Time to Double Down One-on-One with Athletics Director Chris Pezman

Major college athletics programs are entering a new era as student athletes are now able to earn money off their name, image and likeness.

The University of Houston’s invitation to the Big12 Conference will, for the first time in 26 years, mark the Coogs' return to a major collegiate athletic conference and a new chapter for Cougar Athletics.

During the past two years, college athletics has been impacted by unforeseen conference realignment, revenue battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, college athletes voicing their concerns about racial injustice and equality, and the unanimous Supreme Court decision that paved the way for student athletes to be compensated outside of education-related benefits.

UH Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Chris Pezman recently discussed how Cougar Athletics is adapting to changes upending the current collegiate model.

Chris Pezman

Chris Pezman

Chris Pezman

"Winning athletic programs are one of the most important connections we can make with our alumni."

- Chris Pezman

2021 Final Four American Athletic Conference Champions Ring

2021 Final Four American Athletic Conference Champions Ring

2021 Final Four American Athletic Conference Champions Ring

The University moved fast with its announcement of LIFTOFF, its name, image and likeness (NIL) platform for Cougar athletes, a partnership with the C.T. Bauer College of Business and Opendorse. What were some of the challenges of getting this program launched?

The program came together quickly and seamlessly with the support of our partners and Paul Pavlou, dean of the C.T. Bauer College of Business. They have provided support and access for our student athletes to learn about the space and to start preparing themselves for the NIL landscape.

What’s been a little unusual is the external component of it – where the kids are out in the marketplace and how that works. It’s unique, and it’s evolving so quickly, literally day-to-day and week-to-week. But the foundations of it, the intent, it’s all for the right reasons.

So far, it’s been a huge advantage for us. With the success that we’ve had in football and basketball, we have some kids that are getting sponsorship deals. The partnership with Opendorse has allowed us to put together a database that gives us insights into what is happening in the NIL marketplace in real-time for our student athletes.

UH is expected to join the Big 12 in 2023. Will the Coogs have an opportunity to play The University of Texas at Austin and University of Oklahoma in conference play before they head to the SEC?

We’re still working on when we’ll enter the Big 12. It won’t be any sooner than 2023 or any later than 2024. It’s evolving. If Texas and OU are still in the Big 12 by the time we join, that’ll be great. Regardless, our programs will be ready to compete in the Big 12.

Is there anything that alumni, donors and supporters of UH might not know about how the conference move will help the University overall?

Holistically for the University, it creates more exposure. And in a greater sense, Athletics provides even more opportunities for our student athletes to compete at the highest levels.

When you get more visibility, it increases the number of applications, which can increase the quality of the students that you have on campus. It’s provided an immediate boost for recruiting across all sports. When we say it touches everything within our department, there’s never a truer statement.

We are in the middle of reevaluating what we need to look like as we make that transition – the type of student athletes that we’re bringing in, the resources – and making sure we will be able to compete at the highest level.

We must continue to win, and we must figure out ways to make sure we continue to be competitively successful. Winning athletic programs are one of the most important connections we can make with our alumni. The move to the Big 12 will let our alumni stay within the state and make road trips to schools where we have natural and exciting rivalries, like Waco, Fort Worth and Lubbock.

The University moved fast with its announcement of LIFTOFF, its name, image and likeness (NIL) platform for Cougar athletes, a partnership with the C.T. Bauer College of Business and Opendorse. What were some of the challenges of getting this program launched?

The program came together quickly and seamlessly with the support of our partners and Paul Pavlou, dean of the C.T. Bauer College of Business. They have provided support and access for our student athletes to learn about the space and to start preparing themselves for the NIL landscape.

What’s been a little unusual is the external component of it – where the kids are out in the marketplace and how that works. It’s unique, and it’s evolving so quickly, literally day-to-day and week-to-week. But the foundations of it, the intent, it’s all for the right reasons.

So far, it’s been a huge advantage for us. With the success that we’ve had in football and basketball, we have some kids that are getting sponsorship deals. The partnership with Opendorse has allowed us to put together a database that gives us insights into what is happening in the NIL marketplace in real-time for our student athletes.

UH is expected to join the Big 12 in 2023. Will the Coogs have an opportunity to play The University of Texas at Austin and University of Oklahoma in conference play before they head to the SEC?

We’re still working on when we’ll enter the Big 12. It won’t be any sooner than 2023 or any later than 2024. It’s evolving. If Texas and OU are still in the Big 12 by the time we join, that’ll be great. Regardless, our programs will be ready to compete in the Big 12.

Is there anything that alumni, donors and supporters of UH might not know about how the conference move will help the University overall?

Holistically for the University, it creates more exposure. And in a greater sense, Athletics provides even more opportunities for our student athletes to compete at the highest levels.

When you get more visibility, it increases the number of applications, which can increase the quality of the students that you have on campus. It’s provided an immediate boost for recruiting across all sports. When we say it touches everything within our department, there’s never a truer statement.

We are in the middle of reevaluating what we need to look like as we make that transition – the type of student athletes that we’re bringing in, the resources – and making sure we will be able to compete at the highest level.

We must continue to win, and we must figure out ways to make sure we continue to be competitively successful. Winning athletic programs are one of the most important connections we can make with our alumni. The move to the Big 12 will let our alumni stay within the state and make road trips to schools where we have natural and exciting rivalries, like Waco, Fort Worth and Lubbock.

2021 Final Four American Athletic Conference Champions Ring
University of Houston Men's Basketball at Fertitta Center

University of Houston Men's Basketball at Fertitta Center

University of Houston Men's Basketball at Fertitta Center

Over the past decade, UH Athletics has had great success, especially in football and basketball. What is driving the momentum?

Success begets more success. Look at what happened this past fall with our football program. We were building towards that when Dana Holgorsen came here and the way he’s developed the program. And go back to what Coach Kelvin Sampson’s basketball team has done over the last couple of years between UH’s Final Four run and Sweet 16.

The profile that came with the elevation of those programs has permeated into every other sport. We saw it this last year with our volleyball program, our soccer program, a historic season for our Olympic sports.

I’m really excited about what Dave Rehr is doing with our volleyball program. Diego Bocanegra is stepping away from intercollegiate athletics, but he’s left the women’s soccer program in solid shape. The people who are interested in leading our soccer program are impressive. With the excitement of the Big 12, the success that we’ve had and the resources we have put into these programs, it attracts a different caliber of coaching candidates.

UH has invested nearly $300 million in facilities over the past eight years. With the move to the Big 12, are we going to see additional or renovated facilities?

Very timely question, we’ll be officially announcing our football operations center soon – a standalone facility for the football program. By moving football out of the Athletics Alumni Center, we’ll be able to elevate our other programs.

Track, volleyball, soccer and other Olympic sports will have greater access to the facility and its amenities, like the 20,000-square-foot weight room. Everybody assumes that college athletics is just about football and basketball. Those sports help other programs significantly, and we’re really excited about what is coming for all our programs.

Did you attend the 2022 NCAA Convention, and if so, what was on the mind of your colleagues in college athletics?

I did not because of COVID-related issues. But I’ve been in touch with some who did attend.

Over the last 18 months, intercollegiate athletics has seen seismic changes. When I got into this business 20 or 30 years ago, it was totally different from today.

NIL, frankly, was common sense and should have happened a long time ago, but it’s different from what everybody’s used to. Everybody’s trying to figure out what that should look like.

And then there’s the legislation that will restructure the NCAA so college athletic departments and conferences can streamline their operations. There’s the potential expansion of the college football playoff and what comes with that.

We’ve been talking a lot about the transfer portal in college football and basketball. You’re seeing that play out real-time right now, where kids can opt-in and change schools right away and be immediately eligible. Should that have happened a long time ago? Absolutely. Do we need to better refine it? Absolutely.

So, I think the pendulum has swung in one direction, and we’re trying to figure out what the equilibrium is with the transfer portal. Everybody’s talking about all those things because they’re big blocks, and it’s changing the way we operate.

University of Houston - Alumni Center

University of Houston - Alumni Center

University of Houston - Alumni Center

UH Women's Swimming & Diving team

UH Women's Swimming & Diving team

UH Women's Swimming & Diving team

How do you see college athletics evolving, and what must UH do moving forward to maintain its competitive edge?

The opportunity to join the Big 12 changes our dynamic significantly. It gives us a different tenor in those conversations, a different tone, and it has put us in a very favorable position.

What also helps us immensely is being in Houston – the resources the city offers that cannot be found in smaller college towns. There’s a lot of inherent resources that we have being in a major market that will play out very favorably for us as we move ahead.

I’ll add, a lot of people might think that UH has made it. They’re thinking ‘The Big 12 accepted the school, and it’s going to be competing there at some point soon. And they’re on their way, so mission accomplished.’

Well, this is when you double down. This is when we should really make our biggest push.

There’s not a windfall of massive resources that comes with the move to the Big 12.

We have to make those resources happen, and we are in a position to do even more so now because our alums and supporters are enjoying the success we’re having.

We need their help more now, more than ever, because we’re leveling up. Because we have to figure out how to close that gap with the schools that we’re competing against. They’ve been getting tens of millions of dollars every year for decades. We must figure out a way to close that gap between now and then, and that’s where we need help.

That means butts in seats, and it means giving fans, alums, donors and friends reasons to sing our praises. But yes, more than ever, this is where we need our University alums and supporters to step up and assist us to close that gap with our new conference mates.

Is there a question that I haven’t asked you that you think I should have about the current state of UH Athletics and college sports?

There’s just so much volatility in this space right now. And what it looks like today and then in two years remains to be seen. But I’m really excited about where we’re positioned. We’re very fortunate for the leadership that we have with the Board of Regents, President Renu Khator and the administration and how supportive they are of athletics.

We must continue to be great stewards of their confidence. We can’t take that for granted. But what really gets me excited is the success that our kids have had socially and academically. We’ve set academic records over the last 18 months – the number of student athletes who have graduated, the number of kids with a 3.0 GPA and hours passed.

How do you see college athletics evolving, and what must UH do moving forward to maintain its competitive edge?

The opportunity to join the Big 12 changes our dynamic significantly. It gives us a different tenor in those conversations, a different tone, and it has put us in a very favorable position.

What also helps us immensely is being in Houston – the resources the city offers that cannot be found in smaller college towns. There’s a lot of inherent resources that we have being in a major market that will play out very favorably for us as we move ahead.

I’ll add, a lot of people might think that UH has made it. They’re thinking ‘The Big 12 accepted the school, and it’s going to be competing there at some point soon. And they’re on their way, so mission accomplished.’

Well, this is when you double down. This is when we should really make our biggest push.

There’s not a windfall of massive resources that comes with the move to the Big 12.

We have to make those resources happen, and we are in a position to do even more so now because our alums and supporters are enjoying the success we’re having.

We need their help more now, more than ever, because we’re leveling up. Because we have to figure out how to close that gap with the schools that we’re competing against. They’ve been getting tens of millions of dollars every year for decades. We must figure out a way to close that gap between now and then, and that’s where we need help.

That means butts in seats, and it means giving fans, alums, donors and friends reasons to sing our praises. But yes, more than ever, this is where we need our University alums and supporters to step up and assist us to close that gap with our new conference mates.

Is there a question that I haven’t asked you that you think I should have about the current state of UH Athletics and college sports?

There’s just so much volatility in this space right now. And what it looks like today and then in two years remains to be seen. But I’m really excited about where we’re positioned. We’re very fortunate for the leadership that we have with the Board of Regents, President Renu Khator and the administration and how supportive they are of athletics.

We must continue to be great stewards of their confidence. We can’t take that for granted. But what really gets me excited is the success that our kids have had socially and academically. We’ve set academic records over the last 18 months – the number of student athletes who have graduated, the number of kids with a 3.0 GPA and hours passed.

UH Women's Swimming & Diving team