Bears to face old rival Houston for first time in 25 years

Senior running back John Lovett runs the ball during Baylor's 17-14 Halloween win over west Virginia at McLane Stadium in 2019. Lariat File Photo

By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor

The stars aligned.

First, 38 Louisiana Tech players tested positive for COVID-19 leading up to the highly anticipated meeting between Baylor football and the Bulldogs. Then, news surfaced that Memphis was in the midst of dealing with a coronavirus outbreak after their meeting with Arkansas State, leaving the University of Houston without an opponent on Sept. 18.

So, the stage was set for two old conference rivals to meet once again.

The Bears and the Cougars will face off for the first time since the end of the Southwestern Conference.

Baylor head coach Dave Aranda said the team experienced a little bit of frustration after the postponement of the LA Tech game but that quickly turned to excitement when the decision to play Houston was made.

“We’re fortunate that we got ourselves a really good game, and we have an opportunity to go out and show what we’ve got. I know our guys are excited,” Aranda said.

The turnaround was quick. As soon as Houston heard they weren’t going to be able to play Memphis, UH athletic director Chris Pezman got to work.

“We had conversations. I believed I called Chris Pezman Friday night,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said to the media Monday morning. “I knew Baylor wanted a game (to fill its schedule) … and then Pezman took it from there and made it happen.”

The Bears had practice Saturday after which the coaching staff met with athletic director Mack Rhoades and the department staff to talk about the possibility of scheduling a new opponent for the upcoming week. Once they got in contact with Houston and the date was set, the Bears moved into game week mode once more and began breaking down tape. Neither team wanted to wait until Sept. 26 to play football.

When asked if there was any anxiety about the unexpected turnaround, Aranda said it was like trading baseball cards.

“This is it right here, man. I’m all shook up,” Aranda said. “Right away, our game is postponed, and I sit down and I’m in a meeting and they’re talking about ‘Well we could play this team, well we could play that team. What about this team?’ Right away, I’m thinking of the baseball cards, and I’m thinking ‘Man, this is crazy.’ You just have to click right into it and go with it.”

The history of this game is important to note.

Baylor leads the all-time series against the Cougars 14-13-1 over 28 games since 1950. The last matchup was held on Oct. 14, 1995 in the Astrodome in the final season of the SWC. The two teams combined to win five of seven SWC conference titles from 1974-80. The Bears were champions in 1974 and 1980 while Houston took the crown in 1976, 1978 and 1979.

“I have a lot of respect for our rivalry, or the history,” Aranda said. “I have a lot of respect for Houston right now, just as they stand, and how Dana is building that team with the talent level they’ve got, the coaches that they have.”

The connections with Houston go beyond just the history between the two teams. Aranda and Holgorsen go way back. The two worked on the same staff at Texas Tech in the early 2000s when Baylor’s head coach was a graduate assistant for the Red Raiders. Aranda said Holgorsen was an “innovative” guy.

“Dana was the guy behind the scenes that was really making everything run,” Aranda said.

After Tech, Aranda then went on to become the linebackers’ coach at Houston for a year before moving on as defensive coordinator for Cal Lutheran. Holgorsen, who was the inside wide receivers’ coach at Tech from 2000-04, spent a year as the Cougars’ offensive coordinator before entering the Big 12 as Oklahoma State’s OC for a year and then moving on to become West Virginia’s head coach from 2011 to 2018.

Aranda isn’t the only one with ties to the Cougars. Rhoades was the athletic director there from 2009-15. Running backs coach Justin Johnson was a four-year letterman for the Cougars.

Cornerbacks coach Brian Stewart worked as the defensive coordinator in 2010. On top of that, offensive line coach Joe Wickline worked under Holgorsen at West Virginia from 2017 to 2018. That’s a well of knowledge that Baylor will be pulling from.

“There is a bunch of ties to Houston, so it’s good to utilize every advantage that we’ve got,” Aranda said.

Aranda and the Bears will make their 2020 debut against Houston at 11 a.m. Saturday at McLane Stadium. The game will be televised on FOX with Gus Johnson on play-by-play, Joel Klatt as the analyst and Jenny Taft on the sidelines.