From the ground up: The Sampsons’ transformation of UH basketball
Only a few years ago, Kelvin Sampson, followed by the Cougar Brass, walked around the Houston campus with a megaphone to convince students to show up to games to support a UH program that had become irrelevant not just nationally but also in the eyes of the city of Houston.
From UH basketball’s poor-conditioned facilities to little to no support for the program from the University and its fans, Sampson knew the uphill battle he would have to face if he took the head coaching job in 2014.
Despite it all, Sampson had a plan.
“There was nothing we saw that was not fixable,” Sampson said. “Apathy is fixable. Facilities are fixable.”
Fast forward to spring 2021 and Sampson has led UH to its sixth straight 20-win season, which includes three NCAA Tournament appearances and the Cougars’ first trip to the Final Four since the 1984 Phi Slama Jama team.
So how has Sampson been able to turn a program that faded into irrelevancy into a national powerhouse?
Two words: Family and culture
Family is evident in the UH basketball program both literally and metaphorically. For one thing, the UH program is full of Sampson blood as both of Sampson’s kids, Kellen and Lauren, have played a huge part in the Cougars’ success.
Kellen, the UH basketball team’s lead assistant coach, has been praised by his father and the UH players for his game planning and the way he coaches the team in practice, always having the Cougars prepared for their opponent.
Lauren, who works behind the scenes as the program’s director of external operations, remembers how little support basketball had when she first arrived at UH which has given her a great appreciation for how far the program has come.
“(When we first came to UH) no one bought in,” Lauren said. “I can’t tell you how many times I got told no one cares about basketball at Houston. That was a daily conversation I had.”
But when the final buzzer sounded against Oregon State securing the Cougars’ ticket to the Final Four, it signified that all the blood, sweat and tears that were put into this program was not done in vain.
Emotions quickly poured out from all three Sampson’s as they embraced each other in a giant group hug.
So many long nights, so many early mornings. So many times we were told ‘No’. This hug was worth every second of the journey. I hope everyone who said ‘Yes’ feels the emotion and the gratitude in my eyes. We’ll dance as long as they play the music #ForTheCity pic.twitter.com/CPdIoEpO04
— Kellen Sampson (@kellenmsampson) March 30, 2021
“It’s surreal to be going through this in (Indiana) and our history with this state,” Lauren said. “… To be going through this NCAA Tournament in Indiana, those emotions just kind of came out.”
On top of working with his kids, Sampson treats every single one of his players with the same love, respect and care as if they were his own son.
Sampson invests in each student-athlete before they even step on campus, getting to know them because one of his biggest philosophies is recruiting high character kids.
As a result, Sampson and his players have formed a tight-knit bond.
“I have a very mature bunch and I love them to death,” Sampson said. “… These kids and this staff with the brotherhood they have with this team is part of why we are successful.”
And it goes both ways, as the players reciprocate the same love and respect towards their coach.
“We love coach Sampson very much and we’d run through a wall for him,” senior guard DeJon Jarreau said.
This father-son-like love that Sampson and his players show towards one another does not end after an athlete’s career at UH is over, but rather extends for life.
Former UH guard Armoni Brooks, who was part of the program from 2016-19 and helped lead the Cougars to two NCAA Tournament appearances, emphasized this point as he remains close with the coaches and players two years after leaving the program.
“It just shows how much (Sampson) cares about each player, present and past,” Brooks said. It just shows you that if you go to Houston you’re really a Cougar for life. It’s not just for those four years or for however long you’re there. You’re in the family forever.”
The best word to capture the Cougars’ culture is toughness.
On paper, UH never has had the most-talented roster in the country under Sampson, but they make up for that with heart and grit.
From every guy on the floor crashing the offensive glass to always being the first one on the floor to go after a loose ball, the Cougars give their all in everything they do.
“Toughness. It’s what coach preaches every day,” junior guard Quentin Grimes told the CBS broadcast after the Cougars’ victory over the Beavers.
This is what got guys like Damyean Dotson, Rob Gray, Galen Robinson, Corey Davis and Brooks, who laid the groundwork and established the foundation of the program, to come to the UH basketball team when it seemed like the program had no shot at being resurrected.
Despite the success, however, Sampson has not forgotten the program’s origins. He takes every chance he gets to remind his team of the guys that went before them and really got the program moving in the right direction.
“(It goes) all the way back to Damyean Dotson and Rob Gray cause those guys preached culture to the new guys,” Sampson said. “Every class that comes into UH hears about the culture from the class ahead of them.”
In a college basketball era known for one-and-dones, another key aspect has been the duration that UH’s players stayed with the basketball program.
UH’s high level of player retention stems from the fact that the players that step foot on campus are fully bought into the Cougars’ culture. Without it, the Cougars believe they would not be on the biggest stages of college basketball, just two wins away from a national championship.
“If you’re focusing just on one-and-dones that means you’re never starting because you’re always starting over,” Sampson said. “It’s hard to get traction if you’re having (to rely on) freshman every single year.”
Looking at the current UH roster, nine of the 14 players on the roster had playing experience at the college level before this season. A feat that is extremely rare these days.
That experience has paid off with a trip to the Final Four, which for the UH program, is a culmination of the journey.
The apathy for the program is long gone.
“Best feeling in the world,” Grimes said after the UH basketball team beat Oregon State. “Knowing that we haven’t been to the Final Four since 1984, just to bring it back to the city of Houston that’s all I wanted for me, my teammates, the whole team and the city of Houston.”
For more on The Cougar’s coverage of UH’s run in the NCAA Tournament, click here.