DALLAS — As the Southwest Conference's representative in the Cotton Bowl, the Houston Cougars are the home team for today's game. You've heard of mystery guests. The Cougars are mystery hosts.
When they arrived here last week, they assumed they would remain in obscurity at least until the kickoff.
They figured most of the pre-game hype would be centered around their opponent, Boston College, and, more specifically, their opponent's quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie.
They were right about that. Flutie has received most of the attention.
But the Cougars haven't been ignored.
Far from it, they have been called derogatory names, their character has been questioned, and they have been called upon not only to defend themselves but the integrity of their university.
They would rather have been ignored.
"We are getting publicity," Houston linebacker Bryant Winn said, "but it's not good publicity."
It began the day after they arrived, when a local columnist called them cockroaches. The Cougars didn't take it as a compliment, although, in a backhanded way, it was intended as one.
To understand that, you have to be familiar with football folklore in the Southwest Conference.
More than two decades ago, Darrell Royal took a Texas team that was undefeated and ranked No. 1 late in the season to play TCU, which was having one of its usual off years.
Acknowledging before the game that TCU didn't have as much talent as his team, Royal compared the Horned Frogs to cockroaches. They don't eat much, he said, but they spoil everything in the cupboard.
His words proved prophetic because TCU spoiled Texas' national championship chances by playing the Longhorns to a tie.
Move forward to this season. The Cougars lost four games, including one to Louisville, and were so unglamorous that the Independence Bowl rejected them because the university couldn't guarantee it could sell 12,000 tickets to the game.
Yet, the Cougars beat SMU, when it was ranked No. 6, and beat Texas before everyone else was doing it and wound up in the Cotton Bowl.
Thus, the local columnist concluded that the Cougars are cockroaches because they spoiled the nation's chances of seeing Flutie play against a more nationally recognized team, such as Texas, SMU or Arkansas.
But since the Cougars have been competing in the Southwest Conference for only nine years, they may not be aware that it's practically an honor to be called cockroaches.
Some of them took it in the nature it was intended, putting a sign that said "Roach Hotel" above the Cougars' dressing room door. Others took it personally.
"To compare a group of athletes to cockroaches is definitely a racist statement," Houston defensive back Audrey McMillian said.
"There is nothing good any of us can say about cockroaches, and to compare a team that is representing the conference in the Cotton Bowl to cockroaches is something that you can't help but think is pinpointed in a negative way to the University of Houston."
But the Cougars weren't nearly as offended by that as they were by a remark from an anonymous Cotton Bowl official. The remark originally was printed in the Atlanta Journal and also appeared in the Miami Herald before it surfaced in Dallas.
"Damn it, half of these (Houston) people will come up here and eat at the 7-Eleven store, and the other half will be trying to hold it up," the official reportedly said.
Since the official hasn't stepped forward to identify himself, no one is sure whether he was talking about Houston's players, its fans or both.
The Cotton Bowl's executive vice president, Jim (Hoss) Brock, said that the remark, if indeed it was made, probably was meant as a joke.
But University of Houston officials realize that the sentiment, although not usually expressed publicly, is very real. They say it has existed here since the Cougars began to gain national prominence in athletics 20 years ago.
Much of their success in the '60s was due to the fact that Houston was the first major university in the Southwest to recruit black athletes. While that has earned the university applause in many parts of the country, there is an element here that hasn't entirely forgiven them. The element is a silent minority, more so every year, but occasionally its bias comes to the forefront.
There also are traditionalists here who haven't fully accepted the Cougars because they are so new to the Southwest Conference, joining in 1971 and first competing for titles in 1976.
Those people have been frustrated by the fact that Houston has dominated most of the other schools in basketball and been to the Cotton Bowl in football four times in the last nine years, more times than any other conference school during that period.
"There's a difference between being tolerated and being accepted," Houston Coach Bill Yeoman said last week. "I don't think acceptance is going to come in my lifetime. But I can't control it. So I don't worry about it."
Neither do many other people connected with the university. When they perform at the Cotton Bowl today, members of the Houston band have promised to wear plastic cockroaches pinned to their uniforms and carry Slurpee cups from the nearest 7-Eleven.