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Tracing Houston’s nickname back to its origin in Pullman

Yes, the Houston “Coogs” are indeed named after the Washington State “Cougs”.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Houston Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

This Friday night, the Houston Cougars will take on the Washington State Cougars inside NRG Stadium in Houston. It’s a battle of two of the three FBS level football programs to share the name Cougars, alongside BYU. And as we enter this Coug vs. Coog showdown, it’s worth taking a look at how Houston came to be known as the Cougars... And which program they took inspiration from.

Back in the early 20th century, John R. Bender led Washington State football for five seasons over two stints, leading Washington State College to a 21-12 record. Pullman was one of six stops on Bender’s head coaching resume. He even made a stop in St. Louis where his smile is the basis for the St. Louis Billikens logo. He would also coach at Tennessee and Kansas State, where he gave the team the Wildcat.

But apparently, Pullman and the Washington State College Cougars left a mark on the Nebraska native.

After retiring from the coaching profession, Bender moved to Houston in 1927 where he was hired to teach physical education at the newly established University of Houston. The University wouldn’t officially field a football team until the mid 1940’s, but it was Bender who started a volunteer team in 1927.

Of course, you can’t have a team without a name. Bender was charged with picking the team’s nickname and he settled on Cougars, because of his former tie to the Washington State program.

Unfortunately, Bender died in 1928, just one season after establishing the volunteer sports program at Houston. But Friday night two of his former programs, the elder Cougs and the younger Coogs, will square off with a victory — and nickname supremacy — on the line.


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