INDIANAPOLIS — They danced, they laughed, Kelvin Sampson gave his kids hugs. Houston was one band of happy Cougars to be back in the Final Four this week. Of course, the program has been there before, quite some time ago.
It didn’t end well.
Five times it didn’t end well. In fact, you could make the case that few programs have had a more star-crossed Final Four history than Houston, which now has a chance to vastly improve on that situation. Illinois and Oklahoma are the only other schools who have been to as many as five Final Fours and are yet to win a title. If the current Cougars lose next weekend, they will stand alone at six.
And it’s just not the record, but how it’s happened. They have had meaty roles for two of the most famous Final Four games in history — as the victims. In their five past trips they somehow managed to run into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar . . . and Michael Jordan . . . and Patrick Ewing. A wall of Hall of Famers for Houston to beat its collective heads against.
But let’s start at the beginning.
1967 — Timing is everything, and the Cougars didn’t have it. They advanced to their first Final Four and who should be waiting for them but one of the greatest teams in history; unbeaten UCLA with Lew Alcindor – later Abdul-Jabbar — in his first season of steamrolling college basketball.
The Houston players had an idea of what they were in for the day prior to the game, when they were sitting in their hotel lobby pretty much to themselves and in strolled the Bruins, surrounded by a gaggle of fans and media. UCLA arrived like rock stars, while the Cougars, Don Chaney would say years later, “felt like country bumpkins.”
The next day, Alcindor had 19 points and 20 rebounds and UCLA breezed to a 15-point victory.
1968 — Houston ended UCLA’s 47-game winning streak by two points in the Astrodome in a made-for-TV January spectacular that was instantly billed The Game of the Century. Two months later they were together again in the Final Four in Los Angeles, with the Cougars unbeaten and No. 1 and the Bruins with only that one loss. It was the rematch everyone wanted, and the nation settled back to watch college basketball’s version of Frazier vs. Ali.
What the nation got was more like an accountant vs. Ali. The first bad sign for Houston was when its student manager – selling leftover tickets from the team allotment outside the arena as coach Guy Lewis had requested – was arrested by LA police, taken to jail and charged with scalping.
It wasn’t any more pleasant inside the building for the players. Alcindor had a scratched cornea in the January meeting but was at full speed for the rematch, and he and the rest of the Bruins had a message to send. It ended 101-69. Houston star Elvin Hayes, who had vexed the Bruins with 39 points in January, was held to 10, nearly 28 points under his average.
Lewis called it then “the greatest exhibition of basketball I have ever seen in my life.” A lot of people could say that.
1982 — More than 61,000 people were in the Superdome audience when Houston took on North Carolina, which included stars such as Sam Perkins and James Worthy, and a freshman named Jordan. As was their custom back then, the Tar Heels got the lead and then four-cornered the Cougars into oblivion, 68-63.
1983 — The one that haunts the most. Phi Slama Jama was all the rage, as the high-flying Cougars soared into the national championship game by beating Louisville in a 94-81 dunkathon in the semifinals. The media immediately dubbed that game 21st century basketball, and all that was left for No. 1 Houston was to finish off a 10-loss team from North Carolina State that barely eked into the tournament.
The Wolfpack dictated a slow tempo in this pre-shot clock era, but the Cougars put together a 17-2 run for a late seven-point lead. Then Houston started missing free throws, North Carolina State rallied and had the ball in the final seconds in a 52-52 tie. Guard Dereck Whittenburg put up a desperation 30-foot shot with four seconds left that was way short and . . . you might know the rest. They do in Houston. Lorenzo Charles was waiting under the basket to grab the errant shot and slammed it home with one second left. Phi Slama Jama had lived by the dunk, and died by the dunk. The scene of North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano running wildly around the court gets replayed every spring as an iconic and wonderful tournament moment – except for the team he had just beaten.
For hollow consolation, Houston’s Akeem later-to-be-Hakeem Olajuwon was named Most Outstanding Player, and 38 years later, is still the last member of a losing team to be so.
1984 — There was enough left over of Phi Slama Jama — especially Olajuwon — that Houston returned to the national title game. But the Cougars ran into Ewing and Georgetown’s defense and lost 84-75. The golden days were over. Houston would not win another NCAA tournament game for 34 years.
The Cougars’ special brand of Final Four pain can be measured with numbers. They are one of only four programs to go to three consecutive Final Fours and not win any of them. UCLA, Ohio State and North Carolina are also in that club, but those three all have national championships from other years. Houston is also one of four programs to lose consecutive title games — with Cincinnati, Michigan and Butler.
But maybe another number explains how tough it has been for the Cougars, because the opponent has a lot to do with fate. Take away the North Carolina State fairy tale, and the four other teams Houston lost to in the Final Four had a combined record of 118-6 when they met.
So now here the Cougars are again 37 years later, and Sampson is telling stories about how much he wishes his parents were alive to see this. And about the Sweet 16 in 2002 when he was coaching at Oklahoma, and how he was in the hospital until 4 a.m. the day of the game waiting for his father to come out of surgery with a brain aneurysm. Those Sooners would eventually get to the Final Four. And how his old boss at Oklahoma, athletics director Joe Castiglione sent Sampson a big package when he got the job at Houston. Inside the package was a ladder to both symbolize Sampson’s career climb and the hope he would be needing it to cut down nets in the future.
This Houston team has nothing like the glamour of Phi Slama Jama or the Elvin Hayes bunch that took down UCLA in the middle of the Astrodome. “We may not have the brightest lights,” Sampson said, “but our lights shine as bright as anybody else’s.”
These Cougars now have a chance to do what those Houston teams could not. And if it doesn’t turn out, if there is defeat at the end for a sixth time?
Well, it’s not a bad legacy for a program to have, losing lots of Final Four games.