Chasing Ghosts: Can once-elite Houston get all the way back?

Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the college basketball programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures they have experienced along the way.

This week, the “Chasing Ghosts” series continues with the , who have wandered for most of the post-Guy Lewis era but are clearly on the rise again under Kelvin Sampson.

Previously in Chasing Ghosts: | | | | | | | | | | |

Houston Cougars

Icon: Guy V. Lewis

Seasons coached: 1956-1986
Key accomplishments: 592-279 (.680), 14 NCAA tournaments, 5 Final Fours (1967, 1968, 1982, 1983, 1984)

“I never thought of this as a job. To me, it was a crusade to build it into a great basketball program and a great school.” — Lewis, upon his 1986 retirement

“I think everybody was spoiled. [Lewis] 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].” — Phi Slama Jama member Michael Young

“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.” — Former Houston coach Tom Penders, in 2019

“My first year here, we brought [recruits] to the office. That was it. 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.” — Kelvin Sampson in 2019

Ranking the Guy V. Lewis chasers

Clyde Drexler was a big name from the UH past, but was not the answer as Cougars coach. Otto Greule Jr. /Allsport

7. Clyde Drexler (1998-2000), 19-39 (.328) — Long before to Division I head-coaching jobs was fashionable, Houston made an even bolder move — it hired Drexler while he was still playing in the NBA. Drexler that he‘d be retiring from the Houston Rockets at the end of the season to take the reins at his alma mater, meaning the sitting head coach of a five-time Final Four program could be found battling the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference playoffs six weeks into his coaching tenure. Drexler beat Texas and LSU in his first month in charge, but nothing great happened after that for a program that won just seven Conference USA games during his two-season tenure. Drexler admitted upon his resignation that he wasn‘t quite ready for the shift to a new career.

“Because of the time that it takes in the coaching profession, in the first week I was thinking, ‘Boy, this is going to be a little bit more difficult than I thought,‘” Drexler said. “But in an effort to try to help out and get it back, I hung in there, stuck with it and did as well as I could.”

6. Ray McCallum (2000-04), 44-73 (.376) — McCallum was hired on the basis of a successful seven-year tenure at Ball State, where he led the Cardinals to what remain their two most recent NCAA tournament appearances (1995, 2000). But similar success did not follow in Houston, where McCallum had the Cougars in the NIT in his second year but won nine, eight and nine games in his other three seasons in charge and was fired. Declining attendance and what then-AD Dave Maggard cited as a lack of player discipline were other factors in his removal. Coincidentally, McCallum would then serve as an assistant coach under current Houston coach Kelvin Sampson at both Oklahoma and Indiana and was the head coach at Detroit Mercy for eight seasons (2008-16). McCallum is currently a member of Ron Hunter‘s staff at Tulane.

5. Alvin Brooks (1993-98), 54-84 (.391) — After serving as an assistant at Houston under Pat Foster for seven seasons, Brooks was elevated to the top role at age 33, when Foster departed for Nevada. Brooks struggled out of the gate, but he righted the ship as the Cougars improved to 17-10 by his third season of 1995-96. But Houston was left behind in the subsequent dissolution of the Southwest Conference, and the school could not reestablish an identity under his watch. Budgetary and administrative challenges, in addition to negative on-campus sentiment (the faculty senate voted to abolish athletics at Houston during Brooks‘ tenure, a move that did not come to pass), were among the other realities of this era at UH. Brooks, who later acknowledged he was not prepared for the head job, under James Dickey in 2010 and remains a member of the staff under Sampson.

4. James Dickey (2010-14), 64-62 (.508) — Houston supporters when then-AD Mack Rhoades bypassed rumored candidates including Billy Gillispie and Tim Floyd to hire the 55-year-old Dickey, who had been fired at Texas Tech nine years prior and was not employed at the collegiate level when he got the call from the Cougars. Dickey wasn‘t a disaster, but his tenure wasn‘t particularly memorable either, as he failed to get Houston to the NIT or NCAA tournament in four seasons on the job. A 20-win season and College Basketball Invitational appearance in Year 3 was the high-water mark. Dickey resigned in March of 2014, citing “a personal family matter,” resurfacing the following month as an assistant coach under Travis Ford at Oklahoma State — Dickey‘s family had remained in Stillwater, where he was an assistant from 2002 to 2008, after he took the Houston job.

Editor‘s Picks

3. Tom Penders (2004-10), 121-77 (.611), 1 NCAA tournament — Penders‘ sixth and most recent stop to date as a Division I head coach came at Houston, bringing him back to the state where he‘d led Texas to eight NCAA tournaments between 1988 and 1998. Penders had been out of coaching for three years when he took the job — and arrived with the baggage that came with controversial exits from Texas and George Washington — but Penders never had a losing season at Houston and even led the program back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 years via a miracle run through the Conference USA tournament in 2010. Penders resigned soon after the Cougars‘ NCAA tourney loss to Maryland, in a move both Penders and new AD Mack Rhoades characterized as the coach‘s decision (though whether Penders jumped before he was pushed ). Penders is currently out of coaching, and he is now most visible as an .

2. Pat Foster (1986-93), 142-73 (.660), 3 NCAA tournaments — Foster arrived in Houston off of a quality six-year tenure at Lamar, and he had some success but could ultimately not replicate the highs of the Lewis era. Foster recruited good players (future pros Carl Herrera, Randy Brown, Bo Outlaw, Sam Mack and Anthony Goldwire were all brought in by Foster), but an 0-3 record in the NCAA tournament bothered supporters who were accustomed to better for the Cougars. With pressure beginning to mount following a first-round NIT loss to UTEP in 1993, Foster departed to become head coach at Nevada, where he went 90-81 in six seasons but never returned to the NCAA tournament.

1. Kelvin Sampson (2014-present), 116-52 (.690), 2 NCAA tournaments — Sampson, who had been out of the college game since being handed a five-year NCAA “show-cause” penalty stemming from transgressions while head coach at Indiana in 2008, was hired off the Houston Rockets‘ bench in 2014. The skills that had turned Sampson into one of the hottest coaches in the game in the previous decade would soon become apparent. He led the Cougars to 22 wins in his second season, snapped the school‘s 34-year drought without an NCAA tournament win in his fourth, and this past season led the Cougars on their deepest NCAA run (the Sweet 16) since the 1984 team lost to Georgetown in the national championship.

has coincided with a long-overdue improvement of basketball resources at the university — a $60 million renovation of the team‘s home arena, now known as the Fertitta Center (named after UH alumnus, program benefactor and billionaire Tilman Fertitta), was completed in 2017. Sampson, 63, signed a reported six-year, $18 million extension in April to remain at Houston.

Roundtable: Can Kelvin Sampson bring Houston all the way back?

Guy V. Lewis (celebrating Houston‘s win over UCLA in 1968) helped lift both the Cougars and college basketball. AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky

We tend to focus on players when we talk about Houston‘s past greatness (Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Elvin Hayes, et al.), but Guy V. Lewis is the Hall of Fame common denominator in pretty much all of this program‘s success. How would you sum up Lewis‘ legacy within the game? What are his most important contributions to college basketball?

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think Lewis is one of the reasons we‘re all here. As a coach, he could have won a few rings had his team avoided UCLA in multiple Final Fours (1967, 1968). He also had an appealing style that his successors mimicked. But the “Game of the Century” between Houston and UCLA in 1968 changed college basketball as the first nationally televised matchup. It was billed as Hayes vs. Alcindor, although the two didn‘t guard one another throughout the game. By leading Houston to a 71-69 win over a UCLA squad that had won 47 games in a row as a national audience watched, however, Lewis boosted the game‘s popularity. If that UCLA team could lose, then it seemed as if anyone could lose.

And that‘s why the NCAA tournament is the monumental event it is today. We watch for the chaos and the surprises. Sure, Houston wasn‘t a UMBC-level underdog, but the team still conquered a giant that day. In 1975, 30 million people watched UCLA and Kentucky battle in that year‘s national title game on NBC. College basketball had become a marketable, TV-friendly sport. And Lewis played a significant role in that leap.

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Everyone knows Phi Slama Jama. We‘ve all seen the highlights of the dunking and above-the-rim style Houston played in the early 1980s. Most people associate it with Olajuwon and Drexler, for good reason. But Lewis had been the philosopher behind full-court pressing and high-flying basketball for years before those guys ever arrived on campus. It was fairly revolutionary for that era of basketball, when most powerhouses in the 1960s were playing slow. Lewis wanted to force turnovers, he wanted to score points, and once the dunk was legal again in college basketball, he wanted his players to dunk.

Lewis doesn‘t get the recognition some other coaches from that era do because he never won a national championship, but when you combine his style of play with his longevity of success and his role in integrating major college basketball in the area, he deserves to be highlighted.

Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: Anyone who lasts long enough to coach in the Final Four against both Lew Alcindor and Patrick Ewing, not to mention Jim Valvano, must be pretty good. One could argue further that the Phi Slama Jama era — three straight Final Four appearances (1982, ‘83, ‘84) — produced one of the greatest teams never to win a national championship. Throw in the polka dot red and white towel, and Lewis was an earlier and more successful version of Jerry Tarkanian. In other words, a surefire Hall of Famer.

This program endured decades with bad facilities, budgetary problems, endless administrative turnover and the turmoil that came with multiple waves of conference realignment. Which of these was Houston‘s biggest obstacle in maintaining a relevant college basketball program after the Phi Slama Jama era … or was the problem something else entirely?

The newly renovated Fertitta Center has helped galvanize the long-suffering Houston fan base. Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Borzello: I think the four things mentioned in the question are intertwined, and I think they all played a major role. They had so much success under Lewis that Pat Foster‘s three NCAA tournaments in seven years wasn‘t nearly enough for the Cougars‘ fan base. Little did they know it would take another 26 years for Houston to go to three more NCAA tournaments. But with interest waning, money had dried up, so upgrading facilities wasn‘t exactly high on the list — the athletic department almost folded, for crying out loud. Factor in going to Conference USA instead of the Big Eight/Big 12, and suddenly the rivalries weren‘t there anymore.

I went to Hofheinz Pavilion in spring 2016, a year before renovations began and it became the Fertitta Center, and to think it was where the Cougars were playing in 2005, let alone 2016, was stunning. You could barely see, the lighting was so bad. That impacts attendance, that impacts recruiting, it impacts everything.

Lunardi: I think we‘ve found throughout the “Chasing Ghosts” series that conference membership and negative realignment are a common thread. The old Southwest Conference was a powerhouse with the likes of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Once left behind by the expanded Big Eight, the Cougars gradually lost almost all relevance on the national scene. Tom Penders made lemonade from lemons for a little while, but it took another wave of realignment and the new American Athletic Conference to give the Cougars a fighting chance.

Medcalf: I think it‘s simple. And yes, it‘s also a cliché. But it‘s just hard to replace a legend. Houston didn‘t have a plan. I‘m not really sure what the plan could have been after Lewis. He brought some of the greatest players of all time to Houston. Not Texas. Houston. And he was the face of that movement, not the institution itself. So when he left, the stumbles were inevitable.

Also, Lewis helped college basketball coaches become TV stars as the game‘s popularity increased. As he reached his 60s, you had Jim Valvano dancing around on TV and doing commercials, John Thompson towering over the Big East and 40-something Bob Knight generating a buzz in Bloomington. A new breed of leaders made it more difficult for Lewis (and his successors) to keep the recruiting pipeline rich. The other issues matter. They didn‘t help. But we‘re doing this series based on teams that have struggled to find their way after losing legendary leaders. Houston ain‘t alone.

Five years ago we never would have dreamed of considering this notion, but looking at the quality of the current coach, the facilities, the overall resources and the region, is Houston becoming a consistent national player again? What could cause things to unravel again at UH?

Kelvin Sampson has established a vision, and a new national identity, for the Houston program. Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Borzello: Houston has rectified most, if not all, of the issues that plagued it during the three-plus decades of mediocrity. It spent $60 million to renovate the home arena, the practice facility is impressive — and it has one of the best pure basketball coaches in the country in Kelvin Sampson. The Cougars have won a combined 60 games the last two seasons. Only six other teams are in that category: Virginia, Villanova, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Michigan and Duke. Decent company.

Money isn‘t much of an issue. The school was able to pay Sampson $3 million a year for the next six years to ward off potential interest from other schools this past spring — and it helps when board of regents chairman Tilman Fertitta is worth upward of $5 billion and has a vested interest in the athletic department (they were able to woo Dana Holgorsen away from West Virginia for the football team in January). So I think they‘re already on the way to becoming a consistent national talking point.

Medcalf: With Sampson there and the overhaul of the facilities, Houston boasts the tools and leadership to remain a factor on the national scene. They‘re also in a conference that will soon lose UConn and just lost one of its most consistent coaches (Mick Cronin at Cincinnati). The Cougars can continue to win 20-plus games each season with Sampson.

But I‘m not convinced any team can become a true national player without attracting NBA talent. We all called Virginia a blue-collar squad. Villanova too. Both of them had multiple first-round picks. Houston hasn‘t had a first-round pick since 1987. I feel like that‘s what will separate Houston from being a good team versus being a great team.

Lunardi: How ironic would it be if the next wave of conference realignment included an invite for Houston to the Big 12? We‘ve seen this movie before, of course, with the Cougars left behind when the music stopped. But that was before Kelvin Sampson and Dana Holgorsen, before 30 wins and the Sweet 16, and before $60M in basketball renovations. The best-case scenario is a Power 5 upgrade. At worst, the Cougars are well-positioned as one of the elite programs in the American. There should be no future unraveling.

You could certainly argue, in looking at the state of basketball in the American, that the two greatest hopes for extended national relevance in this league are Houston and Memphis. Peer into your crystal ball and tell us whether Kelvin Sampson‘s program or Penny Hardaway‘s program will be stronger in five years.

Penny Hardaway and Memphis appear to be the biggest long-term threat to Houston in the AAC. Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire

Borzello: I‘ll go with Sampson and Houston, mostly because I think they‘re built on more sustainable tenets. As long as Sampson is in town, the Cougars are going to be one of the best defensive teams in the country. They‘re going to be efficient on the offensive end. And he‘s going to consistently recruit guys to fit his system, regardless of ranking or national hype. That‘s not a knock on Penny Hardaway at all — it‘s more to say that Sampson has shown he can get it done with lesser talent and Hardaway simply hasn‘t had the chance yet (and this is coming from someone who thought Hardaway‘s coaching ability was being underrated when Memphis hired him).

Moreover, if Houston can keep winning at this level, the more talented recruits are going to start coming. The Cougars were already able to land Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes, a former top-10 recruit who is hoping to receive a waiver to play immediately next season. Sampson has had success at three different schools over two-plus decades; Hardaway has been a college coach for 16 months. Right now, the safer bet is Sampson and Houston.

Medcalf: I‘ll go with Memphis, although Sampson will continue to assemble good teams throughout his tenure. But Sampson turns 64 in October. I know we have questions about Penny going to an NBA team long before the five-year mark, but are we sure Sampson wants to coach through the 2024-25 season? I think Hardaway will continue to grab some of the top players in America and reboot the program‘s image as a destination for future NBA talent.

Within these five years, the NBA will probably change the age limit for the draft. I don‘t think that will lead to coaches recruiting more three- and four-year guys. I think coaches like Hardaway (or his successor) will have the advantage for talented prospects who feel like they‘re not quite ready for the league but feel like a year of college basketball will be the proper preparation. Even if Memphis loses Hardaway, the Tigers have already witnessed the challenges that followed John Calipari‘s reign and learned from them. And they‘ll go into their next coaching search with those lessons. I think Houston will be a good team in five years. But Hardaway could make Memphis a great one.

Lunardi: I‘m checking the box for Houston, if only because Kelvin Sampson is much more likely to be a college basketball coach in five years than Penny Hardaway. Even this coming season, with Memphis lauded for its vaunted freshman class, it wouldn‘t surprise me if the Cougars nipped the Tigers in the American. Sampson is that good, and Hardaway is that unproven at this level.

Next week in Chasing Ghosts: Kentucky