University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson won UH's first conference championship trophy in 27 years in 2019. Then, he did it again this season. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Former UH guard Galen Robinson Jr. shares a moment with athletic director Chris Pezmam. Robinson helped start an NCAA Tournament tradition at UH that Pezman is certain will lead to the Final Four. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
DeJon Jarreau and Kelvin Sampson came together after the game for a discussion. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Dana Holgorsen's mission at the University of Houston is hardly an easy one.
Fabian White's baseline jumpers are a very effective weapon for Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Brison Greshman is part of the big man rotation at UH. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson commands the huddle. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The UH dance team adds to The Fertitta Center atmosphere. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Greg Ward Jr. got a front row seat for his UH return. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Super lawyer Rustin Hardin and UH athletic director Chris Pezman (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Kellen Sampson and his dad, Kelvin Sampson, are set to lead UH long into the future. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Suresh and Renu Khator with Corina Tomas and Dana Holgorsen at the San Luis Salute in Galveston. (Gary Fountain Photo)
Tilman Fertitta enjoyed a moment with UH president Renu Khator at the game. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
In any other year, America would be knee deep in March Madness right now, coming off the exhilaration of the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend. Buzzer beaters, bracket busters and Cinderellas would be the talk of office pools everywhere.
Instead… it feels like two years since the NCAA Tournament’s cancellation shook the sports world and woke up many to the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Maybe Kelvin Sampson’s flawed but dangerous young University of Houston team would have pulled off an 8 vs. 1 upset in the second round in any other year. Maybe a cold shooting spell at the wrong time would have sent them home early.
Regardless of what would have happened in another world where the tournament could have been played, UH athletic director Chris Pezman is certain monumental March moments are on tap for Sampson’s program in the future.
“The best part is the more we get into the tournament — kind of like, the more it happens — then your chance of success increases each time,” Pezman told PaperCity before the world changed. “We’re on track to do something very special. Not that the Sweet 16 (UH’s run last year) wasn’t.
“But we’re going to make a Final Four.”
Yes, Pezman sees a Final Four run in UH’s future. He’s not predicting when it will happen. But he sounds certain it’s part of the trajectory.
Houston would have made the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season if Selection Sunday had happened this March. There is no doubt that tournament reps this year would have been invaluable for Caleb Mills, Marcus Sasser, Nate Hinton, Quentin Grimes and the rest of UH’s young roster. But missing out on them should be a speed bump rather than a road block for Sampson’s program.
Chris Pezman is beyond encouraged by the fact that the entire home basketball season was sold-out at the Fertitta Center, the sparkling on-campus arena that’s changed plenty for the program. He is equally buoyed by seeing so many UH athletes playing professionally proudly returning to support the school’s athletic programs. Greg Ward Jr., Case Keenum, Tyus Bowser and many more all made high-profile returns this winter.
“In a lot of ways, we’re a young university compared to a lot of other schools in the state,” Pezman says. “But to see that backing from our alums on the whole spectrum from Jim Nantz to Greg Ward and Tyus Bowser — those guys just got out of here in the last five years. It just shows you how much this means to them.
“It’s humbling — it really is.”
With UH football coming off a 4-8 season in Coach Dana Holgorsen’s debut campaign, one marked by a redshirt rush and the eventual transfer of dual-threat quarterback D’Eriq King to Miami, that program is not on the same solid ground as basketball. But Pezman is certain much better seasons are ahead.
“Dana is. . . nobody wants to go 4-8, but through everything if you look at how we reset the roster,” says the AD, a former Cougar college football player himself. “You can criticize how we redshirted. But he’s got 35 kids that are coming back next year. You’re going to see marked improvement. It’s going to be fun.”
Seeing Holgorsen land recruits like Clear Lake’s Mark Wilson, one of the top defensive backs in the country, for 2021 adds credence to the idea that UH still has the potential to be a power in more than just basketball.
Holgorsen is going into year two. Sampson will be entering his seventh season on Cullen Boulevard this fall.
UH football is building, trying to get back to the highs reached under Tom Herman after the stumbles and fade from the national spotlight under Major Applewhite. UH basketball is rolling, establishing itself as an NCAA Tournament regular, maybe even reaching for that Final Four.
“You hope for it,” Pezman says of the current basketball reality. “We hope for it. But to see it where we sell out for the season in basketball which we haven’t done in decades…
“You hope for it. But then you really see it, it’s gratifying. It’s what you hope, but to see it is really special. We don’t take it for granted.”
Pezman gave this exclusive interview to PaperCity on the unexpected last day of the UH basketball team’s 2019-20 season, a win over Memphis that would lead to the cutting down of nets as conference champs hours later in an otherwise empty arena. At the time, no one expected the day to be any kind of finale. But Pezman already saw a bright future.
Houston’s athletic director is sure the best is still to come for the university’s most forward-facing programs. Including a Final Four. The first since the days of Olajuwon. Maybe that’s something to help keep UH fans looking forward with sports hope during a crisis.