The 13th seed Houston Cougars lost to the 4th seed Maryland Terrapins in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 19, 2010. Three days later, UH head coach Tom Penders stepped down from his position. Penders had coached the Cougars to two NIT tournament appearances, two CBI appearances, and its first NCAA tourney appearance in 18 years. He had three 20-win seasons in six years, never won fewer than 18 games, and was arguably the second best Cougar basketball coach in team history.
Since Penders' departure the Cougars have not come close to returning to the NCAA tournament. Yet his departure was met by glee by a fan base that never fully accepted him. His teams were good, but never good enough. He supposedly alienated local area-AAU and high school coaches while relying on Juco transfers. He wasn't Guy V. Lewis. Alumni thought the school could do better.
Penders was hired under a simple marching order: to keep the Cougars competitive and relevant. He did that. The program barely stayed afloat, but he kept it going, kept winning games, and made people believe that the team was just on the edge of returning to national relevancy. But as the past five years have demonstrated for frustrated Cougar basketball fans, the Cougars weren't close. Penders was a magician, working miracles every season while dealing with substandard facilities and limited resources. He made it appear the Cougars were playing on a foundation of granite when instead the program was built on a foundation of sand.
The Cougars (9-12, 1-8 in conference) hosted defending national champions UConn Huskies (11-9, 4-4 in conference) Sunday. The lone highlight for the Cougars last season was a New Years Eve upset of UConn. And so far, the lone highlight of this season for the Cougars is Sunday's 70-68 win by the Cougars over UConn. It was the first conference win of the season for the team, and it was accomplished in front a small, but loud Hofheinz Pavilion crowd that included Houston Rockets star James Harden.
Head coach Kelvin Sampson has discussed his team's flaws many ties this season, the biggest of which being that the team is offensively challenged. The Cougars made only 36.9-percent of their shots Sunday. But they only turned the ball over once and held UConn to a 39.1-percent shooting percentage. It also helped that the Cougars hit some much needed free throws at the end of the game to help hold off a three-point shot barrage from UConn's Ryan Boatright. "We've lost a lot of close games this year," Sampson said. "We had to lose those games. You have to lose those games to figure out how to win close games. Unless you're...a great team you have to figure how to win close games."
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UConn win aside, the Cougars have not been a very good team this season, and it's fair to wonder if Sampson knew exactly just what he was getting into when he replaced James Dickey. Sampson had been in the city for several years as an assistant with the Rockets, so he probably had some clue as to just how much the program deteriorated under Dickey. The condition of Hofheinz has worsened and there's still no plan in place for the building -- AD Mack Rhoades told the Chronicle last week that the school's waiting on the results of yet another feasibility study before making the decision to renovate the building or tear it down and start from scratch (this leads to the question of whether the people in charge of figuring out what to the Dome are the same ones working on the Hofheinz problem because this thing's seemingly been waiting for studies and reports for most of this century).
Thus the talk from Sampson about first needing to build a foundation, and once that foundation is built seeing the team rise. It's a depressing thought for Cougar fans to consider, the idea that the losing's not yet close to being over and that instead the fans need to take pride in a team that competes and plays the right way and leaves everything on the floor.
"You have to be real careful what you want to work on when you take over a program," Sampson said Sunday. "I chose to work on our culture and our foundation, which is how hard we play, playing together, passing up good shots for great shots, defending...that's got to be who Cougar basketball is. Now once we learn how to play the basketball stuff will come into play. And then as the years go by we'll get better and better players and we'll become a factor in this conference. But for this year, this is our journey. It's not our destination."
Who knows what happens to the Cougars if Penders doesn't depart? Who knows what condition the program would be in if Penders had received some fan support, or had received at least half of the backing and enthusiasm that his successor James Dickey received or that Sampson is so far receiving. Maybe there's still no foundation left for Sampson to work from. But there's one definite truth: Tom Penders might have never been embraced by the Cougar faithful, but the man did wonders with a program seemingly left to die and, if not for Penders, there might not even be a program left for Sampson to rebuild.