Houston, Dickey winning big in recruiting

The University of Houston hasn’t been at the forefront of the conference realignment stories that have dominated headlines throughout the past month. Instead the Cougars found another way to force themselves into the news.

James Dickey is winning on the recruiting trail and that may help Houston regain national prominence.
(Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire)


Not on the football field, but the basketball court.

Earlier this month a program that hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1984 landed commitments from two of the top 50-ranked players in the Class of 2012. Forwards Danuel House and Chicken Knowles said they will sign with the Cougars in November.

Shocking as the announcement may have been to some, it hardly came as a surprise to second-year Houston coach James Dickey.

“Not at all,” Dickey said. “We have a lot to sell here.”

And a lot of potential buyers.

House and Knowles are from the Houston area and spent much of their childhood watching from afar as homegrown talent migrated to Texas, Texas A&M and Baylor along with numerous out-of-state powers. All of a sudden a program that had drawn national attention during the Phi Slama Jama days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler was an also-ran in its own conference.

[More Houston coverage: CougarsDen.com]

Dickey remembers sitting in the stands at the Conference USA tournament two years ago watching his brother, Randall – an assistant at UTEP – coach against the Cougars in the championship game. Houston won in an upset and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1984.

“I heard someone in the stands say, ‘It’s been 18 years since Houston has made it into the NCAA tournament,’” Dickey said. “I had no idea it had been that long.”

Ironically, Houston fired head coach Tom Penders shortly after the Cougars’ first-round loss to Maryland that year – they finished just 19-16 – and hired Dickey. The move caught some college basketball fans by surprise, as former Texas A&M and Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie was believed to be the leading candidate.

Instead, the school hired Dickey, whose success during a 10-year stint at Texas Tech was tough to ignore – especially considering that it came despite a tight operating budget similar to the one he’d inherit at Houston.

Texas Tech was just 13-45 in the two seasons before Dickey’s arrival in 1991 and had only earned two NCAA tournament berths in the previous 15 years. In Dickey’s first six seasons in Lubbock, the Red Raiders went 117-57 and made a pair of NCAA tournament appearances. In 1996 they went 30-2 and advanced to the Sweet 16.

Cougars fans are hoping Dickey can accomplish even greater things at Houston. Even though he went just 12-21 in his inaugural season in 2010-11 – the Cougars lost 12 of their final 13 games – Dickey said he couldn’t have been more pleased with the strides made by his team.

This season, though, should take on a completely different feel, as Houston will welcome seven newcomers who were all recruited by Dickey. Among them are standout junior college transfer Jonathon Simmons, a 6-foot-4 guard, and Joseph Young, a 6-3 wing who originally signed with Providence out of high school. Joseph’s father, Michael Young, is the director of basketball operations and was part of Phi Slama Jama.

“We knew there would be a lot of work to get done,” said Dickey, an assistant at Oklahoma State from 2002-08. “When you’re not having success on the court, it makes it a lot harder to convince recruits to trust in you. But we had a program in place. We knew where we wanted to go and how we wanted to get there.

“Remember, Houston still has a national name. That’s important. Three of the NBA’s greatest all-time players – Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and Elvin Hayes – all played here. No other school can say that.”

Danuel House is No. 15 on the Rivals150 rankings for the Class of 2012.
(Kelly Kline/Getty Images)

[Recruiting: Class of 2012 Rivals150]

One thing the Cougars don’t have is a BCS conference to call home, although that could soon change with the various realignment scenarios being bandied about. In the meantime, Dickey said not being affiliated with one of the power conferences doesn’t hurt his program when it comes to recruiting.

“Look at what Memphis did when Coach [John] Calipari was there,” Dickey said. “Any time you talked about national exposure, you were talking about what Memphis had done. This league is very underrated. There are some tremendous players and coaches and teams in this league. I feel like we have the same potential and opportunity here as they have at Memphis.”

In other words, just like Calipari and now Josh Pastner at Memphis, Dickey is coaching at a school with multiple Division I recruits within a 15- or 20-minute drive of campus. That includes House and Knowles, the 15th and 47-ranked players in Rivals.com’s Class of 2012, respectively.

“I chose Houston because Coach Dickey made me think long and hard about staying home and playing in front of my family and friends,” House told reporters. “I want to help bring back Houston basketball where it needs to be nationally.”

A few more signees such as House, and Dickey will be well on his way to doing just that.

“We’ve got recruit the city of Houston,” Dickey said. “That’s something that is critical. There’s a wealth of talent here. We know we can’t get them all, but it’s something that’s going to be really, really important to us. We’ll look at guys in other areas, but Houston is our priority. Houston is the key.

“I didn’t want to take a job unless the school had a chance to win big. That’s why I felt so fortunate to get this opportunity. We have the chance to do that here. Not just win, but win big.”

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Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Sep 21, 2011