It’s Saturday morning in Houston, and I’m on the third leg of a tripleheader weekend in Texas – an American Athletic Conference matinee featuring the University of Houston pitted against the University of Tulsa. The previous two nights had brought me to Texas State and Rice, both of them pattered with intermittent bouts of rain. A quick glance at the black sky swirling above the Space City portends yet another menacing afternoon.
The good folks at the Cougar scheduling department felt the same way, when, only a day before the contest, they moved the late afternoon tilt against the aptly named “Golden Hurricanes” up to an 11AM start time. Were it not for the hot tip from my college football brethren at College Football Quest I might have missed the third installment of my Texas Trinity weekend. While TV networks have been known to wreak havoc on a schedule only weeks before the game, this is my first such encounter with a weather change the day before.
As if my general contempt for early morning start times wasn’t enough, a refrain which I have echoed on this site many times before, some extra Ziegenbocks at the Rice game the night before has left me knocking a few cobwebs out of my head. But as Brian, my host for the weekend, dons his best apron and deftly doles out a generous helping of scrambled eggs loaded with jalapeño cheese sausage from Kreuz Market, spirits improve quickly. Just as the talking heads from ESPN College Game Day start their morning shtick, we head out the door for kick.
Taking another Uber through one of the seedier parts of town (Houston is one of the largest cities in the world without a subway system), we roll past hot chicken stands and colorfully painted bodegas. Broken concrete sidewalks flank some of the dilapidated houses propped up on concrete blocks, while vacant lots in between are overgrown with weeds and cluttered with debris. Located in the Third Ward of Houston, an area which boasts one of the worst violent crime rates in the country, the neighborhood surrounding the UH campus isn’t a place that you’d want to wander around much after dark, or even daylight for that matter.
Approaching Cougar Stadium, dubbed a tongue twisting TDECU Stadium, the grandstands sparkle in stark contrast to the ramshackle neighborhood as the newly constructed erector set architecture rises high above the surrounding buildings. Opened earlier this year in 2014, after replacing 70 year old Robertson Stadium on the same ground, it’s the newest stadium I’ve attended on my travels. The smell of fresh paint and concrete still wafts through the air in TDECU, and concessions are plentiful. Shorthand for Texas Dow Employees Credit Union, the backers shelled out 15 million bucks over the next ten years to have their name emblazoned on the side of the building.
Despite the shiny new building, however, the Houston program enjoys some rich tradition given its relatively small stature in the college football world. Cougar fans have been treated to some of the most prolific quarterbacks in the college ranks during the past few decades. 1989 Heisman winner Andre Ware wore the Scarlet Red, setting 26 NCAA records during his campaign season in the early days of the Run and Shoot offense. His successor in the early 1990’s, David Klingler, tallied even greater mind boggling numbers under the same offense – at one time chucking 11 touchdown passes in a single game, and setting career NCAA records for yardage and touchdown completions at the time (he still ranks in the top 10 today).
Recently, gunslinger Case Keenum smashed the NCAA career yardage mark in 2011, tallying over 19,000 yards during his career and eclipsing former Hawaii great Timmy Chang by over 2,000 yards. He also went on to set NCAA career records in touchdowns (155) and completions (1,546) during a career that spanned six seasons and two redshirts in Houston. Even the past two head coaches have used the Cougar program as a stepping stone to higher profile jobs. Offensive guru Art Briles (2003-2007) was plucked out of the high school ranks prior to taking over the reins in Houston, and currently oversees the revival of the high octane Baylor Bears. His successor at the helm, Kevin Sumlin (2007-2011), graduated to the Texas A&M job down the road after a successful four year stint in Cougartown – a stay which was capped by a 12-0 regular season in 2011.
Back on the street, I grab a pair of tickets from a scalper for ten bucks a pop, a deal I probably could have negotiated better, but they’re the first tickets I’ve paid for all weekend and it’s too early in the morning for protest. Finding our seats on the 5 yard line, the Cougars storm out of the tunnel while the listless crowd continues to file in, some folks still clutching a morning coffee. With darkened skies and low overhanging mist, the stadium lights are turned on, even in late morning.
Fortunately, the lone bright spot on this dark day is the action on the field. The Cougars come out screaming, kicking off the first quarter with a nice pair of sustained, eighty yard touchdown drives. Running back tandem Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson trade carries, marching down the field as quarterback Greg Ward Jr. manages the game efficiently. Despite the offensive struggles this season from the historically prolific Cougar offenses, embroiled head coach Tony Levine has them running productively today.
Despite coughing the ball up three times, however, the Tulsa squad hangs around – refusing to be put away. Deep into the 4th quarter, with seven minutes remaining, they knot the game at 28 apiece. Cougar fans grow restless, groaning at the late score, but their team has an answer. Assuming control of the ball deep in their own territory on an ill-advised kickoff return, Houston begins their march at the 11 yard line. They methodically rip off chunks of yardage down the field, balancing crisp passes with well timed runs when the defense leans on their heels. With the ball on the Tulsa 40 yard line, the Cougars break the Hurricane defense, connecting on a beautiful 38 yard pass to wide receiver Kevin Dunbar down to the Tulsa 2. Punching in the touchdown one play later, Houston caps off an 10 play, 89 yard drive that snaps the remaining spirit of the Tulsa squad. They roll on to win by a final of 38-28.
Immediately following the game, Brian and I bee line to Killen’s BBQ in nearby Pearland. While truly world class BBQ has historically eluded the city of Houston, Killen’s has been receiving high praise since opening its doors earlier this year. Started by Houston steakhouse owner Ronnie Killen, the confident pitmaster set his sights firmly on BBQ that could rival Aaron Franklin’s in a well-publicized conversation with the Houston Chronicle, and the entire staff dons black t-shirts embellished with the phrase “the best barbecue, period.” Judging by the behemoth reverse flow Lang smoker parked out back accompanied by a healthy stack of post oak cordwood, the place certainly shows promise.
Arriving in later afternoon, we’re well past the lunch rush line, and stride directly up to the cafeteria style counter. I order my usual “Texas Trinity” of beef brisket, pork ribs, and house made sausage – the three main criteria upon which all BBQ joints should be evaluated. They’re unfortunately sold out of beef ribs, but a few slices of smoked pork belly catch enough intrigue for an order, along with a couple bottles of ice cold Big Red soda.
Watching a few juicy slices of brisket fold off the carvers knife, and it’s apparent this place is legitimate before the food is even tasted. Carnage ensues as Brian and I retreat to a nearby table, grabbing fistfuls off carnivorous delight off the heaping tray. The pork belly is impossibly rich, almost too much so, as the buttery fat drips from every bite. Pork ribs feature a quarter inch pink smoke ring around the meat, while the sausage snaps with each peppery bite. The brisket steals the show. Slices from both the point and the (trickier to cook) flat are moist, perfectly rendered and bursting with smoke. A nice peppery bark caps all the slices, pairing perfectly with offset pulls from the sweet nectar of Big Red. This is, by any measure, some of the best BBQ in Texas – and therefore the world.
Gobbling down the last few morsels of Texas barbecue, it’s a fitting end to a three game parlay in the Lone Star State – a place which boasts twelve FBS teams in all. Fortunately, I still have a few schools left to see here, and I’ll gladly take that excuse for another weekend full of meat trays and football…
Special thanks to my friend Brian for hosting me for the weekend, and can’t wait to catch a few more games with you next year man!!!
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