HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Cougars are suddenly front-page news again.
The team followed another mediocre regular season by winning last week’s Conference USA tournament to earn the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1992. The Cougars (19-15) got the No. 13 seed in the Midwest Region and will face fourth-seeded Maryland (23-8) on Friday in Spokane, Wash.
Houston averaged 20 victories in the first five seasons under coach Tom Penders, but that wasn’t good enough for fans who remember the dazzling days of Phi Slama Jama, the dominant teams from the early 1980s featuring Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
Attendance dropped, high school stars in this talent-rich city signed elsewhere and the program that was once the pride of Houston struggled to find its niche in a crowded local sports landscape. There was speculation that Penders might be fired with two years left on his contract as the Cougars limped into last week’s C-USA tournament as the No. 7 seed.
Houston surprised virtually everyone by winning four games in four days to capture its first conference tournament title, and the outlook for the program turned brighter in an instant.
“It’s not just exciting that we’re here, but what it means for our future,” Penders said. “I’ve had at least 11 calls from guys we were recruiting, telling me they loved the game and they want to be Cougars. Unless you get to the tournament, those things don’t happen.”
Drexler, who helped the Cougars to the 1982 and ’83 Final Fours, said the program took a giant and much-needed leap in credibility just by making the NCAA field.
“It gives you hope,” said Drexler, who went 19-39 as Houston’s coach from 1998-2000. “If you don’t make the tournament, you’re a work in progress. But this gives you validity. It can be a springboard and give the city hope that, hey, that program is coming back a little bit.”
Athletics director Mack Rhoades, hired last June, would not speculate on how the Cougars’ run might change his opinion of the program’s direction under Penders. But he acknowledged that making the NCAA tournament will have a far-reaching impact beyond basketball.
“It’s big, if you think about what sports does for a university in terms of uniting alumni, uniting a community,” Rhoades said. “It feels great to just feel and hear the excitement. In terms of building a top 25 athletics program, this is certainly part of it. Part of the process is getting there, taking this step. Now, it’s our job to maximize it.”
Penders is a veteran, with 36 years in coaching, including stints at Texas, George Washington and Rhode Island. He is Houston’s fifth coach since Phi Slama Jama architect Guy Lewis retired in 1986 after 30 seasons.
The three coaches preceding Penders all left with losing records, and the renowned rebuilder inherited a program with run-down facilities and only two winning records in the previous 11 years.
The Cougars reached the NIT in Penders’ first two seasons, then topped 20 victories in 2007-08 and 08-09. But they were crippled by easy early schedules and settled for bids to the CBI, a postseason event considered a step down from the NIT.
“Here, everybody is telling me, ‘We need to win. Get to the (NCAA) tournament. That’s the first step,'” Penders said. “That’s the first time I’d ever heard that in my career but, OK. That’s added a little bit of angst to working your butt off trying to get it done, and not getting it quite where people would like it to be.”
Now, Penders is one of nine coaches to lead four schools to the NCAA tournament, and this journey may be the most satisfying of his long career.
“Proving people wrong is the most enjoyable part of being a coach, other than your interaction with your players and the things you share and watching them grow,” he said.
Rhoades said that when he meets with Penders after the season, he’ll view it as a whole, not just for the miraculous run through the C-USA tournament.
For now, though, it’s time to celebrate.
School president Renu Khator ran up to hug Penders after the team watched the pairings announcement on Sunday.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “I’m so proud of you. I’m so proud of the team!”
Guard Aubrey Coleman, the nation’s leading scorer, was all smiles as he cradled the C-USA championship trophy, and Rhoades mingled with players and got congratulatory handshakes from friends and boosters.
“It can certainly energize the program, it can certainly be a foundation to build on,” Rhoades said. “What’s also great is that it gives a sense of accomplishment to our seniors, but also a building block for our younger kids. They now understand what it takes to get there. They also understand how hard it is, so they now understand what the future looks like.”