HOUSTON (AP) _ Houston football coach Kim Helton has been fired despite leading the Cougars to a seven-win season.

The school's athletic department said today that Helton would not return for the final two years of his contract after registering only the second winning season in his seven years at the helm.

``We are very appreciative for the efforts and contributions Kim has made to the university during his tenure as our football coach,'' athletic director Chet 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.''

Helton was not available for comment today, but did not sound like a coach on the way out Saturday after Houston's 26-14 victory over Army.

``We're going to have a great recruiting year,'' he said.

Helton reportedly will receive the remaining $600,000 due on his contract and end his Cougars coaching career with a 24-53-1 record.

The Cougars finished the season with wins over Tulane, LSU and Army and are eligible for a bowl appearance for the first time since 1996. The Humanitarian Bowl reportedly is eyeing Houston.

It was unclear today whether the Cougars would accept such an invitation in the midst of a coaching search.

The Cougars finished sixth in Conference USA with a 3-3 record.

Consecutive 3-8 seasons after winning a share of the first Conference USA championship in 1996 led to criticism of Helton, whose team was 2-9 in 1995.

This season, after a sellout crowd of nearly 32,000 attended the Cougars' opener against Rice at Houston's newly renovated Robertson Stadium, the team was plagued with dwindling attendance figures.