You know, as the NCAA Tournament starts today, I can't help but notice that the Houston Cougars have once again failed to gain entry into the field of 65. Sure, they're playing in something called the CBI, but that's really not the same thing, is it? (Especially seeing as how the Cougars lost last night to an Oregon State team that won only 13 games this season.)
Hard as it might be for many of you to remember, the Cougars were once one of the great basketball powerhouses in the country. The Cougars produced such talents as Elvin Hayes, Otis Birdsong, Clyde Drexler, and Hakeem Olajuwan. Their 1983 loss to North Carolina State in the championship game is regarded as one of the greatest upsets in sports history. And their defeat of Louisville the Saturday before that is seen as one of the greatest ballgames in history.
But since the retirement of Guy V. Lewis as head coach, the Coogs have had difficulty with basketball, and their last appearance in the NCAA Tournament was in 1992. The team has fallen on hard times, and in the late-90s, when Clyde Drexler was playing around at being a head coach, the team became a bit of a laughing stock.
Tom Penders was brought in five years ago to change this.
Penders brought with him a reputation as the guy who changed programs for the better. A guy who took laughingstock teams and made them into NCAA powerhouses. Sure, he was never actually able to win a title. And sure, he left the programs in shambles with NCAA investigators snapping at his heels.
But hey, what did probations matter when the team was in the Big Dance every year?
As far as I can tell, the Cougars are running a clean program - which is probably a first for Penders. But he hasn't gotten the team into the NCAA Tournament, and that's why he was hired. To win games and to get into the Tournament.
The Coogs were able to make the NIT for two years. And while not the Big Dance, the NIT has often been seen as the big stepping stone, especially for schools which have not made the NCAA in years. The NIT was kind of practice. But after a year or two of the NIT, teams are supposed to take the next step and advance to the big boy tournament known as the NCAA.
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A step that Penders' Cougars teams haven't been able to make.
The Coogs consider the CBI (College Basketball Invitational) to be a head start for next season. That's what the NIT was supposed to be, but it evidently didn't do the job. Of course, the NIT has been around since the 1930s, as has the NCAA Tournament, whereas the CBI is only in its second year. And the NIT didn't even ask the Coogs to play in this year's tournament.
Five years ago, if someone would say that Tom Penders would've gotten the Coogs into postseason play in four of his five seasons, you would probably say that sounded good. But if someone would have said that the Coogs would make two NITs and two CBIs, you would probably ask what the CBI was, then you would ask who took over for Penders as head coach.
There are no indications that the job of Tom Penders is in jeopardy. But maybe it should be. Penders wasn't hired to get the Cougars into the CBI. He was hired to get this team back into the NCAA Tournament. There's been nothing to indicate that the Cougars are capable of making this jump. And you can count me as one Cougar alum who is not too happy with the present situation.