Tuesday, March 29, 2011

University of Houston Basketball: Longing for the Days of Phi Slama Jama

Any time my alma mater, the University of Houston, actually gets some press outside the Houston area, I'm interested.  With this weekend's Final Four being held in the Bayou City's Reliant Stadium and with U of H hosting the festivities, it brings back memories of Phi Slama Jama.

The New York Times asks what the heck has happened to the once storied basketball program.  Quality players like Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Michael Young avoid U of H like the plague.  Partly because the school abandoned recruiting Houston area athletes.

Author Brett McMurphy notes that "some of the city’s top players who went elsewhere included T. J. Ford and Daniel Gibson (to Texas) and Emeka Okafor and Hasheem Thabeet (to Connecticut)."  He goes on to note that "although Hakeem Olajuwon, of Nigeria, was a key part of Houston’s Final Four runs, 14 of the 25 players from those three seasons were from Houston high schools, including Drexler, Michael Young and Larry Micheaux."


It's been slim pickings for the basketball program since the great Guy V. Lewis strolled the Hofheinz Pavillion rotunda.  "In the 25 seasons since Lewis, the Cougars have had six coaches and no N.C.A.A. tournament victories. Pat Foster reached three N.C.A.A. tournaments before resigning in 1993. Next, Alvin Brooks, Drexler and Ray McCallum combined for nine losing seasons in 11 years."

I can personally attest that U of H isn't attractive to top young recruits, at least when I was there.  It is primarily a commuter school.  As a true freshman, I was in the minority.  I remember reading a statistic that only 22% of students at the school were "traditional students".  Most students, quite frankly, were going back to school for a second time, had flunked out of their previous university or had some life situation that affected them and then required them to postpone a secondary education.

U of H is in Houston's ghetto Third Ward.  It's hard for the school to compete with schools in phenomenal college towns like Austin, Knoxville, even College Station.  There's no "college atmosphere" on campus.  In turn, the alumni community and that sense of giving back that many strong alumni associations have is absent.  I haven't met one U of H alum who has the passion of Texas Ex, A&M graduate or Tennessee Rocky Top freak.

Who knows if this will ever change.  Unfortunately for those few Cougar High alums who would love to see as much, I think they and the athletic department are the only ones who really care.

*Side note: Guy V. Lewis' wife had a tradition of giving Hakeem Olajuwon peppermint candies after games.  Any time they would visit Rockets games, she would gingerly stroll over and hand Olajuwon a piece of candy.  He would graciously accept with a smile on his face that seemed as if he was receiving a valuable gemstone.  It was a rare, sweet moment that few people saw.
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