An ‘us’ moment: Win No. 700 for Kelvin Sampson represents more than just a lot of basketball success

Houston Cougars men’s basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson, and his son Kellen, an assistant coach for the Cougars, look at the big screen at the Fertitta Center playing a video honoring Sampson for 700 career wins. (Courtesy Sean Thomas)

An ‘us’ moment: Win No. 700 for Kelvin Sampson represents more than just a lot of basketball success

Then No. 3 Houston opened its regular season in triumph with a big win over Northern Colorado on Nov. 7. The victory not only got the Cougars off on the right foot, but it was also the 700th win in the coaching career and 200th at Houston for head coach Kelvin Sampson.

After the game ended, a video was played inside the Fertitta Center with numerous former players and coaches both during his time at Houston and before Houston, all of whom congratulated the head coach on garnering the high volume of victories.

“I appreciate it. I appreciate whoever put that together,” Sampson said. “All those guys just turned out to be great people. All these guys I have now, you have so many teams, this is my 34th team, and I love them all. They might not know at the time, but as time goes on, you realize the impact that we had on each other.”

Sampson had been to four other schools prior to arriving at Houston. His coaching career began at Montana Tech in 1981. He transitioned to Washington State in 1987. Oklahoma in 1994. Indiana in 2006. After a stint in the NBA as an assistant coach with multiple teams, including his last stop with the Houston Rockets, he took over the program of the Houston Cougars in 2014.

Stop after the stop filled with memories and achievements. From numerous coach of the year awards and conference championships, NCAA Tournament bids, trips to the Final Four, and, just like life, also some downs, Sampson’s collegiate coaching career has seen it all.

“It’s a blessing to still be coaching at 67,” Sampson said. “Remembering when I was a young guy, driving around in 10 degrees below zero with 12 kids in a 15-passenger van, so we can drive from Butte [Montana] to wherever. Caldwell, Idaho, Bismarck, North Dakota, I remember those drives. We didn’t have planes. It was either a bus or van, so it’s been a wonderful journey with so many people to thank.”

Year 34 as a head coach for Sampson started with a dominant showing by his Cougars on the defensive side of the ball. From Northern Colorado’s opening possession all game long, Houston hounded the Bears until the final buzzer sounded.

Not even the last possession of the game was enough to let Houston take the pedal off the gas defensively. The Cougars forced an offensive foul on the final play of the game.

It has become expected with Houston’s teams. An identity that revolves around defense. It is no coincidence.

“We always have a game plan defensively,” Sampson said. “We hang our hat on defense here. We have three things that has allowed [us] to be successful year in and year out. Those three things are: we defend, we rebound, and we take care of the ball.”

It has been a time-tested formula that has allowed Houston to be in every single game when it steps on the court. Even on nights when the offense is struggling, such as last year’s Elite Eight game against Villanova.

Houston always works on its defense, Sampson said. The Cougars work on angles and playing with their feet, the head coach stated.

“Everything we do is accountability,” Sampson said. “Our standards and expectations, our accountability, it starts with our defense because we are not always going to shoot well. That’s OK because most teams don’t shoot well against us either.”

Sampson always talks about making plays that impact winning. Plays beyond just a field goal percentage. Freshman Jarace Walker did not have the best shooting night against the Bears, shooting 3-of-14, but his fingerprints were visible throughout the game.

There was an early block by him on a layup attempt from Northern Colorado’s Daylen Kountz, which was sent into the hands of UH fans. He also finished with 12 rebounds, six of which gave the Cougars second-chance opportunities at a basket. Another type of impact play Sampson demands.

“What did [Walker] do? Six offensive rebounds, six defensive rebounds,” Sampson said. “I [couldn’t] care less about 3-for-14 … Judge his night by how he bought into Cougar basketball. He was awesome tonight.”

The video played by Houston showed the connection the head coach has created with his players, both past and present, throughout the years.

“We wouldn’t be here without him,” guard Jamal Shead said. “It is more like an ‘us’ moment.”

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