...the University of Houston Cougars are headed to the NCAA Basketball Tournament (also known as March Madness, the Big Dance, Bracketville, etc...).
The Coogs, in spite of having a rather mediocre season - they entered the Conference USA Tournament with a 15-15 record - managed to pull off the improbable, notching four straight victories and upsetting heavily-favored and nationally-ranked UTEP, 81-73, to claim the Conference USA Championship and secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tourney.
For me, it was literally half a lifetime ago when the Cougars last punched their ticket to the Big Dance: eighteen years ago today, on March 15, 1992, with a victory over Texas in the final of the Southwest Conference tournament. I was an eighteen-year-old freshman in college, George H. W. Bush was President of the United States, Johnny Carson was host of the Tonight Show, the #1 single in the country that week was "To Be With You" By Mr. Big ("I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred was #2), and Wayne's World had edged out My Cousin Vinny as the weekend's top-grossing movie. There was no such thing as Google, flat screen television or iPods; while walking to and from class I listened to music via cassette tapes in my Walkman. Cell phones, laptop computers and digital cameras did exist, but they were bulky, expensive and rare. My computer didn't have a modem, I didn't even know what e-mail was, and my brother and I played video games on a 16-bit Sega Genesis.
It was, indeed, a long time ago. Which makes it both amazing and depressing that a college basketball program as historically notable as Houston's, with a total of 19 NCAA tournament appearances and five Final Fours under their belt, has suffered such a long drought on the national stage. The Brooks-Drexler-McCallum Era of Suckitude has been an absolutely dreadful period in Cougar sports history, and I'll admit that as recently as a week ago I was fed up with current head coach Tom Penders as well. But now that Penders has finally done what he was brought here to do - break the drought and get the Coogs back to the tournament - criticism of his coaching abilities is, for the time being, unwarranted.
The Cougars have not won a game in the Big Dance since the Phi Slama Jama era of the mid-80s; their last appearance in the tournament was brought to a quick, first-round end by Georgia Tech on March 19, 1992. The 13th-seeded Coogs will have their hands full again this time, as they face the 4th-seeded Maryland Terrapins in the first round this Friday. Expecting them to win their first tournament victory in 25 years might be a bit much. But hey, nobody expected this team to get to the tournament in the first place.
For the first time since I started filling out my annual bracket, "Houston" is one of the 65 names listed on the page. And that's good enough for me.