Mandatory Credit: Photo by Gene J Puskar/AP/Shutterstock (12859218bx) Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson sets up a play during the first half of a college basketball game against Illinois in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Pittsburgh NCAA Illinois Houston Basketball, Pittsburgh, United States – 20 Mar 2022
Eight years ago, when the University of Houston’s rise back to basketball greatness was just getting started, Kelvin Sampson’s challenge was to make the school’s administrators, donors, and fans believe in the program as much as he believed in it.
Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Normally, it’s the people in charge attempting to sell a coaching candidate on their vision of a program’s possibilities. At UH, the tables were turned.
“Some people didn’t see this as a championship program,” Sampson said. “I thought it was a gold mine. Are you kidding me? We’re in Houston, Texas, one of the greatest cities in the world.
“Look at what our city stands for: diversity, ambition, people that became successful by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. We’ve got oil and gas, technology, thirty Fortune 500 companies.”
These days, everything has changed around the men’s basketball program at the University of Houston. Just as he predicted he would, Kelvin Sampson has built a monster. In the post-Astros landscape of Houston sports, the Coogs are the best shown in town.
That standing was reinforced on Monday when our own Mattress Mack contributed a “seven-figure” NIL deal to the UH basketball program. In the ever-shifting sands of college sports, NIL has become an absolute necessity to allow schools to compete with the exposure and earning power athletes get at other schools.
Mattress Mack made his contribution through the NIL collective LinkingCoogs, which is a vehicle for UH athletes to capitalize on their name, image, and likeness.
“This builds credibility,” LinkingCoogs spokesman Landon Goesling said. “It pole vaults us to get this thing rolling. To get a company like Gallery Furniture to support the kids … it’s just the beginning. This is a call for all Cougars to hop on the train.”
Mattress Mack’s contribution comes at a time when the Coogs are 5-0 and ranked second in The Associated Press Top 25 Poll. That’s UH’s highest ranking since the end of the 1983-84 season and comes at a time in which the 2023 Final Four will be at NRG Stadium next spring.
The Coogs are 65-10 the last three seasons, and this season, they’re deep, fast, and talented, led by Sampson’s defense-first mantra. In guard Marcus Sasser, UH has been one of the best players in the country. Houston’s depth extends from junior guard Jamal Shead to true freshmen Jarace Walker and Terrance Arceneaux, and others.
Sampson understood those that doubted him when he first arrived. After all, UH basketball had not been relevant in basketball for three decades, and when a school has been off the national stage for that long, the people in charge can forget the impact that, say, a great basketball team can have on a school’s donations, enrollment applications, and reputation.
At least a couple of generations of UH fans had put their gear away, canceled their season tickets, and believed that chapter of the school’s history could not be replicated.
Only Kelvin Sampson disagreed and vehemently at times. In one of his first meetings with Sampson, the chairman of the University of Houston System Board of Regents, cut right to the chase.
“Do you think you can win a championship?” Tilman Fertitta asked him.
Sampson was ready for the question.
“That got my blood going,” he said. “I laid out my vision. He believed in it and, three years later, wrote a $20 million check to put his name on the Fertitta Center (the rebuilt arena formerly known as Hofheinz Pavilion). Without him believing, we couldn’t get where we are.”
UH would spend more than $80 million to rebuild the basketball facility and add a state-of-the-art practice facility. He built the program around players that bought into his emphasis on defense and rebuilding.
Sampson handpicks recruits he believes will buy into his style. He also believes he can develop players that buy into his style of play. He has used the transfer portal smartly.
UH was back in the NCAA Tournament in Sampson’s fourth season and in the Final Four two years after that. Last season, they made the Elite Eight.
“Listen, I’m not about to take the credit for where we are,” Sampson said. “This happened because a lot of people believed we could do this. There was no guarantee this thing was going to get turned around.”
When Sampson collected his 700th career win two weeks ago, he was honored with a four-minute video tribute that included testimonials from 29 former players.
“Those are my dudes,” he said. “Those are my guys. Their handprint and everything they’ve accomplished is on this ball. This is my 34th different team, and I love them all.”
As he begins his ninth season at UH, all those doubts have vanished. All of a sudden, anything seems possible.
Sampson is still selling the program, telling reporters, “We’re here to stay.” Only now, no one doubts him.