Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 1/30/12
There was a moment, right as November was becoming December and visions of Sugar Bowl danced in their heads, that the students at the University of Houston had turned their school into a traditional campus. The day tickets went on sale to the Conference USA championship game, to be held at UH, a line formed around the block with students decked in red, waiting their turn like a new iDevice had just been released. The football players who were there that day had not seen anything like it. Not at Houston, anyway. That was the kind of thing that happened at Texas A&M or Wisconsin or Ole Miss or wherever moms and dads drop off their teenagers on some oaky campus in some bucolic little town and get in the Suburban and wave goodbye. The kind of place Asher Roth would rap about, where you can get pizza a dollar a slice at 3 a.m. "It was pretty awesome," quarterback Case Keenum said. "It makes you feel good," defensive lineman David Hunter said. Not just good. Different. "People are starting to feel the campus experience," linebacker Marcus McGraw said. "People are excited to be around campus. I remember when people were trying to give out tickets. It's really exciting." That was how it felt in the moment, but the question is: How long is that moment? Was this new feeling as fleeting at UH's shot at the Sugar Bowl the Cougars lost the C-USA championship game and finished their season with a win over Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl or has the rise of the football program and the Cougars' upcoming entrance into the Big East Conference shifted the campus' paradigm? People like to call Houston a commuter school, and they don't mean it as a compliment. That term gets applied to almost any large university that lives inside a major metropolis, and with student population of nearly 40,000 and central location amid the United States' fourth-largest city and a metropolitan area of six million people, Houston has all the prerequisites. But it also has something most commuter schools don't: A nationally relevant football program. So as the school makes its big athletic transition from Conference USA to the Big East, it appears to be making a cultural transition, too, from urban commuter school with a bad reputation to -- something else. But what? President Renu Khator has some ideas, and they are ambitious. "The goal here is, how do we fill the need for the region?" said Khator, who earned a doctorate in philosophy in political science and public administration from Purdue. "Because if we think we're going to have Houston as one of the world's top five regions -- if that is the goal, then we need to step up to the plate and have more of the population that is college educated." She's not just talking about changing the university. She's talking about the city. Khator is known by people who work with her as a bit of a whirling dervish. When the UH board of regents permitted Khator to begin negotiating a deal with another athletic conference, board of regents chair Nelda Blair was asked about her confidence level Khator would aggressively pursue a new deal. "Do you know Renu Khator?" she said. The question was rhetorical. Khator, 56, inhabits a president's office that is nothing if not presidential. It is spacious, but full of texture, the kind of place you could wear a tweed jacket and blend right in. There is a bar, with decanters full of a clear liquid. She offers you tea. She wears red and sips the tea and speaks with eyes that beam with intensity and a voice that hasn't forgotten its Indian roots. Jan. 15 marked the beginning of her fourth year at UH. "I've always felt this university had more substance than the reputation indicated," Khator said. "One of the goals was to tell the story. There is enormous substance here. I just want the city, the people, the region, the state and this nation to realize what kind of powerful university it is, in one of the most powerful cities. "And I'm a pretty good storyteller." She does not necessarily view Houston as a commuter campus, but doesn't see it as a traditional one, either. She likes to talk about the variety of experience available through the university system's nine campuses, which dot the greater Houston area. She also uses any opportunity available to mention UH's newfound status as a "tier one" institution, a designation bestowed by the Carnegie Foundation. It basically means the University of Houston is considered a "very high research" institution. In Texas, the only other tier one schools are Texas and Texas A&M. That designation is a branding mechanism Khator is using to UH's advantage at every opportunity, but it also opens up opportunities for UH to apply for foundation funding and grants for which it wasn't previously eligible. It is part of Khator's master plan for the city and the university, but within that broad view is a goal for the central campus, where the dorms and the football stadium and the basketball arena sit. "You have to have an option for those students that want to have the (traditional) college experience," she said. "That has to be here for those students who are the best and the brightest, coming out of that population of six million. Right now we have 6,000 students living on campus, here, which, by the way, is larger than the entire student body of Rice University." Khator wants to see that number reach 9,000. That would make UH's campus composition nearly identical to that of Texas A&M, which has an undergraduate enrollment of 39,000, with 9,000 (24 percent) living on its campus in rural College Station, Texas. Houston's 6,000 campus dwellers make up 18 percent of the undergraduate student body. "I don't want the best and the brightest to feel that they have to flee the city or they have to go and live somewhere out there in the boonies," Khator said. Her message, if it can be distilled, is that if there is any kind of list a school can be included on from U.S. News and World Report to the Associated Press Top 25 she wants Houston on it. So far, she has been successful at that. The tier one designation was a big step for UH, and the football team finished the season 13-1 and ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 1990. Khator thinks Houston has traditionally had a self-image problem. "I feel what was missing was the confidence and the inner feeling that we are really good," she said. "How do you instill pride, how do you bring spirit? There are many things to do with that, but one of the important things is to feel a bonding, feel a family, feel that something is moving." Khator's first year at UH, 2008, she made a simple decision. She would wear red. All the time. Eventually, that turned into Red Fridays, when faculty and staff are encouraged to wear red, and the students tend to participate as well. "There were a lot of sarcastic people before," she said. "The faculty did not want to wear red. I just want people to think of red and think of the University of Houston." It's that sense of sarcasm and cynicism about UH that Khator seems most bound to fight. She sees such potential in the city of Houston, but doesn't think the city can reach it without an elite university. "There is tremendous energy in Houston," she said. "This is an incredible city. This has all the features to be a city of the future and lead global innovation. It is going to need a university. One of the important things was, the city is going to need to expect more from the university. If everybody expects the university to be what it is, then there is no reason for the university to work harder." Essentially, Khator wants to create a demand for she and her school to supply. Applications for admission jumped after UH received the tier-one designation last January, and despite the recession private donations have increased every year since 2008. Khator expects the football team's success will result in another boost in both. "People want to bet behind a winning horse," she said. "People want to bet behind institutions that are relevant." One of the big challenges ahead, however, will be convincing high school kids they can have a traditional collegiate experience at a school less than 10 minutes from downtown Houston. This, of course, has as much to do with perception and branding as reality. The University of Miami and the University of Southern California, for example, are also located in not necessarily the good parts of major U.S. cities. Their branding advantage over Houston comes from decades of athletic notoriety, specifically in football. This is the opportunity that sits in front of Houston, which is joining the conference to which Miami belonged from 1991 to 2005, a period during which it won two national championships. The Cougars are a long way from that. Miami's titles in 1991 and 2001 were the fourth and fifth in its history. It was an established football power by then. Houston doesn't have any national titles and is not a national power. It doesn't have that brand, and without that brand, it doesn't feel like a traditional campus. Not yet. But here and there, you can see a shift. Cornerback Zach McMillan has lived in Houston his whole life. His father played at UH and he always knew he'd go to Houston. It's starting to feel different to him. "You drive around the city and you see UH up," he said. "I ain't never seen that before in my life."
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