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Hurricane Rita leaves teams scrambling

With Tulane's plight fresh in their minds, University of Houston officials told the football team to pack for a lengthy trip with Hurricane Rita bearing down on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Cougars were ready to go but unsure early Thursday where they were headed and how they would be getting there.

The second hurricane in less than a month has college sports teams scrambling again to rearrange schedules — and in some cases — to relocate teams. No. 3 LSU had its home opener delayed for the third time, when the Southeastern Conference decided to push back the Tigers' game against No. 10 Tennessee two days to Monday night.

Houston's initial plan was to bus the football team, coaches and support staff — about 125 people — to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, about a six-hour drive in normal conditions, far longer with much of southeast Texas fleeing the likely destination of a powerful hurricane.

That plan fell through late Wednesday night when the state would not authorize the team's move to the base, according to Houston athletic director Dave Maggard.

And then the Cougars lost their ride when the bus company informed them that they had no drivers for the five buses the school hired, Maggard said.

"It's left us in a real quandary," Maggard said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.

After having no luck finding a charter plane to take the Cougars to Tulsa, Okla., where they play football next Saturday, the team decided to bus it the nearly 500 miles to Tulsa.

Maggard couldn't find any buses in Texas — "That has been amazing to me," he said Thursday night — but secured four in Tulsa. The Cougars expected to be on the road this morning.

The Cougars play Tulane in Lafayette, La., the following week, before their next scheduled home game at Robertson Stadium against Memphis on Oct. 15. Houston's home game against Southern Mississippi scheduled for Saturday was postponed on Wednesday because of Rita.

When Tulane evacuated New Orleans for Katrina last month, the football team first moved to Jackson, Miss., only to be relocated to Dallas before eventually setting up shop in Ruston, La., on the campus of Louisiana Tech.

Most Green Wave players hadn't packed for such an extended trip, some not even bringing along a change of clothes. Houston wanted to make sure nothing like that happened to the Cougars, but athletic department officials still found themselves making late adjustments.

Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said lessons were learned from Hurricane Katrina.

"The more moving around you do, the less stable the human experience becomes," Banowsky said.

Houston's crosstown rival, Rice, decided not to move at all. The Owls postponed their game against Navy on Saturday and have told the students they were free to go be with their families or stay in the school's dorms. Many of Rice's students are from the Houston area.

Rice is also on the road the next two weeks. Athletic department spokesman Bill Cousins said the university had not discussed any long-term plans on where to play games if Rice Stadium, a sturdy concrete structure, is made unusable by the storm.

"That stadium's been there 55 years; it's probably the most secure place in town," he said. "That (thing) is not going anywhere."

Rice was able to reschedule its Saturday game with Navy for Oct. 22, when both teams have an open date.

Houston's game with Southern Miss will be made up either Nov. 12 or 13. To do so, Conference USA had to move the SMU-Houston game, originally scheduled for Nov. 12, to Nov. 19.

Southern Miss and Tulane already had their Sept. 4 game postponed to Nov. 26, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

"We're running out of open dates in football," Banowsky said.

Tulane still does not know where it will play three other "home" football games.

Elsewhere in Louisiana, Nicholls State, McNeese State and Northwestern State canceled their Saturday football games because of Hurricane Rita.

It's the second game McNeese State, in Lake Charles, La., has had to cancel because of severe weather. Having its opener against Southern canceled by Katrina probably cost the school about $150,000, spokesman Louis Bonnette said.

Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas, also cancelled its Saturday football game against Missouri State.

NHRA announced Wednesday that it had postponed its event at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, and rescheduled it for Oct. 6-9.

As for the Houston Cougars, Rita is about to provide some serious bonding time.

"Maybe this will pull everybody together," Maggard said.