Mandatory Credit: Photo by Dave Crenshaw/AP/Shutterstock (13687067i) Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson is surrounded by celebrating players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tulsa, in Tulsa, Okla Houston Basketball, Tulsa, United States – 28 Dec 2022
They talk about being a family.
That’s what college coaches do across the country. And usually — and much more than coincidentally – they talk about it in the living rooms of four- and five-star recruits they are wooing.
It often proves to be not much more than lip service. All that family stuff is just a ploy, a tactic, and a ruse. Once players are on campus and winning-obsessive coaches have their players on campus, that “family” often becomes dysfunctional and splintered. Then comes strife and the transfer portal.
Witness Alabama and head coach Nate Oats, as just one example. Witness that Brandon Miller escapade and so many like it where the player stays, but the lessons and values vanish. Witness the turnstile transfer-portal players across the country who don’t get their way or don’t like how a coach treats them, so they search for easier paths and less work.
At UH, it’s not about juice boxes and participation trophies. It’s not about making sure everyone plays and feels special. It’s not about blaming something or someone else for your own mistakes.
It’s about teaching hard and commanding accountability. A No Snowflake Zone.
What the college basketball world is seeing in this Tournament is a coach in Kelvin Sampson who paces the sideline nervously, often throws his hands into the air in disgust, and wears an if-looks-could-kill scowl that could melt the dark side of Mars.
Those Sampson characteristics alone don’t separate him very much at all from every other Tom, Dick, and Bruce Pearl roaming college basketball sidelines.
And in fact, many college basketball coaches do get drunk with power and go over the top. They misuse the power they have over-glorified indentured servants. It happens.
But if you take away anything from what could be a historic NCAA Tournament run by the Houston Cougars, know this: Kelvin Sampson comes by his standards as honestly as any coach or administrator in the game.
He expects gritty, dirty work because he’s done it. He demands no excuses because he’s never made any. He yells at players like he was yelled at. He loves players the way he was loved. And significantly, he’s brought family to the Coogs program quite literally in every way.
Sampson’s son, Kellen, is the Cougars’ senior assistant coach and by Kelvin Sampson’s side every day. His daughter, Lauren, is the director of basketball operations. His wife of more than 40 years, Karen, has been a staple in every program Kelvin has been a part of, from piecing together conference titles with string and tape at Montana Tech to building a potential monster amid the dazzling surroundings at the University of Houston.
“It’s probably why I’m here,” Sampson said this week. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think how lucky I am to be working with my family.”
Sampson’s father, John “Ned” Sampson, fought hard his entire life to beat back meager means and racism in North Carolina to become a coach and build something special at Pembroke High School. He did, ultimately earning induction into the North Carolina High School Hall of Fame. During summers, when Ned wasn’t coaching and wasn’t getting paid, he often worked four jobs – selling encyclopedias and insurance, teaching driver’s education, and helping sell at the local tobacco market.
Sampson’s grandparents on his mother’s side were sharecroppers in tobacco and cotton fields. Sampson often worked alongside them, while also hustling from house to house mowing lawns. Once he finally broke in as a graduate assistant at Michigan State for Jud Heathcote, in addition to the coaching grunt work, he ran errands for coaches, was a team manager, and swept and mopped gym floors. When Montana Tech called, he earned $1,100 a year and also had to teach classes.
So when Sampson talks of family and learning from every experience, of leading by example, loving with deeds, and working as hard in the dark as in the light, it’s no ruse.
Sampson once said of his mother, “My personality is like hers. She was fiery. She had more of a temper. I always thought she had enough determination that she could do anything. She could fix anything. I think all children need that feeling from their parents.”
And their coaches.
“We all have so much love for each other,” Cougars star guard Marcus Sasser said. “From the coaching staff, the players, the managers, the trainers, everybody. Like this whole organization just loves everybody. It’s like a big family, really.”
The night before the Cougars showed that Sampson-taught grit and determination in a comeback win over Auburn in the Round of 32, the entire team, including parents and siblings, gathered at a Birmingham, Ala. steakhouse for dinner. Not a single member of any family no-showed.
It was an impromptu dinner, paid for via Gallery Furniture’s Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale’s NIL deal with Cougars basketball. It also was the first time all year the entirety of the Cougars’ family had gathered together for dinner.
Family first. It’s how Kelvin Sampson always has done it.