Kelvin Sampson’s legacy of empowering assistant coaches
When Kelvin Sampson was climbing up the coaching ladder, he noticed a trend across college basketball — Black assistant coaches’ sole responsibility was to recruit.
“I would talk to a lot of the Black assistants (and) they never got to go to practice because they had to recruit every day,” Sampson said. “I said, ‘How are you going to be prepared to be a head coach?’ They said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’”
This didn’t sit well with Sampson. So, when he got to Houston in 2014, Sampson vowed to do his part in changing this trend.
“When I came to the University of Houston, I knew that I was going to hire my guys because I had so many former Houston all-star high school players that were finishing up their careers that wanted to get started (in coaching),” Sampson said.
Bringing his guys
From the moment he arrived at UH, Sampson put his money where his mouth was.
One of his first hires was his son, Kellen Sampson, not as a sympathy hire but because of the potential he had always seen in his young apprentice.
“He always said, ‘You have upside as a coach. You didn’t have any upside as a player,’” the assistant coach said when talking about why his dad hired him.
Another one of Sampson’s original hires was Hollis Price, one of Sampson’s star guards at Oklahoma from 1999 through 2003.
While Sampson was an assistant with the Houston Rockets, Price had reached out to his former head coach about a position on the team’s summer league staff.
A week later, Price received a call from Sampson regarding a different job.
“He called me back in a week and said ‘Hollis, what do you think about coming and coaching with me at (the University of) Houston,’” Price said. “I was like ‘Coach, I’m there.’ You can’t tell coach no.”
Three years later, Sampson added another one of his former players at Oklahoma, Quannas White, to his staff.
White grew up with Price as the two played high school basketball together at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans before spending two seasons together at Oklahoma under Sampson.
When White, who had served as an assistant coach at Tulane for two years and had just finished his first year on the Western Kentucky staff, got the offer to join the UH staff in 2017, he immediately packed his bags to reunite with his former coach.
“It was a no-brainer,” White said. “I told coach (Sampson) if I ever had the opportunity, I would come and work for him for free. That’s just the type of love and respect I have for him.”
While Kellen never played with Price or White, as they finished their final season at Oklahoma during his senior year in high school, a brotherly bond had formed between himself and his father’s star players from just hanging around the program.
Getting to work with two of his dad’s players he grew tight with as a high schooler has been a dream come true for Kellen.
“The fact that I get to work with those guys every day, I mean honestly my relationship with them means the world to me,” Kellen said. “It is bigger than just we’re all on the same staff. I think that is part of our secret sauce. It is a true brotherhood amongst the staff.”
The power of delegation
During his time as an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs under Gregg Popovich, Sampson learned the importance the assistant coaches have in preparing scouting reports.
It wasn’t Popovich who took charge of scouting the Spurs’ opponents, it was his assistants. Whichever assistant was in charge of the scouting report for the Spurs’ upcoming opponent essentially functioned as the head coach for that day. Sampson wanted to replicate this with his staff at UH.
“Part of my growth is growing my assistant coaches,” Sampson said. “The more you empower people, the more ownership they take.”
Sampson did just that, teaching his assistants what a high-quality scouting report looked like and showing them how to manage and develop a roster, stressing the importance of ensuring that the next line of players are ready when their numbers are called to prevent having to start over each year after the program inevitably loses some of its best players.
“He trained us to be really good assistant coaches first in what to look for, what to identify and what nuances to pick up on,” Kellen said about the UH head coach. “He was patient. He was hard on us but he also was complimentary of us. He was also loving. He was the master sensei that anybody could hope for.”
Learning the art of scheduling is another aspect of coaching that Sampson has taken the time and effort to teach his assistants.
To Sampson, a good schedule varies each year based on the makeup of that season’s particular team. Sampson wants his assistants to understand the reasoning behind why he carefully selects each non-conference opponent, considering things like NET rankings as well as the strength of the team’s conference schedule, so that they are equipped to make their own schedules somewhere down the line.
“I think every head coach’s responsibility is if you’re going to go out and hire that guy then invest in him,” Sampson said. “Help him be the best he can be so when they go out they’re going to be able to help their assistants now.”
Not only has Sampson provided his assistants with plenty of tools, but he gives them endless opportunities to put those skills into practice.
Like Popovich, Sampson divides up the scouting report responsibilities among his assistants and takes the back seat behind whichever coach took the lead on preparing for UH’s next opponent.
Sampson’s assistants aren’t merely observers. Instead, he gives them the freedom to do what they were hired to do — coach.
“Experience is the best teacher,” White said. “When we scrimmage, Kellen will have the white team and I’ll have the red team. We get a chance to coach those teams and run plays and call timeouts. That’s made a huge impact on myself and Kellen as well as Hollis.”
Head coaches in waiting
Sampson has always told recruits to choose a coaching staff, not a school. Not many have been better than the UH staff since 2017.
With Kellen, Price and White on the staff, UH has won 170 games, four AAC regular-season titles, two conference tournament championships and four NCAA Tournaments, including a Final Four in 2021. This doesn’t even include the 2022-23 postseason in which the Cougars could win their third straight AAC tournament title and are currently the betting favorites to win the national championship.
In Sampson’s eyes, he doesn’t have three assistant coaches on his staff. He has three head coaches in waiting.
Whether it be in the next year, 10 years down the road or anywhere in between, Sampson is confident that Kellen, Price and White are equipped with the tools to successfully run a college basketball program.
“When the time comes for them, wherever it is, they’re going to be ready to go,” Sampson said. “They’re not just recruiters. They understand how to run a program.”
Now in his 34th year as collegiate basketball head coach, Sampson has had a number of his assistants get head coaching jobs over the years.
While losing an assistant comes with bittersweet emotions, seeing his proteges move up the coaching ladder brings Sampson ultimate joy.
“Legacies are built by helping other people, not by helping yourself,” Sampson said.