Sam Houston State went toe-to-toe with Baylor in the first round of last season's NCAA tournament, with the 14-seed coming tantalizingly close to coming out on top.
The Bearkats led at halftime and were tied with less than four minutes to play, but the win -- and the national recognition that would have come with it -- was just beyond their grasp.
For Jason Hooten, the game was his last as a Sam Houston assistant. Baylor survived and went to the Elite Eight, and out of the loss came an advancement opportunity for Hooten, now a head coach for the first time at age 41.
With Bob Marlin having left for Louisiana-Lafayette, Hooten takes over a Bearkats program that was 127-59 in his six years as an assistant, including four seasons with at least 20 wins.
Like his Southland Conference championship team, Hooten didn’t appear wowed or wide-eyed while experiencing the NCAA tournament atmosphere for the first time.
“The way our program has been consistently, we kind of expect that,” Hooten said. “We had been knocking on the door, right there on the cusp.”
It took 12 years of turning Sam Houston into a consistent winner and numerous interviews over the years before Marlin was able to leave for the Sun Belt.
Hooten was named Marlin’s successor a week later and was thrilled to get his big break after a long waiting period of his own.
“You think about the hard work and the years that you put in as an assistant,” Hooten said. “Seventeen years is a long time. You start to think if you’re ever going to get that opportunity, get that chance. It crossed my mind more than once.”
Being an assistant coach was all Hooten had known since he was 23. He coached at his alma mater, Division II Tarleton State, for 11 seasons from 1994-2004 before Marlin hired him away for a Division I job.
Hooten excelled as a recruiter and spent the time learning under Marlin. He was particularly impressed by his mentor’s thorough preparation and ability to manage in-game situations with an easygoing demeanor.
“He helped me calm me down a little and take a more laid-back approach,” Hooten said. “I’m a little more high-strung than he is.”
Together, they helped create a winning tradition at Sam Houston and hoped others would notice as well. Hooten wanted his chance at head coaching, and after the 2009 season, he was a finalist for the job at Division II Midwestern State.
But he didn’t get it.
“Even though I was very happy with where I was at, you get to that point where you know you’re ready and want that opportunity,” Hooten said. “The frustrating thing is we’ve always won. You sit there and go, ‘Why am I not getting a shot?’ I’m a real big believer in faith.”
The notion that good things come to those who wait applies in this case. The Bearkats went 25-8 last season, finishing with the most wins in the program’s Division I history and drawing attention to the coaches that got them there. Once Marlin left, the community threw its support behind Hooten.
Now he has himself a situation where he doesn’t have to change a lot of what’s worked in the past, with Marlin producing six 20-plus win seasons and two NCAA tournament berths.
It also helps that Sam Houston returns leading scorer Gilberto Clavell, a guard who averaged 17.1 points per game last season as a junior college transfer.
“We just want to continue doing what we’ve been doing, maybe take it to the next level,” Hooten said. “I’d like to get to the NCAA tournament and win a game or two. Coach Marlin had built such a great standard here and level of consistency.”
After years spent preparing to be a head coach, Hooten is putting his own ideas into practice as well.
One came out of a book on coaching he read a long time ago. While Hooten already has familiarity with his players, he’s begun meeting individually with them once a week just to chat and see what’s on their minds.
And for more ideas, Hooten can always turn to the person he calls the best coach in his household. His wife, Kristen, actually has more head coaching experience than he does, having led high school softball and volleyball programs.
She’s already offered him this perspective.
“She laughs about that you were disappointed you didn’t get that job [at Midwestern State], and now you’re a Division I head coach,” Hooten said.
“That’s the way it was meant to be. I’ve got my opportunity now.”