Written by Justin Barbosa (@Jbarbosa_95)
Before Kelvin Sampson stepped foot onto the University of Houston in 2014, the basketball program was dormant, Hofheinz Pavilion was a rotting corpse far from its glory days with low attendance, and the Cougars were coming off a disappointing 17-16 finish with a 8-10 record in conference play under head coach James Dickey.
Six years later, Sampson has brought the Cougars back to national relevance with five straight winning seasons, two conference titles and what would have been three straight NCAA tournament appearances if not for the abrupt ending due to the pandemic.
The Cougars haven’t accomplished consecutive tournament appearances since the days of former head coach Guy V. Lewis, who led the team to 27 straight winning seasons and five trips to the NCAA Final four.
Lewis is the most decorated coach in Houston basketball history with a career record of 592-279 and he developed household names like Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
Hayes led the Cougars in the “Game of the Century” where they defeated Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s Bruins in the Astrodome to snap UCLA’s 47 game winning streak;
Olajuwon and Drexler were the duo tandem that led the dunking fraternity Phi Slama Jama to three straight Final Fours and two national title game appearances.
Lewis’ retirement in 1986 was only the beginning of the Cougars’ decline. 1984 was the last NCAA tournament victory for the team as it’s next four appearances in 1987, 1990, 1992, and 2010 were all first round exits and the team once known as “Phi Slama Jama” was no more.
The early 2010s weren’t kind to the Cougars, sporting a 83-78 overall record and 33-49 in conference play from 2009-2014 between coaches Tom Penders and James Dickey.
Once Dickey stepped down, the Cougars rolled the dice and brought in Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson on April 2, 2014, who was in his 3rd season with the team and just weeks away from the playoffs.
It wasn’t an easy task for Sampson at the start, with a once historic arena in Houston in despair, no practice facility, and an apathetic fanbase, Sampson and company had to make the effort to go around campus to convince students to even come to the games.
Year one was rocky, as the Cougars finished 13-19 overall with a 4-14 record in the American, but the tide turned in the 2015-16 season, as Houston finished 22-10 overall with a trip the NIT. The winning continued in 2017, with a 21-11 record in the final season of Hofheinz Pavilion, but the Cougars still fell short of a tournament berth and settled for another NIT appearance.
With no home arena and settling to play at TSU’s HP&E arena in 2017-2018, Sampson and company finally broke into the tournament for the first time since 2010, and earned their first tournament win since 1984 in a 67-65 win over San Diego State.
Houston battled with Michigan in the round of 32, leading by two with only a few seconds remaining, but a heartbreaking miracle three at the buzzer by Jordan Poole ended Houston’s run and Michigan made it as far as the title game. It was an unfortunate end to the season, but Sampson and the Coogs could only look up from there.
NEw Facilities and Resurgent of Fanbase
In January 2016, the Cougars opened the 53,000 square-foot Guy V. Lewis Developmental Facility for the men’s and women’s teams and nearly three years later on December 1, 2018 the opening of the Fertitta Center hosted a sellout crowd for a 65-61 win over #18 Oregon.
That was the breakout year for Houston, and the new arena’s atmosphere willed the team to extend its nation leading home winning streak to 33 in a row dating back to 2018, winning an outright conference regular season title, and a second straight NCAA tournament berth that saw the Cougars advance to the Sweet Sixteen in a battle with Kentucky that ultimately fell short.
Houston finished the 2018-2019 season with a 33-4 record, the most wins in program history, and Sampson and the Cougars would win the American conference again in 2020, but this time they had to share the title 3-ways.
These are accolades not seen by the University since Lewis retired, but Sampson has revitalized the basketball program, and has re-awoken a once dedicated fanbase to go along with a new arena that’s a hot ticket in the city.
To put the cherry on top, on April 4, 2019, Sampson and the Cougars agreed to a six-year deal worth $18 million, to keep Sampson a Coog until the 2024-25 season to prevent Houston from being a stepping stone as the university has seen with it’s football program in the past decade.
Kelvin Sampson has rebuilt the program from the ground up, and the effort hasn’t gone unnoticed by the city and the students. The future of the Cougar basketball program is bright, and it’s all thanks to Sampson and company, and that is why he is the most important figure on the University of Houston campus since the great Guy V. Lewis.
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