Their last appearance came in 1984 when they were led by head coach Guy Lewis, and Phi Slama Jama which featured future NBA Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. They’d lose to the Georgetown Hoyas who were led by the late great John Thompson and another future NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing.
1984 capped a three-year run of three straight Final Four appearances and two title game appearances. They didn’t win a title in any of those trips but they were solidified as a powerhouse program in college basketball.
Following that run, they were competitive for a while but never really title contenders again. Recruitment slowed and moving conferences hurt as they really didn’t have a rival for years.
In an area like Houston, which is a recruiting hotbed for all sports, not being able to secure recruits and build a contender was mind-boggling and many thought the powerhouse years were a thing of the past with every losing season.
Things changed in 2014 with the hiring of Kelvin Sampson.
Sampson has a track record of winning in places like Washington State and took the Oklahoma Sooners to the 2002 Final Four.
Then in 2006, he was hired to replace Mike Davis at Indiana. Funny how things turn out as Davis was the coach who beat Sampson and the Sooners in the 2002 Final Four.
Sampson became the second Black head coach in program history along with the aforementioned Davis.
He led the Hoosiers to the NCAA Tournament in his first year. In his second season, he was forced to resign due to serious NCAA violations.
As a result of these violations, Sampson received a five-year show-cause penalty. Meaning he couldn’t be hired by any other NCAA program for at least those five-years.
It was actually a blessing in disguise. Sampson ventured to the NBA where he became an assistant for the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets, spending three years in each spot. There he began to rebuild his image hoping another shot would come as it always seemingly does for his caucasian counterparts.
In 2014, he was hired to coach the Houston Cougars and he says he’s thankful for the opportunity to get back to his roots.
He was instrumental in getting the funding ($25M) for the program to build a brand new practice facility in 2016 and he influenced the $60M renovation to then Hofheinz Pavilion (later renamed the Fertitta Center) after current Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who happens to be an alumnus of the school.
Things didn’t turn around overnight for Sampson, but in his second and third season, they made the NIT.
Sampson stated he didn’t come to Houston to make NIT’s although he knew they had to start somewhere with rebuilding the program.
In 2018 his fourth season they made the NCAA Tourney, posted a Top 25 finish and won the program’s first NCAA game since 1984.
In 2019, the Cougars won a school-record 33 games, only the third 30-win season in school history.
They capped that historic season off with a Sweet 16 appearance, their deepest run since making it to the 1983 and 1984 National Championship games. They were primed to make a run in 2020 but March Madness was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020-21 he led the Cougars to its first conference tourney title since 2010, and in the NCAA tourney, they became the first team to ever face four teams seeded ten or higher en-route to the Final 4.
In doing so, Sampson becomes the fifteenth coach to reach a Final Four again after a gap of over ten years.
Only Ray Meyer, Lon Kruger and Lou Henson had longer gaps between Final Four appearances.
Not many coaches have had the baggage that once followed Sampson and to watch him put his career back together and lead the Houston Cougars back to the brink of a National Championship, 37 years after their last chance, is a story of retribution and perseverance that we all should be here for.