Dec 3, 2022; Fort Worth, Texas, USA; Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson calls a play against the St. Mary’s Gaels during the first half at Dickies Arena. Mandatory Credit: Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Justice: So much is happening at UH right now that there’s a magical quality to it all
“We’re No. 1 right now. The Final Four is in Houston. This is Jim Nantz’s last one for CBS. The Big 12 transition is this summer. Literally, it feels like a movie. You think about where we were when we got left out of the Big 12 after the Southwest Conference breakup. Nobody gave a rip about us, and we kind of just accepted our fate.”—University of Houston athletics director Chris Pezman.
• • •
So much is happening at the University of Houston right now that there’s a magical quality to it all.
“There are times I sit there and I’m like, `I can’t believe I’m here right now,’” Pezman said.
Remember what these last three decades have been like for UH? It was a constant struggle for relevance. No one could have known it at the time, but the 2014 hiring of Kelvin Sampson to be the men’s basketball coach would change everything.
“I don’t want to say this place was dead on arrival when Kelvin got here, but it was pretty damn close,” Pezman said. “There wasn’t any energy or momentum around the program.
“He had battles to get people to understand what a program needs to look like to operate at this level. I don’t know how he has done it. I’m in awe.”
In a lunch that will be remembered as one of the key moments in the history of sports at UH, Sampson laid out a roadmap to greatness for board chair Tillman Fertitta.
“You can win a national championship here,” Sampson said.
Fertitta was taken aback since he hadn’t heard that kind of talk around UH in a long time. Sampson essentially promised to put UH back on the national stage if the administration was willing to invest in the program.
In the nine years since, UH has spent close to $100 million in giving the program a first-class arena and practice facility. To show how quickly things change, UH is spending around $5 million or so this summer to spruce up the practice venue.
Spruce up? In the years before Sampson arrived, it at times seemed the challenge was to keep those large, friendly rats out of the locker room.
“If I can’t raise money for basketball right now…,” Pezman said.
Fertitta made it all go by investing a chunk of his wealth and persuading others to do the same.
“It doesn’t happen without him,” Pezman said. “He’s been incredibly supportive. He can get just about anybody on the phone.”
UH president Dr. Renu Khator did her part too in leading a transformation of the school into a top-tier institution now nationally recognized for its academic, research, and (now) sports standing.
She understood that sports could be an important component of building a first-rate university. If Sampson delivered, UH would have a level of visibility it hadn’t had in years, if ever.
That visibility would lead to more donations and increased enrollment applications. (One business journal pegged Nick Saban’s value to the University of Alabama at $85 million annually.)
Sampson has put the Cougars back on the national stage. In the last three appearances in the NCAA Tournament, UH has been to the Final Four, Elite Eight, and Sweet 16.
One UH study of last year’s media exposure put the value at between $15 million and $18 million. That level of success is why UH can now compete for recruits against Duke, Kansas, or anyone (see Walker, Jarace, freshman forward).
And, UH officials hope, that momentum will spill into football season when there’ll be games that matter to alums: home contests against Texas and TCU and road trips to Texas Tech and Baylor.
Those four games will mean more to UH alums and students than any four games since the Southwest Conference breakup.
UH, once a commuter school, will expand its campus dorm population to around 12,000 in the next three to five years. Pezman can quote reams of data about the better academic performance of students that live on campus. In addition, they feel a closeness to the place after graduation.
That feeling of closeness leads to returning to campus for games, programs, etc.
“We were a commuter school for so long,” Pezman said. “Now, we’re a more traditional campus.”
UH’s goal was to add 5,000 new season-ticket holders in the first year of Big 12 membership. He may need to revise that after 3,400 were sold in the first week after the 2023 football schedule was announced.
The Coogs set back-to-back attendance records at the Fertitta Center last week. I asked if he ever took a moment to look around these packed houses and marvel how much things have changed.
“Yeah, at the beginning of the Alabama game I stepped on the concourse,” he said. “I get goosebumps talking about it. I was looking around the bowl, and it was just so cool.”
In the end, it all came down to hiring a great basketball coach, one that did what he said he would do.
“They had a team before I got here,” Sampson said, “but they didn’t have a program.”
Asked about the program’s growth, Sampson waves the question away.
“It’s hard for me to talk about that,” he said. “I don’t know where to start or what to say. I do the best I can to coach these kids, put them in the best position to win, and for them to be successful. I’ve got a great staff, and we all work in conjunction with each other. We’ve been winning around here for a long time. I just don’t ever get carried away with it. There will be a time to reflect on those things, but now is not that time.”