Last year, the University of Houston’s football team made a historic return to NCAA prominence. Houstonians cheered the Cougars at TDECU Stadium and at venues around the country—including the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where the team won the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Perhaps no one cheered louder than UH’s very own official performing spirit ambassadors—the UH Cheerleaders, Spirit of Houston Marching Band and Cougar Dolls. These dedicated students rev up the Cougars faithfully at home games and on the road. They also support other UH athletics programs including the men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, baseball and women’s soccer.
Athletic events aren’t the only places where these organizations spread Cougar Pride. They also bring energy and entertainment to local parades, including the two Martin Luther King Parades, Houston Livestock Show, Rodeo Parade, and other citywide events.
Not unlike sports teams, members of these organizations maintain strict rehearsal schedules and stay in top shape to deliver show-stopping performances on the field, on the sidelines and in the community. They also must maintain solid grades in order to participate. That’s not always an easy task, but the students that comprise these groups rise to the occasion to ensure they’re physically and academically ready to represent UH.
UH Magazine takes a look at these organizations that tirelessly spread Cougar Pride throughout the community.
This year, UH’s Cheerleaders concluded its year by attending the National Cheerleaders Association College Nationals. Although the team did not reach the finals, the event was a fitting end to a productive and busy year.
The team includes 17 men and women and is coached by former Texas Tech cheerleader Jasmine Arnold. Following the College Nationals, Arnold bid farewell to a number of team members and had the tough task of identifying new Cheerleaders for the 2016 – 17 squad. So, what does she look for in a Cougar Cheerleader?
“Strength is very important,” Arnold said. “I look for males and females who look strong and are strong too. I also look for students who are going to look good on the field and are well spoken. They have to be able to not only cheer well but communicate effectively with members of the community.”
Arnold added that students’ academics factor into their acceptance on the squad, as well as their abilities to be team players. One of the biggest skills required for Cheerleaders is time management, she said.
“Cheerleaders need to devote 20 to 25 hours a week,” she said. “That includes appearances, games and practices.”
Jesse McGraw discovered firsthand the rigidity of the team’s schedule. McGraw arrived to UH in 2016 as a freshman from Center, Texas. Still, he balanced cheerleading with coursework and Greek life. Despite any challenges, he had a great first year.
McGraw has cheered since his freshman year in high school, but the experience of being part of UH’s cheer team has been a life changing experience. Last year, he represented the squad in the media (including a TV interview on FOX26) and supported the Coogs during a major bowl appearance.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s crazy fun,” McGraw said. “One of my favorite things to do with the Cheerleaders is supporting different causes. Last year, we helped with H.E.B.’s ‘Tackle Hunger’ food drive. We had to get up at 4 a.m. for that appearance and were pretty tired. But that didn’t affect our performance. We held up signs and came up with our own cheers for ‘Tackle Hunger.’ All of us love being involved and giving back to the community.”
With nearly 300 student musicians and performers, UH’s Spirit of Houston Marching Band is the largest spirit organization on campus … and perhaps even in the city. The band has long dazzled Houstonians and audiences across the country with its halftime performances at football games.
Of course, the band played to some of its largest audiences during the historic 2015 football season, but over the years it has performed at many high-profile events.
In 1973, the band, led by legendary director Bill Moffit, performed at the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs at the Astrodome. During this era, the Spirit of Houston recorded a popular version of “The Star Spangled Banner” that was played before events at Madison Square Garden. Under Moffit’s direction, the band’s field performances set the pace for college halftime shows. His innovative “Patterns in Motion” became the standard for high school and college bands. Likewise, his spirited adaptations of popular hits became game-time staples.
Fast-forward to 2004 and the Spirit of Houston, then directed by interim College of the Arts associate dean and Moores School of Music (MSM) alumnus David Bertman, was featured in the infamous NFL’s Big Game at Reliant Stadium (now NRG Stadium) halftime show alongside Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson. Fans across the globe witnessed UH band members flanking these two mega stars having a wardrobe malfunction onstage.
Today, fellow MSM alum Marc Martin leads the band, continuing the tradition set by his trailblazing predecessors.
“There were a lot of big shoes to fill when I arrived,” Martin said. “I work hard to honor the past while finding new ways to serve the community and the campus.”
With Martin at the helm, the Spirit of Houston continues to entertain and inspire Cougar fans and the Houston community.
For new members, being part of a massive pride machine can be a bit daunting. Alex Pinell graduated in spring 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in public relations but clearly remembers her introduction to the Spirit of Houston four years ago.
“Coming from a well-behaved, intense, competitive marching band in high school, I wasn’t prepared for what was about to hit me,” she said. “During the first full-band rehearsals at band camp, the drum major climbed up on the ladder and screamed ‘HORSE!’ The band was going NUTS and playing ‘The Horse’ as loudly as they could, running around and jumping like crazy. That was literally the best first impression I could have asked for. I had no idea what to do. I just kept playing and actually teared up because I was just so happy and excited. I had so many of those moments …”
Pinell’s unbridled enthusiasm reflects the qualities exemplified by band members. When Martin recruits students, he looks for both energy and responsibility, as well as musical talent.
The Spirit of Houston provides entertainment to Houstonians, and the experience of being in the band offers students many life lessons in professionalism, Martin said. The rewards of participating in the band are those that last a lifetime.
“Playing with the Spirit of Houston helps students realize their best qualities,” he said. “They’re able to be the best they can be. They learn a lot about service. The rewards from the community are often a ‘Thank you’ or a good feeling … and those go a long way.”
Pinell concurs. As she enters the workforce and contemplates graduate school, she credits her time with the Spirit of Houston as helping her grow.
“Being in the Spirit of Houston helped me in so many ways,” she said. “I cannot imagine my time at UH without being a part of the band. Not only did it give me a family to fall back on, but it also taught me many ways to handle challenging situations in a mature manner.”
Complementing the Spirit of Houston and Cheerleaders are UH’s dance team, the Cougar Dolls. The team includes up to 20 male and female performers who grace the sidelines at UH football games and are featured with the band during halftime performances.
“Every time I stand on the football field at TDECU Stadium, I get chills,” said sophomore political science major Maegan Bales. “It is such an amazing feeling to dance for thousands of people in such an extraordinary stadium. Just hearing so many people screaming ‘Go Coogs,’ is enough to get me pumped up for whichever dance or chant we are about to do. I definitely feel a sense of pride dancing for such an awesome University.”
Bales has been involved with dance teams since middle school. When a friend joined the Dolls, she followed and fell in love with the program. While Cheerleaders have their own style of performance and the band generates music to energize audiences, the Dolls thrill fans with tightly choreographed and highly physical dance routines. Dancers are not only present at all home football games but travel with the Cougar football team across the country.
“I have been to Tulsa, New Orleans and Atlanta for the Peach Bowl, all places that I have never been before,” she said. “Each trip was an amazing experience, and I made wonderful memories with my teammates.”
Bales and teammates are in good hands. Coach Khristal Harbert and assistant coach Amanda Carlos are former Cougar Dolls. They both believe that anyone who is part of the team is a Doll for life. Most importantly, they see the dance team as an opportunity to give back to the community. While teaching members new choreography and techniques is important for shows, coaches Harbert and Carlos also instill a sense of responsibility. It’s important to support the Coogs but also crucial to provide service to the community.
“Our focus is not only on growing as dancers and performers, but also the importance of being contributing members to society,” Harbert said. “We perform a lot of community service. Most importantly, we prepare young ladies for graduation and the world.”