Mar 15, 2023; Birmingham, AL, USA; Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson watches over practice at Legacy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Justice: Here’s to the University of Houston and an opportunity to deliver a moment we could still be talking about years from now
Few people in this city understand what these next nineteen days could mean for the University of Houston better than Athletics Director Chris Pezman.
“I think this is gonna be one of those times that people talk about in twenty or thirty years,” he told me from Birmingham.
There are times when a team can captivate an entire city, even the most casual of fans, because it’s what is being talked about in offices and stores and bars and schools. Because it’s nearly impossible not to become invested.
It’s a magical thing, and we’ve seen it with the Astros a lot in recent years. That’s the opportunity that awaits the University of Houston as it opens the NCAA Tournament in Birmingham against Northern Kentucky on Thursday.
With the Final Four being played a few miles from campus on April 1 and 3, the University of Houston can define itself for an entire nation.
Renu Khator understood this from the moment she became UH president in 2014. Athletics give a school a platform for shining a positive light on an entire university, and in doing so, it can turn on the faucet of donations, enrollment applications, and visibility.
Nothing could be better for UH than to have it represented to the country these next three weeks by people like Kelvin Sampson and Marcus Sasser, and Jamal Shead.
“The way coach and the program represent the city, and the university is part of it,” Pezman said. “These are really classy people and kids we’re very, very proud of and thankful for.”
And the way they play.
UH plays defense like nobody’s business, allowing 56.5 points per game, second-lowest in the nation. UH is fundamentally sound, among the nation’s leaders in offensive rebounding, blocked shots, and turnover margin.
Some of us that have tracked the rise and fall of sports at the school these last three decades didn’t think something like this was possible.
What happened to UH in the wake of the Southwest Conference breakup in 1996 was criminal. To be left by the side of the road to wither and die. To be relegated to second-tier conferences and mostly empty venues. To have donors and alums grow disinterested and bitter.
“You know, there are a lot of scars people have carried from what has happened in the past,” Pezman said. “We went so long without any sustained success. You’ve got this thirty-forty-year gap.”
No matter your primary rooting interest, whether it be Longhorn or Aggie, or Baylor Bear, the University of Houston is your city’s most visible school. If it’s good for UH, it’s good for Houston.
We couldn’t have known it at the time, but Khator’s hiring was the beginning of the UH renaissance.
She set out to make a great university even better, including the construction of multiple dorms—and about 15,000 beds—that would give UH a vibrant campus life.
UH would no longer be the commuter school in which kids got their degrees and then went away. Surveys have shown that kids that live on campus have better academic performance and also are more invested in their university.
She subsidized athletics and helped get first-rate facilities built to position the school if an opportunity to get back into a Power Five conference came along.
Tilman Fertitta moved heaven and earth to make it happen, both in his position as chairman of the board of regents and someone willing to write checks to make it happen.
And then in 2014, he had lunch with Kelvin Sampson.
“You can win a national championship here,” Sampson told him.
Sampson quickly built a powerhouse, UH invested nearly $100 million in an arena and practice facility, and here we are. The Cougars have been to the Elite 8, Final Four, and Sweet 16 in their last three NCAA Tournament appearances.
As a former captain of the UH football team and someone who has closely followed all that happened to the school in its post-Southwest Conference years, even before becoming AD in 2017, Pezman is bursting with pride about a year in which the Cougars are a No. 1 seed in basketball and scheduled to join the Big 12 this summer.
I asked if he was able to enjoy how far UH has come in these last few years.
“These moments are so rare that you try to realize how special they are,” he said. “There have been times where I’ll make myself step back and try to enjoy it. But there’s a lot that goes into it behind the scenes, and we as administrators, try to support them. I do realize how blessed we are.”
Thursday is going to be the longest of days, with a 9:20 p.m. ET tipoff and so much on the line.
“You work the whole season to get to this point,” Pezman said, “and we’re ready to see it all come together over the next couple of weeks. We got here yesterday, and these kids and the coaches are locked in. They’re doing a good job of not being distracted. Just keep it one step at a time.”