Culture / Sporting Life

Case Keenum and Jim Nantz Team Up, Show Why the Big 12 Is Lucky to Have UH Too — A Night Of Stars Brings University of the Future Visions

This First Big 12 Weekend Is About Much More Than One Football Game

BY // 09.16.23

Maybe it’s the moment when Carl Lewis, the greatest track and field athlete of all time, is running down the long hallway of The Post Oak Hotel to catch up to Andre Ware, the first Black quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy, a groundbreaker who made the Run and Shoot offense sing. Or maybe it’s when Jim Nantz and Case Keenum embrace on stage, the MC that no other school could match and the quarterback who has broken more all-time records than Taylor Swift sharing their University of Houston pride.

No matter the exact moment, at some point it becomes apparent to almost everyone in the cavernous ballroom that UH has something special going on. Has had some special things going on that few other college athletic programs can match. It’s the mix of people who’ve been Coogs, a unique roster of talent and heart that screams getting things done.

“Did you see the story of who we are?” Nantz says. “I would put those individuals — that group of people — up against any school in America and say ‘Beat that.’ We’re great. In a way, we’re sneaky great. Because people still haven’t given us our due.”

In a way, the University of Houston is finally getting its due this weekend, playing its first Big 12 football game ever in a Fox national TV showcase, the kind of platform that schools like the University of Texas and Texas A&M have taken for granted for decades. But the last several days leading up to the Saturday night game against TCU at TDECU Stadium have shown just how much UH is bringing to the table. From a glittering, packed UH Hall of Honor night that raises more than $1.2 million to help Houston student athletes and boost the University of Houston’s sports medicine department to a new naming rights deal for the soon-to-be-under-construction $130 million football operations center with Memorial Hermann Health System that guarantees 10 years of revenues, UH is rolling into its Big 12 football opener.

No matter what happens on the field. This game isn’t about one night. It never was. It’s about recognizing that Big 12 first, the fight it took to get there, appreciating it and building on it. Quickly.

“You got something to believe in,” UH basketball coach Kelvin Sampson tells PaperCity. “I’ve coached in the Big 12 for 12 years. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Kansas, all that stuff. Twelve years. You either rent or you own. We own now. And our fans need to understand this. We own this.

“We’re not renting. Renting is for people who hope they can get in. We’re there. What’s the difference with the University of Houston and TCU? Or the University of Houston and Texas Tech? Nothing. We’re in the same league. So let’s not act like we’re asking them for permission. That’s not the way it works. As soon as that ball is tipped, or as a soon as that ball is kicked off, or as soon as that ball is pitched, we’re all the same.

“So let’s go compete.”

Sampson, the should be Hall of Fame coach who’s one of the truly transformational figures in the University of Houston’s development, is used to making people believe. It is what he does. He doesn’t need the pomp and circumstance. But a week like this, nights like a Hall of Honor with more stars than a Quentin Tarantino project and a new partnership with one of the nation’s most respected hospital systems can help get many others going.

“It’s just been a great moment of excitement,” UH chancellor and president Renu Khator says. “(The Hall of Honor) was terrific. I’d say it showed not just that we have had a great history. But what it showed to me was the confidence. What we are going to be in the future.

“It was very bold.”

The boldness includes Nantz, the voice of CBS Sports who’s cleared his usually packed schedule to be able to follow Sampson’s UH basketball team in the NCAA Tournament next spring as a fan in the stands, predicting that Houston will be “the most important university” in America by the year 2050. That UH’s diversity and strength will make it a global symbol.

“We are so fortunate to be in Houston,” Khator says. “This is the place where we can see what the future of America and American cities and American universities will be like. I’ve always challenged for the last 15 years — ‘Don’t think what we’re doing is important for UH.’ It’s actually important for showing to America what kind of institution is going to be needed in the future.

“We are the prototype.”

That is certainly bold — and there are plenty of other universities that may want to dispute that. But sometimes it takes a little audacity to get something special done. This latest class of UH Hall of Honor honorees can certainly relate. Baseball inductee Rick Brewer started at junior college before becoming an ace on Houston’s 1967 College World Series team, Golf inductee Mike Booker wasn’t highly recruited, but legendary Houston golf coach Dave Williams saw something in him that other college coaches missed. Michael Bourn, the Cougar who memorably robbed LSU at the wall and later became a speedy Houston Astros favorite, was a super late signee with Bourn giving current UH baseball head coach Todd Whitting (who was an assistant back then) credit for seeing his very hidden potential. Women’s basketball inductee Sonya Watkins Ellis bet on herself when coming out of Detroit she turned down the University of Michigan scholarship that everyone expected her to take to go with Houston instead. Watkins Ellis saw the chance for a new future in The Third Ward. Track and field inductee Sandra Cummings Glover refused to give up on her Olympic dreams even seven years out of college. So she trained at night after working all day as a teacher — and finally made it to the Sydney games in 2000.

And of course, Case Keenum, undoubtably the most beloved UH athlete of the last 30 years, turned his only college scholarship offer into becoming the NCAA’s all-time passing leader (some 19,217 yards) and an 11-year (and counting) NFL career.

Keenum brought an entire table of former teammates to the Hall of Honor night — and still didn’t have enough room with more surprising him and coming on their own.

“It means everything,” Keenum says. “To have my family here. My family on the field here. I have so many special memories with those guys. . . I’m looking forward to hugging some necks and catching up. And telling old stories.”

The commissioner of UH’s dream conference is getting a glimpse of what the university in the fourth largest city in America can do for the Big 12 too. Houston devotees may be thrilled the Cougars are finally in the Big 12. But UH is bringing plenty to the party itself.

Jim Nantz shared his microphone with UH baseball great Michael Bourn. Paul Wall brought the UH crowd to its feet. (Photo by Eddy Matchette/Courtesy UH Athletics)
Jim Nantz shared his microphone with UH baseball great Michael Bourn. (Photo by Eddy Matchette/Courtesy UH Athletics)

All around the lavish hotel that longtime UH billionaire believer Tilman Fertitta created to give his city a showcase world class hotel of its own, you could see Cougar connections tying generations together. There is Wade Phillips just chilling in the hallway, a football defensive Yoda in his own red jacket, hanging out with former NFL coach Kliff Kingsbury, another mind drawn by Keenum. There are former UH QBs David Klingler, Kevin Kolb and Andre Ware cheering Keenum going into the Hall.

Even University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman found himself marveling over one of his early idols.

“I grew up watching Simon Fletcher,” Pezman says of the UH pass rusher terror turned Denver Broncos all-timer who went in with Keenum, Bourn and Co. “No. 73 for the Denver Broncos. That’s who I wanted to be.”

UH, Keenum, Nantz and the Power of Beginnings

On this night, the possibilities dance in the air. Spend time around this group and you start to believe no obstacle cannot be hurdled. It helps that the UH Hall of Honor night is absolutely packed with gala co-chair power couples Meredith and Patrick Chastang and Ashley and Clark Beecher creating a fantastical UH land that many longtime Cougars couldn’t even imagine. There is red everywhere — including thousands of roses — and even the table lamps are UH themed with images of school greats like Case Keenum on the shades.

Bun B and Paul Wall bounce out to do a surprise new version of “Red Alert” before Keenum and his wife Kimberly take the stage, with the couple that always did so much together at UH fittingly sharing in his Hall moment too. The final first class touch? Anyone who valets their car, gets it back with a free bottle of champagne in it.

The scene adds to the sense of big time. So does having Nantz, the voice of so many of the biggest moments in American sports, keeping things going as the master of ceremonies. So does current Houston swimmer Audrey McKinnon and point guard Jamal Shead getting up to speak from the heart.

Nantz marvels over McKinnon’s incredible “poise.” He notes how many think Shead, the architect of “my all-time favorite buzzer beater — that jumper that stunned Memphis that Nantz got to call last March with his young son in the building — even, perhaps, could be president of the United States one day.

In other words, for some young Cougars there are no limits.

“We’re not renting. Renting is for people who hope they can get in. We’re there.” — UH basketball coach Kelvin Sampson

UH power couples Clark and Ashley Beecher and Meredith and Patrick Chastang co-chaired the beyond memorable Hall of Honor night.
UH power couples Clark and Ashley Beecher and Meredith and Patrick Chastang co-chaired the beyond memorable Hall of Honor night.

All the while, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark takes it all in. Yormark brought almost his entire Big 12 staff to Houston for these three days — running from the Big 12 Be You Women empowerment series panel discussions at Fertitta Center to the Hall of Honor night to the Saturday night game. When I go over to talk to him, Yormark introduces the staff with him first, making sure they’re included.

Now, the commissioner of UH’s dream conference is getting a glimpse of what the university in the fourth largest city in America can do for the Big 12 too. Houston devotees may be thrilled the Cougars are finally in the Big 12. But UH is bringing plenty to the party itself.

“They deserve this moment,” Yormark tells PaperCity. “They deserve to be here. They’re a big part of our future.”

It is a big Saturday night football game, sure. But it is also about so much more than that. So much more than any one game. This is simply is signpost to a future that is still being written.

“I want to sit back and cheer us on in some very big places,” Nantz says of the school he loves. “One day playing for championships in football. It’s gonna happen. This school is going to be a powerhouse. I really believe it.”

Nantz smiles that familiar smile again, the one that is more reassuring than milk and cookies. Soon, he’ll take the stage again, grab another microphone. But he doesn’t expect the University of Houston to get off the stage for generations to come.

The University of Houston is here. And just getting started.

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