HOUSTON -- Athletic director Hunter Yurachek swipes a key card and offers a tour of the new football locker room, on the condition that no photos are taken. Final touches aren’t in place yet, and head coach Tom Herman wants the experience to be fresh when players report for fall camp.
That morning, Kentucky had debuted its new locker room on social media. Herman and Yurachek happily note the similarities. Amidst leather seating, flat-panel monitors and recessed lighting, Yurachek asks my opinion. I have to agree. The experience in Houston’s facility is what you’d expect from a Power 5 program.
When I tell the same thing to billionaire booster Tilman Ferttita, he offers an editorial suggestion all the way from his yacht, currently anchored off the west coast of Italy: "You need to say that. You need to say exactly that, OK? We’d appreciate it."
Ferttita is a Texas restaurant, casino and real estate mogul turned reality TV star on CNBC’s Billion Dollar Buyer. But he’s also the chairman of the University of Houston System Board of Regents.
All those positions have a common feature: Fertitta can sell. He loves to sell. And he sells like a Texan.
"Well hey, we’re not out there selling rocks. We’re selling diamonds," Feritta says. "I don’t get on causes. I don’t get on things that don’t feel right."
Here’s why Fertitta feels right about his alma mater’s chances of joining the Big 12 as soon as possible:
- A 13-1 2015 with a win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl, and a 2016 with hopes of another New Year’s bowl.
- A school-record 23,000 season tickets sold to 40,000-seat TDECU Stadium, up from 15,000 season tickets in 2014. The stadium was completed in 2014 but designed for expansion up to 60,000.
- A Labor Day weekend game vs. Oklahoma in Houston’s NFL stadium on ABC, a game scheduled two years prior that’s now a well-timed showcase.
- $240 million in athletic facilities upgrades, with a new football practice facility and a massive renovation of the basketball arena both on the way.
- And that guy Herman, who won a national title as offensive coordinator at Ohio State.
He’s the guy responsible for the #HTownTakeover. The guy universally considered as the hottest coaching candidate in college football, whom Houston made a $3 million coach to save off Power 5 suitors like South Carolina.
"Hey, let Tom win for us, OK? We’ll take care of Tom," Fertitta says.
Fertitta is noticeably tired of stories about Herman centering on where he’ll go next.
Now the booster has a way to pivot that conversation, after last week’s announcement that Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has conference permission to officially explore expansion candidates.
"You gotta remember, Tom knows Houston. He worked at Rice. He’s not just sitting there saying ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’" says the booster. "We make this stadium bigger and we get into the Big 12 and Tom gets all he wants from the alumni and the donors? Then Tom doesn’t care to go anywhere. We’ll build a statute for Tom in 20 years, OK?"
Ferttita spent last Wednesday and Thursday Skyping from overseas with anyone in the U.S. media willing to hear him pitch the Cougars. Meanwhile, Yurachek watched a groundswell of social media support from his campus office. Texas governor Greg Abbott tweeted his support for UH’s inclusion in Big 12 expansion just as Yurachek was sitting down with SB Nation Thursday morning.
Yurachek reads the tweet from a staffer’s phone and smiles.
"Well, I think it was a great statement in support of the state of Texas. I think it shows he's dedicated to improving all of the state's educational institutions."
Hours later I have to ask Yurachek for a revised comment, because if there’s a better endorsement than the governor’s, it’s support from the University of Texas itself later that day.
"Nothing to add right now, but keep checking," Yurachek deadpans.
Officials at UH confirm they’re gaining a quiet confidence about the Big 12.
Friday, Texas Tech voiced support for the "consideration" of Houston. The previous assumption that a University of Texas-controlled Big 12 would never again slice up its home state in expansion seems less certain.
Why the change in heart? It’s more than circumstantial that UT is pursuing a massive expansion in the Houston area. Last year, UT purchased over 300 acres of land in the city, angering UH officials in process. The Austin American Statesman has reported that a deal between the two schools might be in the works; UH drops public opposition to a UT-Houston expansion, and UT swings its considerable influence in favor of UH joining the Big 12.
"You know, I hear that, and it could be. [UT] caught a lot of flak from the legislators not only in Houston but Austin," Fertitta said.
"There are a lot of people asking why they would want to go put their footprint down there. ‘Let’s continue to expand in Austin.’ I don’t know. The chancellor [UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven] and the president [UT-Austin President Gregory Fenves] said it didn’t have anything to do with it, so I’ve got to take them at their word.
"But everybody enjoys making each other happy, so we’ll see."
Fertitta has previously said Houston isn't in the Big 12 because Texas and other schools are "scared" and argued the conference needs UH in order to avoid losing Houston market share to the SEC.
Houston will pitch the Big 12, and possibly soon. Sources at multiple schools in consideration for Big 12 membership have told SB Nation that the window for evaluation is between 60 and 90 days.
That time frame would jibe with the idea that the Big 12 wants to expand in time for the 2017-18 academic calendar, despite a potentially costlier exit for some candidates.
"Five years ago the University of Houston, from an athletic standpoint, would not be ready for this conversation," Yurachek said. "Now when you look just this past year, $10 million of the $20 million needed for the football practice facility has been raised in the last seven months."
There’s a new licensing agreement with Academy Sports & Outdoors. If you walk into the retail chain anywhere in the Houston area, UH-licensed merchandise is as prominent as Texas’ or Texas A&M’s. Yurachek says licensing royalties are up 28.5 percent over last year. The idea is to flood the consumer market for exposure and brand new UH fans, especially students and potential football players.
"A friend of mine texted me from the Victoria’s Secret at Galleria," the AD says. "The front display was all UH."
"Can’t say I’m too familiar with the Pink brand, but that’s great exposure."
Houston’s reality is that there will never be a better shot than this.
If the Cougars are passed over for Power 5 inclusion, they’ll lose the TV revenue boost that creates the sport’s haves and have-nots. Yurachek estimates UH clears around $3 million a year as an American Athletic Conference member, compared with the $30 million Big 12 members each made in '15.
The reason for Big 12 expansion is to increase that revenue number, which lags behind the Big Ten and SEC considerably.
"Our vision now is to compete at the highest level. We’re already doing that in some areas, but the overall model is not sustainable without the revenues derived from a significant television rights contract," Yurachek said.
There’s no revenue stream as powerful as TV. Even if Houston maxed out season tickets at 30,000 per year, the revenue from ticket sales and accompanied scholarship fund donations would mean $5 or $6 million annually, a pittance compared to one year of Power 5 TV revenue.
"It’s sustainable over a short period of time, but it’s not over a long period of time," says Yurachek. "There’s certainly not the expectation that we’ll go 13-1 every year, but when you look at other programs like ours — for instance, UCF, going from winning the Fiesta Bowl to a losing season — you see a significant drop in momentum. You can’t afford to have a single tough season. That’s why keeping Coach Herman was so crucial to our momentum."
It’s not just wins. Herman has become a recruiter of all walks for the university.
When the $1 million locker room renovation budget was maxed and UH still needed specific lighting, Herman reached out to a local business, Lesco Lighting, run by two former UH football players. The business donated what would usually be a six-figure cost.
"That’s a creative way of making things works. At other places, you just write a check. Here, we’re explaining a vision and donors are coming forward," Yurachek.
The biggest question for Houston used to be how long Herman would be OK with getting "creative" to win. Now it’s if Houston can make the Big 12.
Back on his yacht, Fertitta is dying to get stateside and sell to whoever, whenever.
"I remember 60,000 Houston fans in the Astrodome, being sold out game after game. I’m the only one involved who was there back then when we were in the Southwest Conference. I remember Bill Yeoman and the veer and how we beat everybody. Houston was a big-time program for many, many years.
"Politically, Baylor got in [the Big 12's initial list of members], and we didn’t. That’s it," Fertitta says. "Now we’re going to do whatever we have to do."