Final Four appearances for the University of Houston mens basketball team, that is: 1967, 1968, 1982, 1983, 1984, and now 2021:
Kelvin Sampson stood atop a ladder and yanked loose the remnants of the net from the rim. He turned toward the red-clad Houston fans and started pumping his right fist, the net clutched in that hand the entire time.
Years of building a once-proud program back to prominence, of putting together a formula that was about way more than flashy offense — it all led to this breakthrough moment for Sampson and the Cougars.
Yes, Houston is going back to the Final Four for the first time since the famed “Phi Slama Jama” era after Monday night's 67-61 win against Oregon State.
It wasn't easy. The team needed an almost-miraculous comeback against Rutgers just to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, fought past a formidable Syracuse squad, and had to fend off a furious second-half rally from Oregon State to secure their spot in the Final Four. Even then, some in the sports media are discounting the Cougars because of their "historically easy" path to the Final Four, due to the number of upsets in this year's tournament (as if the Coogs have any control over which teams they face in their bracket).
The Cougars, rightfully, are not apologizing for how they got to their first Final Four in 37 years; all that matters is that they're one of the last four teams standing. A lot of UH faithful, myself included, had all but given up any hope of this ever happening again because for so many of those 37 years the once-storied UH basketball program was mired in mediocrity, if not outright irrelevance. Losing seasons piled up during the Brooks-Drexler-McCallum Era of Suckitude, and fans stayed away even during the slightly-less-awful Penders-Dickey Era of Mediocrity. The Coogs made the NCAA tournament just once between 1992 and 2018. Fans referred to Hofheinz Pavilion as "The Tomb."
When the University of Houston hired Kelvin Sampson - a move that was controversial at the time due to Sampson being sanctioned by the NCAA - I wondered if he could resurrect the UH basketball program. The answer is a resounding yes. As Richard Justice explains, Sampson saw the potential of this program:
If some saw the University of Houston as a lost cause, Sampson believed it was a perfect next stop. “I wanted to invest in a program where I could fix something,” he said. “I needed to rebuild a program. I needed to go somewhere where they needed me.”
Sampson remembers interviewing for the position, and former UH athletics director Mack Rhoades bluntly laying out the sorry state of affairs. UH had been trying for years, without success, to raise money. Without a significant investment in new facilities, there was no clear path to success. “I said, ‘That’s all? We can get that. That can be built. Those things are attainable,’” Sampson said. “Let’s just say I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Mack never told me no after I shared the vision with him.”
While Sampson worked on the product, the University worked on upgrades to the former Hofheinz Pavilion and a new practice facility to the tune of $80 million. The team started winning again. Fans started coming back (or at least they did, pre-COVID). The Coogs won their first NCAA tournament game in 34 years in 2018. In 2019, they made it to the Sweet Sixteen.
And now, here we are.
As a long-suffering UH alum, I couldn't be happier for the program, the players and the coaches.
The Cougars face former Southwest Confrence foe Baylor on Saturday for the opportunity to play in the national championship game. Baylor is certainly one of the best teams in the country, so I don't know if the Cougars can go any further than they already have.
But that's okay. As far as I'm concerned, they've already won. They've returned UH basketball to its former glory.