Tom Herman on Thursday spoke of the revitalization of sports at the University of Houston, of the rejuvenation of Cougar Nation and re-energizing the entire city of Houston. That’s how much the Cougars' dismantling of Florida State in the Peach Bowl meant to Herman.
There’s truth to Herman's words. The football program has been dormant, but it’s always been a program with huge potential to grow, to expand, to take control of the hearts of Houstonians. It was a tough battle for the coach and his squad this season, with Herman at times wondering just what it was he had to do to get people to show up and watch his team play.
That's a lament long heard around the University of Houston. What, exactly, do Houstonians want? What do alumni want? What is it going to take to get people in the stands? And maybe Herman and the football team have found the answer, at least for the moment. The team went 13-1, was highly ranked and played in one of the new year’s six bowl games, dominating one of the best teams in college football.
It’s nice to have people jumping on the football team’s bandwagon. There’s plenty of room, and there’s no worry about anybody being kicked off. But while fans are pumped about the football team, and justifiably so, now’s not the time for the city, the alumni or the students to put aside UH sports.
The men’s basketball team returns to Hofheinz Pavilion tomorrow night to host Tulane. It’s the first conference game to be hosted by the Cougars this season. And while it won’t be the biggest conference game to be played at Hofheinz this season, it can go a long way to setting up the atmosphere for the rest of the year.
The Cougars are 12-2 (2-0 in conference play) and off to perhaps the best start for the team since the Tom Penders years. They're not a perfect team — the bigs are still a bit undersize, the team’s young — but they're playing the best brand of basketball seen by Cougar fans in many years. The play is uptempo with lots and lots of movement, with the ball constantly on the move by way of the pass and an awful lot of off-the-ball movement. The team’s not selfish, and the squad is really deep in guards who can shoot and pass.
But nobody is showing up to watch this team play.
Maybe it’s the lack of good competition or known teams (there was a big crowd for LSU, after all). Maybe it’s because the fans just aren’t yet buying into what head coach Kelvin Sampson is assembling. Maybe it’s the fault of the marketing department — Sampson has had some complaints about the lack of marketing. Maybe it’s the crappy condition of Hofheinz, or having to share parking spaces with students taking classes, or having to deal with rush-hour traffic.
But absolutely none of that should matter. Not if what Herman said on Thursday really is true.
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Tomorrow’s game is at 8 p.m., so traffic on the Gulf Freeway should not be a problem. School’s not in session, so parking shouldn’t be a problem. The Cougars are playing a conference foe. And this is the best damn basketball team the Cougars have put on the floor in years. It’s an exciting team that puts up points, plays an unselfish style and plays with energy.
Kelvin Sampson has a much harder rebuilding job than Tom Herman. Despite his problems as a coach, Tony Levine did recruit some talent, but Sampson was left with almost nothing when he took over with the Cougars. But he’s already got this team winning games — sure, some of those wins have been against some really bad teams, but it shouldn’t be that hard to remember just how much trouble the Cougars had in years past beating these same crappy opponents that Sampson’s Cougars have been destroying. And while this might not be the year that the Cougars finish at the top of the American Conference, just seeing what the team’s done this year should fill fans with optimism for years to come.
So how about it, Cougar Nation? How about it, Houston? It’s nice to see you jumping on the football team’s bandwagon, but how about showing some of that love for the basketball team? Come out to Hofheinz tomorrow night. The tickets aren’t expensive (general admission goes for $5, and the most expensive reserved seat goes for $15). The facility might be aging, but the view from the seats is good.
It’s an exciting time to be around Houston Cougar sports. Don’t waste that time waiting for the start of the next football season. Not when there’s a fun basketball team around to watch.