Mar 2, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson celebrates after the Cougars defeated the Wichita State Shockers and won the American Athletic Conference Championship at Fertitta Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Following No. 1 Houston’s victory over Wichita State on Thursday, the Cougars celebrated their fourth regular season title in the last five years under head coach Kelvin Sampson.
Players, managers, staff, and coaches took turns climbing the ladder underneath the basket closest to Houston’s bench. Each one of them cut down a piece of the net to commemorate winning the 2022-23 American Athletic Conference regular season championship.
“It never gets old,” Houston senior big man Reggie Chaney said. “It is definitely an experience every time for sure.”
For Houston, Thursday’s celebration of a milestone it actually reached on Saturday night on the road was just the first of many goals it hopes to achieve before this season is said and done.
Winning has become the standard for the program over the last few years. It is always a marvel to remember where it was right before Sampson took the reins of the Cougars.
Sampson, who had been an accomplished college head coach before joining Houston with success at nearly every stop, believed his future was set on becoming an NBA head coach before taking over at UH.
It took him a while to fully commit to leading Houston, but when he did, he held the administration’s feet to the fire to make sure the program received the resources it needed to be successful.
In 2014, Houston Cougars basketball was known for outdated Hofheinz Pavilion and facilities lacking the basic necessities to compete at a regional level.
When Sampson first got to Houston, he wrote down the standings of the AAC. Connecticut had just come off winning a national championship, and SMU was toward the top. He said those programs, along with Cincinnati and Memphis, were the premier programs in the conference. Toward the bottom was Houston.
Sampson could not understand why Houston kept firing coaches. The university didn’t even have a film room. Every road game during the week was a commercial trip, and the department did not have fundraisers to raise money to improve the program.
“I think I got a little pissed off when I saw how bad it was,” Sampson said on Thursday. “I realized how badly this school needed me. I needed them too. I needed something to fix. I needed something to put my teeth in and work on.”
Sampson showed the administration where they were and asked them what they expected him to accomplish at Houston. He then began holding the administration accountable. He made a list of items the program needed and pushed everyone to ensure it got done.
“We need to get this, don’t talk to me about budget,” Sampson told them.
Those were some hard days, Sampson said. He knew he probably rubbed some people the wrong way, but his feeling was that they would eventually get over it.
“He willed this into what this is,” said Chris Pezman, the vice president for athletics at Houston. “This is a testament to him, his family, the assistants, and the kids that he has recruited here to turn this into three attendance records three [games] in a row.”
Pezman wasn’t in charge of the athletic department when Sampson first joined, but he has still gotten a firsthand look at how Sampson holds the administration accountable.
Coaches can win games, but it is administrations that win championships, Sampson always says. While Houston has managed to become a nationally relevant powerhouse, there is no room for complacency in the department.
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Pezman told Gallery Sports on Thursday. “[Sampson] knows what we need to compete and sustain this, particularly to where we are going. We need to continue to invest. We can’t pull back because we are bordering on a very special tier that we are entering.”
As Houston transitions into the Big 12 over the next few months, the administration is continuing to make improvements to the program, Pezman said.
For example, this offseason, UH will remodel the locker rooms on the second floor of the Guy V. Lewis Development facility for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
It is what Houston has to do to stay at the top in college basketball, Pezman said.
“When you look at what we’ve done, we are up there with all those names, those blue bloods, and all those teams that you think of that are really good,” Pezman said. “That is who we are, and you can’t take that for granted, and you have to figure out ways to advance what we are doing.”