History of the Powerhouse: UH men’s basketball program
The history of men’s basketball at the University runs about as deep as any major program in the country. It goes back nearly 75 years, to a time when Harry S. Truman was president, tupperware had yet to be invented and college basketball got about as much attention as ultimate frisbee does today.
Make no mistake about it, Houston’s basketball program was built from the ground up. Before Hakeem Olajuwon and Phi Slama Jama, or Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney, or even before Hall of Fame head coach Guy V. Lewis took a hold of the reigns in 1956, the Houston men’s basketball program began under a man who was also an assistant coach for the football team.
The foundation is the most important part of any house. So it’s only appropriate that when looking back on the history of the “Powerhouse,” we start at the beginning.
The Early Days
Alden Pasche was the first head coach of Houston’s men’s basketball team, serving in the role beginning in the 1945-46 season until 1956-57.
Pasche was a native Houstonian who graduated from Rice University, then Rice Institute, and served as an assistant coach for the Houston football team in 1946 and 1947.
Under Pasche, the basketball program played their first four seasons in the Lone Star Conference, finishing first in each of their first two seasons.
Following a single year of play in the now-defunct Gulf Coast Conference in 1949, the Cougars joined the Missouri Valley Conference in 1950, and Pasche led the program to its first Sweet 16 appearance in 1955.
In 1956, the Guy V. Lewis era officially began.
Although the team did not have a winning season until Lewis’ fourth campaign as head coach, things soon improved. During Lewis’ tenure at Houston, Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney became the first black players to play for the team, and the program made its first Final Four appearance only one year later.
The Hayes-Chaney era is highlighted by several noteworthy moments including the 1968 “Game of the Century” between UH and UCLA, in which the Cougars ended the Bruins’ 47-game winning streak in a 71-69 win in the Astrodome.
Starting in 1960, the Cougars competed as an independent before joining the Southwest Conference in 1971. It was during their time in the SWC that the Cougars experienced arguably the greatest years in program history.
In total, the Cougars have competed in five different conferences, including Conference USA from 1996-2013, and since 2013, the American Athletic Conference.
Highs and Lows
Under Lewis, the Cougars reached the Final Four five times, including three consecutive appearances in 1982, 1983 and 1984.
The teams of the ‘80s were nicknamed Phi Slama Jama, a tribute to their above-the-rim slam dunk heavy style of play.
“Phi Slama Jama was clearly the peak of the program,” Bill Marshall, a graduate of Houston’s 1989 MBA class said. “(Coach Lewis) and his polka dot towel, (and) Dena in the stands passing out candy. (They were) a veritable NBA All-Star team on the court every night. The antithesis of the structured Bobby Knight program.”
The Cougars have had plenty of success in the NCAA tournament overall, with 11 trips to the Sweet 16, which is more than Texas Tech, five trips to the Elite 8, which is more than Oklahoma, five to the Final Four, which is more than UT and two to the championship game.
There is no doubt that Houston has a storied tournament history. The biggest knock against the program, however, is that they have never been able to win the big one.
Though they have gone deep into the NCAA tournament, no Houston team has ever been able to cap off a tournament run with a championship celebration.
A two-point loss to North Carolina State in the 1983 championship game is the closest the Cougars have ever come to winning it all. That game, unfortunately for Houston fans, lives on forever as the game North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano ran onto the court to celebrate defeating UH in a stunning upset.
The most notable players to wear the red and white include Otis Birdsong, Rob Williams, Clyde Drexler, who also coached the Cougars from 1998 to 2000, Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Young, who each won the Southwest Conference player of the year award, and went on to enjoy respective professional careers.
The Cougars’ 2019 team witnessed the most success since the teams of the 1980s when they reached the Sweet 16 `for the first time in nearly 35 years.
While a tough loss to Kentucky sent them home, the 2018-2019 team reestablished Houston as a respectable championship contender.
Today & Tomorrow
The Houston men’s basketball program now has been revitalized in part thanks to current head coach Kelvin Sampson.
After stops at Indiana University, Oklahoma University and in the NBA, Sampson joined the program in 2014 and won AAC Coach of the Year in both 2018 and 2019. Sampson’s total win-loss record with Houston is 139-60, which is already the third-most in program history behind only Lewis and Pat Foster, who coached UH from 1986 to 1993 and accumulated 142 career wins.
Though the program is still chasing that elusive NCAA championship, it is clear the University sees Sampson as the man who can make it happen. He recently received a six-year contract extension from the school worth up to $18 million.
University officials, however, are not the only ones thrilled to have Sampson locked in for the foreseeable future.
“Even though there were stars on the team, coach Lewis kept everyone in line,” John Dees, a 1986 UH Journalism graduate, said on Facebook. “He was tough but everyone saw the common goal. Once again, I see that in Sampson.”
Though the program was dealt a blow when the Big 12 Conference rejected the University’s pitch to join in 2016, Houston continues to look to increase their level of competition each season as shown with the reported home-and-home series against LSU beginning this fall, as well as games against other SEC opponents like Alabama.
When taking a step back and looking at Houston athletics, the men’s basketball program has played an integral part in shaping what has come to be known as the “powerhouse.”
With the 2019-20 postseason lost due to COVID-19, the Cougars were never able to see how far they could have gone after another AAC regular-season championship, but Houston hopes to restart their journey for the championship when the 2020-21 season begins.
Andy Yanez contributed to this story