The Houston Cougars on Monday fired coach Kim Helton despite a seven-win season and a chance at their second bowl appearance this decade.
The university must pay Helton the $600,000 for the two years remaining on his contract, but athletic director Chet Gladchuk said it was time for a change.
"We are very appreciative for the efforts and contributions Kim has made to the university during his tenure as our football coach," Gladchuk said. "The program has made significant strides in establishing a competitive foundation.
"We are highly confident new leadership will now even further advance our chances of returning this program to one of national stature."
Houston was 24-53-1 under Helton, the eighth coach in the program's history. Addressing reporters during an impromptu news conference Monday at the university, Helton said he was surprised by his dismissal.
"I'm going to coach somebody somewhere," Helton said of his future.
Attorneys will work out the final financial details of his departure, he added.
Houston might get a Humanitarian Bowl berth if Louisville accepts an alternate bowl bid. An assistant coach would take over on an interim basis if Houston plays in a bowl, athletic department spokesman Chris Burkhalter said.
Players on Monday referred to Helton as a "father figure" who will be missed, but recognized that Gladchuk had his reasons for making a change.
"He had been here for seven years, so what can you say?" junior linebacker Wayne Rogers said. "The best thing for us to do is put it behind us and forget about it."
Houston was a perennially ranked force in the 1960s and 1970s under Bill Yeoman, then saw a resurgence with the high-octane run-and-shoot offense in the late 1980s.
But the Cougars have not ended a season in the Top 25 since David Klingler led them to a No. 10 finish in 1990.
Helton inherited a depleted program in 1993 and won just four games in his first three seasons. Houston then went 7-4 and shared the Conference USA title before losing their Liberty Bowl game in 1996, one year after the Southwest Conference fell apart.
After reverting to a pair of 3-8 seasons, Houston again went 7-4 this year and finished with consecutive victories over Tulane, Louisiana State and Army. The Cougars finished sixth in Conference USA with a 3-3 record.
"Beating LSU used to be pretty good, but they just happened to be down this year," Helton said. "I'm very proud of this football team."
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