‘Everybody loves Kellen’: The story behind Houston’s other Sampson
A few minutes pass since practice officially ended for the Cougars the Friday before Houston’s win over USF. Head coach Kelvin Sampson finishes meeting with media and has left the court floor of Fertitta Center.
Some players remain on the hardwood, getting in a few extra shots and others are working on drills.
Off the seats of an empty arena, a voice echoes throughout the concourse. At times it screams encouragements, other moments it taunts a player for not defending well during a drill, and somehow in between, a Fortnite reference gets thrown in.
The voice belongs to one of the Houston assistant coaches, Kellen Sampson, Kelvin’s son who has been with the program since 2014.
While Kellen, and all the assistant coaches, may often be overshadowed by Kelvin on game days, the 2006-07 Oklahoma team leader in 3-point percentage has carved out his own mark with the program and a lot of it can be found with the players.
“That’s my guy,” sophomore guard Nate Hinton said.
Kellen’s biggest strength, according to his dad, is his personality.
“Kellen’s got two things going for him,” Kelvin said. “One, he is incredibly smart, and two, his energy and his passion is contagious, and he has a way of drawing people to him.
“Everybody loves Kellen.”
A big factor why Kellen is beloved by Houston’s players is because he takes the time to get to know the people behind the athletes.
“Just the daily relationship with us, it’s bigger than just on the court,” Hinton said. “Off the court, we talk about academics and making sure I’m straight mentally and stuff like that. Making sure I’m becoming a better person all around, our relationship is very deep.”
Those words are not just to flatter the assistant coach either. There is a reason why Kellen has a lot of success recruiting players, and why he is able to get players, like Hinton, to commit to Houston before they even step foot on campus.
“It starts with honesty. It starts with being genuine,” Kellen said. “You got to build that trust … You got to be vulnerable.”
Kellen is a huge reason why Houston has been able to convince some big-time athletes to join the program.
“If it wasn’t for Kellen, we wouldn’t have got Caleb Mills,” Kelvin said. “We wouldn’t have gotten Nate Hinton. We wouldn’t have gotten Devin Davis.”
Of course, another big reason that the players Kelvin listed chose to join Houston has to do with the success of the program the past few years. Banners are a big recruiting tool too, which the head coach made sure to point out.
The Cougars have made it into the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, and could well be on their way for a third-straight appearance in 2020, and Kellen has played an integral part on the technical side as well.
“He’s as good as (anyone) I’ve ever had at developing kids,” Kelvin said. “From 1 p.m. until 7 p.m. he is in this gym. This program is not dependent on five stars and one-and-done’s, it depends on developing players.”
Kellen can be found many times before or after practice just working on one-on-one sessions with players, which is a key role in developing them to get better.
“He takes that time with individual players,” Hinton said. “He has the energy, just trying to get (the players) better. He wants everyone to get better, everything is detailed oriented, it is planned and has a purpose.”
For Kellen, the reason behind working all the extra hours with the players is simple.
“It’s our mantra,” Kellen said. “If they walk through the doors two, three or four stars (recruits), it’s our job to make them five stars. We have to bridge that gap.”
Every now and then, however, Kellen takes a step back and reflects on his dynamic with his father, who just happens to be a high-level head coach.
“I’m blown away every single day just how good he is at his job,” Kellen said. “How much of a blessing it is for a young assistant coach to learn from him every day. He has such a clear unmistakable identity for what this program needs to be.”
Once the games end and the lights go off, however, Kellen also takes time to just be a son and a brother.
“We get to have a lot of cool moments,” Kellen said. “After a big road win, that’s something you can’t duplicate … The fact that my mom gets to come on a lot of road trips, too, those are the moments 10, 15, 20 years from now I think I will miss the most.”
Luckily for Kellen, who was named head coach-in-waiting for the Cougars in April 2019 after inking a three-year deal with UH, those moments will continue even after his dad retires and he takes the program over.
Kelvin, who signed a 6-year extension worth $18 million around the same time as his son, has constantly offered advice to Houston’s future head coach.
“Don’t sacrifice your bottom line for anything,” Kellen said. “There’s a lot of adjustments that you’re gonna make as a college coach, but you yourself have some non-negotiable’s as a person. You yourself have a bottom line.
“Don’t ever negotiate that.”