Here’s the thing when you sign on to coach at the University of Houston. You’re not signing on to coach at a school like Texas or A&M or Notre Dame or LSU. It’s not a huge moneymaking operation. There’s iffy fan support. The school’s not in a power conference. There’s not a lot of money sitting around. And if you’re not coaching football, the support you’re going to get from the school is minimal.
Take for instance men’s basketball coach Kelvin Sampson. Sampson’s got a pretty impressive résumé, having taken several teams to the Final Four. He's coached at some schools more known for football (Oklahoma), and he’s coached at schools known as basketball powerhouses (Indiana). He’s now in his second year at UH, trying to rebuild what was once a great basketball program that, but for a few years under Tom Penders, had been allowed to grow stagnant.
But he’s run into a bit of a problem. He’s not getting any support from the University of Houston marketing department. He’s having to do everything on his own — well, he and his staff and his players.
“So you better believe I do this on a daily basis,” Sampson said toward the end of a long interview (go to the 7:57 mark of the interview) conducted at the AAC media day in Orlando on Tuesday. “If I’m not promoting and marketing my program right now, it’s not getting promoted and marketed. We don’t have anybody devoted to that. But we do that out of our office.”
But that wasn’t all. Being interviewed by Jerry Woodley of the College Sports Report and Kris Gardner of The Houston Roundball Review, Sampson continued with his thoughts about the UH marketing department and his efforts to market the program on his own.
“That’s why as a coach at a school like Houston, you better have a chip on your shoulder,” he said. “You better roll up your sleeve and get a lot of your own work done. You realize that if you don’t do it, it might not get done. I want people to come to our basketball games. I have to take some responsibility for that. I can’t sit back and depend on other people. I found that out last year. I realized that if we’re going to get this done, it better come out of my office.”
Sampson touches on an issue that’s long been a point of discussion among UH faithful (and yes, there are UH faithful). The marketing of the athletic programs has always been a bit of a joke, though a lot of that has been attributed to a nearly nonexistent marketing budget. There have been a lot of billboards for the football team this year, but there’s very little other advertising, and Houston Cougar basketball is not in a position where it can just depend on people to show up to games based on word of mouth.
Sampson’s out there trying to sell his team, and he’s essentially doing the marketing on his own. He’s even approached football coach Tom Herman, asking him to tweet out info regarding the basketball team, which Herman’s done, because that’s what the coaches at UH have to do.
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“So I know I had to [ask for Herman’s help] because I knew the other people in marketing were doing football,” Sampson said. “They’re not going to be worrying about basketball. You can’t start marketing basketball in January or December. It’s got to be a year-round thing. You really think that some of these great basketball schools start marketing their program after the season starts? No. It’s before the season starts. That’s been a little bit of a spur in my heel a little bit, the way that’s been handled at Houston.”
Hofheinz Pavilion can be a depressing place. It’s old and dated. But what has really made it depressing is the lack of people attending the games. It feels at times as if there’s no one in the building when the team is playing, and it’s got to be really hard to play basketball when there are no fans to watch the game. And it’s easy to say that it’s all because the team has been bad, but even under Tom Penders, when the team was semi-decent, attendance was disappointing, and has only gotten worse. Sampson says in the interview that the best thing he can do is get his teams to win games. But as Herman’s discovering with football, that doesn’t always fix everything.
UH fans want the Cougars to be treated as a topflight athletic department worthy of entry into a power conference. But it’s not going to happen until the football stadium and the basketball arena are packed on a regular basis. And while I’ve said things about UH fans needing to step up and show up, there’s also another truth: They can’t show up when they don’t know when the games are being played.
As long as it’s up to Tom Herman and Kelvin Sampson to handle the marketing because the marketing department can’t/won’t do it, then UH will always be a second-tier school when it comes to athletics. It doesn’t have to be that way, but at some point the people behind the scenes in the marketing department have to work as hard as the coaches.