As the men’s NCAA Tournament tips off, the Houston Cougars are one of the few teams with a realistic chance of winning a national championship. The No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, Houston basketball has become a national force under coach Kelvin Sampson. When the university switches conferences from the American to the Big 12 next season, there isn’t much concern about the program’s ability to compete.

Cougars football is a different story. Houston will play its first Big 12 conference game on Sept. 16, when it hosts College Football Playoff finalist TCU. That’s just one of the key tests on a schedule that includes 10 teams that made a bowl in 2022, seven that won eight or more games and three that won 10-plus.

“The schedule is hard,” coach Dana Holgorsen said. “It’s what we’ve signed up for, so let’s go.”

How ready is Houston football for the jump, after spending the last decade in the American? The Athletic recently visited with UH staff and administration to gauge where the Cougars stand before making their return to a major conference. Although UH’s staff and roster should be Big 12 competitive, the Cougars will arrive in the league still pushing to bring their program infrastructure up to their competitors’ standards. Plenty of work remains.


Holgorsen and staff plot the future

Houston beefed up its football staff in recent years to more closely resemble its new leaguemates. The school added to the football staff’s salary pool twice in the last two years, bringing it up to $6.5 million. Defensive coordinator Doug Belk, Holgorsen’s highest paid assistant, makes $1 million annually. Holgorsen said he’s pleased with the school administrative support in staff compensation and growth.

The Cougars’ recruiting staff grew significantly, too. They’ll have seven full-time recruiting staffers, plus a paid intern. Houston’s heavy use of the transfer portal makes it a worthwhile investment.

“If you don’t have a staff dedicated solely to (the portal), I think you’re gonna get behind,” said Casey Smithson, Houston’s director of player personnel.