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When Houston and Baylor meet in the Final Four, it will be father vs. son on the sidelines

By Emily Giambalvo, Washington Post April 1, 2021 at 10:22 a.m. CDT

INDIANAPOLIS — As the son of a college basketball coach, Alvin Brooks III spent late nights in the gym after a loss. His dad would pore over game film in his office, searching for answers for why his Houston team struggled that day. The family lived about 30 minutes from campus. Brooks, a high-schooler, didn’t have a car. So he would wait for his dad, sometimes getting home at 3 a.m., before waking up for school that morning.

Brooks had no interest in following his dad into coaching. He didn’t want those tortuous nights. Brooks’s dad didn’t think his son would coach either. Brooks excelled academically, eventually earning a degree in finance, and he’s a “numbers guy,” his dad said.

“But you can't stop what you love,” the younger Brooks said.

So he started coaching at the junior college level, where he thrived, before moving up to Division I and then onto the staffs at major-conference programs. Brooks is in his fifth season as an assistant at Baylor, just a couple hundred miles from the Houston campus where he watched his dad lead a program. Houston fired the elder Brooks in 1998, and he bounced around as an assistant for various programs. But in 2010, he returned to Houston as an assistant coach and worked with his hometown team. Once Houston’s run in the tournament ends, he will become the head coach at his alma mater, Lamar University, the school announced Thursday. After decades-long Final Four droughts, both Houston and Baylor have been on the rise. The father and son promised one another they would be there to watch if the other reached that hallowed final weekend of the NCAA tournament. They both will be at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday for the national semifinals, but neither will watch from the stands. No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 2 Houston both advanced, sending the two Brooks assistants to the Final Four, where their teams will compete for a spot in the national title game.

“To get to the Final Four in the same year and then you guys are going to play each other in the very first semifinal game, just unbelievable,” the elder Brooks said. “It’s amazing. … Whoever imagined that we would both be there and we’re going to be at the other end of each other’s bench?”

The father and son talk daily — during the season and in the offseason — about basketball and their teams. With the semifinal matchup approaching, they kept conversations a bit more limited. They have been flooded with messages from relatives asking for tickets. One family member made T-shirts with the colors of both teams. The elder Brooks said his wife, Richelle, is handling it well, but “because Al’s the beloved son, he always gets preferential treatment.” The younger Brooks still thinks his mom will wear red to represent the Cougars.

After college, Alvin Brooks III worked in finance. “I was chasing money, to be honest with you,” he said. “I thought I was going to manage athletes’ money and be a millionaire.” Brooks is close friends with former NBA player Rashard Lewis, and they were both in Seattle at the time. Brooks said he was miserable in his job. He would go watch SuperSonics practices and games. He paid attention to the coaches and thought to himself: “Man, I could do this. That’s not a job.” Brooks told his dad he wanted to pursue coaching.

“Call me back in two weeks,” his dad said.

During that time, Brooks attended nearly every Sonics practice and was convinced. His dad knew he loved basketball but wasn’t sure that would extend to coaching, which involves far more than the game. The elder Brooks didn’t tell his son he had a Division I coaching opportunity through a friend of his, because he wanted him to climb up the ranks. “No, he can’t accept that. He ain’t ready,” Brooks told his friend. “He needs to go figure out what to do.”

Brooks took a job as an assistant at Arkansas Fort Smith, a small program that forced him to wear many hats. He unlocked the recreation center at 4 a.m. every day and walked players to class. His dad called after a few weeks, asking how he liked it, assuming his son would have realized he didn’t want to coach. Instead, he said he loved it.

“Oh, my gosh,” his dad said, “this dude’s going to be in it.”

In Brooks’s second season at Arkansas Fort Smith, the team won the 2006 junior college national title. Brooks then moved to Midland College, another junior college, and that team won the title the next year. Now with Baylor under Coach Scott Drew, the Bears have reached the Final Four for the first time since 1950. They probably would have been a No. 1 seed in last year’s tournament, too, if it hadn’t been canceled. NCAA rules limit recruiting visits more so now than in the past, so Brooks is home with his kids more than his dad was, but sometimes after losses, Brooks finds himself staying late at the team facility.

Brooks is 0-2 against his dad; when he was at Sam Houston State from 2010 to 2012, his team lost to the Cougars twice. (Houston and Baylor held a preseason scrimmage to raise money for hurricane relief in 2017, and the younger Brooks’s Bears lost that game, too.) But this season, they both have been part of impressive rebuilding success stories. Until this season, Houston hadn’t reached the Elite Eight since the 1984 Phi Slama Jama team.

Once the NCAA tournament field was announced this month, the elder Brooks realized the father-son Final Four matchup was possible if both teams won their region. As much as coaches preach the one-game-at-a-time mentality, he briefly let himself look ahead. The final step to reaching that moment came Monday in the Elite Eight, with the two teams playing back-to-back games and the Cougars defeating Oregon State first. As Brooks celebrated with his Houston players on the court, the arena video boards showed the Baylor game happening on the other side of a curtain at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Bears had a comfortable lead over Arkansas, and the Houston team headed back to the hotel.

Once Brooks returned to a television, Baylor’s cushion had been cut to four points. Brooks needed to walk away. He felt far more stress watching his son’s team than when coaching a comparable game himself. But the Bears survived and celebrated. The father and son FaceTimed from the court.

“Guys coach their whole career and never get here,” the elder Brooks said. “So now to finally get here and then have this special moment to actually have your son share it and then he’s with his team? Could not imagine it.”

As the Baylor team returned to the hotel, Brooks headed down near the Bears’ meeting space to see his son. Neither father nor son is generally too emotional. The younger Brooks said he gets that from his dad, and they usually embrace with a “half hug.” But the moment they saw one another after both reached the Final Four? That was different. They wore matching championship hats, and Brooks’s son said, “I think we squeezed each other tighter than we ever have in our whole life.”

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