How Houston launched a college basketball renaissance

Houston is a top-10 program again, and looks like a team with March staying power. Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

HOUSTON -- It was April 2014 when Kelvin Sampson accepted the job that had devoured numerous coaches before him.

The depths to which the University of Houston Cougars basketball program had fallen from its glory days in the mid-1980s, the Phi Slama Jama era, were well-chronicled. Sampson thought he knew what he was getting into. Then he walked into Hofheinz Pavilion for the first time.

As he looked around the Cougars' 45-year-old basketball facility and saw the tiny locker room, the ancient seats and the low lighting that made the place resemble a dungeon, the difficulty of the task before him became apparent.

"That's when I realized nobody cared about basketball," Sampson said. "I couldn't believe how bad it was.

"Just the amenities, the concession stands, the bathrooms. ... We're in 2014. You walk around this place and think you're in the 1980s."

Not coincidentally, it was in the 1980s when Houston basketball had last been relevant.

Now armed with sparkling new facilities and a proven, veteran coach in Sampson, No. 8 Houston (27-1) is having its best season since Texas' Tallest Fraternity took college basketball by storm. The storied program, which bottomed out at the turn of the century, is back in the national discussion after a couple of decades of irrelevance.

The Cougars, who host College GameDay on Saturday ahead of their American Athletic Conference clash with UCF (4 p.m. ET, ESPN), are in the top 10 for the first time since 1984 and have a realistic shot at reaching a place they haven't been since Hakeem Olajuwon was on campus: the Final Four.

Houston's basketball history is well-documented. Guy V. Lewis. Five Final Fours. The Game of the Century. Phi Slama Jama.

The latter era was impactful enough to become subject matter for two 30 for 30 documentaries and is often the first topic of conversation when someone brings up Cougars hoops, locally and nationally.

"I had a guy ask me five minutes ago about the NC State game," former Houston guard Reid Gettys said Wednesday, referring to the 1983 national championship game. "And I told him that nobody had asked me about it since yesterday."

Houston, however, was unable to turn its moment in the mid-'80s sun into extended national cachet. Instead, the program began declining.

After the 1985-86 season, Lewis' 30th, he retired. Though nobody knew it at the time, Houston would struggle for the next 30 years to fill the gaping hole he left.

"It was like getting bit by a snake," former UH forward Greg "Cadillac" Anderson said of Lewis' departure.

Said Jerry Bonney, who played on Lewis' early-1970s teams: "He was University of Houston basketball."

That's not to say the program took a nosedive immediately. Pat Foster made the 90-mile trek west on Interstate 10 from Lamar University to succeed Lewis, and the Cougars went back to the NCAA tournament in his debut season after missing it for Lewis' final two. After a seven-year stint, a 142-73 record and three tournament appearances, Foster left Houston for the Nevada job in 1993.

Despite that solid stint, interest in the program waned. Attendance dipped by more than 40 percent before Foster even arrived and by more than half by the middle of his tenure, a trend that would become common long after his departure.

"When you follow a legend," Foster said, "it's not easy."

There's a sense among many who have been a part of the program that people took Lewis' success for granted.

"I think everybody was spoiled," Phi Slama Jama member Michael Young said. "He won, and he won big. He won before us there, he won with us and the little drop-off he had, I think he would've gotten it back [if he kept coaching]."

Foster said some fans and boosters moved down the street to The Summit with Olajuwon, who was starring for the Houston Rockets. Furthering the challenge, the athletic department battled budget issues, a theme that foreshadowed future struggles.

Foster refuses to cast blame on those issues and says he was treated well by fans and alumni and even Lewis himself, whom Foster said "never [said] one negative word" and was a "wonderful man."

But there was no denying it: The absence of Lewis, his polka-dot towel and his teams' high-flying, run-and-gun style, left the program hung over.

When Foster departed for Reno, the program elevated Alvin Brooks, a longtime Foster assistant. But before Brooks' team ever hit the floor, the school's faculty senate voted to abolish athletics. Brooks, now an assistant for Sampson and in his 21st year at the school, says he keeps a screenshot of the news article about the vote on his phone to this day as a reminder.

Though it never came to pass, that sentiment combined with administrative turbulence (Brooks had three athletic directors and three school presidents in his five-year tenure) and consistent budget problems (he recalled the time alumni had to raise money just to get him a fax machine in his office) had Brooks and his UH coaching counterparts battling uphill.

"We were on the heels of a year, in '93 and '94, where they're fighting to keep athletics, not pour money into it," said Brooks, who was also just 33 years old at time and in the midst of his first head-coaching job. "We were just trying to stay afloat, really."

In the middle of Brooks' stint, during which Houston went 54-84, the Southwest Conference dissolved and Houston was left out of the group that joined the Big Eight to form the Big 12 and instead joined Conference USA. Although it was a conference full of quality basketball programs, Houston was at the time the lone one from Texas, leaving fans with unfamiliar conference foes, further fracturing interest and attendance.

"It changed a lot of things about us," said Lynden Rose, a captain of Houston's 1982 Final Four team. "We're accustomed to the rivalry games, teams that we're familiar with. You weren't excited about playing any of these other teams."

Interest spiked after another coaching change, when Houston called on a former Phi Slama Jama member to lead the program: Clyde Drexler. In his first season, the Cougars averaged 8,479 fans per game, the second-highest total in program history. But that moment was fleeting, as on-court struggles continued. Drexler's tenure lasted only two seasons, and the program went 19-39, including suffering a school-record 22 losses in his final season.

From 2000 to 2014, Houston would go through three more head coaches (Ray McCallum, Tom Penders, James Dickey) and make only one NCAA tournament appearance, while Hofheinz Pavilion -- once the place to be to watch great basketball -- went largely neglected.

Upgrades were few and far between. Houston installed 20 luxury suites on the concourse level before Drexler's arrival and a new floor in 2004, but over time, a facility that was originally constructed in 1969 became outdated.

"If we had these LED lights when I was playing, I probably would've averaged 30, because I could see the ball. Hofheinz was dark as hell. You couldn't see who was in the stands unless they were in the first three rows."
Greg "Cadillac" Anderson

"After games, it was a crapshoot whether you were going to have a hot shower or not," said former UH guard Lanny Smith, who played in the mid-2000s. "In Hofheinz, you just never knew."

Mikhail McLean, who played for the Cougars 2010-15 and is now the program's assistant director for player development, recalls unwelcome company in the building.

"[I remember] taking a nap in the facility in the locker room before games ... and you wake up and there's a rat in there," he said. "You're practicing and seeing rodents in the facility."

When Sampson arrived, he didn't even bother taking prospects to the arena.

"My first year here, we brought 'em to the office. That was it," Sampson said. "We had nowhere to go. I started thinking about Tom Penders and Ray McCallum and all the coaches before me; it wasn't a fair fight for them. We were at such a competitive disadvantage here. People want to know, 'Why are you not winning games? Why are you not recruiting better?' Well, there's a reason why."

Former players became scarce, and when they did show up, they were saddened by what the program had become.

"The program got to so low that there were only 1,000 people at a game," Bonney said -- and sometimes that figure was generous. "That was really hard for me to watch. It affected me so much that I kinda didn't want to go there."

Young, whose No. 42 is one of five jerseys retired by the program, was part of the staff during the lean years, noting how much of a contrast it was from the heyday.

"Being in Hofheinz, it was so different when you could hear the tennis shoes squeaking during a game," Young said. "And with Houston being a big city like it is, there's so many other things to do than to come watch a team lose."

The program seemed stuck, clinging to the past, with no vision for the future.

"I had always considered University of Houston from afar to be a great basketball school," said Penders, who oversaw a competitive if inconsistent era in which he went 121-77 in six seasons. "Phi Slama Jama, I didn't forget 'em, but the kids I was recruiting didn't know a damn thing about 'em. We could show them pictures and they knew who Hakeem Olajuwon was, but you know, when guys finish playing, when you're recruiting guys who weren't even born yet, we could sell that, but it wasn't that current."

In Penders' final season, the Cougars made a miracle run to NCAA tournament. It was a brief moment of glory, as Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis led a 15-15 Houston squad to four wins in four days to claim the Conference USA tournament championship and earn an automatic berth.

And though Dickey, who succeeded Penders, recruited at a high level (he brought five ESPN 100 recruits to campus over his four-year span), the program was still left searching for on-court success. Average attendance reached an all-time low in 2013-14.

That's when UH turned to Sampson.

At the time, Sampson was in his fifth season on an NBA bench, away from the college game because of a five-year show-cause penalty levied by the NCAA in 2008 for rules violations involving impermissible telephone calls to recruits. When the show-cause expired in fall 2013, it cleared the way for his return to college hoops.

Mack Rhoades, Houston's athletic director 2009-15 and now at Baylor, looked at Sampson's track record of building programs at Oklahoma, Washington State and Montana Tech and felt it was the right fit at the right time.

"I really believed he deserved a second chance, and here's why," Rhoades said. "He completely owned what happened. He didn't blame it on anybody, on a compliance person or any individual. He took full, complete responsibility. ... That said a lot to me."

Sampson, who was with the Rockets at the time, wasn't going to come without a total commitment from UH ensuring he had the tools to succeed. That meant committing to building a practice facility, upgrading Hofheinz Pavilion and raising salaries. UH paid Sampson more than it had any basketball coach before him ($900,000 annual base salary, which has since been raised to $1.35 million, not including deferred compensation) and pledged to do the rest.

With those assurances, he took the reins of the program and went to work. It didn't take long for players and others around UH to realize that Sampson was invested.

McLean recalled his senior season -- Sampson's first -- and a particularly rough stretch during conference play of that 13-19 campaign that showed him what Sampson was about.

"We had a stretch where we lost six games in a row, and three days a week, he would come in the gym with me, L.J. [Rose] and LeRon Barnes at 7 a.m. to shoot with us," McLean said. "Even days after games, he'd be in there at 7 a.m. -- shooting with us, trying to get us better. That's when I was like, 'This guy is serious.'"

The key trait most around Sampson cite: accountability.

"More than anyone I've ever met, he holds everybody accountable," McLean said. "Players, staff, wives. If he says something and he needs something done and you don't do it, he's gonna let you know about it."

That list includes administrators, too. When UH was to begin construction on the new practice facility and things didn't move fast enough, he let his bosses know.

"We told him the construction fence was going to be up and it was something he could show recruits that something was going to happen," said Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek, who succeeded Rhoades at UH. "And 15 days later the fence still wasn't up and that's when he'd come to my office and say, 'Where's the construction fence? Where's the construction fence? Where's the construction fence?'"

Joked Sampson: "I know [Yurachek] got tired of me. I'm sure I pissed half of them off. But you know what? They got over it. They'll be fine."

"He does not care who he's gonna get upset, he's gonna get the best," longtime UH trainer John Houston said. "And has enough charisma to get it done."

The facilities weren't going to get done without money, and that's where Tilman Fertitta came in. The UH superbooster, whose long list of titles includes Houston Rockets owner, CEO of Landry's Inc., star of CNBC reality TV show "Billion Dollar Buyer" and Houston's board of regents chairman, became the linchpin for Sampson's and UH's ambitions.

"He was our Boone Pickens," Sampson said, drawing a comparison to Oklahoma State's longtime benefactor. "He gave us a chance."

Fertitta and former Lewis-era player David Marrs were key in getting the practice facility -- the Guy V. Lewis Development Center -- built, which was an important first piece. The 52,000-square-foot building headquarters the men's and women's basketball programs, complete with practice courts, locker rooms, training room, weight room, coaches offices, lounges and more. It came with a $25 million price tag.

Fertitta's $20 million donation for naming rights to the basketball arena -- formerly known as Hofheinz Pavilion, now named the Fertitta Center -- helped make it possible for UH to completely remake the place into a pristine home. That project cost $60 million.

"That was the boost that we needed," Yurachek said. "I'm not sure, as we sit here today, I'm not sure Hofheinz Pavilion gets renovated if not for Tilman Fertitta, because that $20 million was necessary."

Said Fertitta: "Somebody had to step up. It had to get done, and it just needed to be me."

After a trying first season, Sampson turned the program around quickly. The Cougars won 22 games in his second season, made the NIT, and are enjoying their fourth consecutive 20-win season. Last season, they were a Jordan Poole buzzer-beater away from the Sweet 16, falling to Michigan on the freshman guard's last-second shot. They've won a nation's-best 33 consecutive home games despite spending all of the 2017-18 season and the first month of this season playing home contests at Texas Southern University's arena while the Fertitta Center was being constructed.

Led by a tough senior backcourt of Galen Robinson and Corey Davis Jr., the Cougars play relentless defense (their 60 points allowed per game and 36.6 percent field goal percentage defense are both No. 1 in the American); sharpshooter Armoni Brooks is one of several long-range threats; and they're the best rebounding team in their conference.

"They put pressure on you for 40 minutes, and they can win in all three ways," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "They can beat you with offense, they can beat you with defense and they can beat you with rebounding. And they're a deep team."

Those around the program have marveled at how Sampson has built the roster, stocking it in such a way that one departing class won't cripple the program.

"He keeps a balance of experience and youth and positions filled and depth in the roster," Brooks said. "And so, when one class leaves -- Rob [Gray], Devin [Davis] and Wes [VanBeck] left -- you've got senior leadership in Galen and Corey and Breaon [Brady]. And then when they leave, then you've got the next group."

"What he's doing is such a sustainable model," current athletic director Chris Pezman said. "He's always going to have juniors and seniors. I won't say we won't have one-and-dones, but we'll have a mature team."

Once an afterthought, a ticket to see the Cougars is now one of the toughest in town to get.

Saturday's game vs. UCF is already sold out, and if all the student tickets are claimed for the home finale March 7 vs. SMU -- which Pezman fully expects -- that game will be, too. Some folks are now calling the Fertitta Center the best place in Houston to watch a basketball game.

"I started thinking about Tom Penders and Ray McCallum and all the coaches before me, it wasn't a fair fight for them. We were at such a competitive disadvantage here. People want to know, 'Why are you not winning games? Why are you not recruiting better?' Well, there's a reason why."
Kelvin Sampson

There are no more dim lights and sparse crowds at UH, much to Cadillac Anderson's delight.

"Man, if we had these LED lights when I was playing, I probably would've averaged 30 because I could see the ball," he joked. "Hofheinz was dark as hell. You couldn't see who was in the stands unless they were in the first three rows."

More than one former player has admitted to becoming emotional upon first stepping into the Fertitta Center.

"I expected to be impressed," Gettys said. "I walked in the arena and came in at the top level, and I was emotional. I had goose bumps, and I had tears in my eyes. That sounds really corny, but I was absolutely blown away."

The Cougars have seized the moment, but can they hold on to it this time? With a second consecutive tournament appearance on deck and a deep run into March a distinct possibility, Sampson will be in line for another contract extension and raise (his last one came in 2016, and his current contract runs through 2021), and other programs with vacancies will certainly look longingly his way.

"We have every hope and expectation that Kelvin is going to finish his career here," said Pezman, Houston's athletic director since 2017. "That's what we want, that's what we want for him and that's what we want for our program."

Pezman said he doesn't get the vibe that Sampson wants to be anywhere else, also saying that, should Sampson decide to move on after the season, UH is prepared, but he has "no desire to put that plan into effect. We want Coach here and to finish his career here."

Similarly, Fertitta expresses confidence in the school's ability to keep its coveted coach.

"We're excited to get Kelvin wrapped up in a long-term deal," Fertitta said. "We've got [new football coach] Dana [Holgorsen] wrapped up in a long-term deal. These guys wanna be here. This isn't gonna be a one-and-done, neither one of them, football or basketball. This is gonna happen for a long time, and we're excited about it."

As for Sampson, he calls Houston "the best job I've ever had."

His son, Kellen, who has been a coach for more than a decade now, is his top assistant. His daughter, Lauren, is the program's director for external operations and has been the driving force behind the program's visual image, supervising a variety of team functions and "keeping us relevant 12 months a year," Sampson said.

"The most important thing in the world to me is my faith and my family," Sampson said. "Having them be a part of this -- a huge part -- is great."

One thing working in Houston's favor, for once, is its administration. President Renu Khator, who has led the school for more than a decade now, is all-in on athletics, evidenced by the money spent on football and basketball. That has helped stave off uncertainty as the program is on its third athletic director since 2015 (Rhoades and Yurachek both left for jobs at Power 5 conference schools).

"I'm a firm believer, if you're going to have an athletics program, have an excellent one, not a mediocre one," Khator said in January. "I always say 'nationally relevant program.' ... You've got to have wins, you've got to dominate your conference, win your conference championship. Your goals can be restricted or your resources can be restricted. We've chosen to make our goals as constant, and that means you have to figure out how to put the resources together."

Fans, alumni and former players have universal praise for Sampson. Multiple former players expressed delight at how engaging Sampson has been with them, inviting them back to campus and having an open door for them at all times, and at how the on-court success has raised the program's profile.

"It's the best I've felt about UH basketball in 20 years," Bonney said.

"It's great to see the Coogs rising again," Young said.

The future seems bright, particularly if Sampson is a part of it. Lanny Smith, who recently spoke to the team after Sampson invited him, said he has noticed the impact of the buzz around Houston basketball.

"I have relationships with some of the top kids in the city of Houston that are in high school right now. I see them coming to these games," he said. "I see them watching UH on ESPN. I'm seeing the impact that it's having on them."

There's still work to do, though, in March and -- perhaps -- April. John Houston, who has been the team trainer since Brooks was head coach, emphasized the importance of the coming weeks.

"If we don't win the outright championship or the conference tournament -- you're not gonna get a ring," he said.

Said Brooks: "We're trying to cut down nets. And we ain't just talking about it. There's a plan in place to do it."