HOUSTON (AP) — James Dickey figures the key to making Houston Cougars basketball relevant again can be found close to home.
"We've got to recruit Houston, the greater Houston area, that's going to be paramount for us," he said.
Dickey was hired as Houston's coach on Thursday, putting him in charge of a program for the first time since he was fired from Texas Tech in 2001.
He replaces Tom Penders, who resigned less than two weeks ago after leading the Cougars to their first NCAA tournament berth since 1992.
Dickey believes to win with the Cougars, he'll have to convince some of the abundance of talented players in the city to stay and play for Houston.
"We're going to reach out to all the high school coaches, the summer coaches and just try to convince players that this is going to be a special situation for them," Dickey said.
Athletic director Mack Rhoades said Dickey's focus on improving Houston's standing in the local recruiting scene was key in his decision to hire him.
"Two-hundred players from the Houston area have left to play at Division I schools over the last four or five years," Rhoades said. "That's our greatest asset, along with the tradition. He's well-known in Houston. He's well-known in Texas. Everybody we talked to said: 'Look these people want their kids to go play for him.'"
Dickey pointed to the success coach Kevin Sumlin has had in helping the football team improve by recruiting local players and told Rhoades during his interview that he sees the same thing for the basketball team.
"We want to win and win big," Dickey said. "I know there's some hurdles. We've got some obstacles out there and we're going to kind of wade through them and see what they are."
He inherits a program that went 121-77 in six years under Penders, but hasn't seen major success since the 1980s and the storied Phi Slama Jama days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Dickey coached against those teams as an assistant with Arkansas and fondly remembers visiting Hofheinz Pavilion in those days.
Some believe that Houston's aging facilities— Hofheinz was built in 1969 — are a hurdle to building the team back into a national contender.
"I haven't seen Hofheinz in a while so we're going to get over there," he said. "I've heard the stories about that."
Still, Dickey doesn't seem daunted by the facilities and recalled a story of his first visit to Lubbock Municipal Coliseum, the arena where Tech played before moving to the United Spirit Arena during his tenure.
"There was a circus in town and I went into our locker room and they were actually showering a baby elephant in our locker room," he said. "So for me we made it work there ... we just sold them on our program. So I wouldn't be here if I didn't think we could recruit to this university and to these facilities."
Rhoades, who was hired in June, talked a lot about his desire to have a coach who would help bring back Houston's once-proud tradition. He acknowledges the program's shortcomings, but believes they can be overcome.
"What was important to me was that he understood our situation and wasn't going to use it as an excuse," Rhoades said. "(He) still found all the great things about this program and it didn't make him flinch whatsoever."
Dickey led the Red Raiders to unprecedented success in his tenure there, the height of which came in 1996 when they went 30-2 and reached the NCAA round of 16. But an NCAA investigation soon followed and the team struggled in the wake of scholarship losses.
He was fired after four straight losing seasons and was soon replaced by Bob Knight. As coach at Tech from 1991-2001, Dickey led the Red Raiders to a 164-123 record.
Dickey was as an assistant at Oklahoma State and has been out of coaching the last two seasons. He spent some of his time off doing some television work and said he kept up with the game. He says he's ready to jump back into the job.
"I don't really feel like there's going to be any adjustments for me," he said. "I missed being away from it. I guess the biggest deal will be now you have pressure. I didn't have pressure the last two years."