HOUSTON -- When the Houston sideline started its customary kickoff dance, up 52-31 on Navy with 41 seconds left, this time a full stadium of over 40,000 danced behind it. The dancing started when Tom Herman arrived in January as a means to self-start an atmosphere for a team that had grown accustomed to empty home crowds.
After a few moments, the student section stormed the field, bookending a day that started with enough hype to draw President George H.W. Bush out to deliver the coin toss.
"Yeah, I told our guys, cool stuff happens to winners," Houston head coach Herman said after the game.
Cool stuff is happening to Houston. Like hosting an American Athletic Conference Championship next Saturday. If the Cougars win, that would almost certainly send a 12-1 UH to the New Year's Six bowls as the non-power representative. Formerly shoddy home attendance has spiked to sellout crowds; the Cougars' 2015 home average was their highest since 1968 in the Astrodome.
Houston is doing really cool stuff, like forcing No. 15 Navy so far off balance that the triple-option Midshipmen passed for 317 yards and ran for 147. Cool stuff like scoring 30 or more points in 11 games this year, and 45 or more in six of those. Cool stuff like bending physics on offense with quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and receiver Demarcus Ayers.
"We use the term now, 'You gotta add a little sauce.' You can't be walking around here acting all dry," Ayers said. "You gotta have a little juice, a little sauce. Sprinkle something on there for flavor. Walk around with your chest out and carry yourself in a nice way. People are noticing us now, appreciating what we're doing for the city of Houston. We just want to show up for them now."
Everyone has noticed Herman, the former Ohio State offensive coordinator-turned-single hottest name in coaching rumors. So, if Houston wants to keep these sellout crowds at brand-new TDECU Stadium, it has to play like a Power 5 program off the field.
"Coach Herman and I talk, his agent and I talk," Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek said after the game. "I know where he stands as far as the University of Houston is concerned, and I'm very confident that he will be the head coach at the University of Houston next year.
"We've made a significant investment that has not gone unnoticed to try to retain coach Herman and his staff [a raise that would put Herman at $3 million annually, per reports], and we've not yet completed that deal."
A New Year's Six bowl would deliver the AAC and Houston a $6 million payout to be split between the conference and the participating school. Ask Yurachek about how best to reinvest such a windfall into Houston's $40 million budget, and he doesn't talk about buildings.
Houston's sales pitch to Herman, a coach with Texan roots, is looking better than any other Group of Five school's could: stay at home in nice facilities and recruit in a talent-rich area. It's not quite the Big 12, but it is Texas. If you win, fans will show up and people will spend money.
"Getting to a New Year's Six bowl would be significant, but looking at the future in 2016, with season ticket sales and donations, with opening up at [the Houston Texans'] NRG Stadium against Oklahoma, and what all of that could do for us could be even more significant," Yurachek said.
So far, so good, at least on the record. Rumors of a done deal between South Carolina and Herman were quashed this week. If Herman's internal message to players is true, Houston's extra game next week means he's refusing to entertain any offer for seven more days.
"We had a meeting at the start of the week, and he said, 'I'm not going to talk to anyone about any other job or be in communication with anyone, because I have a task at hand,'" Ayers said. "I don't know what other jobs he'd been talked about with. But he for sure told us he killed the South Carolina thing. He told us this is where he wanted to be, and if anything happens, it's not gonna be right now.
"This is important to him right now. I think the guys really appreciated that."
Herman has been vocal in his desire to change the Houston mind set, talking to SB Nation in October about how cleaning the carpets of the football facility each week helped set the tone for recruiting.
Even Herman had to admit that Saturday was the best example yet of Houston's potential. Despite a short week of prep coming off of Houston's sole loss, a flashy offense beat a ranked opponent on a national broadcast in front of a sell-out crowd. So the carpet looked really nice.
"Yeah, that's a great way to put it," Herman said. "Our guys executed a great game plan with passion and energy and the fans were off the charts. Each time we go out and make fans and students and alumni proud, it's another notch in the belt, another positive to make more and more people want to come out and watch we have going on."
Having employed Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin in the last decade, UH understands where riding the wave with a red-hot coach takes a mid-major. Tony Levine won 15 games in his final two seasons at Houston, but winning isn't enough.
"There's no doubt about that. It's more than having a winning record to engage a fan base. Look at the way Coach Herman uses social media. He helped developed our 'H-Town Takeover' marketing campaign. It's spread from inside the football program to our entire athletic department and now to this community."
The imperative isn't to advertise Houston as a destination for program builders, but a residence to its current architect.