Looking Back: Relive the moment when the Lady Cougars advanced to NCAA Division II quarterfinals in 2017
Matt Houser is a self-described “surfer boy from Orange County” who grew up on Southern California basketball and street tacos. But it didn’t take long for Houser and his wife Silvia realize that Columbus State offered more than another bullet point to a resume already filled with winning.
Houser came here 10 months ago to serve as Anita Howard’s assistant. He did his homework and learned that Columbus State had one of the top women’s Division II basketball programs in the southeast, and one that could compete nationally. The more he researched, the more impressed he became with the entire athletics program. The women’s soccer program was among the best in the country. The tennis team had just won a national championship. The baseball, golf and cheerleading teams had won national championships.
But there was something even more endearing about Columbus, aside from athletics.
“The atmosphere, it’s kind of different,” Houser said. “You talk about the Southern hospitality, just the welcoming community. People are just more open to talking, just really nice. My family and I really enjoy that. It was kind of shocking to us at first, that everybody wanted to have an open hand, meet and greet.”
“I got to know the community and fell in love with it. I thought this would be an amazing opportunity if I ever got the chance. I kept talking to my wife and said, ‘This is it. This is the place.’”
Little did he realize then was how soon that opportunity would come. But another successful season for the Lady Cougars allowed Howard to spring-board to Georgia Southern, a Division I program.
While promoting Houser seemed like the obvious move, it still took nearly three months for it to come to fruition. Athletics Director Todd Reeser felt compelled to do his due diligence and explore his options, and justifiably so.
So it’s understandable that even as it was formally announced last week at a news conference, Houser still expressed a bit of disbelief. After interviewing for the job he was already performing in the interim, Houser had to stay focused on helping the players close out the academic year and get started in the summer program, all while reassuring incoming players that everything would work out just fine for everyone.
“I think it’s about to hit me,” Houser said.
By all rights, Columbus State could be a stepping stone for coaches seeking a big-time job. That could very well turn out to be the case for Howard after a few seasons at Georgia Southern. And that may end up being the case for Houser as well.
What’s interesting, though, is that many coaches have come here thinking just that. It began with Herbert Greene, who came here from Auburn to get a few years of college head coaching experience under his belt. Greg Appleton has been the baseball coach for nearly 20 years. Women’s soccer coach Jay Entlich is about to begin his 16th season at CSU and has been to the NCAA tournament 13 consecutive years. Their boss Reeser would certainly look attractive to a mid-major Division I program.
But they all have stayed here.
“I think it’s because of the support,” Houser said. “Any coach, you have to have that support from the community to the faculty to the admin to the staff. You have to have that support. That’s why coaches move a lot, they don’t have feel that support. After being here, that is the feeling that I’ve gotten is just a huge, huge support system for these coaches while they’re here. Makes it hard to leave because you don’t know where you’re going to go and get that same love and passionate support they get here.”
After playing college ball in California, Houser played eight seasons of pro ball in Europe before returning home to start a girls basketball program. He always knew he wanted to coach. His sister Whitney played at Southern Cal, which opened his eyes to the world of women’s basketball. While the game itself isn’t drastically different, except for playing below the rim, coaching girls and women is different than coaching boys and men. Relationships are everything.
“Coaching women and coaching guys, I wouldn’t say there’s a huge difference, but for girls, you really have to have a good connection with them,” Houser said. “On the women’s side, for you to be a successful coach, you could have the most talented team in the nation and not win that much. Because they have got to want to play for you. That is the most important thing to establish, that relationship with your team.”
Houser expects to win and win big. He practically promised as much at his introduction. He’s mindful that all three of his predecessors — Jay Sparks, Jonathan Norton and Howard — were successful. The Lady Cougars have been to the NCAA tournament 11 times. They’ve won the Peach Belt Conference regular season championship seven times and the conference tournament five times.
“I wouldn’t want to be associated with a university or any school that had that legacy before I came if I wasn’t confident that I would keep that standard and legacy going forward.”
Houser’s goal isn’t to merely replicate that success but to take it further. He wants his teams to dominate inside and outside, dominate the pace and the paint. Whether that leads to a Division I gig or a lifetime of happiness in Columbus, time will tell. Seems like a win-win either way.