.


In retrospect, Houston benefited from the fact that Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles stepped down. Yet, it’s not as though Texas and Arkansas fell off the map in those years. Those programs continued to be competitive and make bowl games at a time when there weren’t 40-plus bowl games on the postseason slate. Texas won the 1982 Cotton Bowl against Bear Bryant and Alabama and almost won the 1983 national title. Arkansas reached the 1980 Sugar Bowl against Alabama and continued to remain in the hunt in the SWC.

Houston was simply better in the latter half of the 1970s. The Cougars might have benefited from playing home games in the Astrodome, a climate-controlled environment in which the slick ballhandling required by the veer was less subject to weather; yet, the Cougars clearly lifted themselves to a higher plane. They waxed Texas, 30-0, in their maiden SWC season in 1976, and that win, as much as anything, set the tone for the coming four years.

Moreover, as something of a postscript to the Yeoman era — both at Houston and in the Southwest Conference — the Cougars, following their four-year run from 1976 through 1979, won the SWC again in 1984. On New Year’s Day of 1985, newly-crowned Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie of Boston College played Houston in the Cotton Bowl.

Houston football under Bill Yeoman — it’s one of the more underappreciated great runs in college football history.

If the 2015 Cougars can reach the New Years Six, you can bet that Tom Herman will invoke Bill Yeoman’s name at some point this December.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |